Presentation design ideas


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

The loooong Executive Summary on page 1

The loooong Executive Summary on page 1

The 14 bullet points with they key messages you want to give in a presentation is not a summary slide, it is the entire presentation.

  • Those 14 points are not messages, they are pieces of content, story elements. A presentation usually has 2-3 big points that qualify as messages
  • Nobody can remember 14 things
  • If you cram 14 points on a summary page, you have to write them down in a way that is too short, too generic, too vague (= not interesting)
  • If you discuss 14 points on a summary page, you have to spend too much time on each of them to explain things

What to do? Use the summary page to set the stage of your presentation, give a hint at an interesting, counter-intuitive, surprising conclusion, and say what it is you actually want. Then dive into the 14 story elements one by one, slide for slide, without summarising them beforehand.

So, the mistake of the 14 bullet point slide, is not the slide design. (The correct summary slide might actually consist of 3 bullet points), The mistake is the way you structured the presentation.


Art: Flaming June is a painting by Sir Frederic Leighton, produced in 1895

Filter your VCs

Filter your VCs

Fred Wilson discusses a blog post by the CEO of eShares about his fund raising experience. Let's throw in my experience as an investor presentation designer (both for startups and VC/PE funds themselves).

  • A decision in 5 minutes. Yes, most VCs will make a decision whether an investment merits deeper due diligence in 5 minutes.
    • This might actually be good news for startups. If you have a good deck, you can get to a decision without travel-meeting-travel. 
    • It proves again that a 5 minute pitch is not 5 minute filled with fluffy buzzwords.
    • If the feedback from a phone call is "no", it is probably highly unlikely that banging the VC on the head for 60 minutes in a meeting or coffee chat is going to change her mind. Better spend that energy on another investor. If you ask why, and she says "the market size" politely, coming back with 50 slides about the market size is not going to change her mind. Market size is probably not the real reason
    • That coffee chat, is actually a meeting that is further in the due diligence process: you passed the first stage (you seem to have an investable idea), now things have moved on to checking you out as a person/CEO. There is no better way to do that then a brief meeting. Even if you just talked about the weather, the investor will make up her mind about you.
  • Risk-related questions are a sign that you are moving in the right direction. An interested investor is trying to figure why she should not invest in you, much better than a bored investor trying to fill the 30 minutes with asking questions why she should invest.
  • Combine the above points and you can see the implication for your pitch deck: very focused, highly emotional, visual, charts to get the big idea across in a few minutes, and actually more charts for those risk-related questions, to take the obvious questions out of the investor who has bought into the basic idea.
  • Investors are increasingly specialised and have a specific mental model against which they evaluate opportunities. If your business does not fit a specific model/investor profile, find a different one rather than forcing let's say a semiconductor business into a CAC/LTV/churn SAAS spreadsheet
  • One more point about the 5 minute pitch. I had client briefing meetings where I only go the point of the pitch after 45 minutes of discussion. I tried from the left, from the right, tried again, thought it was just me who was to ignorant not to see something, until finally the coin drops. Be very perceptive when someone in front of you who is willing to grant you the 45 minutes, this might just save your 5 minute pitch.

Reading body language is important skill that can save you a lot of time and wasted effort.


Art: Company of ladies watching stereoscopic photographs, painting by Jacob Spoel, before 1868

Boring updates

Boring updates

Many presentations contain updates: sales results of markets, investment return on portfolio companies, productivities of plants. If the list of markets, portfolio companies or plants gets pretty long, the presentation gets pretty boring. How to cut the boredom?

