1 December 2015

Why I Love The 2015 Starbucks' Red Holiday Cups

Did you hear that the 2015 Starbucks’ Red Holiday Cups have received a lot of criticism? Yes, some people even said the new cups represent a “War on Christmas” as they don’t explicitly say “Merry Christmas” on the side, nor do they have any immediate visual links to the festivity. According to the critics, Starbucks is not embracing the true spirit of Christmas. 

Here’s my opinion: I love the new cups. 

The only war these cups might be fighting is a fair war against crappy design. Unlike in previous years where Starbucks designed more traditional holiday cups, this year they opted for a minimalistic approach. A simple red cup, no “Merry Christmas” on the side, no stupid fonts, no snowflake, no decoration. Yet, the new cups look seasonal, because the colour is highly associated with Christmas. 

2008 Starbucks's Red Holiday Cup - Simon Schoeters via Flickr 
Starbucks vice president of design said: "This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” To me, “purity” is the word that better explains the idea behind the new design. 

This year’s holiday cups are a great example of “less is more.” Starbucks’ designers have managed to achieve the result everybody expected (a seasonal look) with less (a simple red cup). 

In a Fast Company article In Defense Of Starbucks' Red Holiday Cups, John Brownlee nicely explained why he loves the new cups:        

“I love the new Starbucks Red Holiday Cups. I love them because they don't have a cartoon character of an anthropomorphic reindeer with a clear intellectual disability on the side. I love them because they don't say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" on them in some tacky novelty font where every ascender or descender is covered in fake snow, and every tittle has been replaced by a bulb ornament. I love them because they make a statement. Christmas doesn't have to be synonymous with godawful design. It can, instead, have a little class, and serve as a quiet analog to the chaos of the season.”

I can only agree with him. 

Instead of worrying about the cups, the critics should be focusing their complaints on what’s inside the cups. I’d support them in that topic.  

IMAGE: Fast Company

25 October 2015

3 Essential Steps To Avoid Designing Useless Slides

Warning: this slide may seriously hurt your eyes. 

This is a real slide made by a real company in a real business meeting

When I first looked at it I thought “there is something completely wrong in the way most companies make presentations”. 

The problem 

The problem is we use PowerPoint too much. We make slides for everything, even for communicating where the toilet is. 

Think about it, what’s the first thing coming to you mind when you are asked to make a presentation? I bet it’s PowerPoint (or any other presentation tool for that matter). That’s exactly the problem: people associate presentations with a tool and not with a story. [Tweet this] That’s why you have slides for communicating that “toilets are located just outside in the corridor”. 

The reason why most presentations are poor is because we spend time making slides rather than crafting a story. In fact, making slides should be the last bit of the presentation process. Remember, slides are incredibly powerful when they amplify your message—but when they don’t, they are incredibly useless. In fact, they work against your message. 
Audiences would be better off if most slides were eliminated. Trust me, you would do your audience a favour by getting rid of most of the slides you use. Have you ever thought about presenting with no slides at all

As Garr Reynolds put it, “Presenting 100% naked may not be appropriate for every case, but stripping down as much as we can often will make a huge, refreshing difference. The result will be a presentation that is different and somehow more real, “real” like a frank conversation among friends.” 

The solution 
I suggest you follow this 3-step process when deciding whether you need slides or not.

(1) Use a message map
A message map is a simple tool that helps you structure your story. Here’s how it works. Write down the single message you want your audience to take away. Then, find three main points that support your key message. Your presentation will be based on those three points. Here’s a short video of Communication Coach Carmine Gallo showing how to use the message map and explaining why he believes it works all the time. 

(2) Plan analog 
Close your laptop, get away from it and craft your story with pen and paper. You should translate your message map into slides on a piece of paper first. And you should do that only if you think slides can amplify your message. You’ll be much more creative by planning your presentation in an analog way. 

(3) Open PowerPoint (if you can't resist)

Only once you’ve planned your presentation “analogically” should you open PowerPoint—and only if you think slides can help you get your message across. But you don’t have to. When in doubt, don't.   

IMAGE: Sebastiaan ter Burg

21 September 2015

The Ideal Length Of Any Presentation

No matter what your topic is, the ideal length of any presentation ranges from 10 to 20 minutes at most. 

Take TED. Given that their talks are watched about 2 million times per day, I guess we should ask ourselves what makes them so special. One of the reasons is the length of the talks. Regardless of who you are, TED doesn't allow you to speak for more than 18 minutes. Yes, even Bill Gates has to comply to this rule. 

If you think about it, 18 minutes are more than enough to present your topic. They are enough to change your audience from a state in which they don’t know your topic to a state in which they do. 

