Presentation design ideas


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

Backgrounds and introductions

Backgrounds and introductions

You got 30 minutes with a senior executive to present your case in a highly politically charged issue. Many people bring a very long deck that starts slowly, industry trends, backgrounds, history, until finally at 25 minutes we get to the real issue.

These type of presentations are not TED talks were we take the audience on an inspirational journey. Everyone in the room pretty much knows the background and history (if they did not, they could have read it the night before in your document), probably knows the arguments both sides are making.

Your 30 minutes is best spent showing why the combination of your arguments is the best one. You need to get the point early in your presentation, and have at least one slide that puts all the options, pros and cons on a page. Other slides in the presentation are backups for the points you are making.

Yes, that one slide can be busy, but it should not be unreadable. 

  • Keep sentences short, think of every word you are adding to the slide whether it is worth it or not
  • Group similar points into one overarching one
  • Spend very little slide real estate at no brainers to which both sides agree
  • Use colors, and layout to highlight the differences between the options
  • Project the slide over a white board if you can, so people can scribble and write on it

Where to put the team slide in the pitch deck?

Where to put the team slide in the pitch deck?

Venture capitalist Mark Suster posted a quick video about this issue.

His advice:

  1. What you do (he is right, some pitches are vague about this), if you can, even without slides to make direct eye contact with the audience and establish rapport.
  2. The exec bio, to establish credibility, why you are the right person to pursue this opportunity
  3. The body of the presentation

He has a point. BUT, I would keep that bio slide super short, maybe limit it to the CEO and/or people who are presenting in the room and put the dense, detailed CV information in a slide later in the back. Grinding through lots of CVs of everyone on the team can break the momentum of the presentation (unless everyone on your team is a unique rockstar). Also not every startup has that rock star team (which probably gets you a minus from Mark anyway).

A final note, if you are presenting to Mark, there is no question, put that full bio slide on page 2. You should research every person you pitch to, and this is how he likes to see things, so that's what you do.

Facial expressions in the presidential debate

Facial expressions in the presidential debate

It is interesting to to see the side-by-side video shots of the presidential debate of last night.

Here is what you can learn from Hillary when confronted with an unpredictable debater:

  • Keep your posture
  • Maintain that "look" in your eyes at all time showing that you just stand above it all
  • Prepare: Donald is looking up pondering how to respond, Hillary is reading a prepared note with a response to an attack that she expected to come
  • Maintain the dominant audio track even when interrupted mid-sentence multiple time
  • Practice a whole stretch, be prepared to keep everything up for 90 minutes

The second debate will probably be more interesting as both candidates will have had the opportunity to analyze the first debate. You can watch the full version of the debate in this video.

Keynote 7.0 - first impressions

Keynote 7.0 - first impressions

Now that all my data is backed up constantly to the cloud, I have been become more daring when it comes to updating machine operating systems. So, over the weekend I upgraded my client production machine to Sierra, and I could upgrade the iWork applications (I only use Keynote) as well.

Keynote become "7.0", a big upgrade number. PowerPoint and Keynote are both highly mature pieces of software, they work very well and have not changed that much over the years. The big new features in Keynote 7.0: realtime collaboration and live presentations.

Real time collaboration is the main advantage that web app Google Slides has over desktop applications Keynote and PowerPoint. Earlier, Apple launched an iCloud-based version of Keynote where multiple people could access the same file in a web browser. The problem with this format was that the iCloud version lacked a few crucial features compared to the desk top version. If you started out working in iCloud only, there are no issues. But in most cases, you would group-edit a document online that was originally created on a desktop. I struggled finding certain formatting coloring functions which made it hard to keep slides in consistent look, and missed certain table and data chart manipulation functions online (making it hard to edit existing tables and data charts).

In Keynote 7, collaboration is now done right from the desktop app, all features are supported. During the Apple product announcement (video) it all worked perfectly. I tried things, and it worked less perfectly, but maybe because I was trying to collaborate with myself (trying to edit a test presentation in parallel on my phone). I did not get to invite people via iMessage, the email link worked, but there was a significant delay in syncing of the edits, creating sync conflicts. I assume that Apple being Apple will iron these issues out (and they might not happen in a proper collaboration set up where I am not trying to trick the system in collaborating with myself).

Having said all that, I am not a big believer in real-time editing of presentations and other documents. I can see it work when brainstorming a rough design concept, but final design tweaks are best made by one owner of the pen, who decides which input to take from collaborators. A simple commenting system will do here. There are also file integrity issues, collaboration might be fine in the heat of the meeting, but what if you discovered 2 weeks later that people have been editing your sales pitch the moment you show it at a client? All these perspectives apply equally to Google Slides.

The second new big feature in Keynote 7.0 is live presentations. You can share a link to your presentation instantly and have people in different locations on any device see your slides instantly. This is a very handy feature. It works really simple. This will be a powerful assault on all those meeting and presentation viewing applications that always require 15 minutes of background phone calls to get everything to work properly.

