This was the title of a recent article in the Economist. (The link is behind a paywall*). The general idea is that corporate mission statements are all the same, and are totally not credible. A company's mission and values is communicated by how it behaves, not what it says on the web site.
What does it mean for presentations? Putting your company's mission statement on page 1 is unlikely to get your audience to move to the edges of their seats.
* I actually tried licensing the content, which took me through an interesting process. "Do you want print as well?". "Please list all the countries where you want to use it" (Worldwide was not an option in the drop down). "How many months?". And in the dropdown menu of "who are you?", the blogger did not show up. In the end The Economist suggested GBP 500 for linking to an article for just one month that might have gotten them more subscribers.
Design mistakes happen to the best of us. See this screen shot of a blog post from a few days ago. The image the looks black and white, is actually not black and white. It is always good to remove all colour from all images, even when they appear to be black and white already.
In PowerPoint you do this in picture format - colour, see the screen shot below.
I thought this comment exchange on a post of a few days ago is worth sharing with all of you:
Disqus embedding is not perfect, here is the discussion:
Question: My presentation looks very formal for a first-level discussions. I need a way to turn presentation to rough sketches. Is there an app or an easy way to transform my formal presentation slides into paper napkin sketches?
My reply: I am not sure you need paper sketch-style slides to make your presentation look less formal. I would loosen up the existing design, cutting words, changing language, etc. One way to do this is to find another presentation somewhere with an informal style you like, now copy the style of the template and re-create your existing presentation so that it exactly fits this model. I am pretty confident that in the end, you will discard your "formal" presentation all together and run with your new deck in all meetings (both formal and informal).
If you insist on making "sketchy" presentations, here are two approaches:
- Apple Keynote has rougher border styles. combine this with a custom hand-writing-style font
- The manual way: recreate your presentation but leave selected bits out (boxes, maybe certain charts, arrows), print it, take a big marker, draw in the elements, scan the thing to PDF. It will look really good, but is hard to edit.
- A variant on this: take a print out of the half-finished deck to your meeting, and complete the charts on the spot, "live". This could work in a meeting setting.
Business plans are usually "mechanical" documents: systematic analysis of markets, competitors, economics, milestones, etc.. It is the document trail of a strategy consulting project. Hard work, systematic, rigorous (hopefully).
For investors, it can be comforting that you can rest your hand on a beefy pile of paper, she will be confident that you have thought things through as best as you could, and that there is some direction and a sense of budget in that early stage company.
But, business plans make long and boring reads. They are structured as, well, a business plan, not an exciting story. Text is usually written in one go, as information is captured: creating duplications, side tangents, and an excess of buzzwords that were not zapped by an editor. Also, they are often written by more than one person, adding inconsistent styles on top of the duplications.
A good investor presentation (or even a good "business plan edited for investors"), is more like a "voice over" (lots of quotation marks in this post), of they dry exhaustive, duplicate, raw, business plan. Let's pause on this diagram that shows you exactly what we are doing, now look at this market in a new way, see this picture that shows why all existing solutions are so poor, in this long list of competitors there is this guy we should be worried about, look the CVs of our team, we all have a Phd in [x], yes I know, the obvious, elephant in the room question is [y], the answer is on page 35, etc. etc.
Note how this voice over is different from a summary, and how "voice over charts" are likely to look different from "summary charts".
A super confident entrepreneur could pull of an investor presentation just like that, a big PDF file, annotated with digital yellow stickies providing the narrative. For the other 99%, crafting an investor presentation would be translating those stickies with the voice over into a decent looking slide deck.
This has huge advantages:
- It runs on all platforms and devices, not just Windows.
- It is a lot easier to integrate these Office web apps into existing web applications (such as SlideMagic).
I have a lot of ideas to extend PowerPoint beyond the current plugins that offer in-app access to stock photo sites but.... PowerPoint is at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to API development at Microsoft. Excel, Outlook, and to a certain extend Word, get priority. Specifically, the ability to manipulate slide content is very limited (put text in the currently selected text block, or place an image somewhere on the page).
PowerPoint is the key communication tool that is used in corporates (not Word). PowerPoint is tricky to master (50% to blame on software, 50% to blame on the "eye for design" that not everyone has). Combine these 2 and it is the biggest opportunity for 3rd party developers to make a change to business communication, make a financial return for both developers and Microsoft, and make PowerPoint stand out over Apple Keynote.
I do not know the reason for this lower priority, it can be a deliberate strategic choice and/or a technical reason. I hope it is the first, because it can be fixed most easily.
This blog is read by many influencers in the presentation world, if you can, please reach out. I "signed" this online petition as well, but I am not sure how much wait it carriers, feel free to add your clicks.
The pitch deck is usually the first piece of marketing material a startup needs ("Oh no, we need a logo as well"), next up: the web site.
If your company has not launched yet, and/or your company is not about being a highly interactive game (i.e., the web site is not the product), seed company web sites can be very simple (and easy/cheap) to make.
