When presenting to a client, you may feel inclined to load your pitch deck with information, but overwhelming your audience with information may actually be working against you. This week Rich & Gina give some tips on putting together an effective and persuasive deck. We talk about the importance of simplicity and storytelling and discuss our different methods of rehearsing the pitch.
Rich Ziade Speaker notes for me are bad news [Gina laughs] because I fall into them and I’m like [speaks gibberish]…
Gina Trapani [speaks gibberish]
RZ Yeah. [music ramps up, plays alone for 15 seconds, fades out]
GT Hey Rich!
RZ Hi Gina!
GT How’s it going?
RZ Welcome to the Postlight Podcast, formerly known as Track Changes. We’re going to do that. We’re going to say that three more times and then we’re never going to say it again.
GT Okay. So time three of three. Cool. Cool. [yes, yes] I love being on the show. Paul is taking some much, much needed time off.
RZ Yes. That we’ve never done this.
GT Have we never? You and I have never? Well…
RZ Don’t think we’ve ever done this. So here we are.
GT That’s a wrong, we have to, we have to right. Here we are! [Gina & Rich laugh] It’s funny because you and I, we talk a lot. We spend a lot, [we do!] we don’t talk as much as you and Paul talk, but we do talk a lot. [yes!] In fact, we just got out of a meeting together. [we did!] We’re reviewing, we were reviewing a deck, a slide deck. I want to talk about this a little bit.
RZ Let’s share a pro tip before. I want to hear your thoughts on decks, but you know, that meeting ended 12 minutes early. And in this era of lots of video calls, if you can give people back 13 minutes or 12 minutes or 5 minutes, give it to them. It’s as good as like an edible arrangement.
GT The, the clouds part and the sun shines down [Rich laughs] and the angels sing. It was the best [it’s true] ending that meeting. Cause it was like, alright, you know what we’re done. This looks good. We’re going to end 12 minutes early. Let’s just send it to the client. [yes] And I spent my three of my extra 12 minutes that I came as a gift from God as sending the email, like shipping the thing.
RZ [Rich laughs] Actually sending it.
GT Literally [Gina laughs] the best, the best feeling in the whole world. So that was, that was a good deck meeting. There have been also bad deck meetings. [Gina laughs]
RZ Yes, yes.
GT But that was one of the better ones. Slide decks are weird, Rich. They’re, they’re like a real weird thing. Like I’ve had a varying relationship with decks and making decks. [Rich laughs] And I mean, it’s funny because making a deck doesn’t feel like I’m creating anything, right. But it actually is. Like slide decks and the PDFs that you export them into are the, they are the way that decision makers and companies like disseminate information and socialize concepts [oh yeah] over, over and over. It’s it’s such an important skill. I did not. I was in denial for like, I don’t know, 15 years, Rich.
RZ It’s interesting that you didn’t, you view them that way initially. I guess you viewed them as kind of ephemeral and is just going to, there’s just this thing that’s going to disintegrate at some point. Explain that, explain why you didn’t think much of decks cause the whole world, like some of the biggest decisions that affect many, many lives are driven by a deck. Uh, I mean, that’s the reality of it, right? You know, the deck is more than a memo. It’s a little show. It’s a little bit of a show versus could you read this over and come back? Which is very anti-Amazon. [yes] Amazon is very into like write the press release. Everyone sits and reads quietly and then they talk about it. But a deck is about engagement, but yeah, I guess give me, yeah. Tell me, I love first off that you have a relationship with decks. [Gina laughs] I think that’s worth focusing on. But we don’t need to peel that far back.
GT Well, so early in my career, like late in the Lifehacker years, speaking was a big part of my income as a freelancer. So like people would pay me and I’m like, I fly out to like some hotel in Phoenix [mhm] and I get up, I get up in a ballroom, I get up on a stage in front of like 200 like librarians [rough crowd, yeah] or like, you know, accountants or something. And I would do like a presentation about productivity and the philosophy around that and how people talk about distraction and the digital age, et cetera. And so you always, I always had to accompany that with a deck. Now I’m a writer and I’m an engineer. Something I really have always struggled with is visuals, design. Right. But it’s just like, just me. So like I put together these decks, they, I never felt good about them. I never felt like they were, they were strong or like, look good. I got this like devastating piece of feedback from someone who I admire very much after a conference that I spoke at, who said to me like ”your talk was great, but Hey, you really need to like, get your decks in better shape.”
