Corporate Storytelling Structures: A Toolkit for Beginners

When I was a client-facing business advisor at a Big 4 consulting firm some years ago, I accompanied the senior partner in my group, a slick and prolific salesman, to countless pitch meetings. We were pitching compliance services to banks and investment managers for new financial reporting requirements — complex regulatory stuff. The partner would start his pitch meetings with a sweeping declaration — that the era of bank secrecy was over, and fiscal transparency was the new normal. I am not sure if he realized it, but by starting off naming a big, relevant change in the world he was employing one of the most effective corporate storytelling strategies. Right from the outset he made the material relevant to his audience and broke through the typical audience’s initial “why should I care?” resistance. Having made a meaningful connection, his audience would become invested in his talk. More often than not they would convert on his call to action, which was to hire us as their service provider.

Based on my experience since then, having worked on high-dollar-value pitches for dozens of clients in all types of industries, I find that storytelling is one of the most misunderstood and underutilized tools in corporate communications. It remains murky and mysterious. Why should a speaker care about storytelling in their pitches? It comes down to dollars and cents — there’s ROI to storytelling. Time and time again, I have seen in practice that structuring talks in a way that connects with audiences is the best way to increase conversion.

Too often what passes for storytelling in corporate boardrooms is hitting the audience with a firehose of credentials. Other times the speaker has a deep technical background, in, say, finance or engineering, and launches into a dry recitation of detailed rules without giving the audience a reason to care about what they are saying. I have seen presentations that throw off an audience by opening with an agenda slide that promises a roadmap for discussion, followed by content that doesn’t match; a kind of dissonance sets in. Other times the speaker kicks off a talk with a lame joke that falls flat. I have seen pitches that have no clear call to action, a fatal oversight for persuasive presentations.

So, how can a speaker use storytelling as a tool for persuasion and memorability? I have spent my life in the practice of storytelling in one form or another — I draw from a background in rhetoric and speechmaking, literature and mythology, film theory, trial practice, and corporate communications. The takeaway is that you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg to build a little storytelling structure around your presentation. A story structure can be as simple as a beginning, middle, and end.

Below I outline various best practice storytelling approaches for persuasive presentations. Note that here we are not talking about the visual expression of the deck, applying the design principles to slides, brand integration, how many words per slide, the delivery of a speech, managing fonts, etc.; these separate aspects of the discipline of presentation are also critical, and should be looked at closely as well.

A-to-B storytelling

Nancy Duarte’s TED Talk on the structure of great talks — A-to-B storytelling — is the gold standard for effective persuasive communication. In it, through a comparison of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone launch, she reveals the secret structure of great speeches — that compares what is to what could be. We’re here; we want to be there. These speeches take the audience on a journey of transformation. The audience becomes the hero willing to take up the call to action. A discussion of great storytelling starts here:’s “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen” series

Kudos to Andy Raskin’s article on, “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen.” Here the author reveals the five-part structure of a pitch deck for Zuora, an enterprise software company. One time a client specifically asked me to make their pitch deck look like the Zuora deck; what made the Zuora deck effective was not so much the look of the deck as much as its storytelling structure (I actually find the image treatments in this deck a bit muddy, and one designer even redesigned the look of the deck while keeping its storytelling structure and content). Here is the structure of “the greatest sales deck”: 

1. Name a big, relevant change in the world
2. Show there’ll be winners and losers
3. Tease the “Promised Land”
4. Introduce features as ”magic gifts” for overcoming obstacles to the Promised Land
5. Present evidence that you can make the story come true has revisited this topic several times, looking at similar structures in decks for Salesforce and Drift.

Beyond Bullet Points

Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points should be on every presentation designer’s bookshelf. It provides a headline-based storyboard approach in a three act template that is rooted in the classical story structure: Act I sets up the story, Act II develops the action, and Act III frames the resolution. 

Act I is structured in five slides: 

Slide 1:   Establish the setting
Slide 2:  Designate the audience as the main character
Slide 3:  Describe a conflict involving the audience (Point A)
Slide 4:  Explain the audience’s desired state (Point B)
Slide 5:  Recommend a solution

Act II elaborates on key points using a hierarchical structure; each key point has a level of explanatory slides that are, in turn, further developed in more detailed slides that may be scaled down to adjust for time constraints. Act III concludes by tying the story back to Act I. The author provides a wealth of presenter tools on his website

The VC pitch

Guy Kawasaki recommends “The Only 10 Slides You Need in Your Pitch” for any presentation to reach agreement. I think it’s a great approach for seeking venture capital; at the same time, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, so use caution if you are not in a “shark tank” situation. 

  1. Title

  2. Problem / opportunity

  3. Value proposition

  4. Underlying magic

  5. Business model

  6. Go-to-market plan

  7. Competitive analysis

  8. Management team

  9. Financial projections and key metrics

  10. Current status, accomplishments to date, timeline, and use of funds

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The Presentation Design Brief: An Approach to the Intake Process

A 12-minute read

As a presentation designer, I've learned that having a robust intake with my clients at the outset of any project is a key to a successful outcome. In this blog post, I describe my intake process for a typical project, i.e., when a client has come to me for help designing a slide deck for a presentation that will be given at a specific meeting or event. It might be a persuasive presentation, like a high-dollar-value sales pitch, or an informative one, like the presentation of a technical analysis. As the presentation designer, I also have to think outside the deck — for instance, I have to consider the overall audience experience and what kind of preparation presenters might need to deliver successfully. My goal at the intake stage is to come away with a "design brief" that defines the deliverables, scope of services, and timeline for the project.

Since every client has different communication goals, and every designer has a different approach, rather than suggest a one-size-fits-all checklist by posting here a copy of my intake form, I thought it might be more helpful to other designers to generally discuss the areas I like to address during this process. No intake form can consider every contingency. My own intake form is updated from time to time as I encounter new client scenarios. The intake form is just a tool; it can never replace a designer's experience and good judgment.

