PowerPoint template management

PowerPoint template management

PowerPoint templates in big companies are a mess. When thousands of people start sharing PowerPoint files it will take less than 3 months for a corporate template to be vanished due to the many personal modifications and mistakes people make. Here is a survival guide.

  • Create a simple template
    • Use a PowerPoint expert to create it, not an Adobe Illustrator master, because you need to know how to set default colors, shapes, text boxes, page numbers, left-to-right orientation, etc.
    • Create some sort of a box of drawing guides to limit the canvas and leave white space around the edges. Many people might ignore it, but they will have a mental urge to put things inside that box. Put the drawing guides on the master slide so they can't be moved by accident.
    • Keep it super simple, I would go for one title slide and one regular slide maybe a separator
  • Teach hygiene (this is the hard part). Ask employees every time they create a new presentation to start with this template. Every time. Even if they want to reuse 90% of an existing deck, have them open the clean template, copy paste the charts from the old file into it and save the file.

I wonder whether it is possible to do the hygiene thing with a macro button in PowerPoint automatically, it must be.

Given the above mess, you will understand why it is not possible to modify the slide template in my presentation app SlideMagic.


Painting via WikiPedia

Corporate videos

Corporate videos

As a presentation designer, I get to sift through a lot of corporate introduction videos, most of the time, I am looking for some decent still images that I can use as a background for an introduction slide about a customer or strategic partners.

A lot of money is going into these videos. Sophisticated motion graphics, upbeat music, soothing voice overs.

Most of these are hosted on YouTube, so you get a sense of how many people actually watched them. In most cases: a few thousand at best, but many have far, far fewer views. The majority of which is probably the creative team and the people reviewing drafts at the client.

Why? I do not have scientific evidence, but here are some possible causes:

  • There is actually not that much information in these videos, except for the usual buzzwords about helping improve the environment and making the world a better place. An analyst who wants to know what the group is all about, can spend the 3 minutes it takes to watch the video better in other places on the web site.
  • (Related) These videos are full of stock video cliches: pretty board rooms against a view over the park, happy families running in that park, a drone going up the corporate sky scraper.
  • In the case of conglomerates, a large part of the video is spent on justifying the existence of the group, what ties them together? This is a hugely important issue for the conglomerate management, but for the student, investor, journalist, customer, potential employee, it does not merit 50% of the 3 minutes.

In short, these videos are actually produced for an audience which is the management of the company, to reconfirm their perception of the image of the place they work, and less so for an external audience.

 

Let go of stale diagrams

Let go of stale diagrams

Sometimes, an industry sector is used to specific diagrams to describe their environment. The same mental and visual mindset frame shows up over and and over. In some cases, it might be worth chucking that all way and start fresh.

Write down on a piece of paper what are the 3, 4, 5 elements that should pop out in your presentation. No go back and think of a framework, diagram, composition that can fit all these elements (and nothing else/more). You might be surprised what you can come up.

If stale frameworks complicate your ability to explain, it might be time to let go.

One exception, competitive market positioning diagrams. Investors, clients, might be used to a certain representation of reality, it is useful to have a backup slide that shows your position in a conventional industry map.

Wobbly propositions

Wobbly propositions

Internet / mobile consumer propositions can be constantly changing, and ambiguity can be a great driver of the creative product development process. In investor pitches though, you need to freeze the brain storming and present one consistent, stable product.

Investors need to make 2 leaps: understand what your product is about, and get a sense for the product you want to offer. In 20 minutes, you can't introduce 3 variants, discuss 10 other cool ideas, leave that for the follow on meetings.

These type of app ideas are very hard to describe in bullets or even pictures. The best way to get things across is to create a very specific user case example and describe a sequence of events, interactions between users. You can alternate between images, mock ups, etc.

The priority of all of this is to explain and show things, "pretty" comes in second. Sometimes investing a lot of energy in making screen mockups with buttons and sliders actually makes the app idea harder to understand. To show that you have design skills in house, you could take one app screen and turn it into a pretty mock up.

A side effect of this effort in an investor presentation might be that you get more clarity inside your senior team what your product should look like.  


