Hugh Morgan is the principal at Hugh Morgan Consulting, a Bay Area sales consulting firm. He has a long track record of building teams, coaching, training and managing at early stage companies, and has worked in the technology space for 14 years, and in finance for 9 years before that. This article is the first in Hugh’s series with Prialto Post on effective sales practices.
Like, spreadsheets, slide presentations have become embedded in business culture. And like spreadsheets, some slide decks are less painful to be subjected to than others. I think that the quality of slide decks has improved over the years, but they could get a lot better. Some folks, like Edward Tufte, have declared a jihad on bad slides – all slides actually - but I don’t think we need to go that far.
While most folks in business can manage and understand numbers and have learned to be reasonably proficient with the written word, few have had any formal visual training. So, for those of you who weren’t design or art history majors in college, the following are some pointers to keep in mind when you are crafting your next Powerpoint deck.
Tell a Story
First and foremost, slides are best used as support for telling a story. When audiences see images they, in some primal way, expect to hear a story. Do not disappoint them: give your pitch a beginning, middle and end and wrap what you want to tell them around the armature of a strong narrative arc.
Stories stick in a listener’s mind best when they are personal or can be ascribed to an individual, so make your story about someone, even someone fictitious. It isn’t just “…people use our software to…” Instead, it’s “…Our users are people like Karen. Karen is a [manager, sales rep, executive] who struggles with how…”
Slides are a visual medium, and you should manage them as such. Be spare in the amount of text you use and do so only in very large font size. Avoid putting up graphs and charts that are difficult to read. If you have a lot of data that you want to share, consider creating a companion deck that you can hand out to your audience after your presentation.
More important, use visual metaphors to describe the story as it develops. This is tricky: the visual metaphors you choose need to be clear but not cliché. There are a lot of really bad stock photos out there. Using these is like using a sledgehammer to pound in a finishing nail. Visual metaphors can be quite subtle. Take the time to find the images that reinforce the story that you are telling in a subtle, intuitive way.
Part of being visual involves using a color scheme and fonts that align with your image and brand. Step back from your slide deck, ignore its content, and ask yourself “What does this look and feel communicate? Is it representing my and my company effectively?”
Part of the reason ads for designer products looks so good is that the merchandiser has paid big money to creative agencies to make them great. Indeed, not everyone has a strong visual sense, so it can pay to have an expert take a look at your slides and tune them up. These days, hiring a graphic designer needn’t set you back a lot of coin.
How many times have you sat down to listen to a presentation and the presenter begins by taking you through several dozen slides over the course of an hour or more? As exciting as watching paint dry! So, do not inflict the same kind of torture on your audience. Keep your presentation tight, crisp and short. 30 minutes is good, 20 minutes is even better. Try telling your story in 10 minutes with a stripped down slide deck, just to challenge yourself and distill it to what is essential.
If your slides are strictually visual, without much in the way of data or text, you can show a large number in rapid succession – say one every five seconds. This is known as the Takahashi Method. But this format requires you to carefully select over 200 images, which few of us have time to do. It’s best to think in terms of a maximum of 20 – 30 slides that you can move through fairly briskly.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. If your slide deck is a story, how you tell that story is a little piece of theater or standup comedy. Standup comics work their material until every pause, breath, word is carefully calibrated to resonate with their audience and maximize laughs. You should tell your story naturally, without reading either from a script or - heaven forbid – from the slides themselves.