Presentation design ideas


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

Usually one thing is special

Usually one thing is special

Back in the 1990s at McKinsey, a very senior Director told me that while the Firm does high quality work across the board, in ever project there is usually one insight, one piece of analysis, one original idea, just one, that stands out and makes all the difference. And that one insight is enough to break a deadlock where the client or other consulting firms could not solve the problem.

In sales and investor pitches that is pretty much the same. Yes, smart phone use is growing, yes the team consists of a bunch of very smart people, yes security is a major concern of enterprises. People have seen it before. But that one unusual combination of technologies, or that completely new approach to a problem that is interesting.

Show why it is so tricky to solve. Show the solution. Show why it is so clever.


Image from WikiPedia

Working with background music

Working with background music

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When I have to write something (this blog post for example) or need to come up with a visualization for a tricky concept, background music disturbs me. It like the melody of the music highjacks my brain and takes things in a different direction than the storyline in front of me.

Cleaning up charts (make-over work), or building financial/economical models works great with music in the background though.

That's maybe why many people end up writing things late at night: finally it is quiet.


Image from WikiPedia

Uncovering cosmic patterns

Uncovering cosmic patterns

Design is all about uncovering patterns and proportions that are somehow hidden in the cosmos. Architects, music composers, graphics designers, chefs, film directors, painters, authors, each is hoping to uncover a genius composition that has been hiding in plain sight for a few billion years.

Recently, I was introduced to the patterns that jazz guitarist Pat Martino is using to teach chord shapes on the guitar. The diagram in the video (if you are interested) shows how he uses turning triangles and squares (visual objects) to construct chords (audio).

In other videos, Pat explains how he uses words as musical inspiration. For example, he assigns a note to each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, and then creates words ("beautiful" for example) to see what they sound like.

Logo cropping

Logo cropping

This screen shot is typical for many logo pages in presentations:

Images files are copied into the slide after which a background shading is added. The shadow creates an instant frame around the logo which is too tight, definitely not the framing the logo designer intended. Now that all logos have a box around them, the eye immediately wants everything to be distributed and aligned properly in a grid, which is impossible to do given the different sizes of the boxes. Finally, the drop shadows actually do not look good.

My approach to logo pages is to adhere to a strict grid and keep everything on a white background to give the logos space to breathe. In PowerPoint or Keynote it is a bit fiddly to line up all the logos, I usually put in a temporary table to make sure everything is lined up in rows and columns. When every logo is in its place, I delete the table.

My presentation app SlideMagic makes it easy, it is impossible not to align images in a proper grid.

Sign language

Sign language

I was invited to give a guest lecture on "sound" at my daughter's (12 years old) school the other day. I created a small presentation to back up the main elements of the talk: an analogue synthesizer connected to an oscilloscope.

The interesting bit: 12 years old + Hebrew, a language I only master passively (I understand, I can speak a few words, I totally cannot write anything). So my daughter did some translating, and for the slides I relied heavily on icons.

Yes, icons. I made fun of icon slides many times in this blog, but I must say, when used the correct way they can make great slides. I think the key to icons is to pick really original and good ones, use them in very big sizes, use flat designs without colors/shadings/gradients, use icons in a consistent style, and use the same ones repeatedly as a memory shortcut to the same concept.

To find icons, I used the noun project, a much better source for icons than stock image sites.

Presentation design secrets

Presentation design secrets

If you are a layman designer, here is how your guide to an effective presentation:

  1. Put your entire existing slide deck with all your backup slides and analysis in an appendix
  2. Think what you want the audience to do, and write down a simple story of the points you want to make to get them to do it (no, don't peek back into the appendix, it is all in your head already)
  3. Create a very simple slide template with just one accent color, and put all your text in light grey boxes to line up in a grid. Add a drop of accent color here and there.
  4. Create ridiculously simple charts using that grid that just, and I mean just, make the points you wrote down in 2. If you come up with a concept that requires more than a few text boxes, rethink the design and try again using your boxes.
  5. Run your presentation for real (speak out loud) and fix the flow where it does not work.

Here is how this approach prevents the layman designer from creating ugly and boring charts:

  • Separate the "analysis phase" from the "communication phase" of your project
  • Design a flowing, natural dialogue rather than a structured book with the full fact set
  • Cut your visual vocabulary down until you have an arsenal of basic visual elements (boxes in a grid) that you can morph into slides that pretty much always look good

Believe me, this will save you and the audience a lot of time. You can use my presentation app SlideMagic to do it, or in PowerPoint/Keynote. The latter option makes it a bit harder to align your boxes, but in the end will give the same result.


