Presentation design ideas

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

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

A new on-boarding presentation

A new on-boarding presentation

Recently, I have changed the first presentation that appears when people sign up for the beta version of my presentation design app SlideMagic. If you are an existing beta tester, you can still access it in the templates folder of SlideMagic, or you can clone the presentation by clicking this link. I hope it helps you get the most of SlideMagic:

  • Importing and cloning template slides
  • Working with the grid including images and data charts
  • Formatting cells in one go, rather than one after the other

PowerPoint template weirdness

PowerPoint template weirdness

A technical post about PowerPoint templates today.

When you copy the slides of one PowerPoint presentation into another one, the copied slides get formatted according to the template of the presentation your are copying in. Colours and fonts get adjusted. But the most surprising things happen with text placeholders.

The template I typically use is pretty simple: a blank page with text placeholders for the slide title and footnote to make sure they are anchored in a consistent place across slides. Now the strange thing happens. Because the footnote is the only text placeholder available, PowerPoint starts copying text into the footnote.

To accommodate clients who want to use my template after the presentation design project is over, I now add a plain text box to my template slides. Here is the key thing, make sure that plain text box is the first text place holder you create, that's where copied text will go. (In other words, remove the footnote, put the text box in, recreate the footnote place holder after that).

If you often experience problems with inconsistent formatting of presentations and the issues with copying slides across you will appreciate the way I designed my presentation app SlideMagic (sign up for the beta here).

  • One slide layout grid for all presentations, everything lines up perfectly, always
  • No need for template programming
  • It is not possible to corrupt a template and having it slowly propagate throughout your company
  • Changing the look & feel of a presentation is easy: change your logo and accent colour and you are done (including bar and column charts, try that in PowerPoint)

Art: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. The painting is still missing after the robbery from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

But that image does not exactly match?

But that image does not exactly match?

Not every image that is used in advertising has a functional objective. Take fashion ads, for example, sometimes the product is missing all together. 

  1. Images that show something highly specific: a product, a medical condition, a location
  2. Images that show a relevant scene or background: people tapping on their mobile phone, a driver in a traffic jam, calm bamboo forest, a sunset
  3. Images that make a visual metaphor: a prisoner in a cage, a cat chasing a mouse
  4. Images that just set the mood of the presentation

I use 1. and 4. more, and 2. and 3. less because they often lead to visual cliches. 

Art: "Self-Portrait, Yawning" by Joseph Ducreux, 1783

Mowing the grass

Mowing the grass

Presentations grow over time, stuff gets added over months, years, often by different users/designers.

  • The company started with 2 products, and these 2 products - at the time - seemed like a natural way to structure the story. Now with 7 products that story gets a bit boring. Maybe we need a different presentation structure all together?
  • In the beginning the company had 15 customers which we could nicely lay out on a page, now our 100+ customer list becomes a pain to maintain. Maybe we just show a map with countries where we have customers?
  • When we just moved in, we were really proud of our office and that big picture showed it. Five years later, having an office is not something that merits a slide.
  • In the beginning, the company was equal to its 2 founders. Now that 15-person team slide on page 3 seems a bit out of place.

When it is time to mow the lawn, do it.

Art: Vincent van Gogh, Patch of Grass, 1887

Get straight to it

Get straight to it

In big, multinational corporations, many projects follow this pattern:

  1. Templates with extensive data request is sent out to all relevant business units weeks/months in advance
  2. One week before the meeting the chasing for data starts
  3. At the last minute, business units merge pages of filled out templates with existing presentation material (Frankensteining)
  4. At the in-person gathering, each business unit representative goes through page, by page, by page, by bullet, by bullet. Everyone is physically, but not mentally presentation (doing email, walking in and out to take calls until...
  5. ...only at the very end the hot issue that has been hanging in the room comes out and becomes the subject of a heated debate while time is running out.

You don't need the reading out aloud of data templates (people can read for themselves), but you do need a good structure to guide that heated group discussion. The time that people are together is better spent with identifying options and listing pros and cons.

Art: Argument over a Card Game, by Jan Steen, 17th century

You are not the only one

You are not the only one

If you are pitching a healthcare IT business to a healthcare IT investor, she has probably seen hundreds of pitches of healthcare IT companies. If you are pitching a mobile content service to a mobile operator, she has probably seen hundreds of pitches by other mobile content providers. If your pitching an IT solution to a RFP evaluation team, they are likely to have invited more (similar) companies to pitch.

  • Check whether you need to invest time in presenting industry background. If you are number 50, others probably have covered that ground (no need to preach to the converted)
  • Don't make up facts about the competition, the audience might have invited them before you and heard the actual information first hand
  • Use most of the time in the meeting to emphasise how you are different from all the other ones.

