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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Substance before communication

Substance before communication

When your boss says "Please create a presentation with the strategic plan for the management meeting next week", she means "Please finalise the strategic plan and find a way to communicate it to the management team next week".

Creating substance and presenting it are 2 different things. 

  • For a strategic plan, getting agreement on the substance is probably easiest to do on a few dense pages, maybe even in Excel that you can go over with your boss.
  • Once that is set, the question becomes how to present it. For an internal audience who are pretty familiar with the company, this probably involves highlighting the bits that are different from last year, and putting that dense Excel in a slightly better layout as an appendix in the back. 

Cover image by Celso on Unsplash

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Moving a business audience

Moving a business audience

Everyday strategy presentations are not TEDTalks that makes the audience cry. The subject matter is usually a bit dryer, and the audience is not there to sit back and watch the show, instead, the objective is to get out of the room as soon as possible.

So, what can "move" a business audience? I thought back about decks I have seen, and here are some examples:

  • A surprising fact, something that goes against the common believe of the audience. If you have one like this: put it incredibly bold on a slide (a simple comparison bar chart with 2 bars can be all that you need).
  • A logic flow that involves 2nd and 3rd order effects: especially when discussing scenarios, game theory, options, uncertainty, possible outcomes. Thinking beyond tomorrow and see the inevitability where things are going on the current path, can wake/shake up the audience
  • A brave quantification of something that people think cannot be quantified. Yes, you know you are wrong, but with ranges and focusing on what matters and what not, you can put things in perspective.
  • Being complete, putting up all the available options for discussion, options that include "this is not how the industry does things". This can sometimes be mathematical process of generating all possible combination of actions
  • A case example, customer story, that could be extrapolated to the entire company and could have huge implications

This is not a complete list, but something to get you started.


Cover image by Tanner Larson on Unsplash

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Stakeholders in PowerPoint

Stakeholders in PowerPoint

Yesterday, a request came in for a PowerPoint template that presents the stakeholders of a company. Well, here you are. The slide has been uploaded to the template store, subscribers can download it free of charge.

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Big corporates and paying freelancers

Big corporates and paying freelancers

Most large corporations do a terrible job when it comes to paying freelancers on time. And I think they actually do not realize that the worst offenders miss out on talent. Unlike large design firms (established agencies and "design farms" in emerging markets), an independent freelancer has limited ability to scale up and if she is good, will be 100% busy. Project selection large happens based on how interesting the work, and how fun the client is. 

Why are big corporate such a pain when it comes to paying freelancers?

  • Large bureaucracies rely on rules and checks to control spending leaks (rogue employees going of and buying stuff without permission). And it is very cumbersome to have multiple sets of rules: the easiest way is one policy for all suppliers, ranging from the giant multinational all the way down to the individual freelancer
  • These same IT systems have made it easy to manage numbers, key performance indicators. Often an important KPI for the purchasing department is days payable: if you get the bring the average up by even a bit, you have demonstrated progress. 
  • For the average supplier (stationary, lunch meals, cleaning services, car fleets) big corporates have a lot of value (and hence bargaining power), and suppliers will take the hit (and factor it into their pricing)
  • Big corporates get the same treatment from their big corporate customers
  • Because of the purchasing IT system, decision makers can blame everything on IT. "I want to pay you, the system just does not let me".

Why should freelancers be treated differently?

  • Freelance staff are closer to employees than suppliers of stationary. Usually, employees get paid promptly.
  • In transactions from big corporate to big corporate, one order does not mean that much. For a freelancer, one project can be a month of income.
  • Freelancers usually work on very dynamic projects and are usually (required to be) extremely flexible: last minute changes, weekend work. The stationary supplier does not have to deal with this and can plan everything way ahead. You want your work done quickly, you should settle the bill quickly, it goes both ways.
  • Freelancers don't have the administrative power (= people in the accounting department) to chase payments, PO numbers, invoice numbers. Freelancers work on verbal agreements ("sure I will do that by tomorrow"), it is not fair to hit back later by claiming they did not file the PO number in time.

What can be done?

