FF Life: How to make beautiful presentations

Five apps and ideas to create decks that are both beautiful and functional

N S Ramnath

[From Pixabay]

One of the most underreported conflicts in boardrooms is the one between decks and docs. Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who has emerged as a patron saint of the docs, has banned PowerPoint presentations in his executive meetings and instead encourages his leadership team to use memos. Some startup founders turn their noses up on pitch decks and put together a Notion site when they pitch to investors. In fact, one of the most talked-about pitches in recent months is a good old webpage

There is no doubt that memos, Notion sites and web pages have huge advantages. In fact, our colleagues at Founding Fuel have helped organisations build a memo culture, a la Amazon.

However, they are exceptions that prove the rule. Decks, when done well, are still the most effective way to communicate. We have all gone through Mary Meeker's presentations on the state of the internet every year. Less known, but equally good, are decks by Benedict Evans. 

Recently, decks hit the headlines in India in a different context, after political strategist Prashant Kishor apparently made a 600 slide presentation to the Congress party.  

In case you missed it, there was an important disclaimer in the previous paragraph, and that is “When done well”. Because it's easy to make a deck these days; it's also easy to mess it up. The phrase “death by presentation”—a dig at badly made decks—has been around for several years now.

Fortunately, we have some apps and ideas that help us easily create decks that are both beautiful and functional. Here are five that you might want to try out.

1. Canva

I started using Canva mainly to make graphics for Twitter posts. For someone with no training in and little understanding of graphic design, it was ideal. You just have to pick a template, replace the images and texts, and you have your poster ready.

I soon discovered it's a great tool to make decks too. And it works for the same reasons—lots of templates to choose from; easy to search and add photos and illustrations, shapes and icons; multiple options to download and share, including embedding it on websites.

Soon enough, it also introduced charts and animations, which are especially useful for presentations. Canva has been consistently getting better—with more features, more formats, and more templates.  

I use the free version. Subscribers have access to more features (such as automatically changing the dimensions for multiple social media platforms), templates, and elements. It runs on any browser and has mobile and desktop apps too. If you are creating a deck, do it on your computer rather than on the mobile.

Check it out

2. Pitch

Pitch is a lot like Canva. However, since it's designed specifically for decks, and, more importantly, for collaborations, the experience is far superior if you are working together with your colleagues. The focus on collaboration is evident right from the time you sign up. It's easy to invite your colleague, assign specific slides to any of your team members, and giving feedback is super simple.

The collaboration tools are on top of a pretty good deck maker—with lots of ready-made templates, access to images, and options to record using your webcam and mic and embed them on your slide. You can also create your own template. 

It has both free and premium versions. Even the free version has a range of features wide enough to seriously consider it.           

Check it out

3. Prezi

Many of us have watched RSA’s whiteboard animations. There are three reasons why the best of them resonate well with us. The first is of course the element of suspense in watching something being created. This is hard to replicate in a regular deck. (Use of animations solves it to some extent, but not significantly.) The second is they tend to be non-linear, leaving an idea in some place, and coming back to pick it up later. Third, they keep zooming in and out, finally revealing the big picture.

Prezi does this very well. It has been around since 2009. For some reason, it's not popular among the people I interact with. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Prezi presentations I have watched live, and they were all good. That's reason enough for you to at least try it.    

Check it out

4. Miro

I have always thought of Miro as an infinite canvas used by online facilitators during their workshops and on which participants stick virtual post-it notes. Recently, as a part of the GNI Newsroom Leadership programme, I realised it's also a fantastic deck maker with its own unique advantages. This advantage comes from the earlier point I made (infinite canvas + post-it notes). Having experienced it as a participant, and played around with it for a few weeks, I can say this. If you want to create a deck in real-time with inputs from a live audience, Miro might just be the tool you are looking for.

The downsides: The app can be a little slow at times. And the learning curve might be slightly steep for some.  

Check it out

5. Slidedocs

This is not an app, but a super-useful template by Nancy Duarte. Duarte is one of the best in the field of presentations. She has worked closely with Apple for years. She has authored two books on presentations that are worth reading, re-reading and applying: HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations and Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Reading these two will help you use any of the first four tools in the list.

Slidedocs address a very specific problem. We design decks to be a visual aid for our presentations. However, we also extensively share our decks, and those who read it might not get the full context, or worse, misunderstand what we want to convey. Slidedocs strikes a good balance between words and images, and the format makes it easier to go through than a regular memo.

Here's an example/template by Duarte herself.

The traditional applications we use—MS Presentation and Apple Keynote—are still good. Keynote is especially good, and I know a few professional designers who use it to make beautiful presentations. If you are comfortable with them and they serve your purpose, maybe you should continue to use them.

But, even so, it's worth looking at the recommendations above, and playing with them when you have time.

Because you might get some great ideas that you might want to bring back to your favourite presentations.

By no means is this an exhaustive list. I have been trying Figma for a few weeks, and think it's superb (there are some good tutorials on YouTube.) I have used Beautiful.ai in the past, and if you are short of time, it's a great option. Even if you have no idea of shifting from Presentation or Keynote, I would encourage you to keep exploring and keep trying out new tools.

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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