Tell me if this situation sounds familiar…
You’ve engaged a presentation designer for an important pitch (or you’re that designer being engaged.) You’ve got a lot of content and strategy to create in a short amount of time—so much so that you know you’ll be writing up until the very last minute. So, you ask your designer to “create a template” that you can “drop” your content into.
It sounds reasonable, as does downloading or purchasing a stock PowerPoint template that seems to fit the subject matter of your presentation. But here’s why the insistence on creating and using a “PowerPoint template” is often a waste of time and resources, and often entirely counter-productive to effective presentation:
A traditional template is usually just a pretty frame around the things you’re actually trying to communicate. Your goal should always be to design the content itself. Because of this, we have a saying around my office: Design content, not frames around content.
Here’s an example of a slide for which a designer was asked to create multiple templates in advance of any content. (I’ve recreated it and removed any identifying information.)
The client spent a great deal of time micro-managing image selection, but the designer, with no actual content to work with, could only create an empty design frame. The real sin came when the client “dropped in” the content you see here the night before resulting in an utter visual mess in which the designed template had no hope of rescuing the overall slide.
Did the time, energy and money spent creating this template (and other rejected ones) amount to anything when the content was treated with such visual indifference?
The above is a great example of “Template-think.” While the intentions behind this attitude are noble (I’m happy when anyone engages a presentation designer), the results are too often an ineffective presentation.
In the above case, and in general, it is far more important to design content on a slide by slide basis, instead of trying to convey an overall message with a template. Trust me, no matter how much you think that the perfect multicultural image in a PowerPoint template will inform your client that you understand their business, what’s really going to win you their business are the ideas you bring into the room. Nobody ever gave a contract or invested in a start-up because of a PowerPoint template.
The Best Presenters Don’t Use Templates
If you don’t believe that an effective presentation can be designed without a template, I only have to point you to two of the best presenters out there today: Steve Jobs and Al Gore. While both utilize consistent graphics and a defined visual style, neither uses a template in the traditional sense, but rather plain canvases on which their content is designed. There are no heavily layered Photoshop backgrounds, no random wavy lines and no footers full of stock photography.
When I present, my “template” is usually just a subtle vertical gradient from black to dark gray.
How to Design “Template-Less” in Advance of Content
So, if you’re not going to design a standard template, what can a designer do in advance of working with actual content?
Create a “look and feel” through mood boards and sample slides.
A designer’s mood board can take many forms, but for presentation I suggest including a color palette, font(s), graphic treatments and elements and a healthy collection of representative imagery you might ultimately use. Finally, create a few sample slides. (Hopefully you’ll have access to enough preliminary content to do so.) All this will provide a tool kit for the designer and a visual roadmap for the client that provides assurance to the latter that a designed presentation will emerge. Once strong and mostly final content comes in (in an outline or on slides), there should be enough assets and guidelines in place to build the presentation from the assembled “kit.”
The above method is exactly the way a number of very large presentation firms prefer to work. In fact, I was told by one that once a strong look and feel is created and once a solid slide-by-slide narrative is in hand, actually creating an entire set of slides can be a very quick and painless job.
Is a Template Ever Appropriate?
A well-designed PowerPoint or Keynote template that makes use of masters and multiple layouts with sample slides is a great solution for maintaining consistency across an organization or within a single presentation. It is also a good way to help your clients “fish for themselves” and create well-designed slides on their own.
At my company, we often create custom presentations from scratch for big pitches and events. But we also have a standard template for everyday use that has pre-designed layouts for case studies, bios, org charts, data, etc. But this template, absent content, looks very unimpressive to the casual viewer: It is basically a plain white page with a logo in the corner. Similar to the slides of Jobs and Gore, it is a deliberately blank canvas upon which content can be designed. The “template” does not attempt to communicate much in and of itself.
I should note that there is actually a lot behind the scenes of our plain white template including style guides, color palettes, default styles, multiple masters, numerous sample treatments, guidelines for imagery and more. Since the template serves as the basis for hundreds of different types of presentations a year, the entire template toolkit has much more than any one single presentation would ever use. This is why it rarely makes sense to build such a detailed template for a single presentation.
If you are creating a presentation system for an organization, by all means spend time working on the template: The assignment will be over long before the content for that presentation next July is ready. But if you are creating a single standalone presentation, invest your energies in designing the content—not the pretty frame around it.
After careers in theatre and the circus, Nolan Haims moved into the world of presentation, designing presentations for Fortune 500 CEOs, leading financial institutions and all the major television networks. Currently Nolan is Presentation Director for Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company. He writes about visual communication at PresentYourStory.com.