Coding...

Coding...

I left the world of computer science in 1992 after receiving my engineering degree, and recently made an effort to bring my skills back to 2018. The first version of the SlideMagic app was outsourced to a developer, and I had virtually no understanding of the underlying code, and focusing purely on designing the user interface.

As I am pushing for the next iteration of the app, I want to change that and I am making great progress. The “practice” feature I am working on is developing a razor sharp, 100% correct, conversion of SlideMagic decks into fully editable PowerPoint files. (The current conversion gives you a clean file that you can present in PowerPoint, but as soon as you start to edit PowerPoint shapes, the imperfections in the conversion are revealed, but it is already one level up from many other presentation applications that simply paste a screenshot of a slide into a blank PowerPoint slide).

The process so far has been interesting and I am starting to understand the file structure of PowerPoint files, the PowerPoint object model, Microsoft’s .NET framework and the C# language. All of this technology is sparking new potential ideas where to take SlideMagic next.

Software development in larger teams is like a funnel: you define the spec, and the developers set the train in motion to deliver it. Sometimes, the phase I am in, less organised and experimenting where I can, works better to come up new concepts to make it easier for people to create presentations and business documents in general, especially the “everyday” ones.

Apologies to the potential clients for bespoke design work I have been turning down over the past few months, but hopefully they can benefit from what I come up with at the moment at some stage in the future.

Cover image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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Number (in)consistencies

Number (in)consistencies

Have a look at the elaborate footnote at the bottom of this graph in a recent Venture Beat post:

A big apology for using multiple data sources, and as a result, producing 2 sets of slightly inconsistent numbers in the same report.

Data sources are almost always confusing and inconsistent. But that is the problem of the analyst, not the audience of a presentation. Using inconsistent in a presentation makes it harder for the audience to understand your story, but more importantly it also undermines your credibility.

If you have a good reason to adjust publicly available figures (and the VB team seems to have), why not create your own new data set? This is what we did at McKinsey all the time, adding the famous “McKinsey analysis” as a source of the figures at the bottom.

So, when having to present an analysis:

  1. Analyse all the inconsistent and confusing data around there

  2. Decide if you are confident enough to make adjustments: decide whether you are going to go with the raw data, or your own data. Stick to this throughout your presentation

  3. If you decided to use your own, you can throw in a backup chart at the end that shows how/where your adjustments impacted the data that people are used to seeing.

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Ways your presentation can look wrong

Ways your presentation can look wrong

There are many:

  • It has standard PowerPoint colors, you couldn’t be bothered to even try to make an effort

  • It looks so slick and professional, like an iPhone launch deck, that potential investors in your seed company start to wonder what you are hiding (and how smart your spending is)

  • It is clear that you made a tremendous effort to make things look slick but all those gradients, shadows, clip art, and icons somehow still do not look right

  • Those curly accents, mint green soft fonts, and cute images look pretty but it does not seem right for a semiconductor company that needs to pitch to global device manufacturers

  • The spectacular animations that keep on moving and/or these clashing colors unsettle the audience’s central nerve system

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The summary bullet point page

The summary bullet point page

Some sections in a presentations cry for something that ties everything together, a summary at the start rather than charging straight in with 1-message, 1-slide charts. Also, these summary charts come in handy for people who are reading your slide deck, rather than experiencing the live performance.

How to avoid turning your presentation in a boring bullet point reading exercise?

The mistake people make with these bullet point summary charts is that they spent too much time on a bullet point more or less telling the whole story, and then, repeating the whole story again when they hit the slide that was supposed to deliver the message, but probably spending too little time on that one because it feels repetitive.

So what to do?

  • Keep these summary bullets really short (but meaningful)

  • Go through them as a summary (“Our product has 3 advantages: design, weight, and an exciting colour, let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail”) [CLICK, next slide].

Almost keep up the same speed as it would take someone to read the bullets, and develop a radar for when you start using the word “uh”, and go into a tangent about product colours at bullet 3.

It requires discipline.

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Consistency = credibility

Consistency = credibility

“Our technology saves costs!”. In the early days of a startup it is often not possible to quantify exactly what the cost benefits of your product will be. And many decks I see reflect that uncertainty. In the same deck you can see:

  • Slide: cost is a big problem

  • Slide: a technology gap makes users lose a lot of time

  • Slide: our technology can deliver double the power at the same cost

  • Slide: cost savings at our pilot client were 30%

  • Per transaction cost went from $1.1 to $1.2 at 40% more power

Investors will forgive you if things are not completely certain at the moment, but get confused when you throws different stories at them.

