Big data overload

Big data overload

"Big data" is fashionable right now and many startup pitches emphasise how if an investor wants to put dollars in big data, this company is the best place to do it. Visualisations look similar: a big spaghetti of lines enters a box and out comes a super insight. The traditional IT-way of visualising the world: everything fits in an architecture diagram.

The problem: all these decks look and sound the same.

Architecture diagrams that describe the technology in a top down view are not always the best tools to pitch business ideas. The other approach is bottom up, story, and case example driven. Take one specific insight, and work your way through the system and show how it was produced. Super detailed, super specific, and super real.

Once the audience is convinced that this one microscopic case example works/is brilliant, they will have no problem believing that it works for the other 5 billion possible use cases. And in the process, they are convinced that you did not just slap the label "big data" on your pitch because it is the latest fashion.

Art: Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950, image by Matthew Mendoza

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There are 3 types of presentations

There are 3 types of presentations

The more I think about it, I can see three different types of presentations:

  1. Stage show
  2. Cold call
  3. Decision document

The stage show

A live, stand up presentation where you introduce an audience to a new idea for the first time

  • Big, stage-setting images (a place, a product, a person)
  • Highly simplified data charts with just one, really one, message
  • Place holder slides (either empty or with a few words)

Note the charts that are absent in this overview:  generic bullet point lists (you knew that already), but also pointless images with visual concepts that can be explained better verbally (no need for the squished tomato to stay that things are tough). Big agenda slides and presentation structure slides might put your audience to sleep early on. If the audience has to be reminded via tracker pages where they are in the story all the time, your story is probably not clear enough.

Cold call

Usually an email attachment or a link to a web site that needs to grab the attention of the recipient who is not neccessarily interested in your idea. The slides will typically be the same as the ones that are used for a stage show, but with a crucial modification: there needs to be a clearly written explanation because you are not present to tell the story behind the slides.

You need to encourage the next page down click, so including big, dense, boring, text slides early on in your document ("we need to say everything on the first 3 pages!") is likely to encourage your audience to abandon ship early.

Note that I suggest creating slides with "subtitles", small boxes with point 12 text that explain the slide's idea in full, long sentences. I have not seen many (if any) of those around. That is the reason that SlideMagic ships with an explanation panel that can easily be switched on or of. 


This is a document that contains a plan, a budget, a strategy, etc. that needs to be agreed upon among a number of people. Multiple versions of the document get sent around. The document might be presented in a number of meetings, but the audience has seen the material before. The presentation is more about discussing changes and getting people to agree.

Typical slides are dense tables, diagrams, Gantt charts, and data charts. Data charts could highlight multiple messages and trends. They are clear, but require a bit of time to understand. Over time, the audience group acquires a common language, where cryptical names for scenarios or strategies ("green field", "organic", "frontal attack") become meaningful abbreviations for complex ideas.

Note that including powerful/stunning/amazing visuals does not add much to an audience who more or less understands what you are talking about and is worried with deciding how much budget to allocate for marketing next year

Where do things go wrong?

The most important error: use the wrong slides for the wrong occasion. Decision document slides won't work for a stage show. Stage show slides will not get your 2015 budget approved. Sending stage show slides without explanation will have people wondering what it is you want.

Another mistake: go in between. Your bullet points are too dense to create a nice stage show slide, but too vague to explain exactly what decision you want from your Board of Directors.

* * *

Be aware what sort of presentation you are designing.

P.S. The artwork (Between Rounds, Thomas Eakins, 1898) reflects how many designers of decision documents will feel after three rounds of comments.

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Going back in time, some popular posts

Going back in time, some popular posts

I have spent a lot of time over the past day redirecting URLs, mapping deep links, moving Disqus comments, rerouting RSS feeds. I noticed that some very old posts (going back to 2008) still get a lot of traffic, and most of them are about PowerPoint tricks, rather than philosophical posts about the future of pitching ideas in business.

Here are some popular links:

P.S. In case you wonder about the 4:05 background image, it was taken from the 24-hour movie "The Clock" by Christian Marclay.

In order to respect the concept of Christian Marclay's work, spectators are kindly requested to play this video a 0.04 pm, local time. If time is passed, please wait for tomorrow or another day same time. Thank you.