GT And it just, just, it just destroyed me. I mean, I really appreciate the feedback like that, [Rich laughs] but it kinda, it kind of destroyed me. I gotta tell, I gotta be honest. So I always felt like, Oh, decks are just the thing. And speaking was always something that was pushed me outside my comfort zone. So I always had this bad association with decks, but then I started Lifehacker. Oh, sorry. Postlight, excuse me. I started Postlight four years ago and I’m on the build side. Right? So like I start doing my work after all the decks have been presented.
RZ You’re inside of engineering.
GT And after the product has been designed. Yeah, inside of engineering. Like I’m building when I, everything everything’s been specified. Right. And none of the output of my job is, has anything to do with decks. Right? Like it’s been informed by decks. And, but then mostly by like envision and things like that. And to me, I felt like the software, right. And this was part of like Postlight’s philosophy. Right. That the output that we shipped the output was the software itself. And I took this like weird elitist pride. And they’re like, I shipped like working software. I’m working software is what we all really want.
RZ Like a fluff piece like a deck. Which is just…
GT Right, exactly. [Gina laughs] Exactly.
RZ Just, you know, maybe has a transition here and there, but it’s just words. [right] It’s promises. Decks are often promises, right? [yes] Actually a good deck has both threats and promises.
GT [Gina chuckles] You’re the master at this. [Rich laughs]
RZ I mean, because there, there are tools of persuasion, right? Decks are tools or persuasion. I mean the great software is also a tool of persuasion because you evangelize it and you tell others about it. It’s way more powerful. It’s a much steeper hill to get to that magical piece of software that people just frankly sell for you. Cause they’re telling everyone about it. Cause it’s so good, but, and for you, I mean just working with you and knowing you and you even just said it, you said, you know, it’s not your comfort zone. It’s interesting to hear it’s not your comfort zone considering you made a good living on it and became a very well known, sought after speaker yet. It’s not your comfort. It’s like, it’s like the captain of an airplane saying ”we’re going to land this thing. But frankly, this isn’t really my comfort zone but I’ll land it anyway.”
GT This isn’t my strong suit. But I’ll do my best.
RZ Yeah I’m gonna stick the landing. But it’s just not my thing. To be honest. [Rich & Gina laugh] Have you come around? I mean, look, your look, let’s give a little insight into your progression at Postlight. I mean, you were in engineering, [yep] you still are in engineering. You still care deeply about what goes on in engineering. But the gravitational pull of the deck has, has, you know, you’re a managing partner. You speak to important relationships, you represent the firm in a lot of ways. So the deck is a tool you’ve had to have a very different, I got to imagine you tell me a different relationship with then presenting to a room full of librarians.
GT Oh, I’m being very, very different. [yeah] I mean, my, my growth at Postlight really coincided a lot with Postlight’s growth, right. And that we were giving a lot more advice and we’re offering a lot more strategy and that comes in the form of a deck. And so really I understand we work in my, my current engagements that I’m working with our large companies where they say, Hey, can you make me a deck that I can send around to the group? And can you walk it, walk through this group?
RZ Arm me.
GT You know, this deck is the tool. It is the thing. Yeah, arm me. Right? Give me the slides. Give me the, give me the couple of bullets, help me tell this story. So yeah, it’s, it’s a, he’s a power tool. It’s something I’m still really learning. I’ve actually learned a lot from you and Paul about just the mechanics of making the deck, but particularly like the narrative creating, you know, [mhm] the telling the story of the pain and suffering and the risk and the threats, and then proposing the solution. You know, a rookie mistake that people make with decks. And I realized this early on is that they write, you know, like a document, like with a lot of bunch of texts and a bunch of bullet points, right? And this is, I’ve kind of blamed PowerPoint. I actually, I read this book early on in my career. It was called Beyond Bullet Points. It was by the guy who worked on PowerPoint, [mmm] like in the early days.
RZ Oh wow.