All the points above can be rooted in one single, consistent story. Maybe it is better to phrase exactly what is happening with your product, and then show a number of scenarios who it could create value for clients.

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Story evolves - the chart did not

Story evolves - the chart did not

I often say that slides are a safety net for the presenter in the early days of a presentation. After a number of runs, the presenter becomes confident enough to deliver the story pretty much without slides. Putting up the next slide is merely a mental placeholder that triggers the next point in the story.

As a presenter, you might fail to notice that after a couple of months your story can change/drift, and the actual slide that you put on the projector no longer back it up completely.

It is good to do an objective 10,000 km check up now and then, maybe with the help of a person who is not that immersed in the story as you are.

Cover image by Vincent Botta on Unsplash

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Logarithmic scales

Logarithmic scales

In the 1980s, I remember plotting the results of science experiments in high school on millimeter paper. Logarithmic scales came in handy: they allow you to plot data series with big variabilities accurately, and/or they can show mathematical relationships beautifully (a completely straight line on a logarithmic scale for example).

Scientific charts are for pondering at your desktop, a different setting from a 20 minute all or nothing investment pitch. When you show a boring growth line and have to alert the audience that the tiny labels on your y axis are in fact on a logarithmic scale, you have lost some of your fire power. It looks less spectacular, and more importantly, it requires additional thought steps in the brains of your audience. The hockey stick simply works better.

If you are dealing with serious science, consider 2 charts right after each other, the first (populist) one showing the raw growth, then followed by a logarithmic one that takes the responsible scientific approach.

Cover image by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash

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Customer service

Customer service

Seth Godin always reminds me that it is impossible to please everyone, and as a result focus on people who really love and support your work.

The SlideMagic app and template store currently are small retail businesses where I am also in charge of customer service. And as a result, service at the moment is at the highest standards, you get a pretty experienced presentation designer to fix charts for your for $1 if things are not right.

Still, now and then you get interactions with clients who talk to you like the hotline of a major airline rather than a mom & pop store, requiring immediate refunds or else…

Hopefully one day SlideMagic will be big enough to merit an airline-size customer support desk, in the mean time I continue to develop things with followers who support me.

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Like writing a letter in the old days

Like writing a letter in the old days

Pitch presentations have become more common, to a level that they now match the request letters people used to write on type writers in the 1970s to pitch business proposals: most people have made hundreds of them, seen thousands of them, everyone knows how they look, everyone knows what it is trying to do, everyone knows the basics of a startup pitch.

Despite them being very common (and maybe because of), writing a good pitch letter was (is) hard. Writing the actual thing does not take a lot of time, but knowing what and how to write is tricky and that blank piece of paper is daunting.

That is pretty much the feeling you get when having to email a pitch deck to someone.

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Pitch deck = open book exam

Pitch deck = open book exam

Well said:

So a pitch deck:

  1. Makes you in charge of the flow

  2. Helps you show data

  3. Is a check list

  4. Lets you rehearse

“Earth shattering, stunning visuals that will convince the investor in the spot” does not feature in this list.

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Pitch who you are

Pitch who you are

I cannot find the original tweet anymore, but the gist of it was this: if you are pitching your company to investors and pretend it is later stage than it really is, don’t be surprised that the whole story will come crashing down if the VC starts discussing metrics that are appropriate for the stage you claim to be in.

It is better to be honest about the stage of your company, but then blow investors away with indicators that show that you are well on track to reach the next level soon, either with or without her.

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Listen to the CEO

Listen to the CEO

The other day, I watched a documentary about film scoring, in which the composer could not stress enough how important it is to listen to the director, and the director only.

In presentation design, I see something similar. There is only one owner of a story. In many cases this is the CEO of a startup who needs to raise money, the Senior Partner in an investment fund that needs to raise money, the CFO of a publicly traded company that is updating the analyst community.

This person has a clear idea (most of the times) what her story should be. Or this person might actually not be 100% sure about the story. Or have ambiguous ideas, or contemplating different options. Existing slides/decks or other people’s stories are an interpretation of that story, or a representation of last quarter’s story. These sources hardly ever show ambiguity or uncertainty.

Part of the challenge of being a good presentation designer is to have the credibility to stand up to the CEO and push back against her if you think it is wrong, but also challenge interpretations of other people in the organisation. Credibility you get from being a good visual designer, a good communicator, but most of all, actually understanding what the story is about at a reasonably detailed level. The latter has nothing to do with presentation design.

