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By Thomas Baekdal - August 2013

Simple Ways To Dramatically Enhance Your Presentations

Many readers of Baekdal Plus have a job that involves giving presentations on a somewhat regular basis, and I often get emails from friends and readers asking me how I make the graphics for my articles.

I actually already wrote an article about that in "Inside the Graphics of Baekdal", but whenever I talk about graphics, people usually 'give up' without even trying because they think it's too hard. Some people just don't think they have what it takes while others think they need to know advanced tools like Illustrator.

So in this article I'm going to take a slight detour from my usual writing and show you how you can create stunning illustrations using just PowerPoint or Keynote. And, I'm only going to use four different tools: The rectangle, circle, triangle and bezier tool.

One example:

Before we start

There are a few simple ground rules that you should follow when creating presentations. The first being to NEVER use standard templates... never!

I can't tell you how many times I have seen a presentation like this:

It's just absolutely dreadful.

So the very first thing you should do is to use a blank template and delete all guide elements on the page.

Secondly, don't add titles and company logos to your pages. This is a presentation, not a letter to your accountant. Get rid of all that extra junk. The only thing there should be on the page is a simplified representation of the point you want to make.

The story

Another very important thing is that you should not think of your presentation as a presentation. You are telling people a story and everything has to move with that story. In my other article, I used the example of a sales chart.

Here is how most people do it:

Here is exactly the same illustration, but now the graphics grow to illustrate the 'story' of your sales growth. It's such a simple change but it makes a huge difference.

Colors and style

Another very important thing to keep in mind is to have a visual style. The first part of that is to choose a color palette that you are going to use throughout every single slide of your presentation.

This is often a problem for most people because they don't have any idea what colors go well together, but there is a very simple workaround for that. Just go to Adobe Kuler and pick whatever color palette that you like.

You can just click and each one of these and get the color values, which you can then add to PowerPoint or Keynote when selecting the color.

And if you need more than just the five colors, make one of the colors 15% darker or lighter.

Note: In this article I'm using the 'Firenze' color palette at the top right.

Next is your use of fonts. The best thing to do is just use one, but I usually use two. I use Helvetica Neue Condensed for all the labels and general information, and then I use a handwritten font for notes and things that people should pay attention to. In some cases I also use Arial Rounded if my illustrations involve a lot of curved surfaces. It just helps it give it a softer tone. And in case you need it, you can always head over to DaFont where you can find any font you need.

But the trick is to use as few colors and fonts as possible, as consistently as possible.

Okay, so that is the basics. Do this and you are 50% there!

Awesomeness with shapes

Many people think they need Illustrator if they want to create something pretty, but you can do so much with just basic shapes. Let's start off with a few simple examples:

Graphs can be pretty boring, but with just a nice little touch they can appear different from all the other graphs you have seen before. Like this one:

And you don't need special tools or apps to make this. All you need is the bezier tool and here is how it's done.

Those funny looking things are just weird shapes placed on top of the graph and then colored to match.

If you don't like to use the bezier tool, you can do this even more simply... using just a square and two circles. It's done but placing each object on top of the others and making the circles the same color as the background.

The fat graph

Here is another graph that can make your presentation look unique:

This one is made using nothing but a simple circle, using the same concept as above. Just draw a circle overlapping the normal graph and you have something special.

The triangle and the circle

Let's step up the game a bit. What about this nifty way to illustrate your most valuable channels?

It looks pretty good, and one would assume you would need an advanced presentation app to make it, right? Well, no. This is made using nothing but a triangle and two circles. Here is the breakdown:

Make the length of the triangle the way you want it and then color and rotate each group into place.

We can then expand on this and compare value versus traffic, for example:

The hollow box

Here is another simple example of how to create something that looks special, but isn't:

Like all the other examples, this too is made using just rectangles, triangles and a circle stacked on top of each other. And the white space inside the box is just a white rounded square.

In fact, using objects that are the same color as the background can produce remarkable illustrations. Here is the first graph with a large white circle on top of it. It makes that graph look amazing.

The teardrop

Another way to spice things up is to use different shapes for ordinary things. One example is the teardrop. It's a super simple object, but it can make such a big difference. All you do is to use the bezier tool. Set a point at the top, another at the bottom, and then click back at the top.

And just to spice things up even more we add a thick border to it.

The tear drop can be used for so many great things. Here are two examples:

Or we could make them more balloon-like and combine that with the 'fat' graph from before. The result is something like this:

The sales volume chart

Finally, let's end this with one more illustration. One that combines both an ordinary graph with a simplified representation of the data. Like this one:

The graph at the top is a real line-graph. All I have done is to remove the Y and X axis and all the graph lines and labels.

The four boxes underneath summarizing sales per month are just rounded squares, arrows and eight white rounded squares. Here is a breakdown:

How simple is that?


Now let's move on to animation. The most basic rule is that you should never use animation unless you absolutely have to. Above all, avoid using animation just to change slides or to make something fly onto the screen.

But, there are cases in which animation serves an important role in telling people the story you want to tell. In which the movement itself can help people better understand the point you are trying to make.


Finally, a little 'wow' tip I have used many times in the past. Every single time I had to present something that involved a video, I would place a couple of good speakers underneath the conference table - out of sight of the people I had a meeting with.

So the the only thing people saw was my laptop (or later, my iPad). But when the video started, this deep and massive sound was reflected off the walls from underneath the table.

People expect to hear this weak laptop speaker sound, but what they get is something completely different - and it just blows them away.

Note: If they ask, you tell the truth that you put a couple of really good speakers under the table. It's not about cheating your audience. It is about doing something that breaks their expectations.

I have seen people completely change their behavior just because of simple things like this. They showed up bored and indifferent but then realized that I was not just going to show them another PowerPoint presentation. This was prepared, cared for, and nurtured because it was important.

Everyone can do it

I hope I have inspired your appetite to create much more beautiful and engaging presentations. It doesn't take special skills. This is something anyone can do. And you don't need to learn Illustrator or buy fancy apps. All the illustrations in this article were made with the rectangle, circle, triangle and bezier tool, using just Keynote (and you can do the same in PowerPoint).

And it doesn't take much longer to do. The time it takes to make a circle versus a teardrop is measured in seconds.

In fact, this is how I work. I don't use Illustrator or other fancy tools. I create 99% of my illustrations in Keynote using just these simple techniques. The key is to make it super-simple while giving it an edge.

If you show your audience that you care about the quality of your presentation both with the message, the story, the visuals and the audio, chances are that they will be far more open to what you have to say.

Be a hero!


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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