TED curator Chris Anderson didn’t choose this time constraint by chance, but rather it was a considered choice. According to him, 

“It [18 minutes] is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline.”   

What is the key point you want to communicate? That’s the question you should always be asking yourself before presenting. You need to make tough decisions about what to include and what to leave out. But if you do this exercise, you can be sure you’ll present only what matters to your audience and leave the rest out. When you feel tempted to include everything, remember that if everything is important, nothing is important. 
If everything is important, 
nothing is important. 

Just like Twitter “forces people to be disciplined in what they write”, the 18-minute rule forces people to be disciplined in what they say. Creativity thrives under constraints. Therefore, limiting the length of your speech to 18 minutes or less promotes creativity. 

I know what you’re thinking. I’m not convinced — how can I say everything I need to say in just 18 minutes? Okay, then consider the following:
Here we are talking about speeches that made history. People made history in 15 minutes. 

Still not convinced? Okay. David Christian narrated the complete history of our world in 18 minutes. If you analyze his speech, he actually took his audience on a 13.7 billion year journey—from the Big Bang to us humans—in about 12 minutes. 12 minutes to go through 13.7 billion years of history. 

Hope I've convinced you now.

IMAGE: Martin L. King via NewNowNext 

1 August 2015

Two Super Easy Ways To Make Numbers Entertaining

This post is about a problem I see with many presentations and a solution to fix it.

Presentations include too much data. To be more precise, presenters often include numbers and statistics without making them digestible for their audience. How often have you sat looking at slide after slide…after slide…and the only thing you’ve seen were numbers?

The problem, though, is not the numbers themselves. The problem is that numbers are not presented in a way that an audience can relate. 

Numbers are not presented in a way that an audience can relate. [Tweet this]

In order for your audience to understand your data, you need to give them some context. How do you do that? There are two ways.
  • Put your data in perspective 
  • Tell a story behind your data
(1) Put your data in perspective
I’ve recently stumbled upon a great Forbes article by Carmine Gallo where he explains this technique in detail. I’m going to recap the main points for you. 

He wrote that statistics are hard to remember for two main reasons:
  • They are abstract 
  • There is often no context around the numbers 
By putting data in perspective, you’ll “turn abstractions into memorable images.” 

Let me give you two examples:
  • This one is a personal experience of Carmine. He was meeting with an executive and talked about how to communicate his company’s environmental record, given that they had planted more than two million trees in the past. Instead of just showing this big number, they decided to say, “Two million trees. To put it in perspective, that’s the equivalent of 90 Central Parks.” Two million trees means nothing to many people. But 90 Central Parks is loads of trees. It means a lot! 
  • Apple rarely show a statistic without putting it into perspective. For example, when vice president Phil Schiller introduced the new MacBook Pro, instead of saying it was 0.71 inches thick, he said, “It’s thinner than my finger.” 
The point is that you shouldn't let your audience figure out what your numbers mean. Give them some context. Context will make any number relatable. 

Don't let your audience figure out what your numbers mean. Give them some context.[Tweet this]

(2) Tell a story behind your data
Another way to make your audience understand your data is to tell a story behind it. Surprisingly, I haven’t learnt this presentation technique from a communication specialist, but rather, wait for it…a rock star.
In 2013, U2’s Bono delivered a fantastic TED talk: The Good News On Poverty. In this must-watch presentation, Bono always followed statistics with a story that brought the data to life. 

Here’s an example:

“Since the year 2000, since the turn of the millennium, there are eight million more AIDS patients getting life-saving antiretroviral drugs. Malaria: There are eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have their death rates cut by 75 percent. For kids under five, child mortality, kids under five, it’s down by 2.65 million a year. That’s a rate of 7,256 children’s lives saved each day. Wow.”

Let’s be honest, how many details do you remember about what you’ve just read? The mistake most presenters make is they stop at the statistics. Unless you are a rock star presenter, in which case you would say something along those lines:

 “Seven thousand kids a day. Here’s two of them. This is Michael and Benedicta, and they’re alive thanks in large part to Dr. Patricia Asamoah — she’s amazing — and the Global Fund, which all of you financially support, whether you know it or not.”       

Bono showed this slide as he told the story. 
That’s how you bring data to life. As Garr Reynolds recently tweeted: 
If you want your audience to grasp and enjoy your numbers, either put them in perspective, or follow them with a story, or do both.   

IMAGE: Bono at TED 2013 via Jim Fruchterman - Flickr 

19 July 2015

10 Practical Tips To Design Your Next Presentation Like A Pro

I want to give you the knowledge you need to design your next presentation like a pro. 