Art: Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski (1849–1915)  The lone Wolf

I am going to force feed my Executive Summary on you

I am going to force feed my Executive Summary on you

People often ask me what an appropriate summary presentation is to send a head of the actual presentation, the dreaded "Executive Summary".

Executive summaries and web landing pages have similar objectives. Keep the user hooked long enough to transfer the idea/messages and get her to do something at the end (click "BUY", or reply to the email and set up a meeting).

In web design, people have learned a lot. Use lots of white space, attractive images, links with inviting text that scream "click me", cut out boring non-essential information and put that on pages for people who want to look for it.

The Executive Summary though is still in the 1990s:

  • We expect tat our story is so boring that we need to drag the reader through it as long as we can
  • The solution: cut the amount of pages (maximum 2), anyone can read just 2 pages right?
  • Whoa, how do fit all this information on there: reduce font size
  • We need a big bold vision statement upfront (1 paragraph at least), a big bold vision statement really encourages the reader to keep on reading. Maybe there will be more big bold statements on page 2? Good stuff!
  • The it is important to link our idea to all the latest buzzwords, readers love to hear more of the things they read on the latest tech blogs. Even if it is vaguely related to your idea, put them all in there. Wow, this Executive Summary is all about these great trends? I have to read on!
  • After rereading the Executive Summary, we find that it sort falls out of the blue. We need to tie it into the big things that are happening in society. Mobile phone penetration is huge right now. Social media is changing the way we consume content. (This is especially true for younger people). Gartner and IDC have some good stats and quotes on this, let's add them. The reader must think: I want to read more about this!
  • The broader market (TAM) is just absolutely big. We are the only company in this space but the market will grow from $15b (2011 data) to $32.67b in 2014. This size market? These guys have discovered something that I completely missed, must read on.
  • Our technology is absolutely amazing. Let's start with the bottom architecture layer, and build it right up step by step. The "secret sauce" that makes us so scalable and flexible
  •  We are 1.5 pages in, time to introduce the idea. 
  • Oops, what about the team? Five bullets with CV summaries (don't forget the undergraduate degrees, and our hobbies).
  • Squeeze the margins a bit, it just fits.
  • Now copy paste selective paragraphs to put in the cover letter of the email.

This is clearly going to get someone excited (not). Think about your Executive Summary as a landing page that competes for the reader's attention. Make it visual. Make it presentation slides instead of text. Introduce what is you do early. Intrigue her on every page so she clicks through to the next one.

Force feeding Executive Summaries have not resulted in a lot of follow up meetings.

Art: Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (circa 1841-1871), Taming the Donkey1868

Columns versus rows and other table design issues

Columns versus rows and other table design issues

When making a table, what to put in columns, what to put in rows? There is no absolute rule here, but this is what I consider when deciding (some of these can contradict each other).

  • It easier to fit lots of rows then lots of columns.
  • Long labels go in rows
  • Year on year trend: years go in columns
  • Feature/competitor comparison: features in the rows

The most important things is that you never should assume that the layout in which the source data was presented to you is the best way to put that table on a slide. Next to swapping rows and columns consider:

  • Shortening column labels
  • Re-sorting rows and columns so that check marks / similar table content is grouped together
  • Group together multiple rows, or multiple columns if their content is the same as the neighbour
  • Cut text as much as you can in table cells. Side comments and sentences can go in the footnote
  • Design a table at 2 levels: Level 1 (using colouring of cells) to communicate the pattern/conclusion, level 2 (using text) the explanation of the colouring for when people read the slides after the presentation
  • Harmonise column widths and row heights to get a grid pattern that is as calm as possible
  • Avoid boxes/outline lines, rather work with light grey boxes

Users of my presentation design app SlideMagic do not have to worry about a lot of these things, the app will do it form them. 

Art: Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent shown with a Mondrian painting in 1966.

Team slide, in the front or in the back?

Team slide, in the front or in the back?

Where to put the slide with the team? Early in the presentation, or towards the end? It depends.

  • If your team is one of the main assets of your startup, well, put it up front.
  • If the majority of your team is sitting physically in the presentation room, well, you might as well use the team slide upfront to introduce them
  • In other cases, I gravitate towards putting the team slide in the back, after your pitch of the big idea of your venture.

The team slide in a live presentation is different from a detailed bio

  • The presentation slide should emphasise what is remarkable about your team, and omit other details:
    • If your team worked at a lot of big, blue chip companies, splatter the slides with recognisable logos
    • If your team has a history of working together, show a time line with overlaps
    • If your team consists of brilliant scientists, show the awards they got
    • If your team has complementary skills, show the puzzle with all the pieces
  • The detailed bio is important as well, for people to read/study after the meeting. This can be a dense font 10 page that goes in the appendix of your presentation. You can include links to LinkedIn profiles as well on this page.

