How to make good presentation slides—this process made millions







May 16, 2022

Here's an approach to presentation building that has nothing to do with graphic design. The looks of your slides matter, but it all starts with the content—the story you tell and how you structure it.

Saent cofounder Tim Metz walks you through a presentation creation process he honed together with creative lead Donald Chung when they worked together at KaiOS, a mobile operating system.

While Powerpoint doesn’t get much respect from the cool crowd, slides still make the business world go round. Presentation decks enable sales deals, fundraising, and the spread of ideas. That’s not to say working on slides is anyone’s idea of fun. But the ability to put together an excellent presentation is still an essential skill to have.

Despite the value of presentations, few people can create a decent deck. I’m not one of them.

In my previous role as Global Marketing Director at KaiOS Technologies, I’ve worked on more presentations than I can remember. They include the pitches that secured a $22M Series A round from Google and a $50M Series B funding. Other decks defined the product, positioning, and long-term strategy for the KaiOS mobile operating system for partners like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Reliance Jio, as well as skeptical journalists and industry analysts.

In this article, I’ll share how I approach presentation building. To be clear: this has nothing to do with graphic design. The looks of your slides matter, but it all starts with the content—the story you tell and how you structure it.

The power of presentations

Here’s why slides—when done well—are still relevant. They:

  • Force you to think through what you’re trying to say.
  • Enforce order and structure in your story.
  • Build suspense, like a book or movie.
  • Allow you to combine words with audiovisual elements.
  • Tell your story when you’re not in the room.
  • Travel easily between people. (⚠️ This is also dangerous.)

Warning: building decent decks takes time

Back in the 1800s, American author Mark Twain wrote:

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

His maxim still holds for slides.

Working in Powerpoint by throwing images and words on slides feels good. It's easier than the hard work of staring at a blank page trying to figure out what you want to say. But a punchy presentation results from clear thinking and communication, and both take effort.

Forget about nailing the job in less than an hour. You need at least half a day, usually more. In some cases it took weeks of work with endless revisions, like with the KaiOS Series A and B pitch decks.

1. Set the objectives and target audience for your presentation

First, define why you’re creating a presentation, a fundamental step most deck builders skip.

Creating a presentation is rarely a solo undertaking. Aligning with your coworkers—your boss, your teammate, a designer—on what your deck needs to accomplish is crucial to avoid misunderstandings later in the process.

Even if you work on your presentation alone and think you know its purpose exactly, writing out your objectives is helpful. You'll uncover half-formed thoughts and assumptions that don't hold up when you put them from head to paper.

Ask yourself these questions about the purpose of your presentation:

  • Who’s the audience?
  • What outcome(s) do you want to achieve?
  • What's the setting? (e.g., in-person, by email)

Who’s the audience?

This question is crucial. Whether you’re presenting to a group of American teenagers or the executive committee of a Japanese bank makes a difference. It affects the words you choose, the structure of your story, the style of your design—everything. The more specifically you define your audience, the better.

What outcome(s) do you want to achieve?

There's a reason for creating your presentation—what is it? With slides, you can change your audience's minds, behavior, or decisions. Be specific and vivid about what you're trying to do when defining your desired outcomes.

For example, “sign our sales contract for product X” is better than “influence their buying behavior.”

What's the setting?

How to build your slides depends on whether you'll send them by email or present them in person. This distinction between an email or meeting deck determines the answers to questions such as:

  • Should you use a few sentences per slide (email) or a handful of words (presenting)?
  • What format should the presentation be in? (e.g., File type, screen resolution.)
  • Can your presentation include video?
  • Might the slides take on a journey of their own without your presence?

That last question is especially significant. When you expect slides to embark on a solo trip, they need to stand on their own, but you also need to be extra careful with confidential information.

2. Create an outline of your presentation—visuals not allowed

It's tempting to jump into production mode now. Filling empty slides with texts and visuals feels productive, but this is the wrong approach.

You should not get into each slide's details—the exact wording, the layout, the font, the images you will use—until you have a high-level outline and story flow that make sense.

Changes become much more work once you've already pimped up your slides. And redoing slides is unavoidable when you skip the outlining step because you haven't done the hard but necessary thinking a good presentation requires.

First, find the fire that informs your outline

Legendary advertiser David Ogilvy was a master at pitching and copywriting. One of his maxims serves us well when preparing presentations:

”When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire.”