  • Instead of a sequential flow (market, after market, after market) break things up and compare repeating elements of data: the sales ranking, the profit ranking, headcount ranking for each market. It is much more interesting and insightful.
  • In update presentations, people feel obliged to create slides, even if there is not that much to say. Don't. Update people about things that stand out, are counter intuitive, are really important. 
  • Put the factual slides as an appendix in the presentation file and leave the audience to read it.
  • Cut the length of the meeting to make sure everyone is focussed on getting the updates that are really important, and can spend time on the really important decisions
  • Don't be too restrictive with the presentation template. If all the slides for all the markets look exactly the same, people get bored. Make sure the right content is covered, but each market is different and might require a slightly different visual approach.

Art: Barbara Takenaga, Forte, 2011. Acrylic on linen

How to make a sankey diagram in PowerPoint

How to make a sankey diagram in PowerPoint

Sankey diagrams can be useful to show flows.

They are tricky to make in PowerPoint. The width of the arrow needs to correspond with the value of the stream. The curves of 90 degree arrows in PowerPoint are hard to control. If there is no escaping (maybe you can create a waterfall diagram instead), I create Sankey diagrams using boxes and triangles, see the example below.

Yes, you got me there, it is not possible to make Sankey diagrams in SlideMagic.


Art: Minard's classic diagram of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, using the feature now named after Sankey.

SlideMagic versus PowerPoint

SlideMagic versus PowerPoint

Some interesting feedback from SlideMagic beta testers:

  • I promised some SlideMagic beta testers to convert the presentation to PowerPoint in the end (there is not yet an automated feature that does that), and it is encouraging to see that these users are postponing that conversion again and again. 
  • For some clients I quickly re-do a short presentation in SlideMagic. Client response: the SlideMagic one looks better, why can't you do that in PowerPoint? Answer 1): SlideMagic uses a pretty font, not Arial, and 2) the corporate PowerPoint template has a slightly less elegant composition of the slide (position of titles, margins etc.)
  • Some clients want the templates that ship with SlideMagic in PowerPoint. After sending them, there are issues with modifying the template in PowerPoint, adjustments that take a second in SlideMagic
  • Some users ask where you can upload PowerPoint slides to convert them instantly to SlideMagic, that will not be possible I am afraid.

Most users are hesitant to switch because 1) it requires changing 20 years of presentation design habits, and 2) yes I admit, SlideMagic had a few bugs that need sorting out. As we make progress with the app, that second excuse becomes less relevant. SlideMagic is slowly reaching the production release.

If you have not tried SlideMagic, you should, Try it here.


Image captions

Image captions

What do people read in text? Big headlines (if there are not too many of them), and tiny captions under a photo. So watch out what you put right under the image, people might read before the other beautiful things you have written down.

A screen shot from an article on TechCrunch

A screen shot from an article on TechCrunch


Art: In 1928-1929, Belgian artist René Magritte painted this piece called The Treachery of Images. Below the image of the pipe he painted the French words for "This is not a pipe." Photo by Daryl Mitchell on Flicker

Images from museum collections

Images from museum collections

Step by step, museums are putting their entire collection of paintings online. These archives make for a great source of images: consistent in style, without copyright issues (if you go back sufficiently far in time). You won't find stock images of smartphones though, but maybe that makes your presentation actually look better.

Here are some examples of well developed web sites:

There are still big differences in how advanced museum web sites are, but ultimately every museum will come to realise that access to their collections should not be restricted to the people who happen to be in town.


Art: View from a balcony, Gustave Caillebotte, 1880

Cleaning up survey results

Cleaning up survey results

Quantitative market research companies come back with pages and pages and pages of data in PowerPoint. It is tempting to cut and paste to "add the survey results in the presentation". Not so fast, let's clean things up first.