  • For smaller projects, many of my clients expense the project cost on a corporate credit card (the one they use for travel expenses), and recoup the cost later. This puts the responsibility back with the decision maker
  • Ask about payment policy before you enter into a project, if it sounds difficult, move on as a freelancer
  • As a decision maker / buyer of freelance talent, clear the ground and help your freelancers by removing obstacles in the bureaucracy. One solution is to put in a big annual purchase order which is paid by actual hours or projects put in.
  • (Here is another approach by a Dutch cartoonist: a public Twitter / cartoon campaign, not everyone will be able to pull this of though)

In general, I think corporates should create a separate purchasing track for paying freelancers. It will pay of through the quality of talent that a company gets access to.


Cover image by Fokke & Sukke, highly recommended cartoons if you can understand Dutch

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Stress-testing a new corporate PowerPoint template

Stress-testing a new corporate PowerPoint template

The PowerPoint template is usually an after-thought in a corporate brand image project. Business cards, letterheads, envelopes, are considered more important than the look & feel of almost any document that is exchanged among employees and external investors, clients, etc.

As a result, you will find the PowerPoint template guidelines at the back of the brand book, written in language that is aimed at a print designer, it uses non-standard fonts, and its programming was a copy paste from Adobe InDesign.

Here are some things you can do to stress-test a suggested PowerPoint template that is handed to you by your graphic design agency:

  • Click view, slide master, and see whether it contains dozens of layout slides that are leftovers from Microsoft's default master, ask why you need them
  • Check the file size of an empty presentation, any huge image hiding in the master?
  • Copy past an old presentation into the new master, see what happens. How much time do your employees have to spend fixing things?
  • Try an empty text box and an empty shape: what are the standard colours, standard fonts? Do the bullet points look decent, or do they come in weird shapes and/or colours
  • Are there any random guidelines all over the slide that no one needs?
  • Open the presentation on your children's computer, how does the template look? Especially the fonts
  • Create some bar and column charts. Are the colours and fonts correct? 
  • Open the deck on a Mac and see what happens
  • Try writing a big headline, maybe one that runs over 2 lines, are any logos or other slide items getting in the way?
  • Same for a big rectangular table, can you fit it, or is there a logo or other graphic element sitting in the one of the corners that gets covered?

Make the PowerPoint template one of the most important end products for your graphics design agency. And as a briefing, don't ask them to work on an empty slide, instead send them an actual presentation (i.e., slides with content) and ask them to design a look for them.

When in doubt, you can always use the empty master from the SlideMagic store (free), and adjust the accent colour, add your logo to the bottom right, and you are good to go.


Cover image by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

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Mary Meeker slide makeover

Mary Meeker slide makeover

Mary Meeker published her 2018 Internet Report: hundreds of PowerPoint slides filled with dense information. This is a presentation for pondering and study, rather than seeing it as a backdrop for an entertaining TED talk. For this purpose, the slides look pretty decent. I picked a random slide from the beginning of the deck and tried to improve things a bit in "SlideMagic-style"

Mary Meeker original slide.png

Here are some things I changed:

  • The KPCB template features the very heavy coloured bar at the top of the page, I took it out, and tried to apply the fresher green colour that was used for the branding of the web site of the document
  • The duplications of the titles were eliminated
  • The vertical chart axis and grid lines are not required, I took them out
  • I edited the title to make it shorter, put the growth point in the title, the absolute hour value as a bubble
  • The columns don't add up because of rounding, I left it that way, but usually, I would change the value of the biggest column segment to make the numbers add up, it somehow looks sloppy when there are "calculation errors"
  • The legend was hard to read and difficult to link to the data series, I moved them to the right
  • I made the mobile data series pop more with stronger colouring
  • I stretched the data chart a bit horizontally to use the maximum possible space

A complete purist would argue that this chart is actually the wrong one to support the 4% growth point, there are no growth percentages anywhere on the chart.

I put up the above slide on the SlideMagic template store, anyone can download this one free of charge.

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Maybe you don't know your story well enough

Maybe you don't know your story well enough

Some poor, rambling presentations might be the result of the speaker actually not understanding the story well enough. A good presenter understands the story one level of detail deeper than what is contained on the slides. If you don't actually know that much about the subject you tend to hold on to the bullets on the slides, start repeating things, go in circles.