What is the burning problem you’re solving? That’s your opening and guiding theme throughout the presentation. For example, some version of the slide below has been the opening for most KaiOS decks while I worked there:

This statistic—half the world's population not connected to the internet—is the fire that gives reason to KaiOS's existence: a need for really affordable phones with internet capabilities. The number surprises most people, makes an impact, and establishes that they're working on an enormous and meaningful issue. It also sets the stage for a compelling story that fuels the rest of the deck.

So ask yourself what the 🔥 in your story is, and use it to build and structure your outline.

Then create an outline of your presentation

An outline lists the headline of each slide in the order you will present them. At most, add one sentence and a data point if the headline can't stand on its own.

Play around with wording and sequence until you find a flow that seems to work. If you have a lot to convey, you can add sections. Here's what such a structure looks like:

Creative lead Donald Chung uses an approach he calls the Claim+Proof model. “If a slide is to make a claim like ‘new MacBook is 50% lighter’, then the slide needs to include or be followed by a proof, say ‘side-by-side comparison with the previous MacBook model.’

Donald explains that he usually presents claims in text form and proofs visually, say charts, tables, or maps. “Claims need to be memorable, so writing them as large blockquotes will make the idea more sticky. Proofs are often data-driven so need to be simplified into easy-to-understand visuals.”

The Claim+Proof approach improves clarity and makes a deck more modular since each slide is self-contained. When writing an outline, consider the claim as the main bullet and proofs as sub-bullets.

Once you have your outline on paper and are happy with it, send it to others for informal feedback or—if required—formal approval. If they follow along with your storyline and give detailed comments ("make sure to include X on slide 5"), you're ready to move on to the next step. If they're confused and don't get your point, go back and rework the order and headlines.

3. Fill your slides but keep cutting

Now start turning your outline into actual slides. Do so by adding two elements to them:

  1. Bullet points and texts with your main arguments and data.
  2. Background information and relevant references for the design phase or when you're presenting. Such additions can include pieces of texts from blog posts and press releases, visuals, slides from other presentations, etc. Add them as comments, presenter notes, or on the side.

As you go through your deck like this, continue reducing slides and words as if your life depends on it, especially for an in-person presentation. You can only convey one message per slide, and you need to pick the handful of words or data points that best express what you want to say on each one.

”Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” - Albert Einstein

The famous quote above—attributed to Einstein—almost doesn't hold for presentations. Why? Because I rarely encounter a deck that can't be simplified further. Most have too many slides, and most of those slides have too much information.

Ogilvy's earlier 🔥 principle helps here, too, as you can apply it on individual slides. What's the one burning point you want to get across? Or, put differently: out of everything you've added on a slide, what is the fire? Remove everything else.

Tom Critchlow gives an excellent example in his article Good Slides Reduce Complexity:

“Every slide should have a single key point - this might be something like ‘Organic traffic is increasing’ or ‘The recent algorithm update drove 20% decline in traffic’. Once you decide on the single point of the presentation, everything should be oriented around that key point.”

Steve Jobs took this principle of one number or point per slide to the extreme. The first five minutes of his deck presenting the iPad only contained 33 words.

The only exception to the rule of cutting down slides is when you have one that includes two different but relevant messages. In this situation, you need to add an extra slide for the second message—having one per slide overrules the aim to reduce the total number of slides.

Here are a few last recommendations on the structure and content of your slides:

  • If you have a long time to give an intro, use a story. If you don't have much time, use numbers (data).
  • Show an agenda that lists the points you will cover and say how long your presentation will take.
  • Don't write out what you're going to say word-for-word, even if it's in a different document than the presentation itself. As Donald says, "Your deck is a visual aid, not a teleprompter." You'll sound like a robot if you write out your presentation verbatim and fixate on reciting instead of the people you're presenting to. Get confidence from practice instead (more on that later).
  • And another one from Tom Critchlow: “When you’re presenting to senior executives, you often only get through a few slides. Interruptions, clarifications, sidebar conversations… It’s easy to run out of time. So it’s super important to create a compressed version of your presentation at the front. You’re not saying “what’s to come” but rather you want to tell the whole story using only the most important bits.”

Now that you have a slim draft of your presentation, it's finally time for what most people do first: design.