Image by Ian Sane on Flickr

Writing text on charts

Writing text on charts

Most charts consists of 2 - 4 "boxes" with some text inside them. Text in boxes is different from text in sentences and/or paragraphs. When writing an article, you don't have to worry about how long a line is, and/or whether it fits exactly in a certain amount of space.

Some guidelines about writing text in boxes:

  • Make sure the point in each of the boxes has more or less equal weight in terms of content. You don't want box 1 to cover the entire presentation message, and box 2 to be a footnote detail.
  • Think of text on slides as headlines. Strip out all unnecessary filler words (i.e., make it as short as possible), but add enough words to keep it specific (i.e., no generic buzzwords).
  • Make sure that each box has roughly the same amount of text, covers the same number of lines. Yes, that means being a bit more verbose if one box is particularly short.
  • Adjust line breaks to avoid orphan words on the next line, or line breaks that cut the words of a key concept in two (cognitive [break] dissonance).

When "writing" a chart: the content should be clear but the text should be balanced as well.


Image from WikiPedia

The audience who knows

The audience who knows

The feedback on most presentations is usually that it could have been shorter, more to the point. So, if you can pretty much say anything in 10 minutes, why do people study for years to get an academic degree in something?

The answer: most business presentations are conducted in front of an audience which is pretty familiar with the subject. The venture capitalist has seen thousands of startup pitch presentations, the retired angel investor has interviewed and met thousands of candidates for specific positions, the strategic acquirer knows the limitations of a certain technology, the CEO has a pretty decent understanding of the market she is operating in.

So all these presentations can skip all the background and dive straight into the one thing that is new, that is different.


Image via WikiPedia

The presentation is not always the bottleneck

The presentation is not always the bottleneck

The presentation needs to "transplant" your idea in the head of your investors or customers. They need to understand what the idea, and then be excited enough about it to buy or invest.

Paying a professional presentation designer to do your slide deck is not a guarantee to succeed. I see many presentations that might not be top notch, but which look professional enough and are clear enough to convey the idea. In those cases I am honest and say that the startup's funds might be better spent elsewhere.

Remember: investors might not like you, investors might not like the idea, investors might not like the market segment, investments might not believe that it will work, there are thousands of potential reasons for "no", and misunderstanding the story and/or the visual quality of the slides is just one of them.

Most decks are for pre-reading

Most decks are for pre-reading

I browsed through my recent client work and saw that the objective of most decks I design is to get interest as an email attachment. This is a significant change from a couple of years ago.

Remember, 90% of my client work is in the field of investor presentations (startups, VC funds who need to raise money themselves, and big corporates reporting to the analyst community).

The big hurdle for many in fund raising is getting through that initial noise and reach the stage of a quick phone call, or even a 30 minute one on one meeting. If this goes well, most clients are less concerned about the big stand up presentation in front of an investment committee.  (Well, after they have gone through my design process they are covered for that stage as well of course).

These send-ahead deck pretty much replace the dense 1-pagers that people used to email. What makes a good introduction presentation that you cannot explain in person?

  • A professional look and feel. Comic sans, standard PowerPoint colors, and a list of bullet points with buzzwords on page one signals "oops, these guys are not ready yet"
  • Clear explanation what you are actually doing, in what field, market do you operate (most people are surprisingly vague about this
  • Some sense of stage of the company, traction (napkin, seed, series A, etc.)
  • Then a condensed pitch of why what you are doing is a big deal.

Leave out super sensitive intellectual property information, confidential financials, partner discussions and/or some of the more "boring" slides with factual information about the company and its strategy. This deck is all about getting people excited about your company, it will not land you the investment.

Sequence the whole story as a "rodeo ride". Assume that you might lose your audience ("click") at any moment, create a slide deck that invites the next click. And no, stunning pictures in itself will not guarantee a click by an investor who is too busy to look at beautiful images. There is a difference between a VC catching up on email and people sitting down relaxed for a day of TED talks.


Painting: Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

PowerPoint cartoons

PowerPoint cartoons

Some funny cartoons here (click the link in the Tweet for more). Bullet point slides and data tables don't communicate ideas and still take a lot of time to create. Happy and PowerPoint-free Thanksgiving for those who celebrate!


