Presentation design ideas


Daily inspiration to design better presentations (try them in our new presentation app!)

Smart row / column insertion

Smart row / column insertion

My presentation app SlideMagic is all about the grid. We have made some improvements to make the workflow (even) faster. Now, when you insert or delete rows and or columns, it copies its design and structure from its neighbors. This will save you a lot of time in more complicated table layout with different background colors.

1) Our starting point

1) Our starting point

2) Open the grid editor

2) Open the grid editor

3) Add a row and a column

3) Add a row and a column

4) The result

4) The result


Image via WikiPedia

Art to preserve dignity

Art to preserve dignity

Art is a subset of design, it wants to change you. The "Hope" poster from 2008 captured the feelings of many (not all expectations came true though 8 years later). The same artist is part of a broader group who has started a campaign to use design to remind us of humanity. I think it should appeal to everyone across the entire political spectrum who believes in human values, civilized debate, and pragmatic government.

"Marketing English"

"Marketing English"

Sometimes I get feedback from marketing communication consultants that the English in my presentations needs to be improved in order for it to become proper "marketing English".

I consider this a compliment. "Marketing English" filled padded with buzzwords and long, elaborate sentences is making every product brochure or presentation in high tech sound pretty much the same.

I do recognize though that I am not a native English speaker, and that a native English speaker can figure that out after reading just one sentence on a slide. But I am not communicating in "proper English", but rather "global business English", which I picked up at business school back in France. It is a subset of English with a vastly reduced vocabulary, just enough to communicate important business concepts to other non-native English speakers. (I am not there yet with business Hebrew though).

If you are not a native English speaker, don't try to force a "grander" language on yourself, instead, it is OK to keep things simple and direct. Fix those typos though (I admit that I can be sloppy here as well) and yes, it never hurts to ask a native English speaker to glance over your text of an important presentation. Then decide what advice to incorporate, and which suggestions to ignore.

What questions do you usually get?

What questions do you usually get?

They are an indication of what is missing in your presentation. They come in 2 types:

  • Easy ones. You think something is so blatantly obvious that you saved some slides by taking it out. Apparently your audience disagrees. 
  • Hard ones. If everyone brings up this question, and you know it is one of the weaker point of your story, you might as well address things, since even if you had a meeting where the question was not asked for a change, it is highly likely that the audience did still have it.

Read your audience carefully. Does the same person ask the same sort of question again after she said that she understood a previous answer you gave? Does the person say she understands, but her eyes tell a different story

Investment bank memos

Investment bank memos

Investment bankers usually prepare the data rooms for due diligence in M&A transactions. Shelves full of information that is usually summarized in an information memorandum. I never found these summaries very useful. It is impossible to create a financial picture in hour head from just reading text with data. "Last year's sales were x, growth for the 3rd quarter was y, the company is doing business in 3 product segments." The only way to understand this is to extract the information and put it in tables or graphs to see what is going on.

And that is most of the times exactly what the buying side will do, hire a consultant/analyst to go through the material and start creating these charts, then someone more senior will go through the charts and select which ones are important, and which ones not.

You can accelerate the sales process by anticipating all of this, and do some of the homework of the buy side. In the process, you can spoon feed them the right insights you want them to have.

Similar but unrelated, this is also why wordy descriptions of company results in newspaper articles do not work for me. The journalist took the data tables and graphs and translated them into words, the exact opposite direction of where I want her to go.


Elephants in the room

Elephants in the room

Client "I don't want to talk about this, because it reminds people of [X] which failed. Let's call that differently because there was that research project 10 years ago that did not work. Hmmm, let's not put that on page 3".

Me "But your technology solves all these problems from the past right?"

Client "Yes"

Me "And in meetings, where do you end up talking about all the time"

Client "People confusing me with technologies from the past"

Sometimes it is just better to take things head on and stop avoiding the big elephant that is sitting in the room but nobody wants to bring up in a conversation.


Image via WikiPedia

Company pitch versus product pitch

Company pitch versus product pitch

Product marketers can get bogged down in identifying endless lists of product benefits, each slightly different for different customer segments.

