Is it OK to be "negative"?

Is it OK to be "negative"?

People say that in marketing, it is bad to be negative, trashing the competition's product and/or business. I can see how that makes sense in public advertising. Being the angry company who keeps on kicking others will not help build your brand in the long term.

In closed room sales and investor pitches, I think it is a bit different. You don't have much time, and the audience across the table might not know the market very well. Stressing your positives and hoping that they will fill in the comparison to the competition might not be enough.

The tone of a presentation does not have to be negative, the differentiation versus the competition should be made very clear. In most cases, there is a positive way to spin this story. Both models have a reason to exist: your product works great for this segment, the other product will work better in that segment.

Even in the consumer market, people are looking for the head on comparisons, even if they are absent in advertising. Product reviews by trusted sources, and online comments by honest consumers, trolls, and competitors impersonating as a reviewer will inform the buying decisions.

For corporate buyers or investors, this back channel to get the real story does not really exist, and/or they do not have the time to find it, so being a bit more explicit might not be that bad.

Useful busy slides

Useful busy slides

Increasingly, presentation meetings are about discussing a proposal for investment or a product sale, rather than confronting an audience with an idea for the very first time. People have gotten the basic idea in material they saw beforehand.

So, there is a new role for busy slides, meant for pondering on a desktop screen.

A number of things can make slides busy:

  • Too many topics/ideas to cover
  • Lots of filler/buzzwords that inflate a simple point into a paragraph of prose
  • Complex relationships, dependencies, architectures, pricing models

The first two are a no-go, even for presentations that are meant for reading. The third option however, can be useful. In many cases, it is virtually impossible to visualize a complex timeline or network in a series of slides with pretty pictures and one word on them.

Some guidelines how to design these useful slides crammed with content:

  • Think about every word/label you type, can it be shorter, and if so, will we save an entire line?
  • Grid, grid, grid: make sure everything lines up with everything where ever possible, this will make the composition calmer on the eye
  • Hierarchy: create multiple layers of insight, big bold ones that catch the eye immediately, smaller subtle one for the reader who has more time
  • Use color to connect items

Image via WikiPedia

Introvert feedback

Introvert feedback

I noticed that among successful investors you will find a lot of introverts. People that don't mind working in relatively small companies, like to mull things over, don't get career satisfaction with being the new sales director which can address the entire company at the next sales kick off meeting. Quietly, these investors did some good deals over the years, and as a result managed to raise subsequents funds. (No offense to extravert successful investors, I know many of them as well).

But be sure to take feedback from these type of investors seriously. She might mumble: "the differentiation versus competitor [X] is not clear", followed by silence. This is not feedback about redrawing the competitor slide, this is not feedback about reshuffling the order of the slides in the deck, this is not an invitation to repeat your 3 arguments one more time (this time a lot louder). This might be well-thought through fundamental objection against investing in your company, she understood your arguments perfectly well, she simply does not believe them.


Sweater featured in the picture seems to originate here.

Yesterday's Apple special event

Apple's product announcements are probably business presentations with the largest audiences ever and an example for all of us on slide design and stage delivery. Yesterday was no exception: a well-rehearsed performance and great looking slides in minimalist Apple style.

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In about 5% of the slides, Apple slipped into the feature list trap though. Whenever it was time to wrap up the presentation of a product, a slide with a beautiful photo appeared, with a list of bullet points appeared, summarizing the features. Phill Schiller was rushing through the list, mentioning certain bullets, skipping others, repeatedly looking down at the stage monitor to keep on script.

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Bullet points can happen to the best of us.

4 levels of presentation improvement

4 levels of presentation improvement

"Oh, I just want to pick your brain", is what clients on a low budget often say. Two things they do not realize: 1) it is hard to add any serious value in 10 minutes, 2) 10 minute conversations never last 10 minutes, especially when in person, 3) taking a creative person out of the workflow for 10 minutes comes at a cost of around 60 minutes.