To a reader, the approach described here might seem lengthy. I wouldn't want a potential client to be put-off by thinking, "Hey, I did not think there would be so much to this." Part of my responsibility as the designer is to make the process as easy for the client as possible. In fact, the process can be fun. Sometimes we can address areas an organization did not foresee at the outset. 

A note on terminology: I call this process the "intake," probably as a holdover from my legal and consulting background. In the design field, often this process is called the "discovery" phase. The intake might occur over multiple discussions, starting with the initial client contact, continue while the project is being scoped out, and should be concluded at the project kickoff meeting (or call). At the start of any project, I ask clients to organize a meeting of key players for about thirty minutes for the kickoff meeting. This kickoff marks the start of my project involvement.

Describing the scope of services

I don't assume that clients are fully aware of the services I provide as a presentation designer, so I will explain what I do up front. Explaining the full scope of my services can be a welcome eye-opener for clients. While, yes, I can design a slide deck using PowerPoint or other presentation software, I let clients know that I can help them with all aspects of the design of the presentation experience, including concept development, brand strategy, creating templates and masters, designing infographics, speaker coaching, and producing supplemental materials (all of which I touch on in this post). Some presentation designers have other focuses and specialties as well, such as their own illustration styles and large event support. I monitor the early discussion closely, looking for opportunities where the client might need support and try to co-develop with the client a game plan to address gaps.

Listening to the client

There is a little bit of an art to the intake process. The key is to always listen closely to the client. A client usually starts to sketch out relevant facts as soon as they begin explaining the project:

"We have a big sales pitch to a luxury car brand coming up, and we really want to dazzle them..."

"Our head of R&D has been given a 15-minute window to present her team's findings to the Board of Directors..."

"This is for our big annual fundraiser, the gala event and auction. We will host 250 people in a ballroom setting..."

"The local Chamber of Commerce invited us to talk about our idea for a new transportation initiative at their weekly Thursday night coffee get-together..."

I use an open-ended "tell me more..." strategy to get clients to elaborate as much as possible about all aspects that they think are important. Depending on how the conversation goes, I will scale up or down the level of detail of the discussion in various areas using my best judgment. Sometimes the client might not be ready with an answer to some of my questions right away, and we can at least start them thinking about open items. We can return to these later, after the client has given them some thought.

Managing people

As an outside contractor I have to manage the client relationship, so want to get a clear picture of the client's project team and roles. On any given project, I expect one or more presenters, and possibly other key players, such as a project manager, business development folks, in-house graphic designers, and IT people. For larger projects it helps to make a team roster with designated roles and contact information.

Is there a main presenter? Who is it? Will there be more than one person speaking at the event? At the intake I try to identify everyone who will be speaking. (The client might not be 100%-decided yet who the speakers will be at this point, and speaker roles may need to be further developed during the project.)

There can be a lot of stress on presenters, so I always check in on how they're doing. Are they excited to present? Are they skilled and experienced presenters who are comfortable speaking in front of an audience? How well do they know the material? Many speakers have a fear of speaking in front of an audience. I also like to check how the presenter likes to work. Does he or she like to use PowerPoint's Notes feature? How about note cards? To what extent might the presenters need or want speaker coaching? We might later put time on the project timeline for rehearsals or other speaker prep. Sometimes a client might want more advanced media training. Note that we might need to collect headshots, bios, and contact information of the presenters later during the design phase.

I also find it best practice to specifically ask whose name goes on the byline on the title slide, and the name and title of that person as they would like it to appear. While you may or may not ultimately include a byline, this tells you who is taking ownership for the project at the client. 

Sometimes the person who is managing my involvement on the project is different than the main presenter. To the extent there is any doubt, I need to know to whom I answer. Who has authority to give me directions? I also like to understand from the outset the client's preferred project management process — how do they like to work? Hand mark-ups, online collaboration, Slack? What is the process for approving draft versions? Who is authorized to give approvals at each stage?

Understanding the client's brand

Usually the client wants the presentation to be closely aligned with their company brand. Clients invest a lot of time and money in their brand and they might value it greatly. I ask about the client's brand strategy at the intake. How does the client want the market to think and feel about it? Understanding the client's brand strategy can help inform the visual language and the voice and tone of a presentation.

Sometimes a client's in-house graphic design team directly supports the presentation design project, which is great. The in-house designers are key contacts and I treat them as close allies. They directly support the brand and are typically gatekeepers for design assets that we will need during project. 

I ask the client for its "style guide" that describes its design standards, color palettes, typefaces, logo usage, image treatments, etc. I'll specifically ask for the client's logo file because I don't want to be responsible for a poor-quality or out-of-date logo file that I was left on my own to find on the internet. I also like to look at any licensed or proprietary libraries of photography, video, icons, and other assets that the client keeps.

Sometimes the client has additional brand assets specifically developed for presentations. I ask if the organization has presentation guidelines (describing layouts, treatments for tables, graphs, and images, animations, footers, etc.); PowerPoint templates or theme files; and proprietary icon sets. Depending on what the client is able to pull together I might also ask for other materials that we can leverage or reference in our design (a recent pitch deck, website, annual report, print catalog, newsletter). 

Once in a while a client asks me to break from specific brand guidelines and try something totally new and different. This actually makes me a little nervous, as I am not sure if the person making this request is authorized to break from their own brand guidelines. In these cases I will point out during the review phase how the design departs from standard.

Understanding the client's technology

I want to know what kind of computers and tablets everyone on the project team is using, PC or Mac. I also want to know which presentation software the client uses (e.g., PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides, Prezi, or something else), and which version(s). The best situation is where everyone on the team is using the same subscription-based software that automatically updates to the same version. Sometimes I might have to advise on which software package might be best for the project depending on what the client is trying to achieve. How about the level of proficiency of the users? Does the client expect to be able to edit the file after I return it to them? Will they know how to?

Managing typefaces is very important. I check whether the fonts that will be used in the presentation document are installed on all users' computers (as well as the computer which will be showing the on-screen presentation). I might have to plan on getting the right ones installed, sometimes in collaboration with the IT department, or plan some other workaround.