The objective is to create a credible business card for your company that supports your pitch to investors and/or partners and/or potential customers
A check list:
- Get a decent domain name and use it as your email address as well
- Get an ad-free account with a web site platform such as squarespace or wix.
- Set up the colors, logo, so everything looks consistent with the pitch deck(s) you are sending out
- Check the content for your "business card":
- Is it clear what the company does (if you are not in stealth mode)
- Is everything up to date (including the (c) in the footer), names of products, people, investors, board members, etc. etc.
- Are all the social media accounts hooked up (if they are active, no need to link to that Google Plus domain you got)
- Is there a good team section: consistent head shots, work experience, links to LinkedIn profiles, twitter accounts
- Proper and up to date contact details: a Google street view search does not take you to your parent's house.
- If your legal name is different than the one you are trading with, put it somewhere in the footer for people who do background checks on the company.
- Images, diagrams are consistent with your pitch decks, take it easy with stock images and videos of culturally diversified teams working happily together that do not resemble the head shots in your team section (if they do however, this could be a great background to put up).
- The things loads quickly and shows up decently in all possible platforms.
- Check typos.
- Cut verbose, fluffy buzzwords
When you are ready to sell and your web site becomes a store front rather than a business card, you need to up the investment and effort to a completely different level. But until then, things can stay simple.
I am starting to get my head around building applications for Microsoft Office / PowerPoint, and this can be done easier on a Windows machine, so I am now pretty much all day working in a Microsoft environment on Apple hardware. (Don't worry, the result of the effort will run on Windows and Mac).
The whole Windows experience is fantastic and completely at par with a Mac. As I said in a post before, I now consider PowerPoint to be a better presentation program than Keynote, and PowerPoint for Windows is better than PowerPoint for Mac.
The only issue for me is to get the Apple keyboard and mouse properly integrated with the workflow (scroll directions, knowing where certain keys are, and getting used to the difference between CMD and CTRL). (And... the Logic Pro X music software does not run on Windows).
I think the success rate of convincing people in political rants/debates is exactly 0%, and this tweet reminds me of that:
Some things to remember when convincing people:
- You can probably only convince people that are somewhat in the center between view points, forget about those who are extreme/too far away.
- Telling your opponents that you are stupid, is a sure guarantee that they refuse to even listen to you (or people probably have to like you somewhat in order to believe you).
- Getting a resounding round of applause and lots of likes by people who agree with you is nice, but is no success indicator whether you changed anyone's mind
- Think what moves people on the other side, then work backwards to how that relates to their viewpoint on the specific issue that is on the table.
- People are not segmented in 2 camps across all issues (the way it looks like on election day), so stereotyping is unlikely to work.
(* End of rant *)
I am currently reading the book "How Music Works" by David Byrne (Talking Heads). Off topic: it is a fascinating study about creating and perceiving music, highly recommended.
In the book, he talks about how music software is influencing music creation and draws parallels with what PowerPoint is doing to presentations:
"With the Microsoft presentation software PowerPoint , for example , you have to simplify your presentations so much that subtle nuances in the subjects being discussed often get edited out . These nuances are not forbidden , they’re not blocked , but including them tends to make for a less successful presentation . Likewise , that which is easy to bullet - point and simply visualize works better . That doesn’t mean it actually is better ; it means working in certain ways is simply easier than working in others ."
Byrne, David. How Music Works (p. 132). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.
I agree that a good presentation irons out subtleties and nuances, but I would not call this dumbing down. A 10 minute presentation needs to get the investment pitch done with a very pragmatic objective of getting to the next stage of due diligence. In a sense you can compare it to the hit single with the simple hook that can create interest for the broader work of the artist.
Image via WikiPedia
When you are going on your first fund raising round, you need to stand out from the crowd in 2 ways: 1) investors need to remember you, 2) investors need to remember you as a company they want to invest in.
Creating an over the top, crazy, original, cutesy, pitch deck will score you point 1, but it is a risky bet, 1 does not automatically lead to 2.
I can't find the exact blog post to link to, but Seth Godin always preaches to look like the company you want to be. And in startup fundraising, it is pretty much the same. Early pitch decks of successful companies that got funded just have that look of companies who get funded. Yes, a tautology.
It is very hard to copy a certain look. Try and copy the look & feel of a famous poster in your presentation, and it almost always comes out differently. It is very difficult for the brain to look and reproduce things objectively. Yes, the margins are a bit smaller, the fonts are different, what is wrong with using black instead of dark grey. Each change is small, but they all add up.
Don't copy an old pitch deck slide-by-slide, but step back and put yourself in the shoes of an investor, and reverse engineer why she decided to put in her money after reading/seeing the slides.
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.
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:
- Putting very long and elaborate formulas in just one cell saves you a lot of rows with subtotals and other intermediary steps of calculations
- 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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
- I speed read through a chapter to vaguely familiarise me with the new concepts, I don't even attempt to understand the code examples.
- Put the material away.
- 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").
- Put the material away.
- Now, I go through everything and don't continue until I understood everything
- Finally, I start doing exercises, and discover that I actually did not get some basic things, forcing me to go back into the text
- 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.
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.
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.
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.