Slide Deck design: how to make better presentations

Behind the most remembered Steve Jobs speeches were his slide decks in all their useful yet understated beauty. Judging by how fast Jobs convinced Appleheads that they needed an iPhone or a MacBook Air, you can say the presentations did serve their purpose.

Similarly, as the CEO and/or cofounder of your own company, you will face not only consumers but also investors – people with deep pockets whom you need to convince regarding your product or service. A well-thought-out presentation help you communicate and sell your ideas to them.

Through the tips in this article, you will learn only the elements that are essential to building a better deck. Proven by some of the masters of the craft, these 10 things are your guide to creating a presentation that you can be proud of and will make your story stand out.

The Big Picture

1. Think of Your Story First

Build your slides around your story, not the other way around. Focus on your main message first, then structure the supporting points around it, according to TED Talk resident UX lead Aaron Weyenberg. For instance, the core of the famous Airbnb pitch deck can be summed up in seven words: “Book rooms with locals rather than hotels”.

With a brief line like that, you can start weaving a story. Outline a beginning, a middle, and an end. Read here about the how the greatest communicators used storytelling to generate interest. Weyenberg adds practicing and timing your presentation. Only after this will you move on to crafting your slides, which serve to supplement and not caption the words you’ll speak. The pitch deck should be a visual enhancement of the listener’s experience.

 

2. Create Consistency

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Decide on the overall design by considering typography, colors, and imagery. If your business has an existing style guide, then it is only a matter of applying the elements onto the slides. But if you are starting from scratch, that is also fine.

Use it as an opportunity to learn a thing or two about font pairing. Say, you are a startup fashion house. Take a look at typefaces that connote elegance and sophistication. Play with classic and contemporary ones. Consider the combination of Bodoni, an old favorite for fashion magazine headings, and Montserrat, a relative newcomer that provides contrast. 

You can also create icons that complement. And if you introduce a black and white image, stick with the theme all throughout. Consistency is key.

 

3. Develop Templates for Transition

On the extreme end of consistency is monotony. Weyenberg cautions against this and recommends adding spice to your slides. For instance, present the key points using a light text on a dark background. But also give your audience a break by using a dark text on a light background for transition slides.

Make sure to use the transition template before a new topic. In the PowerPoint universe, transitions also refer to animations. These can only distract the audience, though. And remember that you are wooing angel investors and venture capitalists. They should not feel like you are wasting their time. Transitions will be discussed further in the eighth point.

4. Break Up Lines

This connects with the very first point, which focuses on the story. As much as possible, avoid typing out lines that you will already use when talking to your audience. Focus on words that will enhance your storytelling.

Remember: your goal is to enhance the listening experience. You do not want your audience to exert too much effort on reading a block of text while listening to you speak the exact same words. If you must type multiple lines, you can rely on bullet points. Fire the bullets one by one, too. If you can demonstrate your point, like how Steve Jobs tinkered with the iPhone models during keynotes, go for it.

5. Inject Imagery

Well-placed photos can help the audience connect to your presentation, so use images sparingly yet strategically. In a TED Talk, astronaut Chris Hadfield got away with peppering 34 out of 35 slides with photos and videos. But check this out: his story was compelling enough, and the images only served as visual cues for the audience.

You, on the other hand, may not have the luxury of filling a presentation with 19 photos of smiling customers or your staff hustling inside a mini-Googleplex-esque office. So do not force it. But when you do inject an image, it should be making a statement. Try extending its dimension to the edges of the slide. Then insert a text that inspires action or touches on the meaning and purpose of your product or service.

Moving on from general guidelines, the last five points will focus on specific steps:

6. Follow the Rule of Three

Back again to Apple’s most famous orator. In his speeches, Steve Jobs would introduce three benefits of a particular product. Why three? It is said to be the magic number when it comes to the mind's ability to hold information. In February 2007, he teased the audience by saying they should expect three products that night. These were “a new iPod, a phone, and an internet communication device.” It turned out that it was three products found in one: the iPhone.


Three features, three key stats, three words that sum up the user experience. You can always tap into the power of three in your presentation. Three is short enough to entertain, but it is not too short either to lack the capacity to educate.

 

7. Take the Hero vs Villain Approach

If you have a protagonist, then you must have an antagonist. You can approach it this way: present a problem that an existing competitor cannot solve or has unwittingly created. Then present your solution.


