SlideMagic is a design language

SlideMagic is a design language

I have started using SlideMagic 2.0 extensively now to shake out every single possible bug (I can’t believe all the things that can go wrong in software). The more I use the tool, the more I come to realise that SlideMagic is a design language that happens to be supported by a tool, and not the other way around.

Trying to break SlideMagic 2.0

Trying to break SlideMagic 2.0

  • Titles, footnotes, (small) corporate logo, page numbers, the slide content, all of them have a fixed place in the layout

  • Mainly greyscale slides with one strong accent colour to make things pop out

  • Rigorous adherence to the grid, everything lines up with everything, text, images, arrows, data charts, labels, everything

  • You can use any shape you want, as long as it is a rectangle with sharp corners

  • It is technically not possible to create a bullet point dot on a slide

  • It is technically not possible to stretch images out of their aspect ratio

The constraints of email and instant messages have made corporate communication a lot simpler and more efficient: text can be brief, informal. Something similar needs to happen to presentations.

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Screen sizes in PowerPoint

Screen sizes in PowerPoint

The coding of my app requires me to descend into the detail of font and screen sizes: SlideMagic 2.0 renders slides on the screen (HTML), in PDF, and in PowerPoint. It requires some fiddling to get things to look exactly the same in all three of these channels.

This post by Geetesh Bajaj explained nicely why things can go “wrong” in PowerPoint. Switching from “4:3” to "16:9 onscreen” mixes up all the font sizes. Why? Font sizes are expressed in terms of character height. The “16:9 onscreen” mode keeps the width of the screen, just makes the height smaller. The result, all text looks way too big.

Recently, Microsoft added the “wide screen” setting. This is the one to use. The height of the screen is kept the same, the width is made longer.

PowerPoint screen sizes explained by  Indezine

PowerPoint screen sizes explained by Indezine

If you are never switching layouts and masters, and/or are not coding presentation software, all of this should not worry you. The only thing that matters is 4:3 versus 16:9. Still, when you have a choice, pick that “widescreen” option to make life easier. for you.

Photo by Jon Ander on Unsplash

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M&Ms

M&Ms

Over the weekend I read a profile of Christine Lagarde and how she rescued a EU crisis meeting once by passing around a bag of M&Ms (sugar kick) and suggesting to move all documents aside and start writing points of agreement on a blank sheet of paper.

It is incredibly hard to get a large group of people to agree on a complex document (or presentation) on the spot. Sometimes, the list of bullet points is the best solution:

  • Short informal language

  • Everyone has full visibility fo what is written

  • Any distracting side comments can easily be parked

Image via WikiPedia

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Animations in user interfaces

Animations in user interfaces

I usually don’t put animations in my presentations, they don’t add much, and in web interfaces I find them mostly annoying. I just discovered an exception: the tile or story view of presentation software. If you add or remove slides from the grid in one “bang” (instantly rendering the sequence of slides), your brain gets confused and does not seem to understand what just happened.

I have something else to learn…

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

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Presentations on Apple Watch

Presentations on Apple Watch

As soon as the first Apple Watch came out, I said I would consider getting one when it could operate independently of your phone. Last week, Israeli cellphone operators finally starting supporting eSims. So far the device works great, especially for tracking bike rides (and spotting when my family calls worried after my helmet triggers a false alarm crash alert). But the best is that for an introvert with a profession that requires few lengthy discussions by phone, I start leaving my phone at home altogether more and more.

The app landscape for the watch is still a bit primitive. Many big-tech companies actually pulled their Watch apps as most users just read notifications, rather than use a native interface on the watch to do things. I quickly had a look at the PowerPoint and Keynote Apple Watch apps.

Keynote works as expected. You can use your watch as a remote control for presenting a deck on your iPhone. The use case for this is limited though in my opinion. If it could control the flow of slides on a mac or iPad, it might be useful.

PowerPoint probably is supposed to do the same thing. It asks you to open a presentation on your phone, but when you do, nothing really happens. I guess it is a temporary bug in the app.

I could see other small features being incorporated, a little buzz when you reach the last 5 minutes of your allocated speaking time for example, but these are all well, features.

Feel free to jump in in the comments below when I am overlooking relevant apps for presentations on Apple Watch.

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Yes, I know...

Yes, I know...

The first few seconds of any presentation, the audience is not really paying attention to what you say, but rather checks out who the speaker in front of them is. Wow, that is a bright pink shirt, is she senior, he seems nervous…

A major distractor is vocal accents: where is she from? Often, accents can be so heavy that they start reminding us of characters in movies and/or other stereotypes. Yes, this is not politically correct, but you cannot help the brain making that connection.