Art: Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The King Drinks

My iBook abour presentation design is now free

My iBook abour presentation design is now free

I now marked down the price of my iBook "Pitch It!" down to $0. The whole iBooks experience has been an interesting one. First I thought that publishing a book through Apple's platform would be like writing software: updates would automatically be pushed to all readers. The iBook format would also use all the interactive/touch features of the iPad.

Two and a half years later I must conclude that web design engines such as Squarespace have now become so powerful that they match iBook's interactive capabilities. I have ported my entire book here (it is free as well). It works great on iPad, but also on other tablet devices, mobile phones, desktop screens. The source code is also easier to maintain and update.

Art: Degas, The Rehearsal, 1873

Cheaper stock images

Cheaper stock images

A decade ago, the first stock photo web sites started at $1 per image. Over time prices have been creeping up to $15 or even more. I could buy 10 or more of these for a client presentation. Now I see the amount of money I spend on images going down again.

  • I use fewer images. Not every single point you want to make needs to be backed up by a photo.
  • Stock image databases have been diluted by millions of cliche photo compositions, wherever I can I look for alternative more genuine images that are free to use under a creative commons license
  • There is increasing competition from free stock image sites, and even competition among the big guys (if you are an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber you can buy 10 images at $3 each each month from Adobe Stock).

What can stock image sites do?

  • Curate images better
  • Offer bundles of images that are compatible, uniform in style
  • Offer images with huge white spaces, i.e. extended canvases
  • Instead of ready-made compositions, offer layered Photoshop files so you can make your own

Let's see if the stock sites are listening

Art: Gerard van Honthorst (1590–1656) , Allegory of Painting, 1648

We are cool! (and you are not)

We are cool! (and you are not)

You are a hot social media startup and you need to sell your product to conservative, old-fashioned, traditional media publishers. What sales deck to use?

Here are the points that are usually emphasised in draft presentations that I see:

  • We are cool, you are not
  • "Social", "mobile" is eating the world, you are on the menu

Firstly, there is a good change that the people in the traditional media company you are speaking to already understand this (their bosses might not). Secondly, it is a bit offensive to put it that bluntly in people's face.

There are a number of other questions the media dinosaur might have which will be very important to close the sale:

  • Is this a financially stable company or will they go bankrupt tomorrow?
  • Are these people serious business partners, or just playing kids?
  • We might be uncool, but we still have 100 years of editorial integrity invested in our brand, will we throw that out of the window when working with you?
  • Is your product actually easy to use, how does it work day-to-day?
  • I like these guys, but how am I going to convince my boss?
  • I can see that all this stuff is interesting for 15 to 25 year olds, our readers are 45+

Even if your product is cool, you still need to show that you are a serious business partner. Spending all your slides on the obvious is a waste of the sales meeting.

Art: Ferdinand Lured by Ariel is a painting by John Everett Millais which depicts an episode from Act I, Scene II of Shakespeare's play The Tempest

Style or substance?

Style or substance?

Sometimes when a client approaches me for a new pitch deck, I tell her "your problem is not the presentation". For some products the pitch can be incredibly easy, a 30 second explanation, or even better a product demo. The problem is: how to turn this brilliant opportunity into a valuable company.

Typically investors go through a number of questions when taking in a pitch

  1. Do I understand what the product actually does? (Yes it sounds basic, but many startup pitches don't get this right)
  2. Do I think that this could be a big thing?
  3. Can you make money of this? Are people willing to pay (enough)? Can you somehow defend your margins against competitors? 
  4. Is it likely that all of this will happen. Do the people have the right skills, is there momentum, and is there a good plan in place to take the company to the next step?
  5. Wildcard: do I like these people, this product

For the situation I described above items 1, 2 are nailed in 30 seconds. Item 5 cannot be covered in a presentation, it is chemistry. Item 3 and 4 are the bottleneck and preparing your pitch presentation is less about stunning visuals and awesome images, and more about the traditional business plan homework: gantt charts, cost structures, competitive analysis.

But hey, remember that there are many companies out there that will be jealous of being able to do the general pitch in 30 seconds.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849

Salami slicing valuations

Salami slicing valuations

Negotiating company valuations is part art and science. Science (Excel sheets) can be helpful, but also dangerous in investor presentations. One risk is "salami slicing". I explain what this is in 2 examples

  • You email the full valuation Excel model that backs up your $95m valuation (cell D34 of the DCF worksheet) to the other side. Obviously this model is full of assumptions, and these assumptions are set with a seller's bias. The buyer can now take each of these assumptions one by one, nock them down a bit, and get an instant reduction visible in cell D34. Your own logic is being used against you. In M&A situations it is better to just exchange assumptions and let the other party stitch them together to a point estimate in their own model.
  • You are an extremely early startup and benchmark your valuation against an Internet giant on let's say a sales multiple. The salami slicing can now happen in multiple ways. You should correct the multiple downwards to compensate for some assets that facebook has, and you obviously do not have, or people can go back in time and see what facebook's valuation was when Mark just started out in his garage.

