Don’t build, write

—Creating a successful