Watch out: converting DOCX to PDF

Watch out: converting DOCX to PDF

In a recent update of Microsoft Word (Mac version 2016), a new option has been snuck in when saving DOCX document as PDFs: "best for electronic distribution". and it is the default choice. This will probably produce documents that are smaller, but it comes at a price: custom fonts are not embedded correctly. Pay attention which option you pick and do check the PDF document before sending it to see if all font renderings worked out correctly

Investors pitching themselves

Investors pitching themselves

Investors need to pitch themselves as well to raise money for their own fund. I get to see many of these decks from clients. And in them, investors make the same mistakes that they advice potential and actual portfolio companies not to make.

To be honest, they might even be worse. Unlike a normal company, there are very few things that differentiate the operations of one PE, VC, hedge fund, from another. And secondly, the presentation culture in finance is very conservative, most institutional investors (the ones investing in PE funds), want a sit down meeting with a paper document in front of them.

Here are some of the bullet points that will show up in any investor presentation:

  • We are a highly experienced team
  • We delivered great returns
  • We do really thorough due diligence
  • We do extraordinary risk management
  • We have a very sophisticated modeling capability
  • We are hands on with our portfolio companies
  • We have proprietary deal flow
  • We are being loved by our portfolio companies
  • We have a unique network of partners

Think about an institutional investor who receives hundreds of these decks, all making the same points, written in the same style, using the same (blue and grey) colors.

As a fund wanting to raise money, you need to decide which of the above are hygiene factors for which you can tick the box, and which are truly special in your case and build a story around that is consistent. 

And I see most funds do a pretty good job when they pitch the story verbally to me, the challenge is to get that verbal story translated into visuals. This is especially important because these decks are emailed around to decision makers who might not have been at the physical meeting. 

The stumble chart

The stumble chart

I am in the business of designing presentations that I hardly ever need to deliver myself. Now and then I come up with this brilliant visualization/analogy that simply does not stick with the client.

First she asks what it means. I explain. "OK".  In the next call: "remind how that chart works again?". I follow up with a passionate explanation. During rehearsals: "So, here we have an [um] great example", and the energy in the pitch grinds to a halt.

Time to take the chart out.

Making great diagrams

Making great diagrams

It is tricky to make a good technical diagram. Challenge one: make sure it is technically correct, challenge two: make sure it is easy to understand, challenge three: make sure it looks good. An engineer usually gets to level 1. Most software tools such as Microsoft Vision help you... only to get to level 1. How to reach the next 2? Some pointers:

  • Identify the main flow in a diagram: a user buys a product, crude oil gets turned into plastic, a patients is cured. This should be the big and bold in a straight line somewhere in your diagram. This is what it is all about.
  • Draw 5000 version of your diagram until you get a layout of boxes with minimal line overlaps/crossings or bends. We want straight lines that do not cross as much as possible.
  • Harmonize sizes. Unless there is a compelling reason not do so, boxes should have the same size, same aspect ratio, same shape.
  • Space out, distribute everything where possible, distances between boxes should be the same there is a good argument to break this rule
  • Think of every word of text you put in, can it be shorter, do we need the text at all. And align, center, distribute the text labels wherever you can. 
  • Take out the noise. Do you need lines around boxes? Do the connectors and text need to be that hard black, or could they be grey. Do you need so many different colors?

It can take a bit of time to get it right, but the effort is worth it. In short, in a diagram everything should be laid out in a nice grid, connected with straight lines that do not cross, highlighting the main flow that you want to show. Only deviate as your last resort.


Diagram from WikiPedia

"Hmm, he does not understand it..."

"Hmm, he does not understand it..."

Some potential clients walk away after a first meeting to discuss a presentation design project, and you can read the face that clearly says "he does not understand it (and how does he have the courage to charge such a fee for the project".

Well, that is exactly the point. If you failed to explain things to me in a low risk 1-hour briefing of a presentation designer, you will for sure fail in a high-stake 20 minute investor pitch.

There are 2 important milestones you need to pass as a presentation designer:

  1. A certain level of visualization skills
  2. The confidence to know that if you don't get it, nobody will, i.e., the target audience also does not get it. "Not getting it" is not your problem.

Getting number 2 right is a lot harder than number 1.

