Communicating musical ideas

Communicating musical ideas

In my spare time, I like to play electronic musical instruments. Recently, I amassed all my courage together, and started writing my own music, and send it carefully to a few selected friends, forcing myself to feel the responsibility of creating something for an audience.

It is very hard to communicate a musical idea in raw form, and it feels a bit like the curse of knowledge. The expert cannot explain an idea because she has all the context in her head that others lack. When I tap a melody on the table, I hear a symphony, the audience hears tapping.

So, sending over a basic chord progression and a rough melody line with a plastic drum beat, some strings, and a piano is not cutting it. Now, what gave me some encouragement, is to try and play famous songs using exactly these tools, going the other way.

Let's see what happens.


Cover image by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

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Programming and Excel

Programming and Excel

As I am diving deeper and deeper into my effort to brush up my coding skills from where I left in with a Computer Science degree in 1992, I am surprised by how difficult it is to interpret code. Yes, coding languages have become very "compact": a simple expression can do incredibly things: define an object that returns a function which in itself returns an array objects where each property is again a function. The language is incredibly efficient, but it takes some head scratching to understand it. A bit like the English "42" is a shortcut for a  more elaborate explanation of the meaning of life.

There is a parallel here to building Excel models. I have probably spent a good part of a decade building financial models that value companies or evaluate strategies. You can also be very efficient in Excel:

  1. Putting very long and elaborate formulas in just one cell saves you a lot of rows with subtotals and other intermediary steps of calculations
  2. Using advanced Excel functions that calculate a value for you as a black box

I never used any of the above for these reasons:

  • Errors, for example including the first row of your spreadsheet with the years (1993, 1994, 1995...) into your cash flow. A small mistake can make your model of by a few billion dollars.
  • Changing models the next morning. If everything is spelled out it is easy to add a market, a scenario, change an assumption
  • Changing models six months later, elaborate models are much easier to understand.
  • An elaborate model makes it easy to spot other interesting insights, why valuations are different, and what actually makes the difference, and what is totally irrelevant.

When it comes to Excel programming, I am pretty confident that my approach is still the right one and I will continue to study coding to see whether my hunch is wrong.


Cover image by Mateusz Delegacz on Unsplash

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Presentations on mobile - 2018

Presentations on mobile - 2018

Now and then, I go back and analyse the inroad that mobile devices have, and have not made, on mobile devices, after the state of euphoria we all had back in 2010.

As a viewing device, phones and tablets have made great progress. In a significant number of face-to-face and small conference table meetings, people are using mobiles and tablets to present theirs slides.

As a creation device though, things are not that advantaged. And now that we have apps that do  perfectly fine job at creating presentations on a tablet, we can no longer blame it on technology. Here are some reasons why it is (and will remain) difficult to create presentations on a tablet (let alone phone):

Presentation design is a creative process that requires a big, bold, clutter-free work environment. This means it will always work better with a big screen, a nice big desk to work on, and a quiet environment. Trying to type things on a small screen in a crowded cafe, or in the back of the taxi will never create brilliant presentations.

The default work setting for creating a presentation is the office, and, when given a choice, the small tablet is inferior to the laptop or desktop computer.

File management is still tricky on small screens. Having 3 presentation decks open, plus 2 spreadsheets, plus the dashboard with last quarter's results in the BI system, plus a stock photo site, plus 4 old emails with attachments that contain slides, is by definition hard to manage on a tablet.

Cooperation among colleagues requires compatibility: iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS, corporate network and file systems. This means that pretty much the only app that can work is the Microsoft Office suite, which is actually pretty good on mobile devices, but still is too steep a learning curve for the average Office user on a desktop/laptop.

So, I see little change in the the way presentations are created for the foreseeable future. Laptop/desktop for creating, mobile for emergency last minute edits and presentations in small groups.

The same is true for computer coding and spreadsheet modelling I think. Writing will have more success on mobile devices, if it is limited to simple documents without complex chapter structures (see a recent post by Fred Wilson). Email and corporate messaging has gone mobile completely.