Image via Flickr, martha_chapa95, https://www.flickr.com/photos/56192190@N05/5203091533

Corporate speak

Corporate speak

Professions tend to have their own language. Academia, doctors, lawyers, politicians. You need to master the language in order to be part of the club. Once you are part of it, you filter the language and extract what it actually means.

Managers in corporations have such a language as well, it is called the presentation. The key messages are hidden in bullet points, consulting frameworks, and buzzwords. Junior managers learn the craft by spending hours creating the deck and iterating them, senior managers know how to read in between the lines and get to the issue that matters quickly (the 2nd part of the proposed budget on page 35).

We got rid of formal letters and replaced them with informal emails and messages. It is time make those presentations more to the point as well.

Part of the solution is more visual slides (imagers, less text). But the most important change is a cultural one: saying what we want to achieve in a short and to the point matter.

First time fund pitches

First time fund pitches

It is easy to create a pitch deck for a first-time investment fund that sounds and looks exactly like a pitch deck for a repeat fund. Introduction of the team, industry perspective on investment opportunities, unique deal flow, active involvement with portfolio companies, and the fund terms.

But, in the absence of a hard investment track record, it is very hard to raise that first fund. Seasoned investors are taking an educated risk when investing in you. They see instantly that they are dealing with a new fund. Here are some pointers in your pitch deck that can give them more confidence.

  • A good, non-boring description of your experience, maybe mapped out across a timeline together with your partner showing that you have relevant experience, maybe not in the field of making investments, but still useful. 
  • Highlight the safety nets, partnerships you built, people that sit on your investment committee, and introduce their background as well
  • Don't relay on consulting industry frameworks to show that you know what's going on in the industry. Instead, know the ins and outs of companies in the market, have a perspective on what fields are interesting to invest in, which not. Know competing / similar funds in the market
  • Highlight other situations in your professional experience where you had to take an informed but risky decision, did it, and brought it to a good end

Yes, you admit that you are a first-time investor, but your institutional investor has figured this out already. Better be realistic and show why you deserve a chance to join the ranks of successful investors. 

 

Exhibition floor signs

Exhibition floor signs

People roaming an exhibition floor spend 2 seconds looking at your small early-stage startup booth. Conference organizers usually create space for a huge logo and a tag line that is not very visible. It would be better to rebalance that.

People don't yet know your brand or logo, so it won't help to attract attention ("ooh, let's check out the guys from [BRAND]"). Your objective is to turn the 2 seconds attention span into 10 seconds, which then hopefully is followed by a visit to the booth.

Below an example in a random Tweet I found. Not the fault of this startup, they just followed the format set by the conference. 


Image via WikiPedia

Presentation culture

Presentation culture

CEOs are banning PowerPoint presentations from meetings to improve company culture:


From: Bezos, Jeff

Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 20014 6:02PM

To: [REDACTED]

Subject: Re: No powerpoint presentations from now on at steam
A little more to help with the question “why.”
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-styel presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

Jeff
— Jeff Bezos, CEO at Amazon https://www.hirevue.com/blog/coach-blog/what-i-learned-from-jeff-bezos-about-sales-management

During his first two months as Diageo’s North American chief marketing and innovation officer, James Thompson counted every single presentation slide he was exposed to in meetings. The final tally was 12,000, which to him was way too many.
”It stops conversation. It makes people feel secure they’ve communicated what they wanted to. But, in fact, it doesn’t move anything on,” he said. So he has instituted a PowerPoint ban in some meetings. “Just talk to me, please” is his plea. His goal is to ensure his marketing team is “not totally buttoned-up all the time,” he said. “We just want people to be at their best, and that is usually when they are able to think and respond and build rather than sell.”
— James Thompson, North American CMO at Diageo http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/powerpoint-ban-diageo-changed-culture/306739/

Bad presentations are bad for company culture. And boring the audience is just one aspect of this. People forget the other ones:

  • People waste incredible amounts of time editing footnotes in slides, time that could have been spent much better
  • Presentations are used to keep subordinates busy and under pressure by requesting zillions of updates to the slide deck by 9AM
  • Company management is now mainly suggested slide edits ("cut it to 5 slides') in emails that go up and down the corporate hierarchy

Presentation documents have become the language that corporate management uses to agree on ideas, and it is a pretty inefficient one. It is time for a change. I don't think completely banning visuals in meetings will solve the issue. A better alternative is to ask employees to use a super simple presentation tool to back up their pitch to colleagues and I am working on that.