I anticipate at a minimum that I will receive some requested files from the client at the outset of the project, and send to the client a final deliverable, so I always confirm the client's preferred file transfer method (thumb drive, email, WeTransfer, AirDrop, shared database). 

Imagine the presentation experience

I try to imagine all aspects of the presentation experience, from the perspectives of both the presenters and the audience.

What is the event at which the presentation will be delivered? Is it a meeting that has been specifically set up to address the presentation topic? Will it be part of a larger event, like a convention? Is it part of a series of regularly scheduled events? Does the event have a formal name? Who is taking care of signage, name tags, and other event collateral, if any? Is there a particular presentation format the event is using? 

Has the date and time of the presentation been set? How much time has been allotted for this presentation? How many slides does the client expect to have? Is there a required limit or range that the client is required to have? What are the chances that the time gets bumped or the time is cut (to, say, 15 minutes, 5 minutes, or 30 seconds)? Will there be a designated question and answer period afterwards?

Where will the event be held? Will it be at the client location or off-site? What is the venue like? Will it take place in a conference room? in a ballroom? from a lectern? over a coffee table? in a courtroom? Will it be live broadcast? Is it open to the public?

What about the audience? How many people will attend? Is there a specific target person or group in the audience the client is trying to reach? Understanding the target audience will be key to tailoring the message and story telling. Is there more than one target? How familiar is the target already with the material? What is their current state? What challenge do they face? On what journey will does the presenter want to take them? How does the presenter want the audience to transform as a result of the presentation? Sometimes I imagine an audience "persona" — a fictional person who is representative of the target audience for whom I am specifically designing the presentation experience.

It also pays to be mindful of third-party stakeholders. Is there a group that the presentation impacts for better or worse? For example, do management, the workers, franchisees, or some other group have a lot riding on the outcome? Is there anyone who might have something to lose as a result of the presentation? There might be some sensitivities between different groups at the client and with outside parties.

Print or on-screen

A major decision the client will have to make is whether the presentation slides will be printed or shown on-screen. Each creates a different experience and has its own pros and cons. 


Where the client has a preference for a print presentation, I like to agree during the intake to page size and the type of binding. I want to know if the client has printer capabilities and how it will manage that part of the process. Time for printing has to be built into the project timeline. Sometimes a client has its own 24-hour reprographics department on-site. I also ask if they can estimate the page length, and whether the thickness of the deck matters. 


If the client wants an on-screen presentation, I try to find out on what type of screen will the presentation be given — projector? HDTV? tablet? self-playing kiosk? web-based learning? mobile device? Each of these has its own design considerations, such as aspect ratio and pixel dimensions. 

How far will audience members sit from the screen? What are the ages of the audience members? Some presentation designers use age as a proxy for visual acuity to determine font size.

If this is an on-screen presentation, on whose laptop will it run? Who will advance the slides? Will it be someone other than the speaker? By what mechanism will the slides be advanced? By laptop? A remote? Will the presenter need the functionality to jump around the deck, or move around on the screen using a mouse? Will the presenter want to view his or her notes on a separate screen in Presenter view?

Technology support at the event

Presentation designers provide different levels of live event support. I always ask about what technology and equipment will be used at the event at least to make sure that someone is covering those aspects. Sometimes the client is all set coordinating its own equipment and IT team. What about sound? Will the presenter have  a microphone and a PA system, and if so, who is handling? It's also a good idea to start thinking about contingencies in case something goes wrong. For instance, what happens if the presentation computer fails during the presentation or gets left in a taxi on the way to the event? Does the client have a plan B for when things go wrong? How much does the client expect me to cover these contingencies? 

Other alternatives

Print and on-screen decks are not the only two alternatives to accompany a presentation. I try to be open to opportunities to break from the typical presentation experience. For the right kind of presenter, a flip board can be an effective tool for delivering visual information. How about a prop — a physical object that can make a surprise appearance or be passed around in the audience? Maybe this particular presentation is better suited for a frank heart-to-heart discussion without accompanying visuals that could potentially get in the way of the overall message?

Supplemental materials: Pre-reads, leave-behinds, and other promotional

I might have a discussion with the client about any supplemental materials that they plan on providing to the audience. Sometimes clients plan on printing the on-screen presentation as a leave-behind for clients to reference later. Other times, the client is creating a long-form report in a typical PowerPoint format that they are planning on stepping through with their client page-by-page. Neither of these scenarios is usually the right approach. In these cases, the client expects a single document to do double-duty, first as a visual channel for a live experience that the client is narrating, and second, as a stand-alone presentation that can be referred to by the audience outside of the presentation setting. These are different functions that are better handled using separate documents with separate approaches. 

Other alternatives for supplemental materials are available and might be more effective. Pre-read material, targeted leave-behinds, and other collateral can be tied to a presentation event or larger campaign to make it more effective. How about a dedicated micro-site with thought leadership, reference materials, and presenter bios to promote the client's promotional campaign, and business cards that feature the micro-site's url? With the right materials, a presenter can generate impact before and after the actual event that is not limited to one or two hours of face-to-face presentation time.

Timeline, content, preliminary concept development

At the intake the designer and the client should co-develop a project timeline with milestones and deadlines for deliverables. I start this process by marking the calendar with the date and time of the presentation event. The client and I can start to build a calendar backwards from that point. 

Before I can really get started designing the presentation slides, I need to receive content from the client. At the intake stage, a client may be at any stage with its content, and might even continually update its content through the design process, right up until the time of the presentation event. In any case, I ask to receive the content as soon as possible. 

I will also start some light concept development with the client at this stage. I might ask for the client to state a working title for the presentation. As a little preview I will typically ask the presenter to give a 30-second "elevator speech" version of the presentation. Do I hear a big idea? A clear call to action? Can the speaker articulate the presentation's main message? All aspects of the presentation will support this main message, so it helps to have clear agreement on what this is from the outset.

Whether the client already has well-developed content or is starting from scratch, it's helpful to schedule an early session (or sessions) for concept development, that might include brainstorming, card sorting, whiteboarding, and other creative techniques. We might also discuss a client's request for a particular illustration style or plan specific slide designs in concept development.

