In this interview, Nolan discusses his career move to presentation design, and what factors influence the creation of successful presentations.
Geetesh: You moved from being a magician and writer to the sphere of presentation design – what motivated this change, and how satisfying has this been for you?
Nolan: When I sat down a few years ago to find the common denominator in my rather eclectic work history (professional magician & juggler, then theatre director and playwright and now presentation designer and director), it was easy: It was all about storytelling. That’s one reason why my website is PresentYourStory.com.
Since I had always done graphic design in between my magic and theatre gigs, it was a natural progression to focus on the area of design that is perhaps most about telling stories. So presentation has been a very good and rewarding fit for me. And I actually do draw upon a lot of my experiences when working on presentations and with speakers.
Magic is partly about manipulating an audience’s focus and ensuring they look where you want them to. With presentation, you have to positively control your audience’s attention and gaze on the information that is most important at any given moment.
As a theatre director, my job was to identify the story being told and then to strip away everything that was extraneous to that narrative. And just as I wouldn’t let a character wear a certain costume that didn’t address the play’s story, I won’t now let a presentation use a silly stock image that doesn’t help tell the story. It’s still communication over decoration.
One of my favorite presentation lessons learned in theatre was from a lighting designer who explained to me that often it’s not about making the light on an actor brighter (“make it pop!”), but rather making everything else darker (de-emphasis.) As with presentation, if you highlight everything, you highlight nothing.
Geetesh: Tell us about what sets a successful presentation apart from the ordinary. Also what can presentation designers do to contribute to a positive presentation?
Nolan: There are many components to a successful presentation, but clarity of message is probably the most important for me. In terms of design, clarity can most strongly be achieved by simplifying and eliminating visual clutter that carries no meaning. This means everything from eliminating chart junk, to reducing text to avoiding over-designed graphics. Of course, all of this means nothing if there isn’t a clear story to begin with, and so it’s terribly important to understand, and whenever possible, to work with a presenter or client on the message in addition to the messaging.
There are two big things a designer can do to contribute to a positive presentation. The first is to completely understand the story, format and goals of a presentation. If you’re designing a pitch, you need to read the RFP and background material. If you’re presenting financial information, you need to understand the data. And in all cases, you need to understand the purpose of the presentation and the situation in which it is being presented. This can require asking a lot of questions which clients may at first see as irrelevant: “What difference does it make if I’m printing this to give to one person or presenting it live to 1,000 people…?” Or, “What do you mean ‘impressing them with a killer deck’ isn’t really a goal?”
The second thing a designer can do not just to contribute to a single presentation, but to presentation as a whole, is to push the envelope and counsel their clients on best practices for clarity of design and message. But that said, one has to avoid being overly dogmatic. Much of my experience has been with large organizations. These are battleships that take a long time to change course, so if you barge right in insisting that slides can only have one big image and three words, you may not help them and you may not get hired again. You always want to recommend what is ideal, but you have to make an effort to understand the environment your client is working in.
When I was hired by Edelman, I was told that the company was really good at communicating with words (probably one of the best corporate communicators there is), but needed help communicating without them. Since then, I’ve been most proud of watching my colleagues slowly become better visual storytellers and presenters. At first my phone would ring, and I would hear, “Just give me a template.” But now I am now asked consistently for advice on reducing text on slides; senior leadership now often presents internally in a Pecha Kucha style; and one division has even created a visual thinking working group.
With regard to pushing the envelope and advancing good presentation, I think a designer needs to have an open and active mind. When the iPad came out, for example, I immediately bought one for my department and started working out ways to present with it. We did create an iPad app as part of new business pitch, and we’ve used it in other ways. But it wasn’t about solving presentation on the iPad, but rather just being out front experimenting. The last thing I ever want to hear from one of my colleagues is, “Our competitor just won a pitch and used an iPad (or Keynote, or Prezi)—why aren’t we doing that?” We’ve been creating some presentations lately in Prezi and have been trying to formulate best practices and usage of it. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m not yet willing to dismiss it.
A good presentation designer is one that reads a lot, stays current on trends and technologies, and always is informed by good graphic design and storytelling principles.