There is a problem with this for potential buyers of a product. The long list of benefits waters down what is truly unique about your product. All benefits sound exactly the same as the benefits that are being claimed by about every company in the world.

There is also a problem with potential investors in your company. Investors are interested in buying your company, not your product, so the scope is broader than product benefits. Also, they are buying into someone who is hopefully able to sell. "If I were a potential client, would I buy this product pitch?" 

The lazy brain

The lazy brain

When you are hooked into an exiting novel, your brain savors every word, construct a complex mental image of the story and cannot wait to turn the next page.

Things are different with that business plan, strategy document. Face it, ploughing through them is something our boss told us to do (we better be able to answer those key questions this afternoon), or it is a necessary evil to cut through an endless flow of investment options and get to - finally - meet the exiting ones next week in person.

The bored brain is lazy. Think about that when designing your next presentation. You are creating charts for the wandering eye which is desperate to speed-read over less important passages. You are spoon feeding the visual images ready-made so the lazy brain does not have to construct them by itself. The lazy brain is desperate to make the go/no-go decision as early as possible, and the good thing about a "no" decision: you can move on to the next document, so make sure you postpone that "no" for another page, another page, and then one more.

Branching out

Branching out

Most business or scientific concepts come in a lot of flavors and variations. The objectively correct way to explain the concept to someone is to sketch the overall framework of possible permutations, then start filling them out one by one. This is what academic literature does, or a manual with a comprehensive index section.

To a cold audience with no understanding what so ever on the subject, starting with a layout of all the options is either frightening or confusing (probably both). Instead pick one model/option (don't let the audience choose), and take here through the whole thing. Then - and only if necessary - add more variations and options.

In most cases, the audience is not interested in a comprehensive representation of whatever field you are working in, she is pondering whether to buy your product or invest in your company. University-style lectures will not get you there.

 

One level deeper

One level deeper

In order to design a good presentation, you need to understand things one level deeper than what you are actually going to share in your slides. If you are the inventor of the product, or the university teacher of the subject, that is no issue. When you are a junior executive, management consultant or a professional presentation designer, it is not obvious.

The most obvious issue of knowing your slides but nothing more are questions. They will be difficult to answer. In management consulting firms, knowledge documents are shared internally and used freely across the entire firm. Modified versions of slides end up in all kinds of decks and are often presented outside of their original context. A few questions from the audience can undermine the credibility of the entire deck.

As a presentation designer, going one level deeper allows you to think about the story you want to tell from scratch. Often the expert has left out bits of the story that are obvious to her, but crucial for a cold audience to understand the full picture. Or, the expert goes on and on about facts and details which are not important. If your knowledge is not broader than the 20 minutes of content covered in your deck, you cannot choose what to include or not.

Clients are often surprised that I insist on trying the product demo, understanding the mechanism of action of a new drug, or dig into the financial model line by line. It is also the reason that I think presentation designers cannot charge by the slide, since there is a big fixed cost component to understanding a new story, independent of the slide count of your presentation.


Image via WikiPedia

More creativity

More creativity

Some tips on creativity from a book on music production that I recently read: Music Habits, The Mental Game, by Jason Timothy. Most of them are applicable to any creative activity, and that includes presentation design. Here are some that stuck with me (in random order):

  • Have a note book / recording device at hand at any time to write down good ideas you will for sure forget 5 seconds later
  • Kill social media distractions
  • Learn what times of the day you are most creative, and don't do your monthly accounting during that time
  • Productive and creative are not the same thing
  • When your brain wants to be distracted it could very well be that you are on to something difficult that nobody has ever done before, keep on pushing
  • The genius just tried harder and for more years than you did
  • Be yourself, find your own style, you can never catch up by imitating someone else's
  • Don't blatantly steal, but instead, write down what inspired you in a piece of art, put it away for 2 weeks, then look back at it again and build on the attributes of the work, rather than the exact same thing
  • Finnish your projects all the way to the end, and do lots of projects
  • Watching more tutorials, reading more books, buying more tools will not really help if you are not applying what you learned/bought instantly. Get good at using the tools you have
  • If you want to build a habit, you have to do it every day, no excuses, even if it is just 15 minutes

Flipping the image

Flipping the image

This is a totally obvious trick, but it took me a few years to get it. Flipping a big background image around its vertical axis to change the slide composition.

