Chart hygiene

Chart hygiene

Here are some slide make over suggestions for messy PowerPoint presentations that do not require any changes to content. They fix basic graphical hygiene:

  • Make sure all slides use the same slide master template: titles, page numbers, logos (if you want to use them), all sit in the same place
  • Find/replace fonts: make sure all fonts in a deck are the same
  • Create a frame of guides in the master slide and make sure all slide content fits inside the frame on each slide
  • Apply a consistent color scheme to all the slides
  • Eliminate italics
  • Make sure that characters in the same box, paragraph have the same font size (huge differences are OK, but very small size differences do not look good)
  • Un-stretch photos with the wrong aspect ratio
  • Align and distribute slide elements where ever you can
  • Play with line breaks and font size to avoid orphan words on a second line
  • Remove multiple, overlapping "confidential" labels and page numbers from pages
  • Draw a shape, set proper colors and fonts, and make it the default shape, delete the shape, repeat for a text box and a line

That was presentation make-over V0.1, the content might be bad, the layouts could be poor, but it will look organized.

If you have been working in my presentation app SlideMagic, you will have noticed that is almost impossible to make the mistakes I am correcting in the above.

Getting stuck on page 1

Getting stuck on page 1

Often, presenters get stuck on page 1. The long list of bullet points which are supposed to summarize the story becomes speaker notes to deliver the entire presentation verbally without the visuals.

Well, that is great right? A captivating story standing on its own with out the need for slides. Things are usually not that perfect. Instead of a captivating story, the presenters reads out the summary bullets, adds some "uhms", hints a bit at the key points but stays at a generic level, saying that the real story will follow. After 15 minutes, the actual presentation starts, which the audience has already heard, more or less. And then, when the presenter reaches the final summary slide, the whole things gets repeated again in 10 minutes.

When presenting live, it is best to consider your first slide a teaser slide, not a summary slide. Hint at what is about to come, but resist the temptation to spend too much time on it. Instead, run the presentation using the visuals.

For presentation documents that are meant for reading a summery page is appropriate (not a teaser page), and in that case I would actually add more text in a smaller font for someone to get the full essence of a story in 1 page, just in case she does not click through to the end.

Business document production workflows

Business document production workflows

Production of documents and reports inside corporations is a hugely inefficient process, because of a number of reasons:

  • Using the face-to-face meeting format to discuss small text edits
  • Do zero preparation for such a meeting, and start reading analyzing the text with the junior analyst in front of you
  • Because of this lack of preparation, completely upend the start of the presentation because critical bits are missing, without reading things to the end
  • Having too many people involved: lots of captains on the ship giving contradicting input
  • Refusal of senior managers to make tiny text edits directly into the text themselves

I remember this from my early days as a junior analyst at McKinsey. Fight 1 hour of traffic to drive to a meeting with a senior client and/or partner. Listen to small talk, get send out to make paper copies, multiple people making edits to slides with pens, make copies again, back into the car, in the office at your desk failing to read the hand writing, going back and forth via fax machines until you get it right. Technology has moved on a bit, but document editing is still pretty much the same today.

When I start to work with a new client there is usually a small adjustment process, especially when we are on different continents. Am I a junior analyst who needs paragraph by paragraph instructions? He is 7 hours ahead, but hey, I am the client and get to set the meetings. Better schedule frequent update calls to make sure he stays motivated to press on. 

After a while, clients discover the luxury of an overseas design partner. Make small text edits yourself, jot down broader comments in a box on the slide, hit send before leaving the office, and hey, all is done when you come in the next morning. Sometimes not being in the same physical location makes life easier for everyone involved.

Start with action verb?

Start with action verb?

Back at my days at McKinsey I was taught that every item in a list should start with a an "action verb": "Agree next steps", "Build customer list", "Sell unwanted subsidiary". I am no longer sticking to this principle:

  • In many case you need to invent a verb that just add words and line breaks to a text box without adding meaning. If the viewer will understand it without the verb, it is OK.
  • Worse: this search for action verbs is a major cause of consulting speak with repetitive use of similar verbs: highlight, identify, uncover, map, etc. etc.

"Years ago, I invested in..."

"Years ago, I invested in..."

