Small changes

Small changes

Design is hard because there are many small decisions that lead to a great-looking page. Everyone knows the concepts: white space, big images, good-looking fonts, but even with that knowledge it is hard to get it right. Pretty much like composing music: everyone can master music theory or playing an instrument with a little effort, very few can compose master pieces.

Very often, I email a deck back to a client at the end of a project and say "I might a few very small changes, you probably won't notice them". But, these small changes added up can make a big difference to a layout.

So what is it I do in the final stages of a presentation design project? It is hard to capture.

The main thing I think is completely stepping away from the actual content, i.e. the text that is written in boxes. Instead I see black/light grey patterns of characters, boxes in different shapes and colors. Almost "squinting" at the page and making adjustments until this "cubist painting" looks right in terms of proportions and balance.

Most of the times, it work but yes, there are pages where even me as a professional simply cannot get it right. 


Image via WikiPedia

Frame guide lines

Frame guide lines

In PowerPoint, you have to option to display drawing guides that help you align objects on a slide. A common application is to have some sort of frame around your slide to make sure that you have the same margin around all your slides in a presentation.

I find these frames very useful, but there is a small issue you need to watch out for, when making compositions, my brain actually assumes that the dotted lines are part of the slide, and I start positioning objects accordingly. When you switch of the frames, or look at the slide in presentation mode, the whole balance looks wrong somehow.

So: always check your slide compositions with those drawing guides disabled.

PS. In my presentation design app SlideMagic, there is no need for drawing guides, since you are forced (kindly), to use a predetermined grid. Try it out!

Pitching your voice lower?

Pitching your voice lower?

In a recent blog post, Nick Morgan advises to pitch your voice lower when presenting. When we are nervous, we tighten our vocal chords, which results in a high "shrieky" voice that radiates lack of confidence.

I see many people do this even in smaller meetings, and especially some women are dropping their voice pitch dramatically to come across stronger in a male/testosterone-loaded world. In many cases this sounds very artificial.

 Part of the exercise of lowering your voice is probably not related to your voice at all, it gives you something to focus on that simply calms you down. When you are in your mental low voice mode, you feel more confident.

I would treat lowering your pitch as a last resort, and hopefully other stress reduction techniques (including having tremendous confidence in your story) enable you to keep your own natural voice.


Image via WikiPedia

"Do you have a standard process?"

"Do you have a standard process?"

Some clients ask me. The answer: "no". Each situation and story is different. I jump back and forth between high level story line design to graphics design details to numerical analysis.

Is this the best approach to presentation design? Probably not, but I can pull it off for a two reasons: many years of experience, being a 1-person operation, mostly having 1 contact person at a client, and having clients that self-select, i.e., if they uncomfortable with this approach they would not choose to work with me.

As soon as you deal with multiple people, at different levels of experience, and an agency that tries to scale up, there is no escaping to a formal process with specific end products at specific times.

Why has this not been done before?

Why has this not been done before?

I ask this question often in client briefing meetings. "Your approach seems obvious, why did it take humanity as 2017 to come up with this, why is it so hard to do?" It is a useful question to take the position of the outsider. For the expert/insider the answer is so obvious that it does not even have to be included in the slides. For the outsider, it might be the most important piece of information.


Image via WikiPedia

"They want such details in the financials"

"They want such details in the financials"

This is a complaint I often get from startups that deal with private equity investors. The analyst is asking for the number of customers, the number of sales people, the number of engineers in 2021. Who knows, right? Does this make sense?

Well, partially. Building a financial model for 2021 can be a valuable exercise in checking wither your business model makes sense. If you need to recruit 30 Fortune 500 customers in 4 years with 8 months sales cycles and head quarters which are based on a different continent, you cannot get away with 2 sales people and some search engine optimization in your marketing and sales budget. On the other hand, a consumer-focused company that needs to sign up 500,000 user does not need a huge enterprise sales operation.

It is this sanity check that investors want to do. Your "sales and marketing cost is 30% of our $100m 2021 sales" does not show - in most cases - that you have thought about what it would take to build such a company.

The minimal viable presentation

The minimal viable presentation

Everyone is constantly pushing you to make your investor pitch shorter, get rid of slides. And after a number of feedback rounds you are left with a very short deck: the summary bullets, an about page, team, IDC/Gartner market forecast, milestones, use of proceeds, for example.

These charts are all very generic, and you will find them in every investor pitch. The content is obviously important, but you have chopped out the charts that tell the story of your company. Why it was so hard until 2017 to tackle a particular issue, and why your company is so brilliant at doing it.

The tell tale sign of a deck that is too short is that you are not using it when presenting. You know your story inside out, so on page 1, you give the the presentation without using any slides, then you quickly click through the slides with the technical company information.

