PowerPoint templates - impossible to customise

PowerPoint templates - impossible to customise

The Internet is full with PowerPoint template packs. Some are plain ugly, but others are actually very pretty. These templates are usually created by designers who are good at design, but have little understanding of business. (When the template is called “business template” you should be warned).

These templates look great as a template, but as soon as a non-designer touches them, the magic disappears. This is partly the fault of the non-designer, PowerPoint itself, and the template.

The most common problem non-designers have is item counts: my problem has 4 issues, not 3, I want to add another dimension, how to put in the business units? Simple actions like adding or deleting a row in a carefully balanced graphical composition is tricky.

In addition, designers stick to a subtle consistent style, properly without realising it. Fonts are a certain size, white spaces, margins, composition. It all looks right. The non-designer does not have this natural eye. Charts look somehow different and inconsistent, even if you followed the “rules” of the template.

Most “business” slides are not 3D staircases or beautiful maps: your quarterly budget presentation needs tables, graphs, and boxes. But a template with just boxes does not look very attractive on the PowerPoint template market place.

In my own template store I tried to make an effort to do it right, it might look less spectacular at first sight, but the design will be 500x more useful. Still, things are not perfect, hence the work at upgrading the SlideMagic app to version 2.0.

(PS I am traveling at the moment so posts might be less frequent than usual)

Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

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3 levels

3 levels

A presentation slide has 3 levels:

  1. The basic information: what it is that you want to say

  2. Some sort of visual organisation of that information that makes it comprehensible

  3. The design production quality

It is hard to get all 3 right. Most people are stuck at 1, a list of bullets of the speaker notes of what the slide should say. People realise this, and jump to 3. Either “spicing things up” themselves or hiring a professional designer to make that slide look great with awesome illustrations and spectacular animations.

They key is number 2: what do you show, what don’t you show, and how do you organise it on the page. Yes, you need some design knowledge to do this correctly, but only 20%. The other 80% is understanding of the substance.

  • Most designers lack the understanding of the substance

  • Most presenters lack the understanding of design.

And this lack of design understanding is about very basic things: how to layout something quickly with a few boxes that line up. Adding a dimension, removing an option.

The SlideMagic app is working on making you confident enough to take on level 2.

Photo by Blake Weyland on Unsplash

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Tools and templates for entrepreneurs

Tools and templates for entrepreneurs

TLV Partners is a venture capital firm in Tel Aviv, it has created a number of templates and tools to help entrepreneurs create board decks, cap tables, budgets, etc., you can find them here at the TLV Partners Funding Playbook

Although I have done presentation design work for both TLV Partners itself and a few of its portfolio companies in the past, I have not been involved in the creation of these specific templates.

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You don't know what you want

You don't know what you want

Steve Jobs used to say that users don’t really know what hey want, because they are lacking the experience to judge something they have never tried before. My presentation app SlideMagic is a bit like that, taking a pretty bold and different approach to presentation design.

Having said that, there is an opportunity for me to listen to users now that the engine is out of the car and separated in its individual components before I put it together again for the development of SlideMagic 2.0. I spotted the obvious shortcomings of version 1.0, which are 99% related to the user interface and the way you interact with the program.

So, if there is other feedback you have about SlideMagic 1.0, now is the time to speak up. I will for sure listen, I might take them into account, or not (for design and/or practical reasons). Feel free to fire away at jan at slidemagic dot com.

Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

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Sweeping animations

Sweeping animations

A VC friend told me that she asked a startup to stop the pitch presentation because of nauseating animated slide transitions (true story). No, the pitch did not stop, it just continued without the slide show. I don’t think it cost the startup a lot of points, except maybe a small doubt about judgement when presenting to investors, strategic partners, or major customers.

Big sweeping animations for the sake of animations to “add a little sparkle” to your presentations have the opposite effect:

  • It puts the audience in a non-serious “giggle” mode when you want them to be dead serious about your business

  • They take time, especially in slide transitions, “oh, here it comes again”, just when you are about to make that killer statement that will win over the audience. Also, quickly going back to slide 3 with the team bios will be delayed by 5 flipping slide transitions.

So never use animations? It depends.