Searching slide libraries: Bitlasso Reveal

Searching slide libraries: Bitlasso Reveal

Most people amass a huge library of PowerPoint and Keynote slides on their computers. File search as a tool to find presentations is collapsing under the load, and searching for a specific slide inside a presentation is impossible. Most people are now using their email program as a document archive ("where is that deck I sent Sally last week?"). 

BitLasso's Reveal is a new program that aims to solve this issue. After installation it builds a database of all your slides and makes them searchable by keywords. The first try is very impressive, you use a specific topic that you still remember from a long time ago, and pop: there are the slides!

Slides are grouped together if they are similar (with yellow highlighting the differences), you can group them by date, by title. It all works brilliantly.

As a graphic design nitpicker, I noticed that fonts are not rendered correctly. But, remember this is a search tool, not a presentation application.

For the average user, this tool works great. For me, a professional presentation designer who has an incredibly large slide library with presentation for many, many, clients there is still a problem. Common business search terms will return so many slides that it is still hard to find the one you need. This is not a problem of the software though, more a result of my profession.

One suggestion could be to allow the search results to be grouped by some sort of directory, or limit the search inside a specific directory, since most users will have a basic level of organization by project on their hard drive to focus the search.

A second concern for power users is the size of the database. Mine quickly ran in the gigabytes after 15 minutes of indexing. Again, I suspect most regular people won't have this problem, and computers by now should be able to handle pretty large files as long as there is sufficient hard drive space available.

All in all, a product worth while checking out. A free trial allows you do 30 searches (give the database indexing some time before you spend them), and the full version of the product costs $49. The software only works on Mac at the moment.

Presenting the conclusions vs the recommendations

Presenting the conclusions vs the recommendations

Most business presentations present conclusions. You did a ton of analysis, and now you take people through the data and their implications, often using the same slides the team used to get to those conclusions. "Look, here is what we did!"

Now, take it one step further, and tell what needs to happen next and why pretty much in the same way as you would talk to someone informally at the water cooler. What needs to happen, and why. Make slides that support exactly that, and attach the "look, here is what we did!" pack as appendix to that document.


Image via Add Letters

Generic investor pitch presentation flow

Generic investor pitch presentation flow

Here is a story flow that I end up using often for investor pitches of my clients:

  • Good idea
    • Once, there was a situation
    • Something changes/changed
    • This creates an opportunity/problem
    • It's not easy to solve it
    • Enter [company]
    • It's clever
    • It's different from the competition and alternatives
  • Good business
    • Market: lots of (potential) users
    • Market: lots of dollars
    • Profitable: Unit economics work, company economics work (when company reaches scale)
  • Good startup business
    • Product/feature pipeline is doable
    • Sales & marketing strategy is doable
  • Good company
    • Team knows what they are doing
    • Traction shows that things are gaining momentum
  • Good deal (often not covered in a presentation)
    • Board configuration
    • Deal terms

TED parody

TED parody

This video of a TED talk parody was uploaded a couple of months ago and I missed somehow. Yes, it is a parody, but in the between the lines (the content is non-existent) it actually shows how body language, pausing and pacing can give you a better stage presence.

PR people and journalists

PR people and journalists

WebSummit was full of them. Apparently, there are 5 PR people for every journalist on earth. Each journalists in the tech world receives about 200 emails, pitches, stories per day. I listened to a panel with PR people and journalists discussing thing with each other. Here are my impressions partly driven by what they said, partly what I read between the lines.

Your product is actually not that interesting to them. Two hundred products per day, lots of copy cats ("Uber for X"). I actually think journalists don't have time, take the time to understand a technology, and hence don't find it interesting and/or write about it. It takes me a good 45 minutes to understand a company well, a journalist does not have that time, the reader does not have that time, and most journalists don't have an engineering background.

Big milestones are actually not that interesting anymore. Everyone raises $100m at a $1b valuation.

Other aspects of "your story" (becomes a buzzword) are more interesting. Did you come from an unusual background, does your company have some sort of social, environmental purpose (primary, or a side effect).

Do you actually need to be in a major Silicon Valley tech publication? If your target customers are in those circles, then yes. Maybe if you need to those "featured in" logos on your web page to strengthen your pitch to SV investors, yes. But otherwise, maybe spend your time and effort somewhere else.

"Social media" is becoming crowded and busy as well. With so many people creating noise, it actually boils down to a product that people want to use and talk about to their friends. Not so much social media, more building a great product.

So all of this is not to blame on journalists and PR people, it is just very crowded and noisy out there.