An investor is heavily influenced by the successes and failures of past deals. There might be no scientific evidence that "you can't make money in healthcare diagnostics", "ad tech is dead", "companies founded in Italy are hard to scale", "that sounds like IT management, and that is a feature rather than a market" but the investor, with sample size n=1, is a true believer.

In the first few seconds of an interaction with an investor, they will try to put you in a box of something they understand and/or have invested in in the past. Help them do it, and say that you will clarify later why "mobile social network" is not exactly what you are doing.

If the dialogue with the investor continues, pay careful attention to of the cough comments about past experiences where she burnt her fingers on something that sounds similar. These reservations go really deep, an investor won't trip over the same stone twice. Understand the concern, and really explain why your situation is different. If you don't know the answer right away, get back to her later after you have collected the facts.

Blunt sentences

Blunt sentences

I sit in many meetings where a startup leadership team tries to figure out a company strategy or product positioning. Everyone is talking similar but different things and it is impossible to bring things to a conclusion.

The first step in these situations is actually to establish what the options are. If you don't know what you are trying to decide about, it is pretty hard to make a decision!

The traditional management theory approach is to draw up some table with the options, and write down what is the difference between them on certain dimensions. This requires some on the spot puzzling to get the column headings of the table right.

Another approach is to try to define the strategy in a simple sentence. Now, when people start writing company strategies in sentences you tend to get woolly, fluffy, statements full of buzzwords. So, the challenge here is to avoid doing that. This is an internal work meeting, not the vision statement on your web site. They key is to catch the essence of the strategy in as little words as possible, including possible uncertainties. For example: "We are trying to acquire as many users as we can with all means (including free product), collect their data, and use/sell that data somehow in the future."

This allows the team to have a good discussion about the options. The discussion will flow even better if you can find catchy 1-word labels for each of the strategic options. 

After the meeting, a volunteer can take all that away, turn it into a proper trade off table and/or word them in the proper way for the next meeting.


Image via WikiPedia

Making photo cut outs in PowerPoint

Making photo cut outs in PowerPoint

If you are not a Photoshop master, here is a crude way to cut out an object out of an image in PowerPoint:

  1. Take an image
  2. Draw a freeform shape over it
  3. Remove the image
  4. Fill the shape with the original image
  5. Select crop, and then "fill", then scale up the cropped image until the shape is filled with just the bit that you intended
  6. I added the original image back in the background

Behind the projection screen

Behind the projection screen

I watched an opera a few days ago in Tel Aviv, where the singers were performing behind a perforated projection screen, and in front of another regulator projection screen, which created a very interesting stage backdrop. Here is an idea for a presentation set up: put the presenter literally inside the slide.

In the image below, you can see the 2 screens. The battlefield background is a regular projection, the barrels in front are semi transparent. I googled for another demonstration of this stage setup:

Data leakage in PowerPoint

Data leakage in PowerPoint

Be careful with sending PowerPoint presentations that could have left overs of confidential information hidden inside that you do not want outsiders to see:

  • Comments in the speaker notes field at the bottom of the slides ("Let's don't tell our investors yet, about the disappointing Q1 results, we will do that in 2 weeks"). When you use an old presentation to "copy-save" it as the master of a new one, comments get copied across as well. 
  • Regular comments on slides that have not been removed
  • Information, comments, analysis, that sits in the Excel engine of data charts, when someone clicks "edit data", the full Excel sheet opens
  • Also, even if you remove the data labels or axes from a data chart, the data still remains visible when hovering over it with a mouse.

It is best to share your presentation as a PDF file, but even then watch out with information that becomes visible when hovering over with your mouse (data points, file names of images, etc.)


Image via WikiPedia

Read human signals

Read human signals

The investor asks you a question, and the instinctive reaction of an entrepreneur is to fire back with data, slides, and arguments to prove that the investor is wrong. "No, that concern does not apply to me because, because. because". Part of the rhetoric includes a repeat of what just has been presented, to eliminate the possibility that the investor did not understand it the first time around. Boom, boom boom.