Here are 4 levels of improvement in a presentation:

  1. Quick content check: the main feedback I can give is whether something is missing in your pitch, and/or whether you spend too much time on something that is obvious or not relevant. In most cases it will be hard for a non-professional pitch designer to turn this high level feedback into a better deck
  2. A quick template fix: fix fonts, colors, images, alignment. This is work that any designer can do, you can count down the work it takes by the amount of pages, there is no need (and time) to go into what is actually written on the slides
  3. Slide-by-slide content fixes. One step further than step 2, I dive in the content, start changing text, layouts, everything, but pretty much on a slide-by-slide basis. Regular designers will struggle here since I am often editing the words of very senior executives in companies here, it requires some background knowledge, but most of all confidence to contradict a CEO. The effort such a project is pretty much driven by the number of pages
  4. The full re-do of a pitch, starting from a blank sheet of paper. This is my usual bread and butter work, and is pretty much a fixed time effort: my biggest effort is to understand your particular story. Once I am there, it does not really matter anymore whether I product 20, 30, or 40 slides.

Don't expect the output of level 4 with a level 1 investment.

Signing NDAs?

Signing NDAs?

As a professional presentation designer I deal with highly confidential information in almost every presentation I work on. Let's look at NDAs (non disclosure agreements) from different perspectives.

As a founder, inventor, entrepreneur, you have every incentive to get people to sign an NDA before sharing confidential information. You have this fragile idea that anyone could just steal and replicate. Also, NDAs are important when applying for patents. If someone can prove that your idea was "out in the open" without NDA protection, you could lose your claim as its inventor.

Investors see thousands and thousands of deals in a year. Signing an NDA for each single one of them creates some practical problems. You would have to thoroughly check 4 pages of dense legal text for each one of them, you need to keep track of all the agreements over time in order not to forget the thousands of legal obligations you entered into over the course of 20 years. That is the reason most investors won't sign an NDA.

Since investors hold the check book, they are in a pretty strong negotiation position versus the inventor. What to do? In most cases it is possible to explain an idea without signing an NDA. Simply leave the very specific bits out of the pitch. When the due diligence process advances, you might have a chance to get the investor to sign later on, as the probability of making an investment increases.

Even if the investor had bad intentions, it is pretty hard to copy a startup idea after glancing through an investor deck. You need to have the required technical know-how, the team, etc. etc. to make it happen. And even if you have all that, you need to put in the sweat to make it actually happen.

The only investors I would watch out for are those who invested in a complete, direct competitor of your product. Although most investors probably have the ethics to try to keep things separate, it is hard to "unsee" a strategy slide in a deck of a competitor when you are about to make big decisions in the Board meeting of your portfolio company. (There is a broader issue here though, whether this investor is actually a good investor for you in general).

What about designers? Like investors, I tend not to sign NDAs in the early phases of a project discussion. There are so many draft decks coming in, that it is not worth entering a legal agreement just to scope a project. I ask the potential client to send me materials that can be shared without an NDA to make a project quote.

If we end up working with each other, I do sign NDAs (unlike investors), but usually with 2 conditions: they should be capped in time, so that whatever I sign, I know that the obligation will go away at some stage in time and I won't be burdened with legal obligations that I will have forgotten about in 10 years from now. Watch out with the legal language in these contracts. One clause can say that the agreement runs for let's say 3 years, but then another one later on can state that the obligations of the contract last forever (I have seen ones where my children would have been legally bound as well). The second condition is not to include non-competes. They are very hard to define, easy to forget.

Having said that, many of my clients trust me enough that they email me the most sensitive data without any NDA (for example detailed portfolio return data of VC funds). This is usually the case when we have a lot connections in common, and/or, the other party understand that the key asset of an independent designer is reputation, I will go out of business and suffer a major personal blow the second after I spill confidential information, and that might be the best insurance of your confidential data.

 

The unit measure

The unit measure

There are endless ways to show financial ratios and benchmarks. Each industry has their own specific ones.

Beer brewers think of the manufacturing cost of beer in terms of cost per hecto liter (not liter, not kilo), but when they think about distribution cost, they think per 6 pack case (not liter, not kilo, not bottle). The cost of sending a letter is usually in weight, the cost of sending a package is usually expressed in terms of volume. Retailers think in terms of sales per square meter. Technology startups think often in terms of per user per month.

Find out what the norm is in your industry and adjust your financials.