GT Like PowerPoints earliest, like templates came with like bullet points, like bullets, you know, we all been watched, look, look at the decks with bullets. And this book Beyond Bullet Points was like, took me the whole opposite direction. I was like, you should never use a bullet point, tell a story, you know, establish the narratives.
RZ Story arc.
GT Build up to the climax, the story arc. And they can then bring down a denouement. And he had a huge effect on me. And I, I stopped. I refuse to put a bullet in any of my decks for a long time. And then I kind of came back midway, you know, something in the middle is the right thing. Sometimes bullets are okay because they make things easy to scan, but not writing all that text, [no] it was hard for me cause I’m a writer. Like I want to write the essay. So that’s something I had to retrain myself on.
RZ I think what people forget, well, first off, decks have become documents. That’s that’s another thing worth, worth pointing out. You know, you see it in big, the bigger the organization, the more a deck export to PDF is just the way of life. [mhm] Like it becomes the doc. So they use it in place of Microsoft Word or some word processing tool. But when you’re presenting, putting up a slide that is just packed with words while you’re up there talking, that’s not that different.
GT It’s a crime.
RZ It’s a crime. [Gina chuckles] Imagine me handing you a full single-spaced memo, filled with texts, handing it to you and say, Gina, check this out. And then as you start reading it, I start talking into the top of your head.
GT [Gina laughs] It’s terrible.
RZ And then you just want to look up and say, could you just keep your mouth shut for five minutes while I read this.
GT It’s a disservice to your audience.
RZ It’s a disservice to your audience. And it’s a disservice to you as a presenter because you look when that wall of text comes up, you start reading, the viewer starts reading this, the person in the audience starts reading and then your voice kicks in. And then all of a sudden they’ve got two inputs. They’ve got the words they’re trying to read. And you talking at the same time. And it’s like, what am I supposed to do with this right now? And so you’re right as a writer, I mean, you are a writer, you’re a bonified writer. It’s counterintuitive. It’s like, wait, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, where are the words going? Now? I’ve written decks where I only want four words on the slide because I want you to have complete, I want all of your attention because I’m going to make a point and the slide may be, it’s a slippery slope.
GT [Gina chuckles] Right.
RZ [Rich laughs] It’s the whole slide.
GT And then you have Rich explaining, like, let me tell you about this slope. I’m gonna tell you about it.
RZ Exactly. Because I want you to stop reading and look at me. And I think that leap is something that most organizations don’t bother with. And a lot of times what we do is we split a room off. We actually have, we’re going to send you a more dense content packed PDF when this meeting is done for now, we’re going to present something else. Right? And that’s that I think is a useful trick. That’s a useful tool.
GT Yes. The addendum with the links to the, like, to the thick, thick packet.
RZ All the meat. Exactly. Exactly. And you’re, you’re making another good point, which is, we’re not a deck culture at Postlight, we’re a deliver the thing culture at Postlight. And so it does feel. I don’t know if cheesy is the word, or kind of salesy or smarmy, like all the kind of negative connotations of bullshitting your way through 30 minutes. It’s what you’re doing. Right? Like you’re essentially trying to persuade someone of something. [right] I’m trying not to use the word sales here, but forget agencies. You’re always selling, even inside when you’re trying to get that green light for that budget approval, you’re selling, it’s the same thing.
GT You’re advocating for a path, you’re selling an idea. You have to get sign off to do a thing, right.
RZ That’s right.
GT Because you need to bring resources to bear. Whether that’s Postlight or someone else, you got to get your boss or your boss’s boss to agree this is the right path. [yes] And so that once that person says that, then you’re free to move. Right? [exactly] So the deck is the thing between you and the ability. It’s the, it’s the thing you have to get through in order to make progress. [yes] It’s funny in my, in my, in my transition from essay writer to deck maker, the thing that I do now is I fully like abuse the speaker notes.
RZ [Rich laughs] It’s all packed in there.
GT Like, cause I, I get like I have to craft my story. Like I have to, I have to make sure that if I just had a slide that said ”it’s a slippery slope”, like I actually would do that side. But then if you looked at my speaker notes and I don’t share them, but like you would just, you would see my essay. And I mean, the risk there, right? Is that I sound like I’m reading. Cause as soon as you’re like looking at speaker notes, you know your voice, you can’t help it sound a little bit robotic. [yeah] But I remember one time I was presenting to you, Rich, and I had made the mistake of like having my speaker notes up. And you said, what is this? What are these speaker notes?