  1. Find out what the research actually says. This is the most important step. There is meaning in 2 levels. Level 1 is to discover what trends the data displays (not always obvious from a randomly generated bar chart or a dense table of numbers). Then level 2: is this an important insight? A segmentation or cut is not always meaningful, sometimes data points do not actually vary that much. Sometimes conclusions are obvious / not surprising, not interesting.
  2. Ask for access to the original research data in a spreadsheet to find patterns, trends that have not been put in the final report of the research company
  3. Clean up the graphs you want to use (or even better, create them from scratch with just the data you need):
    1. Move non-essential statistical lingo/jargon/details in small print to the foot note: n values, standard deviations, etc. etc. are not worth the screen real estate in a stand up presentation. The person who wants to read them, will find them in the foot note. (Exception: certain scientific disciplines where one statistical value is all that matters, in that case make a very prominent chart with just that value.)
    2. Cut non-essential filler words from the data series labels, think as if you were writing headlines for a newspaper article or blog post. Simplify questions that were asked to respondents, put the original questions in the footnote or in an appendix chart.
    3. Re-sort data series to match the point you want to make. 
    4. Take out tick marks, make bars/columns fatter, take out Excel labels and titles, and insert your own in PowerPoint/Keynote, round numbers, fix chart colours to match your corporate colour scheme
    5. Where necessary, add circles or arrows to highlight the point you want to make. Adjust the colours to emphasise your points (apply accent colours correctly)

Art: Edward Burne-Jones, The Mirror of Venus, 1875 

The web page has become the style guide

The web page has become the style guide

A decade ago, a company's look & feel could be tightly controlled by the corporate communications department, with tight brand guidelines and consistently executed print advertising.

Today that design capability is fragmenting: PowerPoint presentations, product PDFs, web pages, mobile apps. Design is everywhere. Especially in large corporates that span multiple countries/continents it becomes hard to find what the corporate language actually is.

When in doubt, I revert to the corporate web page to get inspiration for a PowerPoint design.


Art: Gerard van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623

SlideMagic as a sketch board

SlideMagic as a sketch board

Some of you out there are probably still afraid of using a new presentation design tool that is still in beta for live presentations. Here is another way to get started: use SlideMagic as your sketch board.

Many of you use bullet points to sketch out the content of a presentation. Maybe in a word processor, maybe in PowerPoint. The problem is that once you have iterated those bullets and everyone agrees to them, it is hard to turn those lists into visual designs.

Here is where SlideMagic could come in handy. It is very easy to set up charts that are not lists: a quick table, a quick contrast between two options, a quick 2x2. Jot your ideas down, and if you set your accent colour and logo, the whole sketch board will probably look better than a finished end product in PowerPoint.

Use SlideMagic to form your first ideas of your presentation, until the moment has arrived when you "have to" translate the designs to PowerPoint or Keynote. You can of course, but I think many of you will find that it is much easier to stick to SlideMagic after trying a few pages.  


Art: an unfinished painting by William Berryman, created between 1808 and 1816

Presentation design principles

Presentation design principles

The more I work with SlideMagic, the more I realise that it is not really a presentation design tool in itself, it is a tool that supports a philosophy how people in corporations should communicate with slides. Ultimately, I might write all this down in a more organised way, but hey, why not use this blog post to throw out my ideas.

  • Soul. Presenters should be given the stage to be themselves, be convincing, use human language.  
  • Efficiency. The big objective is to cut the amount of time that is wasted on presentations / corporate communication:
    • Time to prepare slides.
    • Time to deliver a presentation
    • Time to understand what the presenter actually wants to say
  • Aesthetics. Ugliness pollutes the work environment: cheap, disorganised, second tier. Every corporate communication needs to look decent. 

How do we get there, and how does SlideMagic help?