I am curious what we will see in a few years from now. 


Cover image by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash

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The follow on deck, 2nd impressions

The follow on deck, 2nd impressions

The question "can you give some more info on this" after your first pitch almost always gets answered by another slide deck. These "follow on decks" have a different purpose and context than your main pitch deck:

  • The audience knows/has bought into the main idea of your story, so no need for "emotional story telling drama" here, the recipient just wants to get specific questions answered here.
  • The content of the slides will be more factual, data-intense
  • The substance of the deck is likely to be very specific for this particular requester, and you are unlikely to have time to invest 2 weeks of design effort in follow up slides to dozens of investors / prospects.

Some design guide lines for these types of decks:

  • Answer the questions asked in a focused way, don't just dump more slides from the appendix in a new file. You can even set up the deck in a sequence of alternating trackers with the question, plus a slide with the answer.
  • Don't stick in the exact same slides as you had in your first deck. People can read/hear, and apparently they were not clear enough the first time around. If you have to, use an existing slide that she already has seen, but add big circles, or bright explanation boxes with the required clarification
  • Use a sober, down-to-earth format (like the one used here at SlideMagic), that makes you look credible and professional, transparent (no flashy graphics are needed to clarify your points), and efficient (you did not waste a lot of time/money on over polishing a deck that is basically just a quick memo).

Cover image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Flawless

Flawless

Entrepreneurs can get very excited sometimes: "This is amazing, that is amazing, this is better, that is better". There is basically no single aspect where the product (concept) of their seed-stage startup does not completely destroy the competition with their existing solutions that somehow served the market for the past decade. Also, commercialisation is all but in the bag after we sign that one big corporate strategic partner next month. Even the smallest of questions / challenges by potential investors are met with a relentless pounding of counter arguments even before she finished making her point.

Investors like enthusiasm, but also value realism when it comes to taking an individual on board that will have to return part of not all, of their funds to their own investors. When it sounds too good to be true, there is probably something hiding somewhere. Venture investors take calculated risks. If your company is a 100% sure huge success, valuations would be sky high, but investor returns the same as government bonds.


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First hand experience with learning

First hand experience with learning

Yes, I am a computer science engineer, but I graduated back in 1992, so in order to get my coding skills back up I am going through an accelerated refresher course. Here is what it takes me to master new concepts via self study. It might inform people that are writing presentations / courses to train others:

  1. I speed read through a chapter to vaguely familiarise me with the new concepts, I don't even attempt to understand the code examples.
  2. Put the material away.
  3. I re-read the whole text properly now, forcing myself to continue if I don't get things 100%. It is here where my brain starts protesting ("please do something else, this is boring").
  4. Put the material away.
  5. Now, I go through everything and don't continue until I understood everything
  6. Finally, I start doing exercises, and discover that I actually did not get some basic things, forcing me to go back into the text
  7. In a few bursts of effort I complete the exercises.

The rest pauses in between are key to me understanding this. In the earlier phases of the process, my brain is fighting boredom, and the last phases, my brain is literally stuck, needs to pause, but somehow gets itself together to crack on.


Cover image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

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Speed reading pitch desks

Speed reading pitch desks

I had the opportunity to look over the shoulder of a VC going through decks in her inbox. The first decision is "archive/delete" instantly or keep for closer analysis. Here is how this decision got made:

  • She opened pretty much every attachment
  • Quick page up and down through the whole deck to see what it actually looks like / what info is inside / (typos cost you points here, see yesterday's post)
  • Then the most important bit: trying to understand (quickly) what the company is actually trying to do, this is not as obvious as it sounds with many pitch decks
  • Two quick filters: 1) "Do we invest in this type of company at all?" 2) "Is it even possible that this can ever work as a company if all risks were taken care of?"
  • Quick browse of the team page and boom, the first decision is made.