It takes more than the slides

It takes more than the slides

The Internet is full with research reports on any subject you ever wanted to explore. In theory therefore, it should be easy to Google together a pile of slides on a certain subject, "Frankenstein" a deck together and go on stage as an expert in a particular field.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The audience will figure out very quickly when your knowledge of a subject is exactly the amount of content that is written on the slides. It shows in the way you answer questions, it shows in the way you present your slides.

This can often happen when an executive in the technology industry gets invited for a conference to speak about "the latest in [fill in technology buzzword]". People take too little time to prepare their talk, and the result is a stumbling performance that recycles some cliches about the subject.

The same is true in consulting firms, where a junior analyst gets charged with "pulling some slides together" on a subject and gets sent of to present to client at the last minute to stand in for a more senior consultant who could not make the slot.

What to do?

Option one is to adjust the topic you are speaking about, often conference owners will be open to this. Speak about something that is really close to what you do day to day. Even if you do not answer the big question on this huge issue everyone is thinking about, that very personal, very specific experience that you have will be very valuable.

The other option is to do the homework properly. Go beyond the fluffy research reports, dive in, become an expert. See which reports are smart, which ones contradict each other, which ones are just buzzwords. My experience as a management consultant shows that in 1-2 weeks of hard work you can reach a knowledge level that becomes interesting for an uninformed audience to listen to.

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(Side note: a 2 second slide created in my presentation app SlideMagic to illustrate the concept. The exact spirit of the app: sketch something simple quickly, that explains the concept, and move on. You can do better things with your time than sweating over complicated presentation design software)

Size creep

Size creep

Super high resolution images of small slide elements can inflate the size of your PowerPoint or Keynote file without you noticing. A common culprit is an innocent looking page with 30 customer logos. Compress your images often to keep file sizes in check.

Another common file size mistake is to include high resolution images in the slide master to make it easer for people to understand template slides that are meant for photos. As a result, even a simple text slide will create a huge file as the slide master gets saved as an integral part of the document. This can add up in a company with 10,000 employees.

Image compression in PowerPoint can sometimes produce unpredictable results, especially when you tick "apply to all" and you have a presentation with a lot of photographs. I often see cropped images going haywire, the only rescue is to compress images one by one. Always save a copy of your file before attempting to compress the file.

Handy link: how to reduce file sizes in Office


Image via WikiPedia

Two visual languages

Two visual languages

Slightly off topic today. I am into F1 racing and was watching the Italian Grand Prix at Monza yesterday on 2 screens: the regular TV program, and a mobile app that provided me with every statistic I possibly needed. They are 2 languages that cover the exact same event.

The TV program covers things the way people are used to: camera mainly on the leading car which was up to 30 seconds ahead. Reporters chatting casually in the background. Close ups of supporters. Audio of roaring engines.

The data screen gave a completely different picture. You could see which driver was gaining, losing, when they might come in to swap tires, how long they might last on their tires. It takes a bit of practice to be able to interpret everything, but the weird thing is that when you get there, you could pretty much imagine, actually "see", a car race without actually seeing the camera feed.


Image via WikiPedia

Getting through to busy people

Getting through to busy people

Most of the presentations I design are to support a 30 minute discussion with an investor. The hardest part of the fund raising effort is often to get to that 30 minute meeting. Some thoughts on elevator pitches via email.

Most people understand that these emails should be short. But people make the mistake of making the email short by cramming in the entire pitch in as few words possible. The full story gets put on a boiler plate, but the fire is left on too long until there is nothing left: big market, great team, strong user traction, multiple business models.

You don't need to put the entire pitch in 2 lines, your objective is not to land the investment, it is to be invited to a phone call. You want to intrigue enough that it is worth 15 minutes on the phone.

Start with a strong connection. "Your portfolio company CEO [x] thought you might be interested in this." "We are in a complementary field to your other investment"

Bring a new insight, or a surprising fact, without going into the details. "In 2017, nobody pays for dating sites anymore, but 90% of our users do". "Everyone knows that electrical cars will only sell if you can get 500 miles on a charge, our batteries could just enable that". "Google just spent $400m on acquiring a company that we can beat easily"

Avoid empty buzzwords, generic statements, superlative adjectives (300% month-on-month user growth). Keep it human and surprising.