Take again the example of Airbnb. Though the presentation took pieces of information from Couchsurfing.com and Craigslist.com, such as the market size, it also won in one area. It was able to show the investors what set Airbnb apart. After all, the two other businesses were already providing the market with bookings and listings of local places. Yet, Airbnb said they can do better by allowing hosts to earn and guests to book in three simple steps.

 

8. Detach from Distractions

Go easy on the transitions that are available in your slide deck creator. As mentioned earlier, these can only distract the audience. Worse, they can be annoying. Flipping or dissolving the page can feel like a cheap trick when it comes to gaining the attention of listeners.You know that some of the most important people you will meet in your lifetime are watching.  Why risk falling into that trap?


So do not be boring. If transitions are built into your template deck, take the time to edit them out. You are dealing with the ideal 10-20 slides after all. It will not be too much of a chore. But if you really have to use them, just settle for the subtle ones. And use the same type across the deck.

 

9. Dupe-and-mask

According to Weyenberg, this is a better way of emphasizing a point than stamping a big arrow on the slide. The fading effect allows you to reveal the parts one by one. This adds an element of mystery to the presentation. In addition, it is short and sweet enough to highlight a point and not depart from the original intent of the pitch.

The first thing to do is duplicate. You have to slide the image transparency down to under 100. Then duplicate the image with the second one appearing on top of the original. Slide the transparency of the duplicate image back to 100.

 

10. Moderate Motion

If you need to insert a video clip, do not set it on auto-play. You would want to be able to control the clip when it is its turn to show up in your presentation. A common scenario would have the presenter clicking to the desired slide and then the player failing to load the video at once. Sometimes this causes a brief moment of panic on the presenter's end. Instead of having the video play with one more click, they cause the deck to advance to the next slide. Weyenberg recommends setting the video to click to play. This way, you have established control over the video clip.  

As the day of the presentation nears, you can also feel the pressure rise. You certainly want to please the investor crowd once you get up on the stage. It can already be challenging, especially for first-timers, to condense the business model and story into a 20-minute pitch. The deck only comes secondary to that.

And yet, building a better, more effective slide deck is an important part of the preparation. It is no easy feat in itself.  To show your commitment, you have to allow yourself to be creative while working within the parameters of a great, time-tested design. 


To relieve you of some of the pressure, here are a few more recommendations and examples from other evangelists such as Guy Kawasaki. Online, you can also find templates that you can use on the go, such as the ones crafted by Slidebean. These business presentation templates have been created with startups in mind. Incorporate the 10 tips and tricks you just learned into these templates, and you will be on your way to dishing out a slide deck that will make your story stand out.


Slide deck design for startups: making your pitch stand out

Creating a blockbuster deck needn't be an agonizing experience akin to passing a kidney stone. It's like any other serious task—you take it one step at a time until you eventually produce something that makes your own eyes light up. Let's examine four critical ideas behind the art of cranking out a top-notch slide deck that impresses even jaded venture capitalists who have already seen numerous elevator pitch examples.

 

1. Reduce Your Product or Service to Its Elemental Form

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It's understandable that after being deeply immersed in the development process for months or even years, you might believe that merely describing your product or service requires many, many words. This is a common delusion. Even a sophisticated metallurgical process for manufacturing highly specialized aircraft parts can be briefly and cogently described to smart laypeople.

Wealthy investors tend to be more knowledgeable than most about an astonishing array of complex topics, but they aren't necessarily experts in their target industries. They reasonably expect you to use your insider knowledge to bring the essence of your startup business and its attendant technology portfolio to them for easy comprehension. The fruits of this exercise will be useful when you start selling your product to customers.

Trying to explain your business model to a bright school-age child will yield ample results. If you don't have children of your own, another company stakeholder or business associate, might. You could run into the most amazingly insightful questions, leading you to refine your explanation for adults.

Consider the following hypothetical explanation to a smart child:

"Jet aircraft fly high and fast. Their engines work hard and get very hot. Some parts in these engines are beaten up thousands of times a second. It's almost as if a mean but invisible wolverine was trying to tear them apart with red-hot teeth. These engine parts have to be amazingly tough. We specialize in making tough metal alloys for jet engine components. Some metals don't mix easily, but we've learned how to make titanium, iron, and aluminum play together. Our jet engine parts are better at fighting that wolverine. We're starting a business to make lots of tough jet-engine parts for aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This business could make a lot of money."

Simplistic, sure—but you get the idea. Reaching extreme simplicity makes it easier to subsequently tailor the explanation to nearly any target audience.

