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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Background videos on web sites

Background videos on web sites

Many company web sites feature some sort of video that plays in the background, covering the entire page. Some things to consider:

  • This is a background, and should not claim all the attention of the visitor. So pick calm videos, not highway car chases. Also, a series of 5 different short videos of lakes in New Zealand that loop every 10 seconds is still distracting.

  • A web site without content, but with a video in the background does not create a professional company presence. Content first.

  • Stock photos with model-turned happy diverse employees are boring, so are videos with the same people featuring in them.

If you have looked a web site (or presentation slide) for a long time as a designer you stop noticing things that a first time visitor will spot. Your brain knows the video loop by heart, filters it out, just to let you focus on that annoying DIV tag that refuses to line up. Force yourself to take that first time visitor perspective and ask yourself whether that video really adds something.

In the very early stages of a company, your website as actually aimed at investors. They want something that looks modest, professional, and with the essentials: a description what it is you are doing (consistent with the confidential pitch deck), a sense that you can communicate professionally and convincingly to future clients and investors, links to team bios, and hygiene factors such as a street address, proper domain name, etc. that shows that you are serious about your venture. Wild animations and spectacular videos do not always support this point.

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What sort of audience?

What sort of audience?

Before putting your pitch deck together in it is good to think about where your audience stands. Investors can have varying backgrounds and knowledge about a certain market. Also the stage in her due diligence process will make a difference.

  • Is she even aware of this market? “What, x million people in the world buy product y?

  • Does she understand that you are addressing a problem? “What, all this is still done manually in 2019?”

  • Is she overlooking a possible solution? “Hey, I did not know that you could apply technology x to do y!”

  • She has seen hundreds of your type of startups and wants to dive straight into the traction numbers to see how you stack up.

  • She gets the opportunity, but is wondering about the quality of the team (including you)

Different audience, different priorities in the deck

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Design myths

Design myths

This is a useful list of design myths. Here are a few relevant for presentation design (I adjusted the wording a bit here and there):

  • Myth #34: Simple = minimal

  • Myth #28: White space is wasted space

  • Myth #19: You don't need the presentation content to design a presentation template

  • Myth #14: You are like your audience

  • Myth #13: Icons enhance slide clarity

  • Myth #10: If your design is good, small details don't matter

  • Myth #8: Stock photos improve the audience's understanding

  • Myth #7: Graphics will make a slide element more visible

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"It started as a joke"

"It started as a joke"

The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen started as “joke” and trying to see how far people could push things with overdubs (180 in total, made on 24 channel mixers) and bringing opera influences into rock. A quote from Wikipedia:

“Baker recalled in 1999, "'Bohemian Rhapsody' was totally insane, but we enjoyed every minute of it. It was basically a joke, but a successful joke. [Laughs]. We had to record it in three separate units. We did the whole beginning bit, then the whole middle bit and then the whole end. It was complete madness. The middle part started off being just a couple of seconds, but Freddie kept coming in with more "Galileos" and we kept on adding to the opera section, and it just got bigger and bigger. We never stopped laughing.”

Some of the best presentations I designed for clients started like this. “Let’s try something completely different”. Often, these cases involved a relatively low-risk keynote for an internal audience. But many times these decks developed into serious presentations for outsiders.

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Development update

Development update

Here is where things stand with the development of SlideMagic 2.0. I am making good progress with a new presentation design app that follows the same (patented) design approach as the current web app but a lot of the small inconveniences ironed out:

  • A native app that runs both on Windows and Mac and saves and loads files to a local hard drive, allows you to work offline, and deliver much snappier editing response times

  • Built-in, instant export to PowerPoint

  • Instant conversion between 4:3 and 16:9, back and forth

  • A more integrated user interface enabling the editing of grids, shapes, and text from one screen

The prototype is coming along nicely, but still a lot of effort is required to iron out the small glitches before I can let the genie out of the bottle…

Photo by Jorge Zapata on Unsplash

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Lesson learned from learning

Lesson learned from learning

Here are some lessons learned along the way from my journey into coding:

Learning to code is not something you do on the side, this requires 100% of your attention