I like images with a subject off the center, creating a more interesting asymmetric composition and free white space for some text. The overall balance of the slide is set by a big headline, often at the top left. Certain images make the slide look tilted with all the weight on the left side of the slide. Mirroring your image will solve this.

Obviously you can only do this when there is no visible text in the image. In that case you might have to zoom in/crop the image to change its composition, or a bit more advanced, extend the background somehow either in Photoshop, or copying the image, cropping out the background on one site of the copied image and place it to the left of number one. This only works with very even backgrounds (a clear sky for example). See an example of this technique in the images chapter of my book. 

Executive Summary?

Executive Summary?

Back in the 1990s, "Executive Summary" pages were summaries that you put in front of a strategy consulting document. They were meant for senior management / decision makers. There was almost something offensive about them, reminding you of your junior position in the hierarchy. Senior managers can skip the detail that you have been sweating on for months and get straight to the point.

The good thing about these summaries was that you actually had to think what it is you wanted the senior management to do, and you had to frame your argument in the best possible way. Writing these summaries often caused major shifts in the recommendations of the project.

Clients ask me frequently about an Executive Summary of a presentation. This time, it is about a summary document that they can email to someone ahead of a presentation, or in most cases, a document that should convince the recipient to agree to a presentation.

I think the classic Executive Summary memo is not the most engaging way to get people excited about your project. There are a number of differences between your need for a summary, and the Executive Summary of the strategy review that is addressed to the CEO of your company.

The CEO is probably very interested in the recommendations (what price should I pay for the acquisition target), and is fully aware of the broad context of the project. She just needs the underlying logic to complete her own understanding of the situation. And, she probably knows you, and can pick up the phone quickly to clarify something that is not clear.

The investor or potential customer might not be very keen to double click a Microsoft Word file and start reading about your investment or sales pitch. Worse even, she he has probably no clear understanding of what it is you are actually doing, and finally, she has no idea who you are, and when she does not understand things, will delete the email instead of calling you.

My advice: forget about the Executive Summary memo, and instead create a short visual presentation that will have many more pages, but will take the exact same time to go through as reading a boring text memo. The object of the summary is not to be complete, it is to get the recipient to want to hear more. Therefore, leave out details that are not yet essential for this stage of the process, you only want to create interest. Most importantly, make sure that it is actually very clear what you are doing / what you want, surprisingly that is not always the case in these summary presentations.


Image via WikiPedia

Experimenting with Medium

Experimenting with Medium

I started to experiment with Medium as a now host for my blog. What do you people think, should I move? It is easer to write posts and get people to discover them, integration with my overall side is less strong. And Squarespace has become a bit buggy for some reason when formatting text and inserting links. Check it out here: www.medium.com/slidemagic

Bad 1990s design habits

Bad 1990s design habits

Below a repost from 3 years ago, an blog post I put out on a Medium publication that I am taking down. Putting it out here to preserve it.


You can design better presentation slides by getting rid of engrained habits that can go back decades.

Sometimes I work with teenagers to teach them about presentation design. To my surprise, they often are much better students than “grown ups” who are supposed to benefit from decades of business experience. Here is a theory why.

Transparencies for overhead projectors encouraged you to copy pages out of a book and uncovering paragraphs or key points bullet by bullet. Moving to PowerPoint, people just kept writing these bullets.

The first visuals that you felt compelled to project to an audience were data charts: lines, bars, columns. These type of graphs needed to have a title in the top left and a source at the bottom. Most slide designs today use a big title at the top left, other typography on the page is almost never bigger than the title. Very rarely, people leave the title out all together.

Pictures are low resolution and take a lot of memory, hence you can only put in small images in a presentation document that you need to email someone.