  • A small, simple set of presentation "Lego" bricks, a visual language with very few words. It is similar to English. "Business English" that 2 non-native English speakers use to communicate actually requires a very small vocabulary. 
    • They are easy to learn. Most people do not get past the level of bullet points in PowerPoint/Keynote because they don't want to, they do not have to courage to venture into the advanced features of the software. SlideMagic is simple enough to learn that people can push themselves and go beyond the bullet points
    • It removes a source of writers' block: no procrastination and thinking what advanced slide layout to create. In business, you actually only need a few concepts to express your ideas and SlideMagic enables you to create them. (A list, a table of pros/cons, a contrast, a progression in time, etc.)
    • Uniform layout: it always looks good, the audience know where to look for what, the designer knows where to put stuff. Uniformity is not boring, it is useful in business communication
  • A disconnect from software that is used to write reports, slide documents, and spreadsheets. At first, this might look like a disadvantage: not being able to copy past your spreadsheet across. But, starting from that clean sheet of paper makes you focus on creating a slide that says what you want it to say, not a slide that shows page 53 of your analysis.
  • Elimination of typography/design freedom to set margins, padding, title positions, etc. It is too hard to get it right, and too easy to get it wrong for the layman designer

What I am trying to get people to do in corporation is work really hard on their projects in PowerPoint, Excel, to find the right answer and recommendations. That can take months. But preparing the presentation to communicate the findings should take not more than a couple of hours.


Image: Wikipedia

How to clean up PowerPoint slides

How to clean up PowerPoint slides

I sometimes help out clients to clean up a very large presentation. Incorrect PowerPoint use, copying and pasting of different slide masters, and a less trained eye for design/proportions create slide decks that look inconsistent and "not right".

I created the presentation design app SlideMagic in such a way, that these mistakes are hard to make. Here is the list of actions I typically go through when cleaning up big PowerPoint files. (And this is also the list of PowerPoint annoyances [well, most of them] you do not have to worry about anymore when using SlideMagic).

  • Locate the client's super clean template file and use it as a start for the presentation
  • Go in the slide master view and delete all master slides you do not need (I am usually just left with a title page and a regular slide)
  • Create slide templates with the correct title positioning for 1) empty page, 2) picture in frame page, full page picture page, and separator slide
  • Create drawing guides (left, right, top, bottom, not centre and middle)
  • Set the the default text boxes, shapes, and lines (font, colours)
  • Copy the monster presentation into this new master file
  • Select all slides in the presentation and apply the standard template slide (title, not text) to it.
  • Font replace all the incorrect fonts to the right font with one command
  • For each slide:
    • Adjust the title text, so it fits in its frame, 2 lines maximum
    • Resize shapes that should have the same height and width
    • Make sure squares and circles have a 1:1 aspect ratio
    • Reset the aspect ratio of distorted images (if possible), otherwise do it by eye
    • Re-crop images
    • Increase/decrease font sizes, adjust text if necessary
    • Tone down the colours, make sure that things that need an accent colour, have one
    • Make sure everything fits in the slide frame
    • Realign and distribute the whole slide, centre/mid-align objects that need it
    • Take out gradients
    • Take out drop shadows
    • Take out outline lines around boxes/shapes
    • Round up numbers
    • Make sure numbers line up correctly vertically
    • Apply correct colours to data charts
    • Reformat tables (colours, text alignment, uniform row heights, column widths, font sizes, make sure they fit in the slide frame)

All this work is:

  • Time consuming
  • Not the result of an original presentation designer's fault, it is just hard to get the details right
  • Probably obsolete as soon as more changes are made to the presentation

People should be spending time crafting their story, and not making basic typographical adjustments. Give SlideMagic a try!


Image: Banksy, Street Cleaner, by Dan Brady on Flickr.

The right amount of information on a slide

The right amount of information on a slide

This is the hardest thing in presentation design. Many people fill up a slide with far too much detail. But others write such high level, abstract concepts, that the slide says nothing at all. What is the best middle ground?