RZ Did I say that?
GT [Gina laughs] I said, I said, Rich, I’m, this, I’m making sure that I’m hitting all my points. And you’re like ugh! [yeah, yeah, yeah] Like I could tell, listen, you have a legal background. Like you, you stand up in front of the courtroom [yeah, yeah, yeah] and make your case. Like you’re just filled with the spirit of a thing. And you hit every, every point. [yeah] But not everyone has like a narrative like that kind of in there. I’m like, I, you know, I had so many presentations when I was like, I forgot to hit that one note.
RZ Yeah. Yeah. And that drives you nuts. But you don’t when you present you, don’t you, I think. And Paul has this quality too. You fake the reading really well. You guys are good at it. You throw in the, uh, the sort of occasional sort of flourish. It, you guys have figured out how to make it flow. Even though you have a wall, a paragraph of text in front of you. I can’t, I don’t know how to that’s its own skill. [Gina chuckles] And frankly, if that works for you and you can pull it off, just don’t seem like you’re reading. I’ve seen nervous presenters just trying to race through the words. Cause they’re just hoping this ends soon, people pick up on it and they pick up on your passivity towards the topic very quickly. [yes] Right?
GT Yeah. Keeping that energy and like being there and like seeming like you’re having, you know, talking over dinner or drinks is so much more important than the context or the content.
RZ It is. Do you rehearse?
GT Oh, absolutely! This is funny because a lot of people who are really good speakers and who speak naturally, don’t rehearse, but I absolutely rehearse. I pace back and forth in my room and talk to myself. [Rich laughs] My kid is like, mama, who are you talking to? I’m like, I gotta get this down. But again, this is me not naturally being a speaker. When we went completely remote. I had a moment where I realized, so if you’re doing a remote presentation and you share your Chrome tab, I use Chrome. I was like, how am I going to see my speaker notes? And I was like, I had a moment of panic. Like I need my speaker notes, how to, but there’s a button in Google slides. Pro-tip: presents with notes, I think is the label of the button. I should check it, but it will, it will pop the speaker notes in a separate window that people you’re presenting to can’t see. [interesting] You can still have your crutch.
RZ Nice, they solved that for you.
GT Do you not rehearse your presentations Rich? Or is it just all in your head? How does it happen? It’s like magical.
RZ You could call it rehearsal. What I do is I get it all down. And then when I present it back to myself, just in my head, I tend to really butcher it. And that whittling down process is the rehearsal for me. So it starts with all these words. I’m like, you know what? This is too good of a bullet to just leave in the, you know, one of seven, I’m going to break it out and make it an important point on it. Like that process is the rehearsal. I am not good with scripts. I’m really bad at it. I fumble like what you’re viewing as a strength is actually covering up a very particular weakness, which is too much prep, too much rehearsal. I’ve learned a weaponize that kind of improvisational approach so that it feels much more natural. So I’ve, I’ve learned to actually use it to an advantage almost. And it allows me to react much more quickly to the dialogue in the room.
GT Oh right. Then you look at the room, see the faces, are people looking down at their phone? [that’s right] Did they smile? Or the eyebrows go up when you made a point, [that’s right] that you can react to that better. [exactly] And you can’t do that as well if you’re looking at speaker notes. When you first get it down, when you say, get it down, are you, you go directly to making slides or are you like in keynote or do you have like a doc that you start getting it down and then transition into keynote or whatever?