On the project timeline it is best practice to include at least two rounds of review for the presentation file. There should also be time for speaker prep leading up to the event — rehearsals and any special coaching sessions. If a question and answer session is on the agenda, time to prepare for this should be built into the timeline. Time for printing needs to built in as well. 

Taking a strategic view of client's needs

If conditions allow at this stage I also like to make a strategic assessment of a client's presentation design needs. For example, I might ask a client to think beyond their next presentation and look at their calendars for the next year. Has the client planned ahead for important meetings, conferences, trade shows, product launches, and other events? Are there work streams we can tie into the current project? Could the project be leveraged for later presentations? Do they already have a well-designed PowerPoint template and presentation guidelines that meets their needs? Do personnel know how to use them? Do they offer internal training in public speaking and working in PowerPoint/Keynote to their employees? A live project becomes a potential opportunity to make an overall strategic assessment of how things are working in the organization and to plan accordingly.

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.

Infographic | The Process Chart and Accessibility for Colorblind Audiences

For this project, a management consulting firm wanted a clean “infographic” style for an on-screen presentation in a conference room on large HDTVs.

We took the approach of building a central process diagram over which we would add layers of animated icons that represented pressure points on the process, like cycle times and rejection rates, with descriptive text. Carefully timed and placed animations of customized icons and text were made to enter on layers on top of the chart. There would be a lot of on-screen data, and we wanted to keep the design clean and focus on readability.

Here we also show a test view of this slide for colorblindness. Up to ten percent of men and one percent of women have color vision deficiency, the most common form of which is an inability to distinguish between red and green. Here we can see that blue and orange colors retain high contrast. Are you using the right colors in your presentations? You might be missing a large part of your audience. Make sure your visualizations are colorblind friendly!

Made using Keynote and PowerPoint.

Slide Makeover | Data as Storytelling

"Facts are zoomed-in stories" — so says Dr. Carmen Simon, a cognitive scientist and researcher of what makes content memorable. In this before and after example, the message is lost on this financial services company's "before" slide, which suffers from too much information. How many times have we seen an Excel spreadsheet dropped into a presentation slide like this? In the "after" slide, not only do we focus on the most important data, we take the focus away from the numbers; the data becomes reframed as a gateway for storytelling. Made using Keynote.

Before and After Effects

The design world seems big on video and animation these days. Gifs and little videos are everywhere. At design firms, I have noticed a push for designers to learn video editing. 

In my professional experience as a presentation designer, I have been a long-time user of animation and transition features in PowerPoint and Keynote. In design school I learned how to make animated gifs using Photoshop for, say, digital banner ads.

For presentation designers, the recent release of the morph feature and other 3D capabilities in PowerPoint is game changing. More and more I find that PowerPoint is a stable and robust video platform. Heather Ackmann and P-Spice both put on impressive exhibitions of some of the new capabilities at the Presentation Summit in September. Also at #PreSum17, Rick Altman also gave a demo of the more-advanced capabilities of the Camtasia video editing software and put in a good word for ProShow Producer as well. 

The movement toward video, animation, and 3D effects is really exciting, and I think the presentation design industry is still learning how to use the new technologies effectively and for good reason (as well as augmented reality). I can see immediate application in the CPG space and education. Alas, 3D probably won't make that financial statement look better, and too much movement can make an audience sea sick. The question should really always be whether the use of these technologies enhances the presentation's main message, whether to persuade or inform.

I wanted to get in on the fun too, so I recently challenged myself to animate a classic walk sequence using keyframe animation in After Effects with some vectors I made in Illustrator, and was able to come up with this sequence:


It’s far from perfect, but I was encouraged enough by these results, and so I took a next step deeper into After Effects with Noble Desktop’s self-taught step by step training course - check out this link for video samples of the projects in the course — including different kinds of TV commercials, promo spots, an opening credit sequence, and other clips that use some sophisticated 3D, lighting, and animation effects. Noble does a good job explaining a vast array of topics in a step-by-step way. It helps to already be comfortable in the Adobe Creative Suite or it might be a bit hard to get your hands around the interface. I was quite blown away by the vastness of the video editing and 3D capabilities, and the number of effects and presets. I would love to experiment more with After Effects, especially using vectors and type. 

Screenshot of the AE interface for setting 3D lighting controls. The screen at the top middle represents an overhead view of a cone of light hitting the screen, shown at upper right. 

Screenshot of the AE interface for setting 3D lighting controls. The screen at the top middle represents an overhead view of a cone of light hitting the screen, shown at upper right. 

The Presentation Designer's Bookshelf

Here is a list of some of my favorite books and other resources — on design theory and practice, data visualization, presentation design, layout, type, color, business writing, public speaking, inspiration, and more. 

Some of my favorites.

Some of my favorites.


Type & Calligraphy


Brand Identity and Strategy / Logo Design

Presentation Design & PowerPoint

Data Visualization

Dashboard Design


Business Writing & Speaking

Fun & Inspiration

Design Practice

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis .

Perspectives on presentation design: Notes from the field

As a freelance presentation designer and brand consultant, I am often called upon to help business development and consulting teams create persuasive high-dollar-value pitch decks and technical deliverables. From my view of the market, I see an increasingly robust awareness of the value that a presentation designer can add to projects. In the last few months I have worked on projects for diverse New York City-based clients, including an online investment advisor, an international auction house, a global advertising company, and a digital consulting firm. Speaking from experience, a presentation designer can elevate whole campaigns, helping teams make a greater impact through visual communications that are user-friendly and closely aligned with an organization’s overall brand strategy, and focus the audience on a clear central message and call to action.

It has been interesting to get the practical perspectives on the presentation design process of both the business development teams and in-house designers with whom I have worked on my projects. I always emphasize to both groups that presentation design is a holistic process and involves much more than working in PowerPoint (although I do a lot of work in PowerPoint, as well as Keynote, and sometimes I perform supporting design work in Adobe Creative Suite (CS) and Microsoft Office). While on-screen slides or a printed presentation deck can be an important part of a presentation (and sometimes aren't required at all), other aspects of presentation design should not be overlooked, such as concept development, brand strategy, speaker coaching, event support, and supplemental materials. Below I give some perspectives on presentation design, from the point of view of presenters and designers I have worked with, as well as my own perspective.