Let's declutter a busy slide. This is a mental exercise I usually go through

  1. Cut out/cut through buzzwords and filler words 
  2. Cut out side tangents
  3. See how many points the slide wants to make. If it is just a sequential listing of independent story elements (i.e., the slide does not want to convey a relationship between them), we can them spread them out: each slide gets one point.
  4. If the elements have some sort of relationship in them, it is usually one of 2 kinds: a contrast, or a ranking of pro/cons of different options, or a cause/effect story of multiple factors influencing each other leading to a conclusion
  5. I try to draw the pro/con table or process flow diagram on a piece of paper so I understand what is actually going on. I draw multiple versions where I simplify things (combine rows/columns, swap rows/columns, boxes, arrows) until I get to a clean version of the message
  6. Now I go in slide design mode:
    1. First slide is a generic one: "our solution is better because we managed to paint the object blue instead of yellow. Yes it might not sound like it, but this is a big deal, let me explain why"
    2. This is followed by a number of slides where I explain key sub points in more detail
    3. Now that I have warmed up the audience, I can show a stylised version of my paper napkin that brings the whole thing together.

In all of this, step 5 is the crucial one. One little sketch like this can be the foundation on which an entire presentation is built.


Picture: live stock in Chicago, 1947

Seven years of blogging!

Seven years of blogging!

Who would have thought that I would still keep things up seven years later when I started out with this post. We went from Slides that Stick, to Sticky Slides, to Idea Transplant, and now to SlideMagic.

Many people ask me, how do you do this? Well, here is the secret: don't make it a big effort. Everyday, I usually take something from my client work, strip out the confidential parts, anonymise and share it with you. Not more than 10 minutes of work.

Hopefully this can inspire more of you to open up to the world.

Designing presentations for print

Designing presentations for print

In some industry sectors, especially financial services, people still insist on printing the presentation slides and handing out booklets at the start of the meeting. You can have groups of 10-20 people sitting around a conference table flicking through pages.

It is great for taking notes, analysing detailed financials, but it is not that great for a close connection between speaker and audience, and that last minute typo in the name of the CEO cannot be corrected once on paper.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles and if print is the way to go, think about these issues when starting the design of your slides. The bottom line, get a slide to look good on paper on day 1 of the design project, not at 3AM the night before the meeting.

  • Colours appear different on screen than on paper, especially on cheaper, older, or almost-out-of-toner printers. Bright blue can turn into faded grey, lively orange can become girly pink, subtle grey shadings turn into bright white, just to name a few potential problems.
  • Hole punchers for binding machines require extra space at the top of your page, test it.
  • Dark back grounds empty toner cartridges and make make the fingers of your audience black.
  • You can get away with low res images on a 15 year old VGA overhead projector, on paper though, you will get caught. Use high resolution images.
  • A monitor frame, or the light rectangle on a projection screen provide an implicit frame for your slide. Paper should do the same in theory, but A4/letter/4:3 and other issues makes it highly unpredictable how your slides are scaled on paper. In the worst case you might have draw a tiny grey line around your slides to anchor things (yes really).

Professional print designers will laugh at all this, this is design 101, and these issues have long been solved with Adobe InDesign, and printer driver software. A whole industry has been built around this, you are unlikely to see page scaling issues in your print newspaper. The problem is, these designs are hard to maintain/change in a corporate environment.

The one good thing about print though is that it shows that your slides are as fresh as the croissants in the bakery down stairs if the pages are still warm from the printer. A compliment I got many times in my previous life as a management consultant.


Art: Vincent van Gogh, The Bakery in Noordstraat

Hopefully Microsoft reads this: small change to PPT 2016

Hopefully Microsoft reads this: small change to PPT 2016

I have been working with the PowerPoint 2016 preview for a while now, and overall my feedback is very positive (see my PowerPoint 2016 review here). 

There is one small thing that keeps me going back to PowerPoint 2011 though: the ability to customise the toolbar at the top of the screen. My set up has not really changed since this blog post from 2008. When working in PowerPoint I constantly need to access buttons that align/distribute/crop/flip and send objects to the back (and the drop shadow button to kill drop shadows). With my custom toolbar, I basically circumvented the majority of the PowerPoint user interface and created my own.

Hopefully Microsoft will include this feature in the final release of PowerPoint 2016.