I’ve recently made a presentation for a student who had to discuss his Master thesis to an audience on his graduation day. I’m going to use that presentation as an example for you to learn 10 basic design concepts that will take your presentations to the next level.

(The slides are in Italian, but I only want you to focus on the design. For the purpose of this article, the language and the content don't matter).

(1) Start strong
The first slide is the most important one. It sets the tone for what comes next. You need to use it to arouse curiosity. You want your audience to get intrigued. A high-quality image that supports your topic is always a good choice. This before-after slide shows you how most students would design the first slide of their Master thesis presentation and how they really should design it. Which one do you prefer? 

(2) Use the rule of three
The rule of three is one of the most important concepts in communication theory. It means that people can only hold about three pieces of information in short-term memory. Therefore, split your presentation into three separate sections. I know this cannot always be done—but when possible find a way to use this rule. You’ll give your narrative structure and make sure your audience will remember your [three] main points. Apple uses this trick all the time.
(3) Never use bullet points 
One of the main reasons why Death by PowerPoint is in everybody’s vocabulary today is bullet points. There is always an alternative to the boring bullets. An idea is to use icons instead. 
(4) Display data effectively 
The key to displaying data for maximum impact is to leave out all the elements that don’t add value to an audience’s understanding of your message. I’ve recently interviewed Rick Altman, host of the Presentation Summit. Speaking about data display, he said “most of the time you are sharing proportional data, [that is] how this thing relates to that thing. You could do that with two rectangles, one of them being longer than another one.”

How often do you really need a background? Do you need the lines across it? The answer, my friend, is no you don’t. In many cases you don’t even need the axes.

Extra tip: don’t use the title of your chart as the title of your slide. Instead, use a short message that tells the story behind the data. In the slide below, instead of “GDP and public debt” I wrote “Debt raises while GDP stays flat”. You’ll make it easier for your audience to immediately grasp the meaning of your chart. Remember, what’s important is not the data, but the story behind the data. 
What’s important is not the data, 
but the story behind the data. [Tweet this]

(More on data display here

(5) Use hierarchy 
If one element is more important than another, show it! One way to do that is by using hierarchy. Here’s how I used it in this slide:
  • Title: Raleway Bold, 36 points
  • Chart legend: Raleway Regular, 30 points 
  • Source and numbers: Raleway Light, 20 points     
From a visual point of view, the tile is more important than the legend, which in turn is more important than the data source. 

(6) Go big or go home
If there is one thing you really want your audience to remember, make it big. If it’s important for your listeners to know the inflation rate is 1.2%, then that’s what you should do. Again, Apple does it all the time. 
(7) Combine images and text
In visual communication, there are few things more powerful than a high-quality image combined with text. By no coincidence billboards are often designed that way. They need to grasp people’s attention in a matter of seconds—and so should your slides. 

Extra tip: Use the rule of thirds. Imagine to break down your slide into thirds—both vertically and horizontally—so that you have four intersecting points. Then place the key elements of your visual either along one of the dividing lines or on the intersecting points.

Extra tip 2: Apply the same filter to your images. Here’s a small trick: create a rectangular shape of the colour you want to use for setting the tone of your presentation and place it underneath each of your images. Then substantially reduce the opacity so that the shape fades away. In my presentation I’ve used a blue shape and brought the opacity down to 20%. If you look carefully, each image has a blue tone. 

Extra tip 3: Make sure images and text flow into each other. Notice where this woman is looking at? She is exactly looking at the text. I haven’t placed the text there by coincidence. As soon as you show such a slide, people will naturally look at the woman first and then follow her eyes towards the text. That’s exactly what you want them to do.
(8) Use colour wisely
I’ve already written about colour theory here and how to apply the theory here. To sum up, don’t use random colours. For example, the reason why I’ve used blue, red and white is because those are the national colours of Japan. Also, I didn’t use any red, but rather the same red as in the Japanese flag. (I then adjusted the shade to make it stand out better).

(9) Achieve unity 
You may be thinking that some of these tips are too meticulous to even get recognised. However, it all adds up. If you apply them, you’ll come up with a unified presentation where all the elements work together to support your design as a whole. You’ll make sure your elements don’t compete with each other, but rather support each other towards a common goal of communicating your message. You’ll make sure your elements belong together. 

(More on achieving unity here). 

(10) Give credits 
Never use somebody else’s images or design elements without giving appropriate credit. As one said, ”Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
If you want to take your presentations to the next level, please reach me out at andr.pacini@gmail.com.  

IMAGE: Nathanael Coyne via Flickr