Design is detail

Design is detail

In management, being detail-oriented is not the behaviour that is considered good. Detail-oriented people get lost in tangents, loose track of the big picture, cannot focus to make decisions. Saying that you are not afraid of detail in a job interview will cost you points.

I think it all depends. Yes, staying stuck in unimportant tangents is not helpful, but when it comes to design, it is all about the detail.

You see this now best in mobile application user interface design. The screen is so small that you need to worry about every button or item you put in front of the user. I personally went through this experience when designing SlideMagic.

But slide design is the same. It is actually helpful to think of your slide as a visual on the screen of a mobile phone. This is sort of the perspective of an audience member who sits in the back row. Everything you put on the slide, everything, should be thought through:

  • What words to use in the text box, can you cut more without losing the meaning, do you need to add more because it is too vague?
  • The rounding of the data
  • The order of the bars in the bar chart
  • The order of the columns and rows in a table
  • Are there duplicate messages? Does a text box say the same thing as the title?
  • Do we need icons, or shall we call customers, well, customers?

All the detail will add up to a great slide that gives the big picture.

In case you wonder about the close up of Vermeer's painting "The Music Lesson", find out more here about Tim Jenison's attempt to recreate the Vermeer master piece using a lens, "accusing" Vermeer of being a very early photographer, rather than a painter.

Should you use an attachment when emailing an investor?

Should you use an attachment when emailing an investor?

The answer: yes, I think investors love to double-click an attachment, but they should not be doing it because they gave up on reading the uninspiring cover letter.

Many cold investor emails make a couple of mistakes:

  1. Non-descriptive subject line
  2. A cover letter in the body text that is far to long, full of buzzwords, and vague about what next step you actually want
  3. As an attachment, the full investor presentation, or maybe even the full business plan

Remember what your objective of a cold investor email is: not landing the investment, but creating the opening for the next interaction (probably a phone call). So:

  1. Use the space you have in the subject line to make sure your email gets opened ([x] suggested I contact you
  2. Write a very short and to the point "cover letter" (a few sentences) in which you explain what you and hint at why it is a great business opportunity. Ask what you want to achieve (a phone call?)
  3. Attach a few highly visual slides that focus on what would normally be the opening of your full investor presentation: a rough description what you do, a reminder of the pain you are trying to solve, and the brilliant solution.

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Brand juggling

Brand juggling

Over the past years I have changed my brand and blog look and feel many times over. Axiom One was the legal name for the management consulting firm I set up (found it by browsing a dictionary, hence the letter "A", I liked the meaning of axiom, which is a mathematical foundation that cannot be proven but a required building block to build entire theories about the universe. 

Then came the blog with "Slides that stick", and moving to "sticky slides", designing slides that would not instantly be forgotten but stick in the mind of the audience. Slowly I focussed less on my strategy consulting business (I would always be a low cost alternative to a larger firm), and started building a reputation in business presentation design, an area where I could aspire to be one of the best in the world.

Idea Transplant was a name that covered my work (doing serious, often highly confidential presentations) better than "sticky" which has some negative connotations. The honey was replaced by artwork (I love the Dutch masters and the impressionists). Idea Transplant will continue to be the brand for my bespoke presentation design service offering. 

Idea Transplant is not the right name for my business presentation design app which I named SlideMagic. It is a functional name that people can remember, recreate when they hear/read it. I am not totally convinced that it is the best name for the concept but I focus all my investment in building the product right now and save splurging on marketing later (SlideMagic is 100% self-funded at the moment).

The blog and my presentation design book Pitch It! (now free to read online), will move to the SlideMagic side to build as much traffic as possible to support the new app. 

Apologies for the brand confusion and thank you for joining the journey with me.

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Introverts and fear of public speaking

Introverts and fear of public speaking

Being an introvert and being afraid of public speaking are 2 different things.

Introverts find it hard to engage in small talk, introverts think before they speak, introverts do not enjoy loud crowds, let alone trying to make yourself heard in them.

But, introverts can be great public speakers. On stage, there is no small talk, but the real substance of your presentation. People are quiet and listening to you. The perfect spot for an introvert to shine.

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Rows or columns?

Rows or columns?

When designing a table there is always the question: which dimension to put in rows, and which in columns. Personally, I do what looks best, without applying any specific rules.