For very complicated diagrams it can be useful to build up a slide slowly, adding complexity step by step. In these cases, I rely on “animations”, but usually do not implement them as animations. Rather, I duplicate slides and add additional elements on each slide. The audience does not notice the difference, my deck can still be sent as a PDF, and the lazy VC who does not bother to engage the PowerPoint slide show model will still get the message.

And of course, if you are Steve Jobs. That iPad dropping in between an iPhone and a Mac using the “anvil” effect worked pretty well.

Photo by Roven Images on Unsplash

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What has changed?

What has changed?

Technology has become very powerful over the past few decades, and we could use it for all kind of things presentations: AI-powered template engines, 3D-animated slide transitions, sophisticated online multi-team collaboration, multi-media story narrations, searchable image databases with millions of stock photos.

Still, the problems we have as presenters are pretty much the same as they were in 1992:

  • Quickly jotting down an idea on a slide

  • Finding a slide that you made last week

  • Getting that projection screen to work

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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Under the skin

Under the skin

For years and years I have used templates, libraries, plug-ins, and tools to try to make my web sites and apps work. But it always requires compromises. That PDF or PowerPoint conversion is a bit of, the blog looks good but I could have been better.

It is incredibly satisfying to write the things directly now. Dragging and dropping slides (from click, to drag, to drop), writing shapes into a PDF file one by one, cropping image bitmaps and being completely in control (and responsible) for image optimisation (file sizes, processing time).

Photo by roman raizen on Unsplash

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A few screen shots

A few screen shots

Below are two screens of SlideMagic 2.0, all work in progress (the careful viewer can spot the bugs). The new app will be how the first one should have been: slide design will be mostly the same, the UI will be a lot better to work with. (No, not April’s fool…)

Screenshot 2019-04-01 07.49.43.png
Screenshot 2019-04-01 07.54.00.png

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Presenting: networking for introverts

Presenting: networking for introverts

This tweet resonated with me:

Many of the world’s best presenters are “high functioning introverts”. A presentation gives them the space to air their thoughts without interruption, the ability to carefully craft your story so that it comes out perfectly, taking into account all those possible nuances, contradictions, and considerations.

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

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Actually doing it: knowledge versus skill

Actually doing it: knowledge versus skill

A thought triggered by my recent attempts at refreshing my 1992 coding skills, learning how to ski, and expanding my musical abilities from keys to the guitar.

Acquiring knowledge can be relatively easy: after you see an animation for 2 seconds you understand why the Moon is facing the earth with exactly the same face for the past few million years. See it, and snap, it has been added to your understanding of the world.

In the world of presenting and design, we can also acquire knowledge: white space, eye contact, one message per slide, “snap” and move on, right? Not so fast, presenting and design are skills, and the only way to master a skill is actually doing it.

Eye balling your slides in a cafe and imagining how you are going to present them is one thing (‘here I will make the point that the competition will never be able to catch up’). Doing it on stage with a crackling microphone while being distracted by a question is different.

Dreaming up a slide is easy, but how do you get these numbers to round in the Excel chart, and how on earth do I incorporate that comment of the CEO in this chart that is already pretty full?

You know that you are getting somewhere with learning a skill when your brain starts to resist, that means that you are getting into new territory as you push it to make new neural connections. Most people give up here, but those who don’t will be surprised when they pick up things again after a night of sleep.

Photo by Robert Baker on Unsplash

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Back

Back

I have returned from a wonderful ski holiday with the family and can pick up the blog again. Going forward this blog might change character a bit when compared to the past 11 years. I always have been writing pretty much about things that occurred me while doing my work, which was designing investor presentations. That is changing now as I am focusing on coding version 2.0 of SlideMagic. That does not mean that I plan to turn my blog into a Javascript tutorial though. It will be an interesting audit trail of my efforts to get this app on the rails.

Image via Wikipedia

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Promises, async, await, in Javascript

Promises, async, await, in Javascript

Totally, totally, not on topic, I am giving you a flavour of the sort of things I am breaking my head about. Javascript powers websites with unreliable connections, and in 99% of the cases it is not a big deal whether all images are rendered exactly on time. For a presentation software that renders on screen slide shows for a few hundred people or needs to produce a pitch deck in crisp PPTX or PDF, it is crucial that the right image is rendered correctly and appears in the right order, you are happy to wait a few extra milliseconds if you have to (since there is no risk of a million bored people clicking away from you ads).