Your conference room is ready. 

Your conference room is ready. 

The presenters

Generally, I find that the “presenters,” a group that usually includes client-facing teams, sales and marketing people, technical experts, and other types of professional service providers, can come to me with any level of presentation design skill (from novice to pro) and are not always well-positioned to assess their own proficiency. Leaving aside speaker ability, I have seen many business presentations that did not make good use of hierarchy, typography, color, layout, or visual language. Audiences are sensitive to subtle visual cues, and even an inadvertent change in the typeface used on a slide can suggest an unwanted meaning. These types of design issues can look unprofessional, make a presentation confusing, frustrate an audience, detract from the effectiveness of the overall message, and put a brand at risk.

I recall one time when a friend who is a consultant at a large firm proudly displayed to me on his BlackBerry device a little infographic he designed as part of a larger presentation. Here was a highly trained lawyer and international business consultant attempting to design infographics — why would his firm expect that this technical specialist, in addition to practicing in his core area of consultancy, should also labor as a professional designer as well? Keep in mind, professional services firms design and produce all sorts of pitch materials, B2B presentations, technical deliverables, thought leadership pieces, and other collateral for clients and the market. 

Generally, I find among presenters a lack of understanding of the capabilities of presentation software, and therefore a failure to take full advantage its potential to communicate their ideas. Prior to my arrival on a recent project, a badly advised client was under the impression that animations and hyperlinks were not possible in PowerPoint, which resulted in a series of workarounds that complicated workflow and prolonged the overall design process. 

This becomes a dollars-and-cents issue too — consultants are paid on a time and materials basis... it is much more time- and cost-efficient to team them up with a design pro.

Sometimes presenters have interesting design ideas but don’t know how to implement them. Understandably, most presenters lack the proficiency to build complex animations, create effective data visualization, and work with images, maps, vectors, and video files. I also see a lot of large file sizes and failure to make use of slide templates, which are signs that the user is not following best practices. This becomes a dollars-and-cents issue too — consultants are paid on a time and materials basis. Rather than have them wasting time clicking around in a software in which they are not proficient, it is much more time- and cost-efficient to team them up with a design pro.

In-house graphic design teams

Many of my clients have in-house graphic design teams that are called in to help with the presentation design process, usually reluctantly. In-house graphic designers implement and maintain the client’s brand identity, i.e., they design for what the market thinks and feels about the brand across all digital and print collateral. However, most designers are neither trained in presentation design nor are they proficient in the use of presentation design software. 

A kind of "hands off” approach to PowerPoint among many graphic designers surprises me since PowerPoint is industry-standard for the business world, and (as may be interesting to users of Adobe InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop) is a powerful layout tool that even has a pen tool, a type of Pathfinder tool, an eyedropper tool, and image editing capabilities. Of course, this is not to say that presentation software could replace Adobe CS. Rather, presentation software should be considered another design tool among the many tools designers have to work with. From time to time, I might do work in Adobe CS to complement my presentation design work. For instance, I might create icons in Illustrator and retouch images in Photoshop, and later add these elements in PowerPoint. When used in this way, PowerPoint plus Adobe CS can make a powerful combination. On the other hand, sometimes an in-house resource has proficiency in PowerPoint, but this is usually not a substitute for working with a dedicated presentation designer unless that resource also provides a holistic presentation design service as well.

How do you change the line spacing in PowerPoint again?

How do you change the line spacing in PowerPoint again?

At the same time, the design team can be super-helpful in the presentation design process. For example, in-house designers maintain brand identity and style guides, image libraries, and proprietary files such as logo designs. I consider them close allies in the presentation design process and try to minimize the impact of projects on them as much as possible, which they seem to appreciate.

My perspective

I was a client-facing business consultant and attorney for 15 years prior to becoming a full-time designer. In my career I have designed and produced hundreds of print and digital pitch decks and technical deliverables, and so I always try to approach my projects in a holistic way based on my practical experience. 

Today, I start any presentation design project with a detailed intake form. This structured approach helps me understand and define the expectations the client has of me, the roles of presentation team members, project timetable and milestones, and the presentation audience, venue, and format (on-screen or print), among other considerations. Some practical assessments also have to be made up front regarding what software and other technology is available and may be used for collaboration and at the event. At this early stage I also like to speak with someone from the design team to understand the client’s thoughts on brand identity and to gather up any relevant design assets, such as style guides, slide templates, and other resources. Concept development exercises early in the process are always helpful, such as creating mood boards, audience personas, white boarding, and card sorting. 

I like to hear a 30-second "elevator pitch” directly from the presenter at a kickoff meeting. This helps presenters focus on their core message. Speaker coaching can be part of the process as well. At a minimum, I like to rehearse under conditions similar to the actual event to the extent possible. The presenter can also learn a lot by watching a recording of himself or herself giving the presentation in rehearsal. In some cases, more advanced coaching may be required, for instance, to get over bad habits or fear of public speaking. 

Sometimes presentation designers attend presentation events to provide audio and visual support (usually larger events like multi-day conferences in a ballroom setting). For smaller events, I like to take at least a mental walk through the venue and the technology that will be used ahead of time with the client, and prepare for certain contingencies with backup plans in case something goes wrong.

Another area that is often overlooked is supplemental material — pre-reads, leave-behinds, micro-sites, and other collateral that can be tied into a presentation event or larger campaign to make it more effective. With the right materials, a presenter can generate impact before and after the actual event that is not limited to one or two hours of face-to-face presentation time.

As a final thought, organizations ought to think broadly about their overall presentation strategy alongside their brand identity strategy. For instance, since I am often called in on tight deadlines and that is never optimal, I suggest that clients look at their calendars over the next year (for important meetings, conferences, trade shows, upcoming product launches, and other events) to make an assessment of their presentation needs. Public speaking for client-facing teams can also be part of regular internal training. A well-designed PowerPoint template (along with training on how to use it) can do wonders for employee efficiency and consistency issues. Rather than looking toward just the next one-off presentation, many organizations would do well by planning strategically to take the best advantage of the opportunities their presentations provide and align resources accordingly.