RZ It’s an outline. Yeah. It’s an outline that indents in and back out all the way through. And then keynote actually does a pretty cool thing is if you paste the outline, it just cuts it up into slides at the top level bullet, it’s still a mess. You still have to clean it all up, but it’s an outline. It is a script, but what it is is it’s points. It’s some of my bullets have one word in them, right? And it will be just security and that’ll be the bullet. And I, and beneath it’s more meat comes out, you know, that has to get added in. It’s a process, definitely the law. I mean, you brought up the law earlier helped a lot because a lot of the law is, you know, oral argument is moving you know, the Socratic method in the first year of law school is stand up, uh, state the case. And then you’re talking through the case and the professor is just pelting you with questions. You can’t look at your, there’s nothing to look up. There’s just nothing to look up. [right] There’s, it’s 12 pages of dense court opinion. That is just impenetrable. So I’m not going to go to any bullet points here. Like you better just know the case, but you know, it’s a process that, and I never really got great at, but I got to appreciate the importance of, of being able to respond and react and divert sometimes and get someone, Oh God, he’s going over here again. Let me bring him back to where I need him to be. That kind of thing. So it’s been great. I mean, it’s sort of a happy accident that I’m able to leverage that kind of training into this. I want to talk about one last thing, which I feel happened and it’s, we’ve embraced it. And that is Google Slides. There’s something inside of Postlight called the mega deck, which is this template that is used where we use it to write our proposals and it was done in keynote. And the big barrier was the tossing of the document around. Essentially Google docs has solved for this in the document, right? Share the doc. Everybody can edit, people can comment, but it hadn’t made it over to presentations. And the truth is earlier versions of Slides, Slides, lagged behind Sheets and Google Docs.
GT A great deal.
RZ A great deal. I mean, you could speak to this much better than I can, but I think it’s a game changer.
GT Yeah. Now. [now!] Now being able to use Slides and collaborate on that deck real time, see somebody see their little face updating things and being have this, this, this one single reference. [yes] I mean, look, I still don’t think that slides produces the kind of polish that like say a keynote can produce, [not yet] but the collaboration, the tradeoff, like being able to collaborate and not have to send those big files back and forth. And do you have the fonts and this layout doesn’t look right to me and you’re editing at the same time I’m editing. And I think there’s, I don’t know, Apple has some iCloud thing where maybe you can collaborate on keynote. We never really got it to work.
RZ They’re working on. I feel like they’re working on it. It’s just, you know, Apple went all in. And I think if you hit keynote on icloud.com like as a web based thing, it’s kind of terrifying. It looks exactly like the desktop version. The problem with that is they went all in. They decided to bring this big thick layer of software onto the web and now collaboration, we should, you know, it’s one of those things where you got to check back in. I feel like there’s not going to be a press release as these things get better and better. I feel like I should go check it out. Man. That’s I mean, that’s the Holy grail. If you’ve got this sort of smoothness and transition of keynote and collaboration, I mean the game’s over in my view, but you know, there’s something about the dumb Lego blocks in Google’s suite. That just makes it easy to pick up.
GT Makes it easy to say, just give me a new Postlight slide deck.
RZ Yeah, yeah.
GT Great I’ve got everything set up. Let me, okay. There are a few common layouts. Let me just do this and then invite somebody in and have them come in. And that, that cloud-base realtime or cloud. I mean, it’s, you know, I know it’s 2020 and this isn’t news, but I still am just like, Oh, this is great.
RZ I mean, frankly, it’s, it’s probably, we haven’t talked about Microsoft. There is an Office 365 PowerPoint, which is I’m sure very, very popular, but I mean, this is cutting edge. I actually, 99% of the world is passing around PPT and PPTX files. Like that’s, what’s getting passed around. [definitely] And that is the reality of it. Right.
GT Rich, if you, if you had to give somebody the most important piece of advice on how to make a great deck, that’s effective and persuasive, what would you tell that person? What would you tell me back in a few years ago?
RZ Yeah. Make sure the deck is supporting you and that you are the focus of the presentation, not the deck itself. Like Apple does this beautifully. Right? They bring up like this iconic image of just someone surfing and it’s a still, and there’s no explanation. And he’s about to talk to you about the 20 new camera features, but he doesn’t want you to focus on that just yet. Right? He wants you to focus on him or she wants you to focus on her while this image is taking hold in the back. And sometimes it’s could be a cliched image or it could be one word, but let them focus on you. You want to connect with them. Right. And I think you’re connecting when you’re dealing with a client or when you’re dealing with an audience. It’s hard enough when, you know, I presented at South By years ago and it was the very beginning of everyone looking down at their phones. [Gina chuckles] Like I had presented at big conferences before and before then they would just sort of look up and every, so often someone would walk out to piss and I’d be like, Oh, that’s too bad. [Gina laughs] And then all of a sudden, one year nobody was looking at me and it was something and it shifted my whole…
GT It was a weird thing, it was the year that Twitter launched.