  • If one dimension has labels that are very long, I prefer to put them in rows
  • If one dimension has lots of data points, I tend to put them in rows (16:9 screens give more flexibility for wide designs though)
  • Years usually go in columns
  • Big options (1, 2, or 3) usually go in columns
  • Ranking different values usually is better vertically, it is easier to compare a column of numbers than have your eyes move across a row of numbers.

Art: Lyubov Popova, Air, Man, Space, 1912

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The truly new idea

The truly new idea

When I was a still a junior consultant at McKinsey, one of the senior partners on a team I was working on said that most consulting projects really generate only one truly original new idea/insight. The rest of the hard work is not really that original (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration as Thomas Edison put it)). Still, that one insight usually drives the entire recommendation.

At McKinsey, these truly new ideas were often the result of a novel way of combining facts/data sources for the first time and/or being able to quantify/compare things that nobody thought could be quantified.

Looking back at presentations and pitches I have worked on, the on truly new idea concept probably holds. Use it in your presentation design. Facts, and logic flows that everyone is already used to/knows are not interesting. It might be better to go quickly to that unexplored territory that you discovered.

Text on 16:9

Many people think that the wide screen 16:9 format looks modern for presentations, a slide fills the entire LCD screen, rather than being framed by 2 black bars or worse: stretched/distorted while you cannot find the screen remote in the conference room.

There is a problem though. Widescreen was designed with movies in mind. For text it is a disaster. Even at a decent font size, there are too many words on a single line, it is hard to follow for the eye.

  1. Even bigger fonts
  2. Rather than list things vertically, try putting them in boxes that are horizontally spaced out
  3. Stick to 4:3 and find that sticky, dusty, old, remote control in the conference room (look for the ASP button)

My book can now be accessed free on the web

My book can now be accessed free on the web

To support the launch of the SlideMagic presentation design app I have started to remove the paywall for my book Pitch It!, you can read it here.

I am making slow progress because it requires a rewriting and reformatting of the content. First there was the iBooks version written in iBooks Author, then the PDF version written in InDesign, and now I am converting the content to HTML using squarespace.

Web templates have moved a long way over the past 2 years. The squarespace version looks as good, if not better, than the iBook version. I have all the freedom to design interactive content, and the adjustments between wide screen, iPad, and mobile phone are phenomenal. No app stores, no pass words, just click the link and you are in on any device.

This says something about the blurring of visual communication formats beyond the slides used in a stand up presentation. Scrolling down on a tablet is much more intuitive than clicking through slides (part of the reason why in SlideMagic things are fluid). Like reading a magazine or a newspaper, there is value for big picture, wow visuals, and a 12 point story here and there. A big bold chart and a detailed diagram. Maybe a nice magazine-style website behind a password is a better to present your idea than a PowerPoint attachment?

I can now also take the opportunity to update the content of the book, some of which has become a bit stale since December 2012 (and the biggest missing piece of information is SlideMagic as a credible alternative to PowerPoint and Keynote of course!).

Let's eradicate PowerPoint 2003

PowerPoint 2003 still uses the old MS Graph chart engine, and while PowerPoint 2003 probably does not run on any computer anymore, the slides created with it continue to live on. In many corporates, the same slides keep on getting updated with new numbers, sometimes for more than 10 years in a row.

So, in today's PPTX files we still see leftovers of MS Graph charts, almost like virus infections. Depending on the computer and software you are running, some of the following can happen:

  • Random resizing of charts
  • Random re-coloring of charts
  • But worst: a total crash of PowerPoint and loss of data

Here is the instinct I developed and I encourage you to do the same upon noticing an MS Graph chart:

  1. Hit save in PowerPoint
  2. Copy the slide with the virus
  3. (Shivrrrrr), right click and open the MS Graph in the duplicate
  4. Go to the data tab and copy the data in a blank excel sheet
  5. Hit save in PowerPoint
  6. (Pfffew) recreate the chart from scratch
  7. Hit save in PowerPoint
  8. Delete the MS Graph slides
  9. Hit save in PowerPoint

With a bit of help from all of you, PPT 2003/MS Graph charts should be eradicated in 5 years or so.

3 things with 3 things each

Management consulting stories are always divided in 3 or 5 components (optimally starting with the same letter), and each of these is then divided into 3 sub components as well.

