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With more than 20 years of experience in the field of visual communications, Nolan helps organizations and individuals show up differently and tell better stories with fewer words. As a designer and art director, he has created high-end presentations, keynote addresses and pitches for Fortune 500 CEOs, leading financial institutions, top foundations and all the major television networks. Nolan trains organizations to think visually and to create and give more effective presentations. He speaks at national conferences and writes extensively on visual storytelling.  Visit his site for more information!

What are the most common design mistakes you see in PowerPoint or Keynote presentations?

The overall mistake I see is treating a presentation like a PowerPoint document and not a type of graphic design. What I mean by this is that too often people intentionally ignore or forget about basic design and layout principles with the excuse: “But it’s just PowerPoint.” PowerPoint and Keynote are not styles in and of themselves—they are just software tools.

Specifically, the biggest design mistakes I see are:

  • Not including enough negative space on a page (generally, the less you put on a page, the more visually focused your content becomes)
  • Not making use of columned text—specifically in presentations designed only for print
  • Not communicating enough with imagery. Try to tell your story first and foremost with strong, clear imagery and graphics (photos, iconography, illustration, charts), and then bring in only as much text as is absolutely necessary to clarify your message.

What is the best way to incorporate videos, music, etc. into presentations to prospective customers?

The first thing I’ll remind everyone with regard to this topic is that an in-person speaker-guided presentation should always be about the presenters themselves, not their slides. And furthermore, the presentation and slides should be for the audience, never the speaker. Video can be effective if used sparingly, and if it is genuinely the best or most efficient way to convey a message. I have seen good opening mood videos set the stage for an agency’s approach to a project, and I’ve seen videos explain the culture of a company more efficiently than any presenter could with words and slides. (But just know that everyone does this.)

One interesting use of presentation multimedia is to place all the top-line research into a 1 to 2-minute video. Music, footage and stills can bring numbers to life in a way that a static infographic or 10 slides of charts just can’t. And Animoto is a perfect solution for a video like this, if you want to keep your budget way down without sacrificing a professional look (create your static slides in PowerPoint and then just output and upload to Animoto.)

What are your thoughts on using templates?

I hate templates—or at least, the way they are most often used in one-off presentations. A template is just decoration around your content, and you should endeavor always to design your content, not just a frame around it. I much prefer template-less presentations in which each slide is designed individually based on content, although with a consistent sense of design.

If you are going to create a custom look for a presentation, instead of starting by designing a template, consider creating a design language through a mood board and samples slides. This should give you enough tools and guidelines to create individual slides down the road when content starts rolling in.

How do you customize presentations without reinventing the wheel each time?

Here’s where I contradict myself (but not really). I generally avoid templates when creating one-off presentations, however I do think every organization should have a simple template for everyday presentations, internal ones and for situations where there isn’t time to create a custom look. Now if this template is set up properly, it can serve as an invaluable first step towards a customized presentation that doesn’t reinvent the wheel through a technique called “reskinning.”

If you have created your everyday template with proper master layouts and a color theme applied to template elements, then all you have to do is change the color theme to create a new look. You can either stop here, or further alter the template and presentation by tweaking treatments of headers, imagery, typography, etc. But the important thing is not to start with a blank page, having to make all of your style decisions from scratch each time. And don’t feel pressured to create a new way of treating page number every single time you create a presentation. Create a general style that works and alter as needed and appropriate. Remember, nobody every hired an agency because of the awesomeness of a PowerPoint template.

Where do you draw inspiration for your presentations and design elements?

Honestly, I draw most of my inspiration from a presentation’s content. Presentation design and content are never mutually exclusive, so it drives me up a wall when I’m asked to start work without seeing any content. I recently worked on a presentation for a world-class athlete, and I drew my inspiration from both the dynamic imagery he was able to provide along with the global and social aspects of the project. I also do a lot of work for a major electronics company, and so there I draw upon the company’s products, UI, target markets and desired perception in the marketplace.

On a more technical level, I might literally build a design from a single asset. In the case of the athlete’s presentation, I found my color scheme in the orange and yellow sunsets of a few of his photos. Icons and other graphic treatments were inspired by the silhouettes set against those sunsets. I once built a whole presentation around a simple blue-gray gradient that I found in a web banner ad while doing research.

All that said, I do try to pay attention to worlds of graphic design, print layout and presentation design. NoteAndPoint.com is a wonderful site to see the current trends in presentation design.