Cover image by Mario Rodriguez on Unsplash

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2 types of typos

2 types of typos

And they say different things about you:

Type 1. You could not be bothered to invest the extra time to weed out obvious mistakes (and I am sometimes actually guilty of this on this blog, when jot down a quick idea).

  • Small typos with a red underlining from the spell checker
  • Obvious grammar mistakes resulting from incorrectly rewriting a sentence.

Type 2. Mistakes which you did not catch because you did not detect them yourself. 

  • Picking the wrong word in the wrong context (words that sound the same but mean something different)
  • Less obvious errors in grammar.

When an investor reads your investor deck, she will probably forgive you, depending on the context. Sloppy "type 1" errors are OK in small informal notes, but leaves her wondering whether you would have the drive to weed out any source possible reason to lose a pitch in high-stake, all or nothing, efforts. I see many type 2 errors in documents by entrepreneurs who are non-native English speakers, and here it might trigger the "ultimately we need to get a US CEO" knee jerk reaction, as she is worried that you are not "presentable" enough to represent the company to potential big clients and/or future investors.

Better have that "all or nothing" deck checked by a native speaker. 


Cover image by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

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10 years of blogging

10 years of blogging

I started writing my first blog posts in July 2008, and did not expect to be doing it still 10 years later, more or less 5 days a week.

I went from Slides that Stick, Sticky Slides, IdeaTransplant, to SlideMagic. In the beginning, I was looking really hard for stuff to write about, and trying to learn from all this experienced bloggers with their clever SEO strategies. After a while, I realised that it is easier (and more interesting) to just write about things that come across my desk everyday in the work I do. The fluffy, SEO-stuffed blogs are no longer here, and I am still going strong.

The whole journey has been really fun, and it built my professional reputation as an independent presentation designer with a very clearly defined micro segment of skills: investor pitches. But it also made me look out for new challenges. I can sustain the current bespoke design shop probably pretty much forever, but growing it is hard with only 1 pair of hands.

Many of of my blog posts now also include me as an audience, eye balling back the sort of posts helps me focus my effort to develop a tool or approach that ends presentation suffering in companies (audiences and writers). The awareness of the problem is now well established (with great help of Garr Reynolds and other early visionaries): people recognise when a presentation is bad. The next step is creating something practical that makes it easier for people to change.

It is a tricky problem to solve. I have seen technology initiatives with super cute user interfaces, extremely fancy visual effects, huge amounts of funding, etc. not succeeding in making a dent in the way corporates create presentations.

I have a few ideas up my sleeve, but they are not fully formed yet. I will continue to try, thank you for following along.

PS. Happy 4th of July for my US readers.

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The story in the bullets

The story in the bullets

We have seen them all: a slide that describes four market segments. 4 boxes with a couple of bullet points next to each box: some detail about growth, size, remarks about a competitor, some new product development that happens in one market, in short: stuff.

This slide is the end product of an analysis, you did your homework, all the facts are in, and most people put it straight in the presentation deck. They are skipping an important step: create the slide that tells the story.

How to extract and visualise it?

  1. Put your busy slide aside
  2. Write down in "broken" short-hand bullets what is actually going on. "There are 4 markets, 2 big slow growing, and 2 small high growth, and it is in one of these where we have a unique opportunity"
  3. Now decide on the visual composition. Eye balling the story above, it looks like it is some sort of 2x2 showing the 2 types of markets alongside axes of size and growth, with a call out coming out of the market with the opportunity showing why.
  4. Create your slide and double check against your busy starter slide whether you forgot anything absolutely essential.
  5. Now, make your busy slide even more busy, adding all the facts and figures and store it as a backup in the appendix.

Now you have 3 levels of story:

  1. There are 4 markets, and we should go for market number 3.
  2. The reasons why number 3 is so attractive (requires a bit more reading/listening)
  3. The full detail of all the markets (requires a lot more reading).

Does your new market summary slide explain what you want to do? Yes
Does your new market summary slide summarises everything there is to know about these markets? No.