I often “apologise” for that Dutch accent in a short opening intro explaining where I am from. If you are a French engineer, with a heave French accent, maybe you should acknowledge it with a smile and move on.

Photo by Titouan on Unsplash

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Live audience questions

Live audience questions

In a huge keynote, audience questions are almost impossible. The practicalities of picking who can ask a question, getting a microphone to the person. The lottery of whether the question will actually be interesting or relevant, and/or whether the person is actually good at asking to the point questions. And what if no one actually responds to the famous speaker inviting questions?

Dedicated smartphone apps (or even Twitter) seem to solve part of these problems. Users have to be brief, don’t interrupt the live presentation, people can upvote things, and you can pre-populate question to get people started.

I have seen them in action. Often the questions are projected on a huge screen behind the speaker. But, that constantly changing huge screen is actually distracting, there is even a possibility of “background vandalism” for controversial speakers, and most of the times, the questions are actually ignored.

A solution? Use the system, but don’t put the questions on the main screen. Answer at least one question. But most importantly, use the questions that pop up to make other conference presentations more relevant. Questions are live feedback about what the audience actually wants to hear. If it cannot be used now, maybe it can help the next session.

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

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Good panels: prepare first-hand stories

Good panels: prepare first-hand stories

The ‘panel’ is often a preferred presentation format for big conferences. It seems like a win-win for everyone. The conference can advertise a handful of high-profile speakers that are all together on the stage sharing their wisdom. The panel members can just show up without preparing any slides, presentation, just winging it.

Unfortunately, the audience can tell. Panelist that get caught off-guard by a question and making up an answer like a politician, throwing in a few buzzwords along the way. Moderators that try to sow their own smarts by answering the questions themselves.

A good panel requires preparation. Moderators need to think what questions to ask to whom. And panel members should be asked to share what interesting stories they can share that then can be weaved into a question.

From my own experience, the panels that share ‘raw’ stories are the most interesting. How a company grew, what decisions they took, stats on where they are now. Everything first hand and directly related to the panel member. Very specific, actual experiences. As soon as people try to generalise and abstract away from the direct experience, things become boring very quickly.

A good panel discussion is well-prepared

Photo by Alex Read on Unsplash

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What drives you?

What drives you?

Upon hearing my efforts to build a new presentation app, I get lots of friendly advice about how to turn the program into an office productivity giant and produce a phenomenal (financial) exit. How to launch, what to build, where to expand, how to price.

While this huge IPO might be nice, it is not my main objective at the moment. I feel that through a number of coincidences I have been put in a position that can really end the suffering of creating and watching presentations in companies. By coincidence: the combined skill set of understanding business, having a feel for design, and the ability to program all ended up in the same head somehow.

Building a new presentation tool is not something you do with a huge VC investment, a high profile Board, a large team of developers, armies of social media copy writers. Getting product market fit requires tinkering, trying, starting over, fixing things.

The whole thing is a calculated risk. Today, the investment to create software is relatively low. And with decades of professional experience under my belt, I can always fall back to designing decks again. On the upside software can scale infinitely if it works.

And in addition, I have that urge to push the current V1.0 that is out on slidemagic.com to what it really should have been.

Crazy? Maybe, but not completely.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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Farewell to static charts? Um, no.

Farewell to static charts? Um, no.

A quote from a Venture Beat post that paints a bright future for BI (Business Intelligence) dashboards:

Say farewell to static charts pasted onto presentation slides — the new standard is shareable data stories

I have heard it many times before. Your new BI system plugs into whatever data you have, you click and browse through the data, and automatically the most insightful slides and tables are generated, on the spot.

I think BI vendors are mixing up a few quite different activities:

  • Analysis is finding the problem and solving it, presenting is communicating the results and getting people to act.

  • Freely flowing in data, slicing, dicing, charting, is analysis. It is actually pretty hard to find what is going on in a business, especially with an overload of data available. This is definitely not something you do in front of a live audience.

  • Once you have identified the problem, and even found the solution, it is again pretty hard to craft that one chart that explains it all in less than 5 seconds. You need to take exactly the right data, cut it the right way, and highlight the right trend. Again, something that takes too much time to do live.

Where I see role for these type of dashboards, is after you did the hard work: you figured out what data is important, what statistics to track, what charts to show. Then, you can use the power of modern BI systems to pull together slides on the spot. You get instant updates about the state of the business today, or you can apply your methodology to other business units, other geographies and see what you can learn.