Web browsers basically run like headless chickens, if one bit of rendering encounters a problem or delay, they will quickly jump to the next one, try again later, try something else. There are a bunch of Javascript commands to try and keep track of this asynchronous chaos. The theory of these is easy to understand. A decent practical explanation though, is impossible to find anywhere online (believe me, I tried).

So, here is a cheat sheet for myself, that maybe gets picked up by Google and can help a lot of people. I left out all the theoretical explanations, just the raw example code.

function unpredictable(order) {
  return new Promise(function (resolve) {
    var resultValue = 'Result from call ' + String(order)
    setTimeout(() => resolve(resultValue), Math.random() * 1000)
  })
}

function ASAP() { // Random numbers, as values come out as soon as they are available
for (let i = 1; i <= 10; i++) {        
  unpredictable(i).then(resultValue => console.log(resultValue))    
}}

function allComplete() { // One big array comes out only after everything is done    
  var promisesArray = []    
  for (let i = 1; i <= 10; i++) {       
    promisesArray.push(unpredictable(i))    
  }    
  var allPromises = Promise.all(promisesArray)    
  allPromises.then(resultArray => console.log(resultArray))
}

async function inSequence() { // Each value is released in the order it was requested
  for (let i = 1; i <= 10; i++) {        
    var resultValue = await unpredictable(i)        
    console.log(resultValue)
  }
}

ASAP()
allComplete()
inSequence()

For those who made it to the bottom of the page, I will be taken a few days vacation with my family and post less frequently over the next week.

Photo by Cristina Munteanu on Unsplash

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Rushing to the finish line

Rushing to the finish line

I watched a few performances of the annual play of my daughter’s class over the past few days. I noticed that the more performances the class has played, the better the kids know their lines, but, the faster they start to speak. Partly because they have to make less effort to remember the line, and probably partly because they are getting tired and feel like “let’s get this scene over with”.

Something to think about in our presentations as well: you know it inside out, you might get tired from explaining your own story again, but, the audience is sizing you up in a first impression.

Photo by Massimo Sartirana on Unsplash

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Web design observations

Web design observations

“Do you do web design as well?” was probably one of the most-asked questions in discussions with new clients. I still don’t do it for a living, but finally finally, I caught up and have a pretty decent understanding about how it works. I must say, web designers have to endure a pretty big mess.

It takes an incredible amount of trial and error to get basic things sorted (try lining up things in a straight line for example). Unlike writing back end algorithms, which you can sort of read/follow, a page full of HTML tags is impossible for a human to understand. Pages are set up as long scrolling bits of text.

No one is to blame though, HTML needs to be backward compatible and fit a huge range of screens and devices.

For productivity application development, things are different. Screen dimensions are more or less the same, people usually work in (almost) full-screen mode, scrolling and resizing is less relevant… All you need is a decent x/y coordinate system and you are done (almost).

That is another business opportunity for someone to cover…

Photo by Pankaj Patel on Unsplash

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A little something personal in you slides...

A little something personal in you slides...

It can be fun to add little “easter eggs” in your slide design. If you need a location, a photo of a city, a street, a car, pick one that is familiar to you. If you have a choice, why go with something generic? To the CEO of the client of your consulting project, it will look like any other presentation and she won’t wonder why your visual comparisons have a car-related theme, or why that quote from the rock song appears on slide 4.

Photo by Thibaut Nagorny on Unsplash

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Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

I am starting to get really excited about SlideMagic 2.0. It will not be an app that instantly wows you with amazing and spectacular effects. Instead, it will all be in dozens and dozens tiny details, that you will start to appreciate as you use the app more. The design of the interface, the positioning of icons, what you can, and cannot do on a certain screen, what happens if you click. I can now fully understand the stories about Steve Jobs micro-managing the design team with seemingly ridiculous and detailed requests.