Writing with a typography mindset

Writing with a typography mindset

When you write text on a presentation slide, the way the text looks is almost as important as what the text actually says. All the time, consider the typography, the layout of your text when crafting titles and headlines.

  • Orphan words that drop to the next line
  • Filler words, passive verbs that fill space but don't any meaning
  • Uneven distribution of words across boxes with similar visual priority
  • Etc.

Image via WikiPedia

Dramatic reduction in stock image use

Dramatic reduction in stock image use

Stock image sites were a great discovery when I started getting into the presentation design business in the early 2000s. In fact, they might have pushed me over the edge in becoming a designer. All of a sudden, I discovered that combining McKinsey-style professional slides with carefully chosen stock images you could make some powerful sales and investor decks.

All of this happened at the same time when very fundamental books by the likes of Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte were published, TED talks were taking of, presentations were changing!

Looking back, and looking forward, I see that my presentation style has changed. The biggest change: far, far fewer (premium) stock images. How come? Post-rationalizing:

  • I got much better and assessing the setting in which the presentation would be delivered. And very rarely do I design presentations for a massive keynote or TED Talk. Most of the time, these are decks that will be presented in a small conference room, to a small audience. And more importantly, the first "punch" that these decks need to deliver is in the email inbox, when an investor or potential customer decides to keep on clicking (or not). More and more, I am starting to design these presentations for the impatient attachment clicker, and less for the live audience. This means: fewer images, and yes denser content. It is cumbersome to maintain 2 versions of a document (one for sending, one for presenting), so in practice the live audience is suffering a little bit at the expensive of the email attachment reader.
  • Investor and sales audiences have evolved. Pitches have a high degree of similarity, they all follow a similar pattern, companies are addressing similar types of problems, pitching similar types of technologies (investors are increasingly specializing), so I see less need to "wow" the audience with dramatic new concepts (self-driving cars) but rather focus more on the nuts and bolts of an innovation. Investors are clued up, and look for the substance, quickly clicking through the pretty pictures. 
  • The premium stock image sites are collapsing under their own success. Image banks are diluted with designs that are somewhere between an actual clean photo and a finished design concept. Quality is technically good, but artistically "cheesy" and staged. Opening these sites as a designer makes you instantly feel that you are "in the wrong part of the Internet" And I am sure that even the layman designers gets totally confused when browsing these image sites.
  • Free alternatives to paid stock image sites are popping up everywhere. If you need an image of the tip of an iceberg, you can find pretty decent ones on Google Image search (use the labeled for re-use option), WikiPedia or one of the many free stock image sites (that try to lure you into buying premium images that are often not better). 
  • And finally, I think it is a matter confidence and experience, where I somehow found a personal design style that involves fewer images.

Working in Google Slides

Working in Google Slides

Recently, a client insisted on using Google Slides for our presentation design project, especially because of its good collaboration features. Instead of starting a presentation in PowerPoint, then converting it to Google Slides, I took the native approach, and created a presentation from the ground up in this application.

The design of Google's office user interface has improved a lot over the years. Things look beautiful and work fast and snappy. Still, the Slides product is full of little issues that 1) slows down a pro-user like me, and 2) makes it harder for the layman designer to make good looking documents.

Because I invested my own hard-earned money in my presentation app SlideMagic, I feel a bit hesitant here to spoon feed a ready made upgrade suggestion list to a multi-billion dollar software developer with the world's smartest programmers ready to implement them....

In 2017 - leaving minimalist SlideMagic aside - I think PowerPoint is again/still the best slide design software out there (also on Mac), better than Google, better than Apple Keynote. The main criterium here is not feature set, but workflow.

There have been many of these types of posts on my blog over the past 9 years, and I am sure there are many more to come as products continue to evolve.

App demos

App demos

There is one particular customer segment that often requests a quote for a pitch deck: productivity apps (my own app SlideMagic falls in this category).