So BI systems don’t solve problems on the fly, they automate the data in your deck, after you did the hard work of actually designing a good old static chart, probably by hand.

Photo by Jason Coudriet on Unsplash

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You care about your company history, others less so

You care about your company history, others less so

The speaker puts up the “Company background” as the first slide with bullet points full of founding dates, employee numbers, when the second office was opened, etc. etc.

You probably lost half your audience.

For the presenter, the company history is incredibly relevant. It summarises your entire path (10 years) that got you here neatly on 1 page. It makes total sense.

For the audience, company history does not matter that much (maybe with the exception of luxury brands), what solution are you offering today? Also, company history slides tend to look remarkably similar across companies. So the audience probably saw it before, somewhere else.

Often, the history slide is a left over from when the company was still small. It always was page 2 of the deck, we just updated the employee and office numbers for each presentation. And the same slides are probably used in different presentations. When the founder addresses the annual sales staff gathering, the company history told directly by her, might actually be funny and/or insightful. But she is unlikely to stick to the bullets on the slide. And, the same bullets in the hand of a sales rep sound boring and without context.

Photo by Pawel Kadysz on Unsplash

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App update

App update

With SlideMagic 2.0, I have hit the last 20% of the effort that takes 80% of the time. Getting everything to run perfectly is nitty gritty detail work. The result will be worth the wait though.

I am revisiting the image rendering and cropping engine at the moment. Cropping and masking images and getting them to line up in a grid is a painful process in PowerPoint, Keynote, and even in Adobe software. The professional designer has learned where to find the right tools. The amateur is struggling to make a simple crop and make sure that text over the photo is still readable, especially when the next version of the deck needs to go out in the next 15 minutes with an additional person in the team bio slide (headshot + 5 logos).

SlideMagic will come to the rescue, the screenshot below gives an idea of what I am working on now.

Image cropping and masking in SlideMagic 2.0

Image cropping and masking in SlideMagic 2.0

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Memorising a presentation?

Memorising a presentation?

Seth Godin suggests that it is better to memorise stories than exact sentences when delivering a presentation.

He is right. It is totally apparent when someone is reading sentence after sentence from a “piece of paper” that is stored in her brain. There is no connection between the part of the brain that is uttering the words, and the other part of the brain that is a believer in the story. Disconnected.

Memorising stories is not as easy as it sounds. To sound spontaneous, you actually need to know your material inside out. Musicians can produce solos that seem effortless and spontaneous, when in reality they can dream every note on every scale across every chord, after which it is easy to play around with variations.

Even if you (think you) know your story, it is hard to tell it without uh’s and oh’s, repeats, restarts, forgetting a key element, and getting lost in a tangent that is not relevant.

Not all people are equally confident to tell a compelling story, and for those, being able to recite the individual sentences of your presentation might be a sign that you are 50% on the way. Now rehearse until you get to 100%.

Photo by Alexandre St-Louis on Unsplash

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Designing with phone cameras in mind

Designing with phone cameras in mind

A large portion of conference audiences now diligently snaps a photo of every slide that the keynote speaker presents. Some implications:

  • You can no longer hide secrets by quickly going to the next slide. A high resolution camera got all those quarterly sales numbers in that nano second the slide was one. If you don’t want things to end up in the public domain, don’t put it on a slide, not even small. Yes, that might mean investing an extra half hour recreating that graph from the budget document.

  • The opposite is also true. Slides have a second use, pondering over them after the big presentation. This means you could add more content than you normally would do for an in-person presentation. One way to do that is to use an “explanation box”, like this feature in the SlideMagic presentation app. The main slide and the explanation are clearly separated.

  • You could take it even further by designing slides explicitly for the photo: for example, a calculation how you got to a certain number. Show it, say what it is, invite a picture, and move on.

The SlideMagic presentation software has an explanation panel that you can slide in and out.

The SlideMagic presentation software has an explanation panel that you can slide in and out.