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.

Müller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems and Presentation Design

In this post we look at Joseph Müller-Brockmann's classic text, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, and apply some of its key concepts to presentation design, most notably, how readability of text plays a central part in constructing the grid. We also take a look at some examples. 


The grid is the central organizing structure for any design. Newspapers, brochures, posters, websites… grid systems are equally useful for designing presentation slides. A uniform system of columns and rectangles provides a framework on which content — text, images, and illustrations — may be organized. Such a grid system is a useful aid to the designer for resolving design problems like placement and alignment.

While the grid stays invisible to the audience, the resulting layout provides consistently placed and aligned elements and helps each slide in a presentation deck look uniform. This repetition and visual consistency creates expectations in the viewer and subtle visual cues that facilitate communication by the presenter and understanding by the audience. 

Have you ever seen a presentation in which the header changes position slightly from one slide to the next, or content strays into margin areas? Audiences are sophisticated and can sense when a presentation’s own grid system has not been respected, even if they might not be able to explain exactly why something seems “off”. A failure to adhere to the grid can potentially distract, frustrate, and even antagonize an audience. When elements drift from one slide to the next or seem to be haphazardly placed, an audience might start to question a presenter’s attention to detail, organization skills, and even his or her credibility.

With presentation design in mind, I recently re-read the classic Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Joseph Müller-Brockmann (1914-1996). By way of background, Müller-Brockmann was a leading practitioner of Swiss Style and the European design consultant for IBM. (On a personal note, my own father worked for IBM as a consultant and salesman from the ’50’s through the ’80’s, and growing up I became familiar with this kind of corporate design aesthetic, with decades’ worth of dad’s corporate journals, manuals and other materials piled up in our home library.)


Originally published in 1981, Grid Systems in Graphic Design primarily considers layout systems of printed materials. On review, it is easy to see that many of its core principles apply equally to presentations, both on-screen and print. Presentations lend themselves particularly well to grid systems. In PowerPoint, slide templates based on the grid can easily be created to ensure consistency throughout.

Readability: type size, column length, leading

How do we construct a suitable grid system to lay out a presentation? How many columns should we use? How wide should our columns be? Grid Systems in Graphic Design starts by establishing some baseline principles for readability. For Müller-Brockmann, readability is key. “Anything that might impair the rhythm of reading should be scrupulously avoided,” the author writes. “Every difficulty standing in the reader's way means loss of quality in communication and memorability… The reader should be able to read the message of a text easily and comfortably.“ 

So how can presenters achieve maximum readability? For Müller-Brockmann, the answer starts baseline typographic principles. He begins this inquiry by reviewing printed paper sizes, systems for measuring type, and classic typeface alphabets (his description of point sizes for measuring type is particularly edifying). 

Having laid out these basics, he moves on to further elaborate on rules for sizing type, line length, and leading (i.e., the vertical distance from line to line). Müller-Brockmann does not prescribe an optimal point size to be used when determining type size. He notes that printed matter is generally read with the eye at a distance of 30-35 centimeters, and that the size of the type should be calculated with this distance in mind. He advises that text should be “agreeable” to read at this distance. “Both too small and too large a type costs the reader an effort. He tires more rapidly.” 

In design school we learned as a rule of thumb that body copy should generally be 8-10 points in size. In the presentation context, such a rule of thumb doesn’t really work as a practical matter. Laying out text on a presentation slide is much different than laying out type in a brochure. Point sizes are fixed measurements, like centimeters or inches. Slides are designed to be scaled up or down to the size of whatever format on which they may be produced. If we scale a fixed length, say an inch, up or down in size, e.g., up using a giant screen using a projector or down to fit a piece of printer paper, does the inch as a measurement continue to be meaningful (other than relative to its own scale)? 

When setting up a new document in PowerPoint, generally people choose an aspect ratio, typically 16:9 or 4:3, without any regard to the dimensions of the document in inches or centimeters. It would probably surprise most users of PowerPoint that the default size for a 16:9 presentation is 13.33” by 7.5”, and for a 4:3 presentation it is 10” by 7.5”. These are not standard paper sizes, and they become irrelevant when the presentation is scaled up or down in size.

As an aside, a lot of designers miss that PowerPoint is a powerful layout tool. Presentation dimensions may be customized in PowerPoint to fit a standard letter or legal paper size. The size of a presentation in PowerPoint can be customized under File > Page Setup; you can also change the page orientation from landscape to portrait here, which creates interesting possibilities for various printed layouts like corporate reports.

I have heard different rules of thumb for determining the right point size for presentations. I once worked for a partner at a consulting firm who required that reports to clients use font sizes no smaller than 14 points. Guy Kawasaki recommends that a PowerPoint presentation should contain no font smaller than 30 points. Guy also recommends determining the minimum point size by taking the age of the oldest member of the audience and dividing it by two. In her book slide:ology, Nancy Duarte recommends testing for readability by viewing the PowerPoint file in slide sorter view and looking at the slides at 66% size. To test the readability of type from the back of a conference room, Nancy also advises standing the number of feet from your computer screen that the screen measures diagonally in inches. David Paradis has developed various tables to determine the right font size that take into account aspect ratio, screen screen, and distance from the screen (these may be found here).

This presenter does a good job of maximizing the readability of this slide for an auditorium of this size. Do you think you could read this slide from the back of this room? Notice some text in the header that is laid out in columns — it is a bit harder to read at a distance. 

This presenter does a good job of maximizing the readability of this slide for an auditorium of this size. Do you think you could read this slide from the back of this room? Notice some text in the header that is laid out in columns — it is a bit harder to read at a distance. 