Connect, communicate, control. And to achieve connect we need to aggregate, accumulate, and accelerate. This works reasonably well in documents for reading (if the verbs are chosen meaningfully and not using a dictionary looking for words starting with C).

Verbal pitches are a bit different though. A human, person-to-person story is flatter, more linear. It is hard to go up one level, down to the second point if we do not have the hierarchical structure in front of us. Also, using too many words that start with a C make you sound like a consulting report, not like a genuine speaker.

Listen to yourself: if it sounds wrong it probably is wrong.

You didn't know you need this

If you pitch your product as a direct alternative to something else, the purchasing manager might say that it is a nice solution, but we already spent our budget on something that is acceptable. Often, it is better to convince the buyer that this is a new market, a new product, that has no substitutes yet. An opportunity for startups that are out there to change the world.

Thomas Leuthard

Thomas Leuthard (web site, Flickr) is a street photographer who published his work under a Creative Commons license on Flickr (attribution is required). His work is of very high quality. His images make great backgrounds for presentations that need an urban setting.

Image by Thomas Leuthard

Consulting frameworks

I added a new set of templates to my presentation design app SlideMagic: consulting frameworks. It was an interesting journey back in time (I used to work for 10 years at McKinsey back in the 1990s).

Putting them in SlideMagic was interesting, it shows exactly what SlideMagic is supposed to do for business presentations. Take unnecessary complexity out of visual designs down to a level that the chart still says what it needs to say, but that you do not need to have a degree in graphics design to make them. I had to make slight deviations from the original here and there (Both SlideMagic and layman designers do not like curved shapes for example), but the end result is pretty good.

As to the content of these frameworks. They are more tools to help you think about a problem than slides that will get your audience jumping out of their chairs. Many of them are linked to classic micro-economics theory (demand/supply/competition). I think the strategic issues of many companies today have moved beyond these problems. Still some frameworks can work to kick start a discussion, they good old SWOT works great in group white board discussions.

Inviting SlideMagic feedback

For all of those who are beta testing SlideMagic, I would love to hear your reactions.
  1. Important: bugs, glitches
  2. More important: whether you like the concept
  3. Most important: what is holding you back to use software like this for a real document or live presentation: a) bugs, b) cannot do what I want to do, c) a beta version is too risky d) other. Please elaborate!
Email your thoughts to jan at slidemagic dot com.

And also, and also, and also

There are so many wonderful things to say about your idea. all the problems it solves, all the things it can do, all the thought you have put in to make it perfect.

In the middle of the “and also, and also, and also, and also” the audience gets bored and wonders what it actually boils down to. In 99% of pitches I have designed, there is one original idea that is more important than all the other features.

Design your presentation around this. When describing the problem (always easier to do than selling the solution), focus on the most important issue. When presenting the solution, hammer in that one crucial innovation. After that is done, you can mention other elements of your story as a “by the way”. But, watch out not to get carried away here.

Prioritising that one big idea out of all your smaller ideas is not a matter of diluting things with generic terms: “we deliver ROI”. It should be highly specific.

Self destructing presentations

Many presentations degenerate over time. What started fresh, clean, and straight to the point gets diluted over time.

More people start editing the presentation. They do not understand all the slides 100%, so they add bubbles and bullet points with text just to make sure that the point gets made somewhere in the presentation. Bits of the same messages start appearing on slides throughout the document.

Over time, the company positioning can change a bit. Rather than starting with a clean sheet, the old presentation gets adjusted. The result: a bit of the old, a bit of the new.

Do spring cleaning now and then.

I can only explain it in 45 minutes...

I often get this issue in client discussions. So we start out, and in that first meeting, it often turns out that the client can explain it in 5 to 10 minutes. The difference? Me impolitely interrupting monologues where I got the point already, and asking questions inviting conversation about issues that are not covered.

How to do it without the help of a probing presentation designer? Take a radical approach to how much time you spend on each element of your story. If a certain section is incredibly important, but at the same time totally obvious, old news, and well known, cut it to the minimum. On the other hand there might be a tiny detail that is completely counter intuitive and merits a total 5 minute deep dive.

You are not writing an essay about your brilliant idea, you are racing against the clock to explain your idea in 5-10 minutes.

I admit that this is easier to do in 1-1 conversations than in formal presentations. Test your story in 1-1 conversations with smart people before pitching it to larger audiences.