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Get the start right

Get the start right

You had it all planned:

  • Lights dim

  • Lights on

  • Intro speaker walks on stage and introduces the panel

  • Roaring applause from the audience

  • Panelists walk on stage

  • Lights dim

  • Intro video starts playing

  • Lights on

  • Panel sits down in their assigned seats

Here is what happened last week at the very first session of a conference:

  • Intro speaker starts

  • Microphone has no sound, tok, tok, tok,

  • The panel is not ready

  • Intro speaker tries to crack a few jokes, while looking back stage

  • Panel starts walking on the stage

  • Lights go out, makes it hard for the panel to find their way

  • Video starts playing too early in the middle of the intro applause

  • Video starts straight with a dialogue without slow intro, hard to follow for the audience that tries to understand what is all going on

As soon as the panelist have settled in and the content of the session starts, all is fine. That first hick up could have been easily prevented.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

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Yes, yes, yes, yes

Yes, yes, yes, yes

At a conference last week I had a few conversations with representatives of companies that were eager to sell their solutions to SlideMagic. For these sales people, these events are hard work: targeting and scheduling quick discussions with hundreds of attendees. Their progress is probably monitored by software that tells them their scores in each stage of the conversion funnel: approached: tick, responded: tick, scheduled: tick, etc.

The experience from someone who was on the receiving end of all of this:

  • If someone responds to your message with "we are not ready yet for your product”, it is likely to be true. A quick visit to slidemagic.com, will show that I do not yet employee 50 people and need a solution to scale up operations.

  • In most cases, initially it was not clear what people wanted (a cooperation, sell something, advice)

  • A no-show with an apology 12 hours later, does not leave a good impression, now and in the future

  • “So what does your company do”. I start explaining, but am greeted with a constant flow of “yes, yes, yes” and a blank stare. Nothing registers. If the detail about my company is not important for your pitch, you can simply move with “Great, a presentation design solution. Now, I have something that might really interest you”.

Someone advice for pitching products at a conference:

  • Qualify your leads (it will save both you and your prospect time)

  • Be upfront with what it is you.

  • Keep your promises (show up, send material)

  • Be human

Photo by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash

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Going on a short break

Going on a short break

I will be off the grid for a few days, so apologies for fewer blog posts. Part of the disconnected time in the air however, will be a big test of SlideMagic 2.0, and see how it serves me as the main tool to build a big presentation.

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

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More beta testers

More beta testers

At the moment, SlideMagic 2.0 is tested by “friends & family”. Soon, I would like the help of more beta testers for SlideMagic 2.0:

  • Mac only for the moment: I am doing all the development on Mac with short cycles without having to build a Windows version every time (Windows will be available the moment the Mac version is stable)

  • I would love to get the help of users who have invested time in getting to grips with V1.0, the web app, they understand the design concept and can focus on the improvements (hopefully) of V2.0.

  • As an early beta tester, you will need some patience, as release version can still be unpredictable. If you would like to find out in general what the app is like, I would suggest waiting a bit until things become more stable.

Let me know at jan at slidemagic dot com if you are interested.

Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

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White noise and creativity

White noise and creativity

You get so called “white noise” when you mix a large number of random frequencies together. High volumes of white noise eliminate any singular frequency or melody that is out there, it all gets absorbed.

That’s pretty much what happens in creativity-killing workspaces. The constant flow of small distractions prevents you from doing things that really matter.

Most people think that only loud distractions matter (‘Hey, do you want to join our meeting [x or y]?”). This is the equivalent of a siren that pierces white noise. But I think it is the constant flow of small distractions, worries, thoughts, that is the real problem.

In a similar way that’s why people get good ideas while exercising, taking showers, meditating, having a drink, dancing the night away, it turns down the white noise and makes room for that thought that was always there but never came out.

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More than presentations

More than presentations

Modern presentation software today is much more than a slide design tool:

Presentation files are the main documents for decision making, most PowerPoint presentations were never intended as background visuals for stand up presentations to large audiences.

Most of the time, it is not about finished, final slides, but jotting down rough ideas, organising work and splitting it up amongst the members of a team, defining what the work is what needs to be done and what sort of analysis is required.

It is not all about slides, analysis is equally important:: manipulating data, graphs, and complex diagrams, to extract insights, understand systems, and sort of planning and sequencing of activities.

Office software plays a key role in converting and fitting the same document to different screens, devices, and file formats.

Today’s presentation is important, but presentation software is probably the main filing system used in corporate world at the moment, often linked to the email inbox (“what was that version I sent 2 weeks ago?”)

You can edit and design slides yourself, but you also need to manage collaboration with others: the technical issues of getting and integrating comments, and the management of the decision making process of what goes in, and what does not.

Presentation design software can be used to jot down bullet points like a word processor, or play the role of the platform to stage sophisticated designs and animations that professional designers use.

It is impossible to create a piece of software that can be excellent in all these areas. Some of them require specialised software development skills and understanding of user needs. Some of them contradict.

With SlideMagic, I am trying to carve out a specific use case, and give others a lower priority.

Photo by Phad Pichetbovornkul on Unsplash

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