The Slide Deck That Changed My Life
The sun peeked over the horizon as our train hurtled through Maryland and Pennsylvania, lighting up the sky as we entered New Jersey. We were almost out of time. And we didn't even have a name yet.
Before January Third was born, we were just two people sitting on a train, dreaming about starting our own agency. We had a single potential-client meeting on the books. In three hours. With every degree the sun inched up the horizon, we felt time slipping away.
So we got to work making a single Keynote deck that would decide our fate.
Our story unfolded across 20-ish slides—the story of big-agency creatives who dreamed of starting something new, different, creative-led, red-tape free. Could a single deck convince a giant company to hire a brand new, five-person agency? We were determined to find out.
I can't seem to find that presentation deck today. But I'm reminded of its effects every day: stepping into our gorgeous office, looking out at our wonderful teammates, seeing our logo jump off the page at me from every title slide—the logo we made on that very same train ride.
A strong presentation is a superpower. It can turn a mediocre presenter into a stellar one, and a great presenter into a star. Strong slides are a sermon that convert skeptics into believers, and convince believers to hunt through their wallets for every cent they've got.
At January Third, Keynote presentations are our love language. There's nothing we like more than pairing a strong narrative with simple, clear design to give an argument its best chance at life.
A deck is not a series of charts. A deck is a story.
A good presentation has a very similar structure to a story. The Story Spine from Kenn Adams works quite well when it comes to structuring a big presentation:
- "Once upon a time…" Start with the category landscape or cultural background that spawned this idea. What's happening now that you're positioned in opposition to? What's your problem statement?
- "But then one day…" Introduce your product, service or solution as the twist.
- "Because of that…" Prove that your product, service or solution is useful and effective by showing the effect on the audience as it is introduced.
- "Until finally…" Paint a picture of the world that will be created when your product, service or solution has done its job.
- "And ever since then…" This one is where it deviates just a little. End the presentation by telling the audience what one thing they can do if they agree with you. Can they approve the budget you're requesting? Greenlight a new initiative? Double the size of your team?
Keys to This Approach
- Start with feelings, support with facts. It's way easier to say yes to something when the audience deeply understands the "why." That's one of the reasons why storytelling works so well in presentations.
- Don't make them think. No one really wants to read your super-detailed charts. You're the expert in those. Distill the data down into synthesis and recommendations, and not only will you be seen as the expert, but you'll find consensus comes much quicker.
- Ensure your deck has one key idea that you can sum up in one sentence. A presentation deck is a single thesis or idea. The audience is evaluating the idea in order to decide: Should we green light this? Should we make this huge business decision with potentially enormous ramifications? Their brains are already working in overdrive. Don't let too many divergent thoughts distract from your single key thesis.
If you're doing your best job, you're presenting the strongest possible case for your idea. If they're doing their best job, they're validating or challenging your idea based on their own expertise after hearing your argument.
That makes it all the more important that your argument is clear, concise and presented in a way that makes you look smarter. And no, you don't have to be a "designer" to make a good deck.
Content + Design Rules of Thumb
The goal of deck design isn't making the slides look pretty. It's making the slides work better.
- Email or presentation? Slides should be structured differently depending on how they'll be presented. These rules are more geared toward in-person presentations. Emailed decks should be shorter, with pagination and clear structure, and should not require a lot of clicks.
- Wayfinding is key. Structure your deck like a book: a cover slide, chapter titles, key information, synthesis, end slide.
- Use the Argument Sandwich. Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them why, then tell them what you just told them. Just like in 11th grade English.
- Start with a table of contents. No one loves sitting down to listen to someone else talk at them for 47 minutes "with 13 minutes for discussion." Give a quick summary before diving into content so folks will know what to expect.
- One idea per page. We don't need to see three charts at once. We're already bored—and those charts are tiny. Give your arguments, and your charts, room to breathe!
- (Almost) never put text over images. It doesn't look good and it's hard to read.
- Make it smaller. Stuck with a complicated, super dense slide? Shrink everything by 15 percent. If not 30 percent.
- Make it over-easy 'cause everyone's probably zoned out. Don't expect anyone to draw a conclusion from your chart on the spot. Especially in minute 39 when half the audience is thinking about their phone's third buzz (and the other half is actively on their phones). Synthesize each chart with visual accents, or even better, a single sentence. Make your points unmissable.
- Images are overrated. Many deck designs go awry when decorated with images "because they look good" by non-designers. A deck is a lean, mean argument machine. Images should strengthen your point, or disappear. (Except the occasional GIF. Those are great for cuteness in the right circumstance.)
Rules for Emailing Decks
- Whenever possible, don't. It's much harder to be convincing when you can't guarantee your audience is interested, or even opening the deck.
- Make your point impossible to miss. Almost no one is going to pore over an emailed deck and use mental gymnastics to try to understand your point.
- Make it short. The fewer clicks, the better. The more user analysis required, the worse it will go. It's always a tricky balance (see rule No. 1).
- Use pagination. This makes it easier for folks to reference specific material if they have follow-up questions or feedback.
- Click to navigate! The table of contents should click to each chapter heading if the deck is longer than 10 slides.
A strong presentation turns a bunch of charts and data into a cohesive story, leading your audience on a journey to reach the same conclusion you did. Whether for new business, fundraising or even a promotion—when you're talking to humans, a story always helps.
If these tips helped you make a killer deck, please reach out and share it with us! We're always looking for good presentation-deck inspiration, with dreams of collecting inspirational deck in an Awwwards-style fashion someday. 🤓