Slide Deck Design: How to Create High-Quality Presentations

Creating a blockbuster slide 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


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


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


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 slide deck, 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!