Image credit: Kate on Flickr

Team introduction pages are not CVs

Team introduction pages are not CVs

The team introduction page in a presentation is always a tricky one. Some much information (text) that can be shown, so many logos, so many pictures. How to make it all fit?

First of all, it is important to realise that team introduction slides do not equal CVs. They are not meant to provide the full background of someone's career, rather you want to present specific strong points of your team.

Things you can cut: personal interests, not every bio needs to cover every year of someone's career (unlike HR people that are always on the look out for holes), academic degrees if they are no longer that relevant (i.e., the person is older than 35). Job descriptions usually have very long titles (that makes them look more important). In your team slide, you need to do the opposite cut them down to save space.

Before you design your team introduction page, think about what it needs to say, and plan your design accordingly:

  • We worked at big blue chip companies before: put the logos of the big blue chip companies on the page (and leave other logos out)
  • We worked at the same companies: put the logos of these same companies multiple times on the slide (next to each team member's name), this repetition will drive the message home
  • We did something really amazing at a company no one has ever heard of: leave the logos out, go for a more elaborate text description
  • We have lots of experience with lots of companies: fill the page with logos, even if they are not that well-known
  • We worked at an amazing company that no one outside country [x] knows: forget about the logo, add explanation about that company

Photos can liven up a team introduction slide a lot. The best picture is a group shot that is stretched across the entire page. On top of this image you can add selective bio information for each person in the picture. Next best option: head shots. Make sure they are consistent in style and cropping. 

Whereas in a live pitch, or in a cold email deck, people will not dig through a dense CV, later on, they might want to do so. It is always a good idea to add dense bio page(s) in the appendix of your presentation, preferably with hot links to your LinkedIn profile if possible.

PS. Team slides are often the most tricky slides in a deck to design from a technical perspective: it is pain to get all the head shots of people in exactly the same size, and exactly aligned. There is one group of people who does not have that problem: SlideMagic beta testers. SlideMagic forces you (sorry) to work in a strict grid, images are always perfectly aligned and cropped. Sign up as a SlideMagic beta tester now.


Image: women's ice hockey team from 1921

The press release is dead

The press release is dead

TechCrunch blogger Mike Butcher wrote an interesting blog post about how to pitch to tech journalists/bloggers. It is well worth a read (below are his slides that convey a similar message from 2012).

Like VCs/investors, tech journalists are overloaded with inbound pitches. There are similarities in the way you should pitch them:

  • Get straight to the point, cut the fluff/small talk
  • Give more or less the full info the 1st time around, no "can I send you some more information"
  • Be concise and clear what your project does and why it is great

There are differences though with investors:

  • Exclusivity (breaking a story first) is really important to journalists, so blasting your news out to 100 people is not going to make it more attractive
  • Journalists really want something to be news (dah), something that the world has never seen/heard before, investors are looking for the big returns, even if it is an old idea that is recycled
  • Big $ fundraising is seen as validation by journalists, investors probably care less (at least the good ones who can spot a rough diamond before everyone else)
  • Journalists might not have the in-depth technical knowledge as a highly specialised VC (an early stage medical device investor), and like to compare/contrast companies and technologies to the ones they know (competitors).
  • He loves plain text and hates PDFs/attachments. This partial because of practical reasons (mobile devices, copying quotes), but also - I suspect - the journalists are actually used to digesting written/verbal communication and less used to digesting visual slides (hypothesis).
  • The world of tech journalism is changing. In the early days TechCrunch used to be all about startup discovery, now there are increasingly other news sources that plays this role (Product Hunt for example). Mike says he is increasingly interested in deeper, background stories. So putting your pitch into the context of an overall trend that is happening might make it more interesting to publish.

Two lessons here. One: the wordy, fluffy, 1-pager/press release is not going to help you here. Two: pitching to journalists is different from pitching to investors.


Art: Edouard Manet: Music in the Tuileries, 1862