Some case examples:

  • (Me as a junior analyst in my early days at McKinsey). You just did a big interview survey at the beginning of the project and had to present the current status of the organisation to a room full of executives of the client who obviously knew that picture better than you. Every opportunity was taken to to erode your self confidence. A few weeks and a lot of analysis later, I was full of confidence and could answer every question.
  • (Me as a slightly more senior, but still junior, consultant at McKinsey). You were asked to present a piece of research/knowledge that was prepared by someone else in the Firm, you can obviously present the slides, but things get trickier when confronted with questions. Once you had complete a full project in this particular field, you could ace that same presentation, and add your own content for others to present.
  • Some start up founders get themselves into trouble when it is time for financial forecasts, go-to-market strategy, product pipelines, etc. If you actually do not master these completely, it will show.

In short, it is hard to "wing" a presentation, you need to know your stuff in order to be really confident. In real life, "study more" is not an option, you are no longer in school, but designing your own slides rather than re-using ones made by others will force you to confront the knowledge gap and show that you did not really understand the meaning of the 3rd bullet point you just read out to yourself when rehearsing.


Cover image by James & Carol Lee on Unsplash

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Breaking the step-by-step guide

Breaking the step-by-step guide

Most things we get taught are presented in a step-by-step sequence: history lessons starts with the stone age, kids need to play a boring flute before being allowed their guitar, presentation design goes from thinking about your audience, key messages, flow, charts...

As I am trying to refresh the coding knowledge that is still left from my 1990s computer science degree I now see how this approach totally does not work for me.

  • Most concepts are not step by step, sequential. You need to increase your knowledge of all the steps involved gradually, rather than mastering step 1 100% before going on to step 2
  • Brains get bored, and switching from skill training effort to another is a great way to expand your attention span.

Here are ways I sometimes dive deep into slide design, even at the beginning of a presentation:

  • Often there is that one killer slide that you simply know has to be in the deck. Why wait?
  • Nothing better to wake up a bored brain than quickly putting together a beautiful slide master with title pages, separators.
  • "Sweat work" is another way to do something useful when creativity is stuck: plopping in a P&L, creating the team slide, all easy wins
  • Super detailed comparison tables are nerdy slides that often don't make it past the appendix of a presentation, but, they put the entire story of a presentation on one page (yes, I know), and can serve as a great guide line for the story of the entire presentation, or as a check list to see that you have not forgotten anything. Better design that one first.

Hence, I stick to that zig zagging creative process.

PS. Think about this from your presentation's audience perspective as well. The logical, step-by-step, build up might work for a patient computer, not for easily bored humans.


Cover image (of a Tel Aviv traffic jam) Photo by Jens Herrndorff on Unsplash

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Quantification as a communication tool

Quantification as a communication tool

The backbone of almost any management consulting project (and final presentation) is some sort of quantification of options. In essence, the quantification is the communication.

Strategic options can be hard to compare, evaluate. Uncertainty, risk, lack of information, dependencies, short term, versus long term. Throw these in an average politically charged management meeting and the outcome is almost certain: indecision.

A quantification is convenient: simple rank the "score" and the answer rolls out. Every option can be compared objectively. Well, objectively to a certain extend. With all the wild assumptions and predictions, you can pretty much force an Excel model to go anywhere.

But that might actually be useful. The process of debating assumptions, seeing how much they actually matter, which ones are certain, which ones are a bit uncertain, and which ones are wildly speculative, weighing all the factors, is the communication process a consulting team and client will go through. At the end, the point estimate of "Option 3 wins with $52.3b value creation in 2035" might not be correct, but the thought process that went into the estimate means that option 3 is probably the most sensible option to take.

Why do people need to hire expensive consultants to lead them through this process?

  • Some sort of objectivity, an outside party who has the run the numbers with a credibility at stake
  • Raw horse power: knowledge how to run complex calculations involving risk and options (and an infinite supply of available human capacity in a certain time span)
  • Privileged access to information: data from another country, disguised industry benchmarks, etc.
  • And the guts to make broad "20% of the effort, 80% of the result" assumptions where it is appropriate

The analyst in the basement sees an endless stream of modifications of assumptions in the spreadsheet, but the client is getting the decision she wants.