  • A reasonably complex user interface
  • Taking on long established solutions (Microsoft Office, etc.)
  • Does not require a huge development investment (relatively to other startups)

In most cases, I advice these clients not to invest in a professionally designed pitch deck: the story is usually pretty clear ("PowerPoint is a pain, and we are going to end it") and investors could spot easily whether this is a VC-type investment (something where they can deploy a significant amount of capital and generate a big exit), by looking at the early customer traction numbers.

What can you do without a professional presentation designer:

  • Make a careful budget and see what sort of investor you need, when. If you have not found product market fit with stellar user engagement numbers, it might be too early to splash on customer acquisition, and it is better to continue to boots strap product improvements.
  • Rather than investing in the design of the presentation, invest in the design of the app, and make a killer demo: lots of nice screen shots with commentary, in an intuitive flow that show the magic of your creation.
  • Present a well-thought through budget and release pipeline, showing the stages of development work.
  • Invest a lot of time in understanding your early user base, which segment of your users get hooked, which not.

Image via WikiPedia

4:3 or 16:9?

4:3 or 16:9?

"What, it is 2017 and you design a deck in 4:3 format?", I got these questions a few times. Here are the pros and cons of both formats.

A 16:9 or widescreen aspect ratio will give you a nice image on an LCD conference room monitor or desktop/laptop screen with the black bars on the left and right

A 4:3 aspect ratio will look better on projectors, which are still used in many larger presentation rooms. Also: 4:3 looks better when decks are printed, a habit that is still very common in the financial services industry where people like to take notes, look in detail at data tables, (and probably want to take an opportunity to quickly flick ahead if the presenter is slow/boring).

And personally, I like the design freedom of a more even design canvas (4:3) better than the wide screen version, which forces me to make horizontally stretched slide designs. (A cheat: put the headline across a number of lines to the left of the slide and use the imaginary 4:3 canvas to the right of it for your slide content.

So, here you have it. I don't think 4:3 is old fashioned for presentations (it is for movies), it just depends on the most likely presentation context you expect.

In my presentation app SlideMagic, I used a 4:3 canvas, but use the extra horizontal space of a 16:9 screen to add your "explanation boxes" that you can slide in and out. When set to "out", the presentation becomes 16:9 with a more detailed description of the slide in case you send the document ahead of a meeting and the recipient will open/read it without you being there to explain it.


Image via WikiPedia

Bringing it together in a P&L

Bringing it together in a P&L

Nobody can accurately predict a P&L five years from. But, most entrepreneur have a pretty good idea about the cost of running the business over the next 12 months. Product development, giving a free 1 year subscription to new customers, designing the marketing materials, hiring an investor presentation designer, etc.

Still there is value to putting all these floating numbers in a coherent P&L. In the short term, you can fix the exact timing of your expenses. "Free subscription to new customers" is a zero entry in the budget, but in a P&L becomes a real cost. Thinking about year 5 forces you to do the check whether your business is actually vaguely plausible. Can you recruit the required 10,000 enterprise customers with a 5 person sales force? Is it viable to have $500 server cost per customers if they are only paying $400 at best, before even getting to R&D and marketing costs?

The P&L is a thought exercise, not a tool to calculate your $20m profits in year 5.

My standard page layout

My standard page layout

The empty template in my presentation app SlideMagic uses pretty much the same layout as my bespoke work in PowerPoint/Keynote for clients:

Big slide headline that can run over 2 lines (I like elaborate titles, similar to newspaper headings), without any graphical elements (lines, banners, logos)

  • Small logo in the bottom right, I compromise here and give in to most companies insisting that the audience should be reminded to whom they are listening on every page. Many clients want to move that logo left, which creates a graphical imbalance: the bottom right logo balances the weight of the left-aligned title in the top left. Also, a logo at the left creates problems with footnotes.

Build your image library

Build your image library

It is surprising to see that most of my clients have very few images of their staff, their products, their client installations. The result: very poor product image shots, and a set of inconsistent headshots of the management team in the presentation.

Make it a habit to build your image library constantly using your smartphone. Snap a picture of the management team meeting (when everyone is in the same room together), the product demonstration, the big shipment of product that goes out of the door, maybe the strategic partner visiting.

In that way, you always have a rich library of images to chose from.