Watch out for the salami slicer.

Art:  Albert AnkerStill life Excess (1896)

Stale case examples

Stale case examples

The shelf life of presentation slides can be months or even years as people re-use slides for new presentations. While we are usually good in updating numbers (it is immediately apparent that last quarter's sales figures are no longer the latest), other content can just sit there gathering dust for a long time.

An example of stale slide material would be using the video Gangnam Style as evidence that music hits are now created online rather than in traditional media. I remember startups still using the amazing growth of MySpace as an example of the social networks long after facebook took over its leading position. (I am writing this post in June 2015) 


In the world of technology presentations, things get recycled a lot. Someone saw a presentation somewhere and used it and gave someone else an idea who used it. Very soon after the case example will become an overused cliche, and you can hear your audience's "sigh" when they realise they have to go through it again. It is almost an insult that you considered them that misinformed.

Check two things before re-using that case example:

  1. Is it still correct? If something used to grow fast and the data is from 6 months ago, chances are that things are different. And - especially on the internets - things can change dramatically in no time
  2. Is it still interesting? As habits go mainstream, people might not need facts to be convinced of something that is considered to have become part of everyday life. People spend a lot of time staring at their mobile phones, no need for facts here, just look around you.

Case examples are usually interesting if they:

  • Are really new
  • Are based on data that only you have access to (and are willing to share with the world)
  • Make a comparison that nobody before you have thought of

Keep it fresh, keep it original, and make sure you really need that case example to get your audience to do what you want them to do. Giving a lecture about interesting industry trends using stale case examples will not get you very far.

P.S. Gangnam style has almost 2.5b views now, that is pretty amazing. Someone must have the stats somewhere that shows that most of those views were done on mobile devices.

Art: The 1897 painting of "Laelaps" (now Dryptosaurus) by Charles R. Knight.

Stuck in a mirror palace

Stuck in a mirror palace

When big corporates try to pitch a new business idea they can find themselves stuck in a mirror palace. Rather than pitching the idea fresh with a simple and clear angle, the try to describe the initiative by comparing and contrasting it against familiar frameworks. The result is a diluted story that sounds a lot like other big corporate presentations.

Examples of mirrors in the mirror palace:

  • Mission, vision, customer comes first, care for the environment stuff. It is all important but trying to squeeze that into your product pitch dilutes things a little
  • Traditional ways of segmenting the market and your competitors. Big technology research firms define labels for market segments, provide market sizing data for these segments. You have a problem when your product does not completely fit. Do not force fit it, but rather create your own version of the market view in your presentation and add a chart in the back that tries to show how things are related to the traditional view
  • Overloading the benefits. Adding feature after feature, benefit after benefit. There a particular risk when many people work on a presentation (often remotely) and provide input such as "add 'great ROI' somewhere on page 39",  Too many benefits = no benefits
  • Engineering approach to describing the world: everything is an architecture diagram. Great for planning and carving up software development work, not always the best framework to pitch your product.
  • Over-structuring and over-story-telling. When you re-hash and re-hash the story over and over again with many people you end up with a business school essay. A logical but boring description of the market, the opportunity, and the solution. But you might spend too much time on providing market background, and taking out some of that raw edge of your story.

One way to unstuck yourself is to get the most charismatic sales person to run the pitch verbally without slides, and without interruption, record, and craft a slide deck that can support that spontaneous story.

Art: Paulus Moreelse, Girl at a mirror, (1632)

Investors spend <4min on your pitch deck

Investors spend <4min on your pitch deck

Here is an interesting analysis of VC pitch decks that were hosted on the DocSend slide hosting/viewing platform. They aggregated data (anonymously) about what slides were included, how long the slides were viewed, how many meetings it takes to close the round etc.


Investors spend on average 03:44 minutes on a pitch deck, and 12% of them does so on mobile devices. In the second screen shot you see what this means per slide: 10 to 25 seconds. That is all you have to get your message across.

I do not completely agree that the ranking shown here implies how important slides are. Slides with financials, competitors, and team bios on them take more time to digest. 

You can see the full results of the survey here.

Art: The dance to the music of time c. 1640, a painting by Nicolas Poussin

Putting text on images

Putting text on images

This image that I saw on Twitter has composition problems that you often see in presentation slides:

  • The text in the box does not have enough breathing space,
  • The quotation marks disturb the balance and alignment of the text box
  • The line breaks are not placed carefully enough, breaking apart words that belong together.

I tried to come up with an alternative design in SlideMagic (which does not support the giant quotation marks [yet]). You clone these two slides to your own SlideMagic account here and use them in your presentations if you want. Image taken from WikiPedia.

Art: detail of the Mona Lisa