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Story, then Structure, then Slides.

Effective presentation starts with good storytelling.

I have a love/hate relationship with PowerPoint. The vast majority of it sucks. Every time we’re forced to endure some shmo standing up to read a wall full of bullets, a faerie dies. Microsoft is partly to blame, given how easy they make it to produce crap in volume (too much Power, too little Point.) But the truth is the real culprits are the craftsmen, not the tool.

I shared a few thoughts on How To Present as one of my early posts on Medium, which you can check out here. This post is less about that, and more about the important role a PowerPoint presentation played as we got better at telling Actifio’s story.

Once you get your story straight, slides are a tool that can help you tell that story to a group. Like all great marketing, a great presentation starts with a clear sense of what your audience thinks, feels or does today; and an equally clear sense of what you want them to think, feel, or do when you’re done. It lets you create a structure for that journey — a logical progression — and a string of visual aids highlighting points in the journey from A to B.

Looked at this way, the app can be useful not only in telling a story, but in crafting one.

Most companies need a short, sweet deck to introduce themselves to prospective buyers, ideally in 15 minutes or less. We call this presentation “the CXO deck,” or “the CXO” for short, since it’s intended for an executive rather than a technical audience. Most companies have a CXO in some form, and Actifio was no exception.

Also like most companies, our CXO was largely impenetrable. I say this not because it looked like crap, or because it had no intelligible narrative spine, or even because it was wordy, self-aggrandizing, and excessively redundant. All those things were true, but none was the real problem. The problem was it didn’t work. It was demonstrably ineffective in moving its intended audience from a place of never having heard of us to one of wanting to learn more, and that was all it really needed to do.

To fix it, we first sat in on a few sales presentations to hear how people used the slides, how they told the story. It was choppy and variable in places, but to be honest it wasn’t too bad (for all my criticism it’s important to recognize Actifio had doubled sales for 7 quarters by the time I arrived, so they must have been doing something right.)

We asked a bunch of questions about who the deck was intended for, and which were the “money” slides that had the most impact. It became clear the people we were presenting to just wanted an easy answer to a simple question: What are you guys? We got around to answering that question eventually in the old deck, sort of, but everyone seemed to answer it a little differently from everyone else. This was a giant red flag.

If every person you’ve empowered to represent your company to the outside world — especially everyone on your executive team — can’t rattle off the same simple answer to a question about what your company does, your marketing message is doomed.

In the new rev of the deck, we put a simple answer to the question of what we do, in 28-point type on a clear field, on slide 4. Getting closure on this wasn’t easy, but everyone acknowledged the need for it, and with a little charm and a few implied threats of violence, we got to this:

Actifio is radically simple copy data management. Recover anything instantly for up to 90% less than you’re paying today.

From there we negotiated the story we wanted to tell… the story we had refined and proven in the real world, and put it on a single slide, which became our closing slide:

  • Enterprises are suffering under a copy data explosion
  • The root cause of that explosion is silo’d data backup & recovery apps
  • Actifio instead creates and maintains a single, golden copy of everything in your production environment
  • That lets you recover anything instantly, at a total cost of ownership up to 90% less
  • We’ve been embraced by investors, press, customers, and analysts
  • Let us show you what we can do for you.

After that we created a fresh deck, and added back only the slides that supported that plotline. We added reluctantly and cut relentlessly, eventually working our way down to a tight package of 10 or so slides, each of which we could then focus on improving.

Here’s the the step-by-step version when you’re starting with an existing deck:

  1. Make sure you have a story that works in the real world, that you’ve proven this story moves a specific type of person from never having heard of you to wanting to learn more.
  2. Ask the team what’s working in the original deck, which slides they feel are most effective and why.
  3. Build a new deck from a blank template forward, starting with a one-page summary of the story that will act as your “Executive Summary” slide at the end.
  4. Add back the minimum slides required to deliver that story, with an eye toward including better versions of the slides you know are important, and…
  5. THEN focus on cleaning up each individual slide, replacing text with pictures wherever possible, and throwing out anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to drive the story forward.
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PowerPoint isn’t good, or evil… it just is. The key is to remember that you can’t tap it’s Power if you’re fuzzy on your Point. So if your deck sucks, start by fixing the story, then tackle the deck, then fix the slides.

Then you just need to get everyone to use it, more on that coming soon. Be sure and click Follow below so you don’t miss it, and if you liked this post, click ❤︎ as well.

Written by

Venture storyteller, wartime consiglieri, lyrical gangsta. Partner, G20 Ventures, thoughts here are my own.

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