This works great when you are in the room, it does not work at all when you email the deck. Think about the MVP: minimal viable presentation.


Image via WikiPedia

How to practice?

How to practice?

If you have a few hours left to prepare for your presentation, they are better spent rehearsing than fine tuning the design of your slides. 

How to practice? I prefer to run through a presentation as if it were the real thing. No stopping, no stepping back, no rephrasing. Present it once start to finish, think what went well and what went wrong, and do it all over again.

In this way, you get used to the feeling of being on the spot, and that extra mental challenge will help you prepare better for your presentation. 

Back from a break

Back from a break

I just returned from a wonderful sailing holiday in Greece. I have been disconnected from social media streams most of the time, but the few times you check in, I was reminded of the stream of "verbal fillers + click bait headline" the content marketers of the world are writing. You don't seem to care/notice that much when you are in the middle of it all day, but when in relative quiet, it really gets to you. I will continue to try to write things that do not fit in this category.

Summer posting schedule

Summer posting schedule

Work will slow down a little bit over the next few weeks, so expect posting here to be a little bit less frequent as well. I hope you are having a great summer as well!

Robo photo shoots

Robo photo shoots

I was always wondering why it is that whenever I look for images of the exact same person, in the same outfit in different positions, I always end up with a search screen full of Asian models. Via Petapixel.

Fusion chart

Fusion chart

In the 2 images below you can see how to create a "fusion chart" where lots of stuff flows into something central. In the second image, I changed the color of the white triangles to grey and drew strong border lines so you can see what shapes are involved.

Building image grids in PowerPoint

Building image grids in PowerPoint

Making a grid of images in PowerPoint is tricky. Images never have a consistent aspect ratio, and when you place a lot of them on a page, the guide suggestions always snap in the wrong place somehow. Here is a survival guide.

  • Copy all your images inside the page and select them all
  • Right click and go in "format picture"
  • Tick the "size" icon, and click "size" 
  • Hit "reset" to kill any aspect ratio distortion
  • Hit "lock aspect ratio"
  • Now select each image one by one, hit "crop", hit "aspect ratio" and pick one
  • After this, select all the images again, and give them the same width with a numerical value
  • Position the images on your grid
  • Take each image in turn, select "crop" and move/zoom the image mask for the right composition

The above was a major consideration when designing the image grid system in my presentation app SlideMagic.

Tech research for the outsider

Tech research for the outsider

"Oh, [tech research company] must have a chart on that!". Many startup pitch decks features charts, forecasts, and quotes by Gartner, IDC, Forrester, and others to back up their market claims. Here is how a potential investor looks at these charts:

  • Every deck they have seen over the past 10 years probably includes a $1b market forecast by one of these. Most of these companies are not $1b businesses.
  • These research agencies do a reasonable job at mapping out what people are spending today on technology, forecasts are based on this picture of today, where an analyst applies different growth rates in an Excel sheet to get to a number that is 3 years out. It is an extrapolation of market trends, not a thorough research about how IT could change fundamentally
  • Research relies on a categorization of the IT market with ambiguous names, it is never clear what is included, excluded, where a new technology fits, whether markets are double counted
  • Overall IT spend grows at a steady pace, that's how corporate IT budgets work. So a revolutionary new technology cannibalizes investments in other technologies. Research reports hardly ever show sharp drops in the size of market segments. Rather, when a new technology emerges, people relabel, redefine the market segments to reflect the new reality. So again, not a helpful basis to forecast the future.
  • The quotes in the research report are loaded with jargon, but most importantly, all sound the same. A product manager might be really excited that a Gartner quote includes "it will definitely think about considering making my IT infrastructure more scalable next year by investigating [technology X]", but for an investor this sounds all familiarly vague. 

So how to use this type of information? Treat it as just another data point, but don't make your entire pitch dependent on it.


Image via WikiPedia

Soft edges around images...

Soft edges around images...

...never look good. At least, I have never seen ones that do. Soft edges are right up there with standard PowerPoint colors, low res images, clip art, and distorted aspect ratios: all tell tale signs that it is going to be "that kind of" presentation.

Leaving out some key statistics

Leaving out some key statistics

Sometimes it can be tempting to leave out a key financial metric, because it does not look very good. So instead of "revenues", we show "bookings adjusted for inflation, excluding south east Asia and before sales commissions", which go through the roof in terms of growth.

Someone who sees the chart will immediately turn suspicious and ask "what about revenues?" If you are there in the room, you can explain things, if the person is reading the chart as part of cold email, you probably won't have the opportunity to recover your credibility and integrity. 

If you show financials, you have to show them properly. If there is a need to explain things, do it transparently. The alternative, leave them out in your first deck and save them for meeting #2.