In short, Keynote remains a very powerful and useful presentation design software tool. Live presentations is a welcome extra feature. If you force me to compare it to PowerPoint, I would give PowerPoint the slide edge, because of the workflow for the advanced user. It is easier/faster to do basic things such as coloring and formatting boxes. For the average user, there is no real difference.


(Promotion of my presentation app SlideMagic: all this software (Keynote, Google Slides, PowerPoint) is very similar and have one specific flaw, they offer the inexperienced designer too many degrees of freedom to position objects, pick colors, fonts, layouts. In SlideMagic I tried to cut down that freedom, you can do less, but what you do will look decent. Try it out. End of promotion.)

Breaking the axis

Breaking the axis

One way to cover up poor growth numbers is to break the vertical axis of a column chart and start it at a high number. It is even PowerPoint's default, see the chart that comes out when entering, 1000, 1001, 1002, 1003 and 1004. 

Screenshot 2016-09-21 08.42.19.png

The smart audience will instantly recognise it and discount your ethics. "If she is trying to cover up this one, there must be other skeletons in the closet inside the deck as well, better start looking for them."

The best option in these situations might be to stay honest. Maybe show a table of numbers rather than a column chart that stays flat. Maybe break down your sales by subsegment, and show that there are promising products out there that can contribute to future growth.

When you use my presentation app SlideMagic, you will notice that it is actually not possible to break the vertical axis.


Image from WikiPedia

Create your own style guide

Create your own style guide

Surprisingly few organisations have a proper style guide with instructions for logos, colours, fonts, etc. This is always the first thing I ask for when starting a new presentation design project. As a presentation designer, I need the colours most.

If your organisation does not have one, here is a great tool to create your own: Frontify. You can start with a logo image, extract the colours from it, and take it from there.

Staring at a page and repeat

Staring at a page and repeat

When you start at a blank or partially complete slide, it is tempting to put that key message in. You don't have the overview of the entire presentation, so the key point will appear - duplicated - on many pages.

The same thing I often see happening on corporate web sites: multiple people make edits on different pages independent from each other.

The slide and the page on its own make sense, the overall story looks garbled and duplicated. 


Problems, problems, problems, solutions, solutions, solutions

Problems, problems, problems, solutions, solutions, solutions

Most product pitches go something like this:

  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Existing solutions have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem
  • Our solution does not have this problem

The story gets repeated, which makes the whole things boring. A better option is to elaborate on the problems, but then keep the solution section relatively short. You can even show a grid of small screen shots of all your "problem" slides, with tick marks over each one of them.

One audience

One audience

Presentations have one audience. If you have 2 messages for 2 different audiences you need 2 presentations, or one presentation with 2 clearly marked sections. Using presentation A for audience B does not work, and diluting the content (a bit of A, a bit of B) results in nothing.

If you are lucky, you need to do some extra presentation design work. In the worst case, you might have to back to the fundamental positioning of your business, product, project, idea and cut one of the two options.

iOS 10 typography

iOS 10 typography

Apple made changes to the screen typography in yesterday's release of iOS10. It now faces the same challenges as I have in presentation design.

Apple broke the look of elegant, thin fonts and added a narrower bold font. These fonts have good readability, and you can fit a lot of information on one line (or better: increase the font size without needing another line). It comes at a price though, as things look more cluttered.

In my presentation app SlideMagic, I still went for the narrow bold fonts (Roboto Condensed). When applied in a strict grid, and in the right sizes it works.

In the screen shot below for example, something is just not right. Not a lot of white space. Unclear grid. And the logo type of the newspapers interfere with the narrow bold headlines.

Screenshot 2016-09-14 13.01.28.png

Wordy quotes

Wordy quotes

Copy-pasting full paragraphs from authoritative sources (academics, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly) to support your point do poorly in presentations:

  • A presentation is not a legal court battle where every word of an expert is examined in detail to see who is right. People don't bother to read a big paragraph of text on a slide
  • Quotes have been overused, Google is filled with quotes from random people claiming almost any point you are looking for
  • Text is often a secondary interpretation of some graph or statistics. That graph or statistic, the primary source, is much better visual material to make your point
  • Quotes are always almost years old, out of context. "A Harvard Professor said this in 1995 in a study for an airplane manufacturer" is not very relevant for an Internet startup in 2016.

Image from WikiPedia

Flashbulb memories

Flashbulb memories

Many people have vivid memories of what they were doing when dramatic events unfolded (9/11 for example). Quartz published an interesting article on these "flashbulb" memories, named after their photographic qualities.

Emotions are a powerful anchor for memories. Obviously we don't want to invoke traumatic events to help the audience remember your pitch. But some element of emotion (an image, a story) is important to make your presentation more memorable.

Have a read through this chapter in my book to learn more.

Fewer and fewer stock images

Fewer and fewer stock images

I have noticed that my purchase of stock images has gone down dramatically:

  • I stopped forcing myself to find an image for every slide (what I tended to do 10 years ago)
  • Stock image sites are now overloaded with cheesy compositions
  • There are many excellent free image sites around

Example startup pitches

Example startup pitches

Here is a nice collection of early-stage startup pitch decks that managed to raise money successfully.