RZ It was the year to our Twitter launched or whatever else was going on.
GT Or Four Square. Yeah.
RZ Wifi kicked in. Free wifi. I don’t know what it was.
GT It’s a very jarring experience when you look at the room and you, you don’t see eyes that’s bad. [that’s bad!] That’s always puts me in a place of like, Oh no, you know, I got to tap dance harder, which is actually the bad reaction. You can’t do that. But…
RZ Yeah, but tap dance harder is, I mean, to me is another way of saying, engage the audience and make them want to listen to you versus hitting them with a wall of stuff that they have to work hard on. Right. Engage. I think, you know, there are other tips that kind of frankly, all follow on from that less words, don’t show all your bullets at once. Step through them, create anticipation, story arc, which you covered. These are all massively powerful things to get people to connect with the words you’re saying. The deck to me, his back is like a background. And again, I go back to the, you know, the Apple is sort of the, kind of the pinnacle of, of they’ve changed how presentations are done actually over the years. And what you’ll notice is it’s never screen to the side, me to the right or left of it. It’s the person. And there’s a background, actually.
GT Huge screen behind them.
RZ Huuuge screen behind them, right. And oftentimes it’s emotive, it’s, it’s symbolic. It’s not informative. That’s not the purpose of it. And so keying off of that and you can do that with the most minor presentation about HR policy. You can make it engaging. You know, it’s hard. Some of the stuff is dry. I mean, let’s face it. We’re talking about it, making everything exciting. And sometimes you’re talking about it, you know, accounting trends, it’s just hard to pull off. [Gina laughs] Right. Um, humor is another great thing, right? I mean, Paul is a master at it. I mean, he just, he steps out of his. Paul has this great trick he does. He steps out of his presentation every so often he’ll be presenting. And then all of a sudden you’re in the kitchen with him and he’ll tell a little story and he’s kind of fumbling through it, but he’s not, cause he’s very aware of, of himself, but it looks like he just hit pause and just, just wanted to talk to you for a second. And it’s such a humanizing thing to do. Right. And you have to have the skill to do it. Right. You have to be comfortable with it. [yup] And Paul can do that. His brain can go at that speed, but it’s a very powerful thing.
GT Yeah. Telling the story, opening with the story, just, you know…
GT A personal story, a vulnerable story. [yes] Or like connecting with somebody like at a, at a human level that is that’s master level. [yes] But so it makes it much more effective. You don’t get eyes down on the phone when that’s going on.
RZ Great. Well, Gina, this has been a pleasure.
GT This is fun. [Rich chuckles] I have a lot to learn about decks, but I gotta say, I respect them so much more now that I work with you, Rich. [Rich laughs]
RZ It’s so funny. You treat them as you sort of, it’s like this personification. It’s like, I have a relationship with them and now we’ve grown to respect one another. We understand each other’s value.
GT [music starts to fade in] I have to, I have to rationalize it that way because the next time that I get a task to do a doc, I have to go like, Oh, it’s you again? Hello and welcome that task into my world. [Rich & Gina laugh]
RZ Alright, clearly this is still something you’re working through. That’s okay.
GT I’m working through it. Working through it.
RZ It’s a process. It’s a process.
GT Thanks for chatting with me today. chatting with me today. This was a lot of fun.
RZ This was great.
GT What do we, what does Postlight do, Rich? What should people do to get in touch with us?
RZ Well, first off we love talking to you. So firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re a digital strategy design and engineering shop based, I’m going to say everywhere, located everywhere these days. We are [yup] our main office is in New York City, but we’re all working remotely right now. We strategize, solve problems with our clients and we build big sprawling platforms. Lots of really cool case studies have been put up on postlight.com. You should go check them out. And if you have any, anything on your mind around digital strategy or paths you’re trying to figure out to take, hit us up. Hello@postlight.com.
RZ Thank you, Gina.
GT Or slide decks. Yeah. Thanks Rich!
GT Follow us on Twitter @Postlight!
RZ Yes. Have a great week. [music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends.]