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Fresh ears and eyes

Fresh ears and eyes

Artists and designers often say that when you use a fresh pair of ears and/or eyes to examine your work again, things can appear to be completely different from how you remember them (both in a positive or negative way). Why?

The brain mixes up reality and imagination. When writing songs for example, I can get totally immersed in what I am creating, and after a while my brain probably hears what it wants to hear, which could deviate somewhat from what my instruments produce. Your brain added context.

Listening to it again the next morning with the imaginative context, can be a rude awakening… This is a similar effect as the “Curse of Knowledge”, which says that experts find it so hard to explain something to an audience that misses their mental frame of reference.

With first versions of presentation, I almost always try to avoid sending things out “hot from the oven”, instead sleep on it one night, and use those fresh eyes as a sanity check.


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When it is in the papers, it is not new

When it is in the papers, it is not new

People do not update their presentation decks that often, and as a result, case examples or data that was really cutting edge 6 months ago, can quickly become stale, or even incorrect. Putting up a slide with Stuxnet, the $1 Shave Club, the Gig Economy, mobile first, can flick a switch in the mind of a clued up audience to stop paying attention or worse, feeling offended.

Usually when examples hit mainstream news sources, it is not going to wow your audience anymore. Keep your presentation fresh, with insights and data that only you can provide (and are allowed to share): meetings with customers, discussions with portfolio companies, niche scientific and technical publications, access to different countries, languages.


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One spreadsheet = truth

One spreadsheet = truth

Small inconsistencies in the numbers of your presentation (28 or 27 portfolio companies, 27 or 28 investments?) can confuse the audience (they are trying to figure out the numbers instead of listening to your story and evaporate your credibility (if that number is wrong, what about the others?).

Most of the time, what looks like small mistakes aren’t actually mistakes, just different cuts of the numbers (including follow up rounds, excluding Ireland, first 9 months instead of half year, rounding, etc. etc.). The analyst can easily defend them and nobody did anything wrong.

But, these “mistakes” are a pain. How do you prevent them?

Create one very simple spreadsheet with the top line numbers that is the source for every slide in the deck, and in case your presentation derails into an argument about data, put in that spreadsheet in the appendix to kill these discussions in a second.

This all sounds very easy and obvious, but think about it next time, someone makes a direct edit in a column chart from the top of her mind (“hmmm, that 27 should be 28”).


Cover image by Mathyas Kurmann on Unsplash

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Upwork scams?

Upwork scams?

Upwork is a huge platform for buying and selling freelance services. I start seeing of lot posts and complaints about scams recently. My 2 cents as a freelancer (who is not on Upwork by the way).

Outsourcing work to freelancers can be incredibly valuable to companies, and creates a huge opportunity for employment including parts of the globe which are not downtown Manhattan. Over the past decade, I had many clients who were a bit nervous in the beginning to trusting a stranger 7 time hours ahead in time with their important presentation slides.

Platforms like Upwork can be helpful to match buyers and sellers, but the current effort to scale things up are taking it too far I think. Getting hundreds of applications for a small job, mechanistic monitoring (forced screenshots every 10 minutes), the whole thing just sounds wrong and is turning freelancers into the cog wheels pretty much like what happened in factories in the 19th century. If you try to make things efficient, stir price competition among suppliers, you get cheats, poor quality work, disputes.

If you want a $10 logo done in 24 hours, it will always be “a lottery”. The other approach is to look for a longer-term relationship, with potentially bigger projects. Take more time to get to know the freelancer, have a dialogue, check out previous work rather than star ratings generated by a system.

As the use of remote freelancers grows, the best way to find one might simply be the oldest: ask around among friends and/or colleagues, pretty much the same way you would find a piano teacher for your kid. The advantage over the piano teacher is that you now can engage designers anywhere in the world.

There are other hints that tell you that you are talking to a good freelance designer, she might charge a bit more than the rest, maybe is more honest about time it will take than the rest, and the best sign of all, she is very busy and might not have time to start working for you right away.


Cover image by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

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Apple's iPhone XS / Watch 4 event

Apple's iPhone XS / Watch 4 event

I watched the live stream of Apple’s iPhone and Watch product update presentation last night. Here are my quick observations (from a presentation perspective, not the products :-) ).