2. Define Your Customers and Your Competition

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No business model is complete without a clear explanation of how you plan to crush your competitors. A detailed, believable plan for first establishing a firm toehold in your chosen commercial niche and then steadily expanding your company into solid profitability and eventual marketplace domination would be perfect.

Defining the boundaries of a marketplace niche can be deceptively difficult. The scope and capabilities of existing software packages tend to expand relentlessly into related niches, and even longstanding physical products can abruptly swerve into irrelevancy as technology advances. You'll benefit greatly from closely studying not just obvious competitors but major players in related industries. It's hard work, and you might want to hire a professional researcher to sniff out recent or obscure developments that could impact your business model.

Quite apart from straightforward competition, the proliferation of broad technology patents could throw a major monkey wrench into your plans. Are you certain a patent troll hasn't already abusively filed for a vaguely worded patent that only anticipates your business idea without actually implementing it? If necessary, a patent researcher can help with this esoteric field of research. Your prospective investors will ask these questions if you don't, so being prepared will forestall potential embarrassment and instant loss of credibility.

3. Brevity and Clarity are Golden

Experienced investors keep their checkbooks close to their vests and their skepticism primed. The simplest way to avoid turning them off is to say as little as possible while still saying everything you need to say.

Consider a hypothetical example of clarity vs. brevity. Can you spot the essential differences between these two passages?

  • "Frabjous Manufacturing, Inc., plans to approach the potentially extensive aftermarket for car-mounted, phased-array radars by carefully designing its advanced radar kits to appeal to the widest possible audience and then packaging them to sell quickly through major retail chains after obtaining substantial purchase orders from retail buying agents.
  • "Automobile enthusiasts, business commuters, retail buying agents, and other prospective customers love the idea of aftermarket kits with advanced car-mounted radars for spotting high-flying UFOs, attack crows, and approaching tornadoes. Our team at Frabjous Manufacturing, Inc., has an immediate plan for selling this product through major retail chains."

The second passage is a touch longer than the first, but it feels shorter and sweeter nonetheless because it crams action and vivid imagery into the production instead of turtle words that leave your audience longing for the end.

Slow-moving notions like 'carefully designing' and 'widest possible audience' make way for intensity like 'love the idea' and 'spotting high-flying UFOs, attack crows and approaching tornadoes'.

This sort of enthusiastic efficiency is less common than you might think. Stuffing your sentences with focused images of enthusiastic customers and commercial success across multiple markets works far better than populating them with plodding descriptions that strike potential investors as boring, unimaginative, and unfortunate.

 

4. Slam Down Hard on Visual Aspects

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The human brain is inherently visual. The available mental bandwidth for visual elements is far greater than for written and spoken words. Harmoniously matched colors and hues tell a richer, more satisfying story that transcends the dimensional flatness of text. Used intelligently, static visual elements and animations can seriously improve the impact of your slide presentation.

Always ask yourself how a proposed visual element contributes to the clarity of the business vision you want to convey.

As with every other aspect of a powerful presentation, irrelevancies must be tossed out. Always ask yourself how a proposed visual element contributes to the clarity of the business vision you want to convey.

A picture or even a small movie of a cute puppy romping in a sunlit meadow as it happily anticipates the success of your company might raise a chuckle, but it's not relevant to your presentation.

The same logic applies to random cityscapes, panoramic views of industrial complexes, and close-ups of machinery—unless the machinery is the business idea you're pushing.

Animations that concisely illustrate key industrial and marketing concepts are great as long as they stay on point and stop immediately once they've finished the job. It's easy to fall in love with an animation for its own sake, so keep animations under control. Fancy transitions that contribute nothing are irrelevant. If you must, use quick fades and simple sliding transitions. Your audience will appreciate the courtesy of not being subjected to someone's badly concealed ambition to be a filmmaker.

Needless to say, superimposed text should always clearly stand out from the underlying image. Serif typefaces generally work better because their ornamented letters are less easily confused with natural straight lines and curves in the underlying images. Don't be afraid to let your words strut their stuff in large, bold letters that contrast sharply with the background.

As tempting as it might seem to use software tools make your words jiggle, bounce, and soar, don't do it. Hyperactive letters waste time, are distracting, and will probably annoy your audience.

Do keep in mind that color blindness is common enough that you should test your visual elements on as many volunteers as possible to avoid inadvertently alienating an important investor. For that matter, you might also want to keep an alternative presentation on hand that has entirely textual elements as a backup plan for sight-impaired individuals.

Finally, remember to test your slide projections under realistic conditions before setting them in stone. Ambient lighting can adversely affect the visibility of your projections. Always be prepared!