The most expensive part of the project is getting me to a level where I understand things, once that happens, designing the slides is the relatively easy part of the process.

Tedious number updates

Tedious number updates

I am not a believer in copy-pasting Excel numbers into PowerPoint. Excel is for analysis, PowerPoint for presenting, and presenting numbers is different from analyzing them. The charts I use to present are often so simple (only one data series, rounded digits) that I tap them in by hand.

There is an exception though. If you are the junior analyst on the team, and you are the last step in the "supply chain", i.e., constantly updating charts with new versions of numbers that roll out of the spreadsheet, it might be time to change working practice. Personally, I remember many McKinsey projects I did as an analyst where I designed a model in week 1 of a project, and ended up updating numbers on slides for weeks after that.

In these cases, add a worksheet to your Excel file, and pull the numbers from the analysis. Apply all rounding, i.e., if the chart or table requires millions, divide by 1e6. For tables, put all numbers in the right order, invert rows, columns if required.

You can go further and actually create objects in Excel that can almost literally be copied into PowerPoint. Create data charts, fix fonts, colors, etc. exactly as in the PowerPoint file. Format Excel cells exactly as the table in your PowerPoint document.

The cost of this effort is time: it will take some effort to get it right, but it will pay off in subsequent number update rounds, and it can prevent you from making mistakes in last minute model changes.

Be careful not to introduce new mistakes though. This type of work can best be done when things are relatively quiet. Take an existing, stable version of the deck, and start recreating the charts in Excel, constantly double checking whether you can replicate the numbers you put in by hand in the charts. Once you are confident that everything works for an old/trusted version of the document, you can use it for future versions. Still, some spot sanity checks are always a good idea.


Image via WikiPedia

The print and VGA versions

The print and VGA versions

The number of screens on which your presentation will be viewed is expanding:

  • Laptop screen (office)
  • Mobile device (airport)
  • High quality desktop screen (the one the designer is using)
  • Crappy VGA projector (conference room)
  • Old Plasma screen (conference booth)
  • Super High Definition giant LCD monitor (CEO office)
  • Crappy office paper printer (old school manager giving handwritten comments)
  • High quality paper printer at a print shop (investment bankers)

Do a test run on one of these devices if that is the one that is critical to your presentation, and adjust colors accordingly. The result might be a presentation that only looks good on that display, you have to keep separate files. The crappy office printer version has gray shadings that are far too blunt for the HD monitor, the crappy VGA project version has no thin fonts.


Image via WikiPedia

Investors only need to see big $, right?

Investors only need to see big $, right?

Some entrepreneurs think they can leave out the "details" of the technology, or the mechanism of action of a new biotech drug: the potential market size is all that matters. "Technology is detail for nerds."

Not really. It depends on the stage of your company, if your company is early stage and the only asset it has is basically a PowerPoint presentation, technology is not really a small detail, it is the main thing the investor puts her money in.

"Will it work, what are the risks?"

"Does this person know what she is doing?"

"How much does it cost to develop it?"

These are fundamental questions, and a good way to address them is a deep dive in one part of your solution to give investors confidence that the risks can be managed, and that you can trusted with doing that.

 

"This chart says it all"

"This chart says it all"

One chart with a few circles explains the product roadmap, pricing strategy, customer segmentation, and competitive differentiation. Perfect!

When I push back, clients are often surprised. The problem: the chart works perfect for people who have been sweating over it for 6 months. They remember how they inverted the direction of the arrows back in December, how they added the color layer, how they got rid of these long sentences that used to sit at the bottom left.

The person who sees the chart for the first time misses that context. It is the visual equivalent of the poetically beautiful but utterly vague mission statement.

Two solutions:

  1. Go for a completely different visual approach
  2. Use the existing concept that the presenter got used to, but carefully layer all the concepts one by one

Art: Malevich, "White on white"

Looking good vs explaining well

Looking good vs explaining well

Experts, anyone who is deeply into a subject, usually finds it very hard to explain a concept to a layman. They no longer see what is obvious to the novice and what is not, and lack the full, rich, memory picture that is associated with a buzzword or industry jargon term.