4. Design your deck

There are two routes for design, and for most folks, this choice is a matter of time and budget:

  1. You do it yourself.
  2. You hire a designer.

Doing it yourself is usually cheaper and faster. The trade-off is that—unless you're a designer—your deck will not be as stunning and impactful as it could be. As Xavier Helgesen, founder of Enduring Ventures, mentions on Twitter: the best designers don't just do visuals. They also help you further improve your story.

Either way, designers are not copywriters. If you don’t provide them with great texts for your slides, don’t expect to get good results.

If you work with a designer

Unless you have experience briefing designers and other creatives, I recommend you find examples of decks, brands, and websites you like. Try to put into words what you like and don't like about them. Give these references and your outline to your designer, then get out of their way—assuming you've hired a good one.

Appropriate places to look for designers are your own LinkedIn network, UpWork, and Forget about Fiverr. Your presentation deserves better.

If you design your presentation yourself

Keep your slides plain and simple if you're going at it yourself. Use your companies' template if it has one. Otherwise, find a preset format online or in your presentation tool and use that.

Whichever you choose, stick to the template. You're not a designer, and adding fancy transitions, all primary colors, and different fonts don't make you one. When your story is good, you can't go wrong with a minimalistic approach. Just look at some slides from major Apple presentations below. They won't win any design awards, but they're effective.

5. Mic check one-two, your final review

With the design done, it's time for the last check of your presentation. Consider the following questions as you go through the deck.

Do you understand what you’re presenting? This question seems odd after all the work you've done. But it's especially relevant when you work on a deck as a team or use an older presentation as a starting point. You might have copied sentences and data that you superficially understand but catch you off guard when someone asks an in-depth question about them. Review all your slides with fresh eyes and ask why each element is there.

The CEO at KaiOS—and my boss—Sebastien Codeville, was a master at this practice. He'd always find some obscure chart in the appendix on slide 23 and ask my team and me what that data meant and why it was there. Often we'd not be able to explain.

Is all the data still up to date? As with the previous question, this is especially important to review when using an older deck as a foundation. Make sure you have listed the sources for your data with every piece of information you include that's not your own.

No capitalization, spelling mistakes, and visual vanity? This check shouldn't be necessary in this age of hyper-intelligent spellcheckers, but spelling mistakes still sneak into presentations.

Also, pay attention to capitalization, especially for non-native English speakers. In English, few words should be capitalized, except for proper names and those at the start of sentences. For all other cases, use this rule: when in doubt, do NOT capitalize.

Donald says the same applies to bolding, italicizing, underlining, and rubrication (highlighting text in color). “The worst offenders do all these things together.” Not adding such touches is always the better choice when in doubt and without a designer.

Does the design hold it together? When you use a skilled designer to create your deck, this shouldn't be a worry. But if you're doing things yourself, make sure texts and objects align consistently everywhere. Check you're using the right fonts, and that their size is not too small. Ask someone with an eye for design to give you feedback if possible.

Final do’s and don’ts

  • Read it out loud! You will find room for improvement in the flow of your story when you read it out loud, and anyway…
  • Do try this at home—practice. Nobody ever succeeded at something great without lots of practice. So it is with presentations. I usually video record my practice sessions to create a sense that it's "real," which keeps me going even when I stumble. It's also helpful for playing back and reviewing your delivery.
  • Add your contact details and social media handles. Add your Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc., on every slide if you expect people to share single slides of your deck.
  • Add slide numbers. When you’re presenting, you can ask the audience to jot down the numbers for the sections they want to ask questions about after the presentation.
  • Simplify one more time. I’m sure there’s a slide you can drop or a few more words to cut, probably both. Now is the time.
  • Don't mess up your fonts. When you send someone a PPT with a fancy font, your presentation loses its shine when the receiver doesn't have that font. Their system will replace your font with another one, and the results are always awful. Either send a PDF (which embeds the fonts you use) or stick to fonts like Arial, Helvetica, and Verdana, which everyone has on their computer by default.

Scale your presentation creation as needed

As a parting tip, look at the presentation creation workflow below. We used this process at KaiOS to define how to work on presentations with many stakeholders across global offices and departments. It incorporates the five steps above in distinct phases to streamline reviews and approvals. Depending on the size of your team and the number of presentations you produce, consider making a similar workflow to scale presentation creation to a group or entire organization.

If all this sounds like a lot of trouble, you're right. But this approach boosts the quality of presentations and reduces the time needed to create them. You avoid endless revisions, last-minute rushing, or, worst of all, having to start over from scratch.

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