Presenting the results of such a project can be tricky. The slides themselves can be super simple (a ranking of 5 options by value created in 2035), but the sequence how to take people through is complicated. Discussing your Excel sheet page by page is not going to cut it. 


Cover image by Tobias Fischer on Unsplash

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Text slide selector

Text slide selector

I am experimenting with options on the SlideMagic template store. In this product, you can now select number of text lines, bullet style, and whether you want a side image or not, and the store will serve up the requested template. This is a very basic option implementation, I am looking into more sophisticated slide selections that could be useful for data charts and process diagrams for example, which would make it very easy to adjust the number of steps/years/months in these types of diagrams.

Subscribers to the SlideMagic store can download these charts (or a whole bundle full of text charts) free of charge. 

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McKinsey slide make over

McKinsey slide make over

I found this slide in a recent McKinsey article:

McKinsey - 3 strategies for organic growth.png

I created a make over of this chart, making it simpler:

  • Remove the icons, they are faint and not clear
  • Cut down unnecessary text: capture, create value, out of the business, you can say the same thing with much less text
  • Use this created space to increase the font size
  • Center the text, the paragraph shape of the existing text in the round shapes does not look good.
  • Re-order some of the terms in the text, to make it fit the shape better, some might not like "business models" now appearing before "services" for example.
  • Move around the text blocks until they fit the shape more or less. The off center moons will never lead to a perfect composition.

Here is the result:

The slide might look a little bit less sophisticated, but it is definitely easier to understand, and quicker to create. And that's what business presentations should all be about.

I have added a modified version of the original 3-circle Venn diagram to the SlideMagic template store, you can find it here. Subscribers can download this template free of charge. If you are interested in learning more about McKinsey presentations, check out older McKinsey-related posts on the blog

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The smartphone snap

The smartphone snap

People re-use slides for different audiences. And 10 years ago, you would still be able to skip a few slides quickly when they contain confidential information if - by accident - you forgot to delete the product roadmap that you used in last week's Board meeting. (Or you forgot to mark them as "hidden").

The smart phone with super high resolution cameras means that nothing is safe anymore. There is the accidental smartphone snap, but also the professional "slide harvesters" diligently recording every slide in your deck. An HD video just needs a millisecond to capture the slide that is being skipped.

Here are some other confidentiality pitfalls to watch out for:

  • Data that still sits in the underlying Excel sheets, even when you take the data labels of your chart
  • Hidden slides in presentation mode that are there for everyone to see when you send a PowerPoint file
  • Speaker notes
  • Collaborator comments
  • File names or URL names that can still persist in a document even after its is PDF-ed
  • Tiny footnotes that give away important information

Cover image by Ben White on Unsplash

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Starting a new book...

Starting a new book...

People are spending too much time designing their own decks and sitting through other people's presentations, using hours that could have been spent on making better decisions, inventing something great, or simply connecting with your family.

I am attacking the problem on multiple fronts (app, template store), and am now starting to dust of the book that I put out a few years ago. I want to raise the quality of its production, and make it much, much more practical with easy links to templates in the app and the store.

Watch this space.


Cover image by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

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Saying no to "send info to Microsoft"

Saying no to "send info to Microsoft"

I am a huge fan of the improvements Microsoft has been making to PowerPoint over the last few years, it now outshines Keynote.

One thing though, is bothering me: after every recent update it is very hard to say "no" to the question whether Microsoft can record every single one of your clicks to make the program even better. You can simply accept or learn more.

On a Mac, I managed to make the window go away by repeatedly clicking on the red cross in the top left corner of the pop-up window, hopefully that registered as a "no".

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The mix is almost perfect

The mix is almost perfect

In my spare time I am (finally) making efforts to lay down musical tracks that were playing in my head for a long time. Part of the learning process is watching documentaries of musicians going over and over and over again until that mix is just perfectly right. (This skeleton in the studio image says it all). And these are the 1980s and 1990s, for many of today's electronics musicians, it is all about polishing and mixing so it seems.

There is a parallel here in presentation design. Instead of editing the footnotes the night before the presentation, get a good night of sleep or do one more live rehearsal of your story. Time better spent.


Cover image by João Silas on Unsplash

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