There are some common concepts in all of them:

  • Most importantly, they are actually great ideas. LinkedIn, YouTube, AirBNB now look like totally obvious concepts, but back when they started out they were not.
  • They explain clearly what the company/product actually does, often via a demo of screen shots. Many startups omit this important part of your pitch (surprisingly).
  • Often, there is a very powerful traction slide inside. If you have grown your business from nothing to millions of dollars in 6 months, investors will pay attention, and forgive you if the rest of the slides in the pitch deck are not that good.
  • All these decks are email friendly, you get the idea without the need for a presenter to explain it to you. (That is now actually the main type of presentation I design for my clients) 

Full circle

Full circle

Every pitch starts with an informal, but often very good, story/conversation. Then we start to complicate things with slides, templates, storylines, structures until we get to some slide deck. Then, it is often useful to step back to the very fundamental investor questions:

  1. What is it they are trying to do? (Often not clear in a presentation)
  2. Will anyone want to use it? (Rational logic, emotional gut feel)
  3. Can you make money from it? (There are many good ideas that do not deliver a profit)
  4. Can this team pull it of? (Probably most important question)
  5. (Can I construct a good deal given valuation, cap tables, Board seats, etc.)

Basic presentation template organization

Basic presentation template organization

Years of experience with client presentation templates have confirmed that there is basically only one way to lay out a corporate template.

  • Title at the top left. Some templates have a huge corporate logo getting in the way there
  • If you want to put a logo, put it at the bottom right to compensate for the "weight" of the title in the top left. Logo on the top right eats space for the headline, logo at the bottom left makes it harder to put footnotes
  • Page number in the top right (bottom right is taken up by the logo)
  • Which leaves space for footnotes at the bottom left.

You might notice that my presentation app SlideMagic uses this layout.

One science is harder to explain than another

One science is harder to explain than another

Most of my client work involves a presentation with a hard/difficult business or scientific issue to explain. All science is complex, and it requires someone to study for years to understand it. But in some scientific disciplines I can get away with things.

Take medicine for example. Here is what you can do to make things understandable to the layman:

  • Micro focus on one very specific condition/disease, and omit all other 35,000 medical issues a student usually has to go through
  • Simplify, eliminate complex / long / Latin names
  • Abandon commonly used diagrams, and instead make your own, completely non-standard drawings that are solely aimed at explaining a phenomenon.
  • Shrink all the statistical proof into a footnote. It is important for peer-reviewed research, it is not needed to understand the basic mechanism of a drug

This can work in other disciplines as well: economics for example. But it does not work everywhere. Mathematics for examples requires a broad understanding of concepts that are all stacked on top of each other, depend on each other. And there is no easy to simplify formulas. 


Image from WikiPedia

No patience for backgrounds and market trends

No patience for backgrounds and market trends

Some of my client work is for managers of business units in a large organisation who need to convince the corporate centre to make a politically charged decision. Some mistakes I encounter in the briefing document:

  • Most decks start with backgrounds, market trends, history of the unit, all information that is not directly related to the issue on the table. Only in the back (or on the last page), buried in a bullet point comes the central point of the meeting.
  • The overall pro/con arguments are not well laid out, you need to distill them from the pages, or sometimes it requires verbal explanation
  • Critical arguments that could be backed up by facts are not.

In these type of meetings with a busy senior executive I like to get to the point early. Lay out the options, and summarise why you think your preferred one is the best. Then dive with charts to support the points, where ever you can backed up by facts.

Presentation text = headlines

Presentation text = headlines

When you add text to your presentation, you are writing headlines. And headline writing is completely different from writing prose. Take the mind set of a headline writer when designing presentations.

  • Space is limited, so keep it short:
    • Avoid filler words
    • Active, not passive verbs
    • Find synonyms for long words
  • But.... keep them meaningful. Abstract, vague, generic text is a waste of space
  • Take typography and layout into account. If things don't fit, re-write the headline
    • Watch weird line breaks
    • Keep things balanced: 2 super short category descriptions followed by a long one means either making the first 2 headlines longer (yes), or - more likely - cut the 3rd one
    • Watch out for orphans

Typography is a valid reason to re-write a headline! Try explaining that to your colleagues when the entire meeting room has settled for a slide title after an hour debate, and you say "sorry, does not fit in 2 lines"


Image from WikiPedia

Description versus story

Description versus story

They are different

  • A description is an exhaustive, dry representation of a concept. It is what education uses. It is better to add too much information, rather than being incomplete. Description have a standard format, structure (inside, outside, etc.). Descriptions are wordy translations of what can be transferred using an image in one second.
  • Stories get to the point. Anticipate the audience's obvious questions, take into account the audience context, build on what the audience already knows, use surprise and tensions, and a flexible structure that is not always the logical, standard one.

Image from WikiPedia