Cover image by David Kovalenko on Unsplash

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Practical PowerPoint

Practical PowerPoint

Presentations should look beautiful, but they should also be practical. PowerPoint decks are the main vehicle used in organisations to make and document decisions. PowerPoint decks are used for collaborations among colleagues, PowerPoint decks are shared on different computers with different operating systems. PowerPoint deck versions often last longer than the length of the job posting of the original creator.

So, when evaluating pitches for a new presentation design, weigh that practical component as well.


Cover image by Lachlan Donald on Unsplash

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Careful with your words

Careful with your words

Space on presentation slides is scarce, and you need to think twice about every word you put down.

  • More text takes longer to read
  • Text blocks are as important as shapes in setting the layout of your slide
    • More text makes the slide look cluttered and busy
    • More text can create visual imbalances: some boxes have lots of text others not, some boxes have 2 lines of text, others just one, etc.

So what to do? Some of these are so obvious and basic, but hard to forget in the middle of the night before the deadline:

  • Use short words... Yes as simple as that: "rationalise operational infrastructure" vs. "cut costs". Long words take up lots of space and hyphenation looks ugly.
  • Rely on mental short cuts that the audience already has: "non-organic growth strategies and portfolio restructuring" can be replaced by "M&A"
  • Eliminate words that do not add anything to a sentence (buzzwords, filler words), or repeat what has been said before, (hey I am doing it myself here).
  • Regroup things. Box one: "Improve the basics: operations, purchasing, pricing", box two: "Enter the US market with product [X]", instead of 4 boxes with uneven content. 

Cover image by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

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Slide makeover example

Slide makeover example

I came across this slide in an investor presentation of a public company the other day. The slide is in the public domain, but still I disguised the branding in order not to "picking" on a specific company. It is an example of a slide that is probably a leftover of an internal consulting project that evaluated different market segments. In that context, it was probably useful, in this context (the investor who was never part of the consulting project team), it is hard to grasp what is going on in five seconds.

Below you can see my makeover.

  • On purpose, I stuck to a simple, no-nonsense, everyday, "anyone-can-do" presentation style. Managers should be spending their time on running a company, not experimenting with fancy graphics in presentations
  • I changed the design to a simple column chart that ties everything together. The original slide had market sizes, growth, potential, history, all in different places.
  • I removed that 1 data point column chart that never makes sense
  • I took out the packaging images with labels that were hard to read
Slide after the makeover.png

  

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Spam 2.0

Spam 2.0

Spam 1.0 was a blind barrage of emails sent to as many people as possible, hoping that the law of big numbers and a 0.01% response rate would make the economics work. You had to highlight your email address (jan at slidemagic dot com) in order not to end up on the global spam email distribution list.

Gmail spam filters pretty much solved that problem. 

Spam 2.0 is the next wave. As a startup CEO I am bombarded by emails plugging developers and SAAS software tools. They are better targeted, have at least an offer that is vaguely relevant to me, and somehow get through the gmail spam filter. 

And the worst part, the CRM systems that are powering these emails are incredibly persistent, they go on and on and on of apologising that I must be very busy and do not have time to reply to the email. It is a bit like the Crowded House song in the above video, after the CD track is finished (1990s...), the song starts again at 3:38 with "I am still here".

I have developed a new instant archive "knee jerk", as soon as you read an email with a familiar tone "Hey, we that as a startup CEO you are very busy but", you send the email to the archives.

My response would have been different if the approach was really personal and tailored. Like the one you should be using when fund raising for your company and sending teaser decks. But that approach is too costly for selling monthly SAAS subscriptions. My opinion: mass marketing via email will never work.

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Management gets more efficient

Management gets more efficient

We are constantly on a path to make company operations more efficient. First we tackled factories, assembly lines, supply chains, leaving us with that ballooning layer of middle management that spends time on meetings, memos, analysis, more meetings, doing the annual accounts.

But slowly things are changing. It is striking to see how state of the art analysis I was doing pretty much by hand at McKinsey in the 1990s (as in allocating cost to a product) is now automated and computerised. Projects that would require 3 months of management consultants can now be done with the press of a button.