The lack of this instant ‘wow’ might give me a marketing challenge as I need to win over people bit by bit. Let’s hope that people catch on to the idea. Personally, I now start using my own tool (in pre-alpha stage) to quickly layout a chart export it to PowerPoint to integrate it with more conventional charts. And that is a good sign, since I already have a pretty design speed in PowerPoint and can still find ways to improve on it with the tool.

Working alone gives me a disadvantage of speed when it comes to number of hands and brains. On the other hand, I am free to experiment with features very quickly, including the ones that turn around common software practices completely.

To be continued.

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

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Next challenge: workflow

Next challenge: workflow

People spend too much time on creating slide decks. SlideMagic aims to change that. My minimalist designs really help I think: they are super simple, look good, and cover 95% of charts you need in a business presentation.

Now that I start test driving my 2.0 app at speed, I see the next challenge: workflow: finding the right template to start with, modifying it quickly, diving back in your slide archive for inspiration with intuitive controls. In PowerPoint this does not work very well, with 20+ years of professional experience I have learned to navigate the menus quickly but the average user is struggling. Apple Keynote looks prettier but is even less streamlined to use.

My efforts continue, it is all about optimising tiny details that make a surprising difference in the speed at which you can put slides together.

Photo by Arie Wubben on Unsplash

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Sloppy with labels

Sloppy with labels

People recognise an email address when they see one, or a street address, or a phone number. People understand that they are reading product benefits or seeing a price of a product or a competitive comparison. It is OK to let go of the labels and descriptive titles if you can.

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

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Simple - complicated - simple again (but different)

Simple - complicated - simple again (but different)

Coding a program, building a spreadsheet, and designing a presentation follows a similar pattern for me:

Coding: quickly put together something to see whether it works, then clean up to make the script more efficient, and the code better to understand (especially if I have to get back to it in a few months)

Spreadsheet: create the required calculations quickly, then optimise so that it becomes easy to generate multiple scenarios, multiple business units, and most importantly, I can regroup and slice the economic drivers of a company (per unit, per client, % of sales, fixed, per product, etc. etc.) so you get a great understanding of how the profit “engine” actually works.

Presentations: especially for complicated tradeoffs, my “pros and cons” diagrams go through many iterations of regrouping, consolidating, separating, re-ordering rows and columns until a very clear picture of the message emerges. Also flow diagrams can benefit a lot from repeated iterations until you get one that is clearly laid out with minimal crossing of lines.

We start from simple, the (over)complicate, in order to end up with something simple again, but that final simple version looks very different from the one you started out with.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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Designing for speed readers

Designing for speed readers

Most books, blogs, and courses about presentations aim at a setting where you present for a big audience. The role of the sides is the support the presenter, who is the central element of the full theatrical performance.

The majority of decks as I see them coming across my desk are meant to speak for themselves, as an attachment to an email for example. “Send me the deck”, says the investor after a 2 minute talk at a conference. Your audience here: impatient speed readers.

Think about yourself browsing a newspaper, or a piece of research. What do you pay attention to, what do you ignore? Some points to consider:

  • Like on the big keynote screen, a page full of dense text and bullet points will get skipped over

  • But, super short, summary statements will not be understood without context, since you are not there to explain them.

  • Anything that sounds like what everyone else is writing, full of cliches, will get skipped over.

  • Real photos attract the attention, people on the team, the prototype, the office, even small text surrounding it (you often read the small print under an image in a newspaper)

  • Arguments, comparisons, pros and cons, need to be made very visible in clear tables or graphs, remember how in car or consumer electronics reviews to skip right to the end to the red and green check marks.

  • Personal stories that sound interesting on stage, might look clumsy when written down in a deck.

  • Watch out for inconsistencies, errors, in financial data and/or market sizes, someone reading at a screen has more time to go back and forth than someone sitting in an auditorium. Errors cost you credibility.

  • Consider putting links in your deck so people can instantly go to LinkedIn profiles of team members, or the source behind market research.

  • The speed reader is a bit less patient to wait for the big punch in your story. Building excitement and anticipation can work great on stage (like a DJ building towards that drop), the speed reader can’t resist and will click through the last page to see how the story ends.

Think about the speedreader, you might have been one yourself while reading this post…

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