 

 

The bullet points are your starting point

The bullet points are your starting point

Most finished slides show a list of bullet points as the final design, they are the finished product.

Instead, consider them the starting point. Ignore that guilty feeling of writing bullets, ignore the worry about a poor slide. Write all out, re-write it, write it again, and again. Take a step back:

  • Is this actually what I want to say? If not go back to step 0
  • Do I pad too much, can I cut fluff, buzzwords?
  • Do I write too little, can a layman understand what I mean?
  • Do I say something 2x? If so, delete one
  • Is one point a sub point of another one?
  • Are all points equally important?
  • Do I combine 2 important points into one?
  • Do I make 2 completely different points, if so split the slide
  • What is the basic structure of my story: a contrast, a ranking, a cause-effect, a trend, a missing puzzle piece, best of both worlds, an overlap?

After this process you should have a razor sharp list of "what should go in", plus a good understanding of the structure, the "verb" of the slide. Now create a composition solely based on that info. 

When you insert a new slide in my presentation app SlideMagic, you are presented with a number of slide templates which are not put in randomly, I thought about every single one of them pretty hard. These are the usual "visual verbs" I encounter. Try using them as the basis for your next slide design.

Where visuals are crucial

Where visuals are crucial

If I sit down with a client, in almost all cases, the pitch of a company comes out fine verbally. People know how to tell their story. The order might not be perfect, there are some repetitions, here and there one of my questions needs to be clarified, but all in all, in 30 minutes we got a pretty good understanding of what is happening.

My work is to translate that story into visuals. And given the above, there are different types of slides.

Some slides are absolutely crucial to understanding the pitch. These are the ones that people are opening their laptops for, and pull up page 37:

  • Screen shots and images of applications/products, in many cases it is actually unclear what the product does. This is specifically the case in internet applications, or medical devices where a picture of the actual product explains a lot.
  • Data visualization that emphasizes how big something really is compared to something else, how fast things are growing or declining. Visuals do a much better job here than spoken word
  • Complicated relationships, competitive positionings, IT architectures. These cases require a map on which both brains can sync to disentangle these complex structures.

Other slides are mere backup for the spoken word. They help to make the story more powerful, but are not essential: large photographs of metaphors (endless road, squeezed orange, confused customer) or simple text charts that support the flow of the story.

The purpose of the last group of charts is 1) to give your company a professional look & feel, and 2) make it possible for people to read/digest the story without you being present.

Selecting freelance designers online

Selecting freelance designers online

Engaging a freelance designer online can be a bit scary: someone in a different time zone, who you cannot meet in person... Here are some thoughts (in random order) that could be useful both for freelance designers, and their (potential) clients.

  • Designers prefer a smaller group of clients who come back regularly over 1-off jobs. There is a lot of switching / friction cost involved when taking on a new client. So you are unlikely to find designers who will deliver an incredible sales pitch, do a crappy piece of work, then over charge and hope to get away with it. 
  • Good designers are busy, so if someone cannot meet tomorrow's deadline, it might be a good sign.
  • It is too time consuming and stressful for designers to stage a huge price negotiation dance for every project they do, so most will quote their rates, without padding in anticipation of haggling
  • if the work load is highly unpredictable (you have never worked with this client, the scope of the project is not clear), then it is not helpful to insist on a fixed project price. A good designer will either refuse to do it, or add an extraordinary "unforeseen" charge in the budget.
  • Squeezing out free work for a freelancer to prove herself probably upsets the designer, better is to risk a bit of money, and do a small test project. A few slides will  reveal instantly what the skills of the designer are. This is also an insurance policy against demo slides that might not have been developed by the designer in question. Also compare this small investment to what it would take to hire a permanent designer, and the risk you run when making a hiring mistake.
  • When doing your test project, do not only watch out for the quality of the work, or how quick the turnaround time is. What is more important is that the material gets returned at the agreed time, that the dialogue is responsive. You want to test the way to work together, in preparation for very critical deadlines where you have to rely on this stranger.
  • Finding a freelancer online is the first step in a longer cooperation, so the way she responds to feedback and learns is almost as important as the quality of the first work that she presented to you

Favorite metaphors

Favorite metaphors

People have different presentation styles, and their favorite stories. It is very hard to "force" a completely new visual story metaphor on a good presenter who does a great job selling to customers or investors.

For example, when the CEO "forces" her particular visual analogies in the sales decks that should be used the a 10 person sales force, the result is not always good. The slides will be put on the screen, but then the audio track usually deviates with "hmmm, another way to look at this is [FILL IN FAVORITE STORY].

I usually see how flexible people are with coming up with a completely new way to tell a story, especially with someone with strong presentation skills.