Pick your battles. Especially if the investor bases the question on 5 other startups she has seen in the same field, it is 5 people she knows and trusts against you she just met 20 minutes ago. Maybe she has a point, maybe you need to find out a bit more about the background of her concern, after which you can give a more balanced answer, which could well be, let me check and I will get back to you.

Read the human signals, if the investor does not engage anymore and says "OK, I understand", but her eyes say something different, it might well be that she simply does not want to hear a repetition of your arguments she does not believe.  

Profitability forecast sanity

Profitability forecast sanity

Entrepreneurs are optimistic by nature, and every financial forecast I see shows a shiny company company after 5 years with huge sales, profits, and cash flows. Nobody believes the forecast anyway, and it cannot possibly be accurate, but still, the 5 year revenue and profit scenario serves a purpose.

It enables the investor to think "what do I have to believe" in order for this to become reality. There is the sanity check on the revenue side, that I have written about before, but the cost side is actually equally important.

Yes, a company with big sales will probably have big profits. But it is good to go beyond the basics. A sensible cost structure shows the investor that you understand the business you are operating in. If you aspire to become a global software company, your economics are likely to look like that of other global software companies. $200m in sales and $190m in profits don't usually work.

A financial forecast also guides your operating plan. If you need to convince 30 enterprise customers per month to sign up, each requiring a 6 months sales cycle with 5 on site visits, you can work out what sort of sales force you need. Sales costs are no longer "30% of revenue", but you can make a more informed forecast.

So the point estimates of the 5 year forecast are not that important, it is the logic that went into them that is.

"Flattening" a video

"Flattening" a video

Most of the corporate promotion videos I see are enhanced presentations: text movements with animations, still images with slow zoom added, piano background music and maybe some custom made illustrations. They look good, but have 2 problems when it comes to pitches to busy people:

  • They make files very heavy (email attachment bounce and/or consuming 500MB of mobile download data)
  • They take too much time: like a bullet point chart, you will have read that one sentence 10x by the time the pianist is finished with the 8 bar melody and ready to move on to the next shot.

That is the reason why I often "flatten" these videos, take the 5 best screen shots and paste them as images in a regular presentation deck. Looks great, quick to read, easy to download.

Anticipating this issue, when you brief a video production company ask them for 2 versions of the video, one with all the graphical elements, and one with less text, so you can use it as source material for still images over which you can place your own text in a presentation. Also handy when your messages change over time.

There are many other situations where you might actually need to keep the video in its full size: demonstrations of products, interviews of people, etc. If it is just about adding drama to a still visual, why not go with a well designed still visual though.

 

The over-ambitious cover image

The over-ambitious cover image

Often, my clients want a cover image on the presentation that says it all: the entire message of the presentation in just one smart visual. There are 2 problems with this approach:

  • A technical one. The ideal image will probably not exist in some stock photo site, so there is significant photoshopping and editing required to get that elephant to balance on a skateboard while enjoying the benefits of flexible ROI. This image is unlikely to look good from a technical point of view.
  • Even if you were to make this happen, it is highly unlikely that the audience who walks into the auditorium while sipping a coffee will actually understand what it means.

Lower the ambitions, and pick a professional looking cover image that is somewhat connected to what you are going to talk about and use your presentation to get the full message out.

Making image grids in PowerPoint

Making image grids in PowerPoint

It is tricky in PowerPoint to make a nice grid of images that comes from different sources, in different sizes, and in different aspect ratios. How do you get them all the same size? It can be very tedious to crop them all to the same proportion, and then line them up correctly. There are always one or two that are wrong.

Here is what I do. Crop each image to a certain aspect ratio, don't worry yet about the exact size. Now select them all and give each the same height, the width will automatically be adjusted as well! Pro-tip, crop to 1:1 and then try cropping to a circle.

In my presentation app SlideMagic, it is impossible not to lay out images in a grid :-)

Need your help with finding a bug

Need your help with finding a bug

We are constantly squatting small bugs in SlideMagic to make it better and more stable. There is one tiny and mysterious issue that I cannot reproduce whatever I try. A small amount of presentations get a green INSEAD logo inserted in their presentation, despite the fact they have nothing to do with INSEAD. Can you let me know if this happened to you, on what sort of device/operating system you were working and what you were trying out. You can email me on jan at slidemagic dot com.