One reasons for this is technology, but an equally important driver is the basic idea behind the original analysis. How to think about product costing, what you would have to measure, how to allocate it etc etc. Over the past 20 years, people have learned how to approach this problem, and mastered the skill of actually interpreting the data quickly. 

Something similar is happening in the world of presentations. Long-winded memos are out, people now have the courage to say that a presentation meeting is useless, people have read thousands and thousands of business presentations that pretty much follow the same structure.

What does it mean for your presentation? (I am thinking of an "everyday" deck in a company, not a major TED Talk) 

  • Stick to the format/story line that people have gotten used to
  • Cut all excess padding: things people already know are convinced of, buzzwords, background info
  • Focus and spend time on what matters, what is unusual, unexpected, not obvious

Cover image by rawpixel on Unsplash

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Buzzwords from poor language?

Buzzwords from poor language?

Any business gathering, in any language is filled with hollow - English - buzzwords. Part of this is to blame on executives who want to show of by using "fancy" words. But a big part I think is simply people learning the new universal language in business: "Business English".

Business English is spoken by non-native English speakers, unlike proper English, it has a very small vocabulary and people are in need of finding words/verbs/concepts to express common things. You hear others speak Business English, you read documents online in Business English, you see YouTube videos in Business English. And hey you learn, this is how you communicate.

Business language and culture are also deeply linked I think. Overhearing a conference room discussion as an outsider might soon completely ridiculous in terms of buzzword use, but to everyone on the inside, these are just verbal shortcuts that sound perfectly normal, and everyone knows exactly what everyone means.

The challenge is to be aware of this when you start talking to people outside of this inner circle.


Cover image by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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Evolving charts and analysis

Evolving charts and analysis

If you end up constantly changing a small bit of a chart or analysis, it might be time to change the whole thing. This all sounds a bit cryptical, 2 examples:

  • At the beginning of the project you were clueless about the competitors in the market and created a big 2x2 matrix that shows the market environment. As the team becomes more educated you notice that the only thing you do is moving dots of a specific subset of competitors in the bottom right corner, and adding footnotes, text bubbles, and explanations. It is time to rethink how you show the market and ditch that chart you created on day 2 of the project.
  • In the first week of the project your created a rough DCF valuation model. Now, as the project progresses, the team is increasingly interested in scenarios. You end up going back to that first model, tweaking and goal seeking assumptions, and then recreate each scenario manually again. Maybe it is time to throw the model out, and build a spreadsheet that can handle multiple scenarios quickly.

There is no point in doing a slide update when a whole new visual or analytical approach is required.


Cover image via WikiPedia

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The image from the distracted boyfriend memes

The image from the distracted boyfriend memes

This is probably the most famous stock image around now. Read the full background story here, including who is the photographer, the other shots he took with the same models, and how it all spread over the past 6 months.

The creator of the one below did an exceptional job at finding the right expressions of the characters in the Photoshop.

Maybe the idea was not that new after all...

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Taking a few days of

Taking a few days of

Post frequency will go down over the next few days as I am disconnecting from work for a couple of days. I hope you are enjoying the summer as well. Cover image by Malgorzata Frej on Unsplash

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What do you think of the Kim video shown by Trump?

What do you think of the Kim video shown by Trump?

This is what Trump presented to Kim:

What do you think? It has the Duarte "What is, what could be"-type of approach.

My take. The idea of showing a movie is actually a good one. The whole movie is not my style, but it might just work given the audience (both Trump and Kim): sentimental, focusing on the individuals and the once-in-a-century-opportunity that is here to take or leave.

Thinking of Kim, there are 2 things that could have been emphasised more:

  • I think he would be very sensitive to what his father might have thought of what he did for his country (or, maybe actually the ruling family itself). Some shots of his father with an approving smile could have fit right in.
  • The film could have put in more "visions" of grandiose infrastructure projects, I think these will resonate better than advances in science or the economy.

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