PowerPoint was created as a mouse-based drawing software, rising alongside Microsoft Windows. Everything could be dragged, and resized easily to fit. Cropping an image was tricky. The first plasma TV screens confirmed to us that it was OK to stretch an image out of proportion, as long as it fitted whatever you needed to fill easily.

Word processors enabled us to ponder a sentence over and over, editing, adding words until it encapsulated everything we wanted to say. This leads to buzzword-loaded, fluffy, mission statement-type business prose that you would never use in spoken conversation. We were not trained to write razor sharp newspaper headings.

In a word processor, the time it takes to read a document equals the total number of pages. So, to cut the time it takes to deliver your presentation, you need to cut slides. If you still want to cover the same content, just reduce the font size and cram in more information in a slide. Page count rules.

When writing, you create thought flow from top to bottom, so in PowerPoint there is no need to use other visual techniques to express contradictions, overlaps, tensions, win-wins, from-to movements, transitions.

There were only 3 types of fonts: sans serif, serif and Comic Sans, so that’s what we use in Microsoft Office documents.

To make a point we use all those powerful software tools to add stuff: bold, underline, shadows, bright colors. It never occurred to us that by de-emphasising things around what we want to emphasise, it would stand out naturally and more beautifully.

Next time you design a presentation, think how you would tackle it without the baggage from the 1990s, just like a teenager today.

Simple or pretty?

Simple or pretty?

This is probably one of these images that has been going around on LinkedIn for the past 5 years, somehow I did not pick it up:

Yes, the right column is better English. But:

  • Some of these words actually take more copy space
  • Some of these words are long, and hard to break to the next line
  • Some of these words might not be understood by non-native English speakers ("destitute"?)

At school, you are writing to learn the most beautiful English possible, in real life you might be pitching a Chinese investor with a complicated startup idea.

We need to get everything ready

We need to get everything ready

When I meet with a startup for an investor presentation, I am usually the first external "marketing person" they meet with. (Understandable, no investors, no money, no marketing budget). Some CEOs are nervous about the daunting task (and cash expense) of getting all those marketing materials ready as the company expands beyond product development. Sales presentation, investor presentation, one pager, leaflets, website, introduction video, etc. etc. ("Do you do those as well?")

My advice: take things one step at a time. An investor presentation is a good place to start, since any investor presentation needs to include some sort of customer sales presentation as well. (Investors need to be sold of the product).

The company/product story is often not completely set in early stage startups. So, freezing the spec and commission a lot of money to all kinds of designers might cause problems down the road. A presentation is actually a useful format to play around with visual concepts. Graphical execution might not be the best, but things can look decent enough and are easy to change.

After you feel that the presentation starts to work, you can consider upping the investment in the design of other marketing material. But here, I would do things gradually as well.

When working with video and video producers/designers, make sure you have a version of the footage that does not include text (in a specific font, containing a positioning that could go out of date) and logos (that could be changed later on). Video footage can be useful for a long time.

In short, it is better to do things step by step, rather than all at once.


Image via WikiPedia

Office cleanup

Office cleanup

I went through a big cleanup of my office the other day and encountered many of the gadgets I have reviewed on this blog over the past years. Unfortunately, they did not become regular productivity tools (at least most of them). Wacom tablets, Wacom Inkling, lots of different iPad styli. Now looking back at these. Part of the problem is the hardware, but the other part might just be that free hand drawing is not the most convenient interface to design presentations.

An update on the Apple Pencil. I think the pencil hardware is sorted, but there is still a software issue. My note taking app needs to be open in a meeting all the time, with the screen on, it does not survive a long meeting.

Maybe 2017 will be the solution. 


Image by Creative Tools on Flickr.

Most presentations are training decks

Most presentations are training decks

In the beginning, you know you have your killer slides to get you through the meeting. The more you give the pitch, the more confident you get with delivering your story and the slides actually become less important.

A special case of this is salesforces. When you design a sales deck for a large group of people who will deliver the pitch without you being present, your presentation is actually a sales training deck.


Image via WikiPedia