Copying a look

Copying a look

You see a great layout in a poster, brochure, web site, but you find it impossible to replicate it in PowerPoint. You figured out the font, you copied the color codes, and it still does not look nowhere near the example. How can it be?

There are more variables when it comes to layout than just a type face and color:

  • How are colors used? Take a step back from your example page and try to estimate the % coverage of a page has a certain color. Yes, the accent color could match exactly, but maybe the designer uses it only very sparsely, and in fact the dominant color of the page is grey, not bright yellow.
  • How is white space used? You matched the font, but maybe those bold PowerPoint headlines and text boxes full of text does not fit the loosely spaced, thin text lines that the designer used. 
  • What sort of images are in the example? Color or B&W? Busy or calm? People or objects? Stock images or "real" photos?
  • What sort of page element does the designer use? Graphs? Icons? Narrow columns of small body text? Big bold typography?
  • How are accents created? A bullet point? Bold? A different color? Is the main text color actually black, or a lighter grey, or a different color all together?
  • Does the designer use some sort of grid to group items on a page?
  • Where does the headline sit when compared to the other elements on the page. What is the proportion between the headline and the other elements?

There are lots of choices that set the look & feel of a page. That is why it can be hard to get it right. Even if page layout does not come natural to you, you can still learn to recognize the elements and shamelessly copy from an example you like.

Alternatively, you can try my presentation app SlideMagic, where I made some choices for you.


Art via WikiPedia

Too many things in your head

Too many things in your head

When you are deep into your own story, your mind has hard-wired all aspects of it in one complex mesh network. Everything is related to everything, everything is connected. The upside: you are the expert and know what you are doing. The downside: it is extremely hard for you to explain your idea to someone who comes in cold, without the bits of information, and without the connections between them.

After I return to my office after a client briefing, I usually open a blank piece of paper, take a pencil, and jot down the big ideas I heard in the meeting, after I have given the brain to calm down in the 30 minute journey back. No worry about story lines, no worry about structure, no judgement about what is detail and what is a big message, and no going back to my meeting notes. 

These thoughts often become the core building blocks of the presentation. These are the points that I want others to remember when leaving a meeting.

Many people get to this point, they figure out the key messages of a presentation but make the mistake of communicating them in an overly simplistic, or minimalistic way. Just writing "the competition is not flexible" as a big, minimalist statement in a nice designer font is not going to make it stick. Many times, proven/showing these high level messages actually requires going into some depth.

So, a good presentation does not dumb down content. It unravels the wool ball in your head and creates a sequential line of ideas that can ultimately form the basis for a wool ball in the minds of your audience.

40 minutes in

40 minutes in

They exercise is good for many things, creativity being one of them. I do the occasional exercise in the form of mountain biking. Preferably, I would roam around on single tracks all the time, but time constraints often limit me to loop around Tel Aviv, close to my home.

And here is the weird thing that is happening to me: every time at about the same time/distance in the run, I get some pretty useful ideas for design problems I am struggling with. I started to notice, because the choice of tracks around my home is not that big, the weather in Israel is pretty much the same every day, so these bike runs happen at more or less the exact same circumstances.

So, the inspiration comes 40 minutes or about 16 km in. Maybe it is this exact amount of exercise you need, or there is something about that specific location....

What are good slides?

What are good slides?

We all understand that the ultimate slide is a visual composition that has such an emotional impact on us that the moment we walk out of the auditorium, we go and do something we did not plan on doing before.

For most day-to-day presentations, the objectives of a slide will be a bit more down to earth:

  1. Can you actually read what is written on the slide from a distance (font sizes, graphs)?
  2. Does it look as professional as the company/entity you are representing? Comic sans, clip art, low resolution pictures, distorted aspect ratios, PowerPoint bevels. (Professional and pretty are not the same things).
  3. Does the chart just have one message?
  4. Is information laid out so it supports the message? A trade requires pros and cons, a trend should come out of a graph, A implies B, there is a clear differentiation
  5. Does the slide actually look pretty in terms of design, composition, balance?

Slightly related: here is a Dutch TV commercial from the 1970s with a quality inspector stamping "OK" on peanuts.