So often when I sit down with a client, they will point me to a website or presentation of a competitor / similar company that is beautifully designed: nice pictures, nice fonts, nice infographics. "I want something like this". 

They forget that these marketing materials are mere pretty packaging of the same buzzwords. Yes, they look pretty, but as a layman, I usually still do not have a clue what it means.

In these cases, I usually start asking questions. The client explains without noticing initially why I am asking the questions. After 10 minutes. I remind her what I asked her about and give proof that a pretty presentation does not equal a clear presentation.


Image via WikiPedia

Writing good emails

Writing good emails

"Cover letters" that introduce a pitch are often poorly written. Think about the latest spam email that you received from a head hunter offering to help you with recruiting staff for your startup. You open it (maybe the subject line was decent), and as soon as you started reading 3 words you knew what was going to come and deleted the message.

A cold email is a shot at someone who is looking for the earliest opportunity to shorten the email inbox with that satisfying "delete", "archive", "done". The skill is to postpone that moment.

  • If your email is a huuuuge amount of text, people don't read but eyeball and hit "delete" after spotting the usual "that's why you should invest" at the bottom after pagedowning the text. A lot of text in one block is scary.
  • How did you get to the person? "[x] gave me your name", is OK, but "[x] told me that you should be really interested in this" is better if that is what she did.
  • Line break, then a super short and to the point sentence what you are: "Startup raising series A, with x in sales, in the drone market, with [famous investor] as a Seed investor"
  • Line break, this is a critical moment where you can feel the finger going to the delete button. You need to present the hook. "Yes, everyone know that drones will be big, but there is something that is blocking progress and we fix that [name of thing you fix]" Or "our team consists of [famous person, famous person, famous person]
  • Then point to a short slide deck that you attached that explains your company. The objective of that slide deck is not to land the investment, but to create enough intrigue to initiate a phone call. (Confidential) product details and financials, long market backgrounds, detailed implementation plans, are all for a later stage of the dialogue.

In short, avoid delete button triggers: long paragraphs of text, buzzwords, lack of clarity of what it is you do, what you want, lack of clarity of how you got to the person, generic pitch deck that is not tailored to the email stage of the due diligence process.


Image by freezelight on Flickr

The pitch to the entire VC partner group

The pitch to the entire VC partner group

These observations by Jason Lemkin are spot on. By the time you have made it to final presentation to the full partnership of the VC, it is likely that the partner you were in touch with until then wants to do the deal. The main challenge in this presentation is not to make mistakes in front of an audience who has done far less homework than that partner. Do your thing that worked before, and treat ignorant questions with respect.

Sizing IT markets

Sizing IT markets

The Internet is full of IT market forecasts with highly precise predictions of product sales 5 years from now. Will citing a piece of research convince an investor? No. A $1b market forecast in 2021 does mean that the investor should open up the check book and invest in your startup with zero sales.

How to use these market forecasts? Here are some thoughts:

  • Always approach market sizing from multiple angles. A top down market research estimate is one source. Trying combining it with a bottom up analysis, look at how the IT budget of one company could change and extrapolate that to the entire market.
  • While forecasts by market research companies might be highly speculative, their quantification of today's market is probably reasonably accurate. Established firms have been around for many years, gathered input from many sources, including sanity checks such as adding up the turnover of all the suppliers in an industry. Your company is unlikely to be the size of IBM in 2 years.
  • IT as a whole does not grow that fast anymore, single digit % growth every year. What fluctuates are sub segments inside the overall IT spend. When you are sizing your market, think about which IT spend category are you going to cannibalize?
  • Market research is a useful source of "boxes" in which a VC can put you. "Where do you sit?" is probably a question you get often. While the numbers might not be 100% correct, market research gives a shared vocabulary about how to think about a market, and whether things are roughly big or small.
  • Related to this, while VCs might not believe the point forecasts of market research reports, the junior analyst at the VC firms is likely going to use them as a starting point in due diligence. It is good to be prepared and go through the same process as she will.
  • When selecting which market research firm to use as a source, think about not only whether they produce data that exactly matches the category you are in, but also look at the breadth of their overall coverage. A firm that covers a lot of ground will provide a nice broad, consistent definition of the world of IT.

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.