You can’t learn coding from reading or watching videos, you actually have to do it, understanding things passively is totally different from getting a machine to do what you want, which involves getting many small details right

You can get lost for days in endless searches to figure something out, and then all of a sudden everything falls into place over the course of 30 minutes

In the beginning, your code is fragile and you are hesitant to touch anything once it is working (but you don’t truly understand how), over time you get mor courage to perform drastic surgery as you are confident you can restore things to the way they were

Throughout the process your program UI needs to look “nice”, at least for me, staring at a horrible temporary user interface is not motivating. (I have the same with designing slide decks, I can’t stand ugly charts, even if they are drafts)

Coding an app involves a lot of challenges, if it starts to overwhelm you, pick one and completely nail it, even in a separate test app if necessary

I think it is OK to become lazy and “forget” how exact syntaxes work, there is always Google to fix that/remind you, as long as you understand the broader concepts

Google is a jungle: it has all the answers, but also many answers that are wrong, or highly dated, in which case the right answer might be lurking all the way down at the bottom of a page, written down by someone who does not really master English

The amount of computing power today is liberating compared to the 1990s, you don’t like how a browser renders a page? Just recalculate and render “by hand” at every mouse move and the user still does not notice.

Most importantly, when coding, everything is possible and can be solved!

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Pitch advice

Pitch advice

Some useful guidance by Jason Lemkin, a VC. Two items on the list stand out:

The initial decision is made within 20 minutes of the first face-to-face. Make it exciting, speak with data, and get to the point. The initial Yes, Maybe or No decision is made within 20 minutes. So save slides 20–200 for questions and back-up.

Making stuff up is death, or close to it. If you don’t know the answer, just say that, it’s fine. But make something up that the VC knows the answer is otherwise … that’s almost always a No right there.

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Presentation hygiene

Presentation hygiene

Most technology investors have a decent understanding of the market context your startup is operating in. So there is no need for that awe-inspiring, eye-opening, TED-talk style introduction presentation that plants an idea in the audience head they never heard of 17 minutes before.

Most VCs I speak to value a deck that makes it clear what the company is doing, how to compare/contrast it to companies and technologies they already know, how for the development is and what the background of the team is.

So, an Apple product launch-style is not needed, but still there are some pitch deck hygiene factors. Your deck should look decent and professional, not only so that the VC understands it, but maybe even more that the VC gets confidence in you as a professional communicator:

  • Can you sell to potential customers?

  • Can you sell ideas to the board?

  • Can you sell to investors in future fund raising rounds?

The strategy “I sent a bare bone deck in standard PowerPoint format because we spend our time building a company instead of presentations” might look cool, but it will leave a lingering question in the investor’s mind.

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Phone laptop convergence - 2019

Phone laptop convergence - 2019

Another blog post by an experienced technology user predicting the future where tablets and other mobile devices will take over from laptops. I disagree.

I think there are vastly different user segments in technology. Fred is a senior executive who is at the receiving end of a huge inflow of pitch decks, is probably on the road a lot, and has dozens of deal negotiations running in parallel most of which go via email. Tablets work great here.

Bloggers/journalists who can work all day from a coffee shop are probably best equipped with a tiny laptop or tablet with keyboard. Management consultants posted at a client out of town need a heavy duty work horse laptop with the biggest screen possible. Traveling salesmen need a device with lots of storage and good connectors to projectors. Developers need a high powered laptop with a big screen.

And… designers and analysts, they actually need a desktop… Having a calm creative space to create a new presentation. A big canvas to map out a new spreadsheet model. Being able to pull data from multiple sources you have open on your screen.

My own setup is a laptop, but it is hooked up to a big monitor. The laptop is just an insurance for the odd trip out of the office where I still need to access my data and/or make emergency edits / solve an issue for a template store customer.

You can see when people are working in the wrong device. The analyst making mistakes in the company valuation as she insists on working on that latest super thin/light laptop. The spelling mistakes in important emails written hastily on a mobile phone.

All these user segments have always been there, the available computers just did not match them. Now that the devices are proliferating people begin to discover their favourites.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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