  • The slide presentation quality was incredible, a combination of great layout, great photography (editing), and importantly this massive, massive projection screen

  • The transitions between slides, videos, build ups, animations was very well done

  • Guest speakers were a refreshing break, small company entrepreneurs who get the chance to tell their story to an audience of millions

Watching the whole event, I felt that the overall presentation was a bit too long, a feeling that crept in towards the end of the iPhone part of the session. The Watch presentation had lots of new features (all the heart sensors), but the iPhone story was similar to previous iPhone presentations: bigger screen, more power, better camera. I think Apple could have delivered the same message in a shorter time frame.

The videos with Jony’s voice over were duplicating messages that were said before. In previous events I could remember, these videos would go into the details of things that were not addressed by the presenter (for example how to machine drill phone casings). It looked like the video and the slide deck were done by separate teams and their content were merged relatively late into the process.

From a content perspective, the difference between the XS and XR phones was left less clear to the audience. The presentation of the XR phone felt and looked a top of the range phone, so there was a constant voice in the back of my head, “hey this is the cheaper one, what is different?” In the end, I got the answer from reading press reviews rather than the presentation itself.

While the audience for the Apple Watch are people who do not own an Apple Watch yet and consider buying one for themselves, or their parents who are prone to falls or heart problems, the audience for the iPhone XS/R are iPhone 6, 7, and 8 owners. The comparison of screen sizes between the old phones and the new ones were powerful, and could have been emphasized more in the presentation, maybe.

The Apple presentations have become so professional, well-rehearsed, and in a sense “serious” that I am starting to think whether there is space for a bit of humor, human improvisation, a sentence that is not planned.

Anyway, overall this was obviously an extremely well-prepared event as we have come to expect with incredible visuals.

You can watch a recording of yesterday’s event here.

P.S. The product shots of the iPhone XS with the “planet” on it give the impression of a bulging shape from a distance, reminding me of the original shape of the iPhone 3, and going against the flat characteristics of the current product.

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Slideshare RIP?

Slideshare RIP?

This blog post popped up in my Twitter feed the other day: SlideShare is no longer what it used to be.

I agree, personally, I do not use the service anymore, and a quick visit to today’s home page shows a stale site showcasing “today’s” top presentations that are 4 months old. I can still remember those annual presentation design competitions a couple of years ago that attracted a lot of attention.

In retrospect, SlideShare was a mix up of a lot of businesses:

  • A tool to save email attachment size

  • A place to search for content

  • A curated content discovery platform

  • An engine that enabled you to embed presentations in web site

  • Etc.

The service was hindered by technical limitations: somehow the quality of played back presentations was not that high, and full of SlideShare branded links and content, which is why I moved away from the platform. Recently, SlideShare killed the re-upload feature that preserved back links and view counts. Also, the acquisition by LinkedIn which then got acquired by Microsoft did not help to focus management. And finally, there are lots of other platforms out there that can host clickable slides somehow. None of them have managed to attract crowds that SlideShare could assemble though.

Ultimately, there is a market for a SlideShare-like platform I believe. And now 10 years after SlideShare was founded the economics of running the platform (storing lots of media rich content) could be fundamentally different.

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Those terrible manuals

Those terrible manuals

I own some pieces of music gear and most of these devices have a manual which is pretty much incomprehensible. Why is it so difficult to create a manual?

 The opening page of one of my manuals

The opening page of one of my manuals

  • Users have vastly different experience levels, some are just starting out, others are pros
  • A manual serves different purposes ranging from a getting started tutorial, to a reference lookup for obscure featrues
  • Sequential pages of A4 is a poor media platform to navigate complex technical content quickly
  • Technical language is inherently boring and looks almost the same for descriptions of different features
  • Manuals are written by people who understand the product in and out, they have reached a point where it is impossible for them to understand what issues a novice user might have when first encountering the product.
  • Logical grouping of features usually do not correspond to the way people learn things. Some features in a certain category are more important (at first) than others.

Manufacturers try. Quick start guides, how-to videos, etc. etc. But still they are not pushing it far enough I think. They should take the perspective of an introduction course that someone would give in person. Forget about the logical structure of the device menus. Forget about the logical groupings of the content. Just record how you would go about creating something from start to finish and touching on all the device's essentials on the way. Basically, a presentation.

In the case of this drum machine, you could recreate the drum track of a well-known pop song, starting from the moment you switch on the device for the first time, all the way down to recording the full track.


Image via WikiPedia

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Shana Tova!

Shana Tova!

Tel Aviv is celebrating the Jewish new year today and tomorrow. Misaligned holidays and weekends (ours are Friday to Saturday) can be inconvenient for clients and maybe even you, blog readers, but then, many have discovered the joys of slide decks being turn around over Xmas :-) Shana Tova to everyone who is celebrating.


Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash

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