At the outset of every project, I ask my client if he or she intends their presentation to be on-screen or printed. If on-screen, I try to ascertain the aspect ratio of the screen to be used, screen size, and how far away the audience will be. I also consider age of the audience as a proxy for visual acuity. If the presentation is to be printed I try to determine the best printed size for them, usually letter or legal size, and set up the dimensions of the document to actual size so there is no scaling up or down of the document at the time of production.

Once we have established a type size for our project that an audience will be comfortable with, we can consider column length, which can now be easily determined. “According to a well-known empirical rule there should be 7 words per line for a text of any length. If we want to have 7-10 words per line, the length of the line can be readily calculated,” Müller-Brockmann explains. With regard to leading, he warns that lines that are too narrowly or too widely set distracts and fatigues the reader, thereby impairing reading. He accompanies his explanation with a series of illustrated examples of to demonstrate leading that is too close, too wide, and just right.

Constructing the grid

Having determined the right size font, line length, and leading, we can proceed to constructing the grid. The right grid system will depend on the amount and nature of the content to be accommodated. “Before the type area can be determined, the designer must know how much text and illustrative matter must be accommodated in the printed work he has to design and of what nature it is,” the author writes. “Just as every problem is novel and different from others, so the grid must be conceived afresh every time so as to meet requirements." 

Following these basic rules, he then provides examples of various layouts using different grid systems on A4 format paper — 2 columns by 4 rows, 4-by-5, and 4-by-8. He then considers and provides some tips on laying out photos and illustrations in grid systems. Next he provides many real-life examples of how various grid systems have been deployed in various contexts. Finally, he ends the book by considering the grid in corporate identity, how it may be used in three-dimensional design, and systems of order in ancient and modern times. 


With all this in mind, there are many possibilities for grid systems to accommodate different presentation needs and content. PowerPoint's default slide masters provide templates for both one-column and two-column layouts; rarely will these accommodate the content for any given presentation without at least some tailoring. 

On one of my recent projects, the client, a luxury footwear company, wanted to include dozens of beautiful product shots in a presentation. We ended up using a grid system of 8 columns by 4 rows. Müller-Brockmann might call this a “fine-meshed” grid; the more fine-meshed the grid, the more flexibility it has to accommodate text boxes and images of various sizes. A grid system like this provides many design possibilities. Any image could be scaled up or down and/or cropped to fit any combination of row height and column width, or even extend from edge-to-edge for a full-bleed treatment. This particular presentation ended up resembling the brand’s product catalog, which was the desired effect.

On the other end of the spectrum, I recently saw an educator give an effective presentation using a simple one-column grid with no header space for her content, which consisted of no more than a few words of text per slide, set in a bold display type for maximum readability. 

There are many more variations. For more examples, Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology provides examples of three, four, and five-column grids, as well as a Fibonacci grid (link here).

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.

Fun with powerpoint: Study in light

Here is a little fun with PowerPoint, a recreation of a beautiful recent Bloomingdale's print ad that captivated me. A study in neon and light. I enjoyed making this piece is in portrait view, which users of PowerPoint probably don't take advantage of enough.

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.

Fun with PowerPoint: Stranger Things

Here I tried to recreate part of the opening of Stranger Things using PowerPoint, and drew further inspiration from the terrific website I had seen the famous type designer Ed Benguiat give a little talk at Art Directors Club some months ago and I was reminded that the Stranger Things opening used the typeface Benguiat, designed by and named after Ed, same as the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I loved as a kid. All animations in PowerPoint.

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Letter from Marvel Comics to eleven-year-old me

Came across this letter online recently. I received the identical letter from Marvel Comics when I was around eleven years old — in 1984 — after I sent them some of my drawings. It is something I treasured, lost, and now rediscovered, so happy I found it. I thought it was so encouraging! 

rejection letter marvel comics art jim shooter artist penciller 1985.png

Original image found at

A Collection of IBM Presentation Slides from the 1970's

I recently found a collection of old 35mm IBM presentation slides among some of my dad's old papers and things. Dad was an engineer and salesman for IBM from the 1950's into the '80's, and when I was a kid I used to love to load slides like these into the carousel of his Kodak slide projector. These particular slides probably date from the mid-to-late-'70's.

In those days you couldn't create a presentation at your own computer. The first personal computers were just starting to be invented; a WYSIWYG interface and PowerPoint would not be released until years later. Slide decks at this time were designed by corporate designers. Slides would be produced, packed into boxes, and shipped out to branches. Local branch salesmen would load these slides onto slide carousels, bring them out to sales calls, and project them onto screens that would have to be set up. Bulbs would get hot and burn out, and the fans that cooled them were loud and distracting at meetings.

Most of the slides in this collection are for a pitch for IBM 3660-series supermarket terminals (I was not familiar). I love how these slides have easy-to-read text with no bullets, there are elegant diagrams and flow charts, and an abundance of full-screen art-directed photography. Note the details like the period fashion styling and brand names, slightly futuristic corporate aesthetic, cartons of cigarettes piled up all over the place, the comparative metric of "millions of bytes per spindle", and the close-up of the "MEAT" button on the console. Notice also how some of the text slides have text that come in one line at a time on successive slides, so that the audience cannot read ahead of the speaker. There is no title slide in this group which suggests this group of slides were set-aside and unused during the presentation. Unfortunately these slides have become badly faded over time; rather than color correct these, I thought it was more interesting to reproduce them as they are, with a sort of naturally-occurring filter.

I also found a promotional button mixed into this set, for something called the IBM 3290 terminal display. I always think it is a nice idea to tie a presentation into something like a little button or physical object. Could you image you and your team wearing matching buttons to promote your next campaign? 

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US Border Patrol icon in the style of Isotype designer Marie Neurath

Here is a little icon I recently designed in Adobe Illustrator to represent the US Border Patrol on a bar chart. The design was inspired by the style of influential designer Marie Neurath (1898-1986). In the course of some recent design work I had read "The transformer: principles of making Isotype charts” (Hyphen Press, 2009), a biography of Otto Neurath and Marie Neurath with essays by Marie on their visual work, called Isotype, a picture language consisting of stylized symbols to represent sociological, economic, and scientific data.

By way of background, Otto Neurath was an Austrian philosopher who set up a graphic design agency in Vienna in the mid-1920’s. The principal designer of this studio was Marie Reidemeister. She used the term “transformer” to describe her design work, i.e., the process of putting information to visual form. In the 1930’s the two fled the rise of Austrian fascism to the Netherlands and later to the UK where they continued their work at Oxford. They married in 1941, when Marie took the last name Neurath. Following Otto’s death in 1945, Marie continued the work of Isotype and was a prolific author until her retirement in 1971.

Process for digitizing photographic slides

Digitizing old 35mm photographic slides can give otherwise forgotten photography a second life. Film slides can have incredible detail, and the reveal can be quite a surprise. From time to time I convert a hoard of old photographic slides to digital. Here's my improvised DIY process. Of course, if you have the time and money, the easiest way to do this is probably to ship yours out to a professional service provider and have them do it. Lately I have noticed reasonable prices for this service, although I don't have experience working with a service provider.

I digitize slides by photographing them against a light box that rests on an easel. I use a macro lens and get good and close to fill the image sensor as much as possible. Camera is on a tripod and I use a remote sensor to snap each photo. 

While there are many ways to digitize slides, the method I explain here – photographing them using a light box to hold and illuminate them – works best for me when I want to quickly convert a few hundred slides. It's based on equipment I already have in my studio, gives me an efficient workflow, and requires minimal retouch after shooting. It also gives me sufficient resolution for my own printing and display purposes. There are other methods that are much more time consuming and might require specialized equipment that I don’t have in my studio but can result in higher resolution images. Higher resolutions may be required for certain types of projects, but also carry the down side of larger file sizes. 

Surprisingly, my scanner was not the right solution for me

Initially, I wanted to use my reliable flat-bed scanner to do the job. It came with a slide holder that snaps in place on to the glass and is used specifically for this purpose, but scanning this way ended up taking too long and was not practical. The slide holder holds only four slides at a time, and each pass at full resolution takes over two minutes. Loading and unloading the slide tray was also extremely fiddly. I love my scanner, it’s a real workhorse, but using my scanner this way was just not going to be the right solution here.

Using my camera with a light box

As an alternative, I developed a process to individually photograph each slide using my Nikon DSLR with the aid of a light box. To maximize resolution I get my camera close to the slide and fill the camera’s viewfinder with the slide image as much as possible so that I don’t have to crop out the cardboard or plastic border around the image later. Having good resolution on your camera’s digital sensor is super helpful here. The current version of my camera has a 24 megapixel sensor, and I estimate it would yield a maximum ppi of over 6000, which is huge. (My older camera has a 12.3 megapixel sensor and I estimate a maximum ppi of around 2800, assuming no cropping, which is pretty good for how I use these images.)

To hold and illuminate each slide, I set them against a light box propped up almost vertically on my easel. I happened to have a pretty decent light box from an old animation project on hand. A light box can shine a lot of bright white light through the slide while it is being photographed, which is ideal (and basically the same way a scanner or copy machine works). On the light box I set a little strip of wood with markings to ensure consistent positioning each time. (Prior to arriving at this set up, I tried photographing using a hand-held slide viewer to hold and illuminate the slides, but I was concerned about the quality of the built-in lens on mine and the possibility of vignetting. I also considered projecting the slides onto a screen and photographing those, but I did not want to rely on a 40 year old slide projector.)

To minimize camera shake I set up my camera up on a tripod. I position the camera close the slide so that the image of the slide fills the frame as much as possible, but is far enough away to allow the camera to focus. The lens that works best for me is my 18-55 mm lens, set at 55mm focal length. I attach a 10+ macro lens which lets me just about fill the entire frame with the slide image. (You can also a combine a series of macro lenses – I have previously attached a stack of macro lenses in the series +4, +2, and +1, with +1 attached closest to the camera and +4 closest to the subject.)

Camera settings are pretty straightforward.

  • I use aperture priority mode. Normally with a macro lens you want a maximum depth of field and would use a small lens aperture (denoted with a larger number – f/22 is a pin hole, f/2.0 is quite large). However, since the slide we are photographing is flat, maximizing depth of field is not really an issue here. I set the aperture wide, to its second-largest opening (lenses can be susceptible to vignetting at their most-open setting). On my lens, fully extended to 55mm, the largest the aperture can get is f5.6, so I take it to the next click down to f/6.3.
  • There is plenty of light coming from the light box, so I can turn up the sensitivity on my ISO (i.e., to a low number, 200 or less) and get a lot of detail.
  • Since the camera is stabilized on a tripod, shutter speed is not really an issue. To minimize potential camera shake further, I use a remote shutter release so that I did not have to touch the camera at all while shooting. With the camera so stabilized, how long the shutter stays open is not really an issue.

After my camera and light box are set up, I position the first slide and focus the camera. Once the camera is focused to the first slide it does not need to be refocused, so I turn the lens to manual focus mode and the camera won't make any additional automatic adjustments while I am shooting. I manually “advance” the slides, placing, photographing, and setting aside each one. I keep the remote trigger in my hands as I move the slides, and snap the photo as soon as the next slide is in position. I can move through a stack of slides pretty quickly like this.

Once the slides are photographed, I transfer them to an external hard drive that I use exclusively as a photo archive. I crop and do light retouch in Adobe Lightroom (mainly white balance and color). There are macros you can set up to automate some of these steps in Lightroom. Finally, I safely store the old slides in proper file boxes.

Cropping and making adjustments in Adobe Lightroom. The original slide is over 40 years old and gets a new life as a digital image.

Note on equipment used: My camera is a Nikon D5000 and the lens is a Nikor DX AF-S 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6G. I use a Hoya 10+ macro close up lens. My light box is a Huion Tracing Light Box (19"L x 14"W, with a black frame). I store old slides using Archival Methods slide file boxes.

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.

Branding of professional services companies

I am particularly interested in brand identity and logo design of accounting firms, law firms, and other professional services firms. The collection below is for reference purposes only. 

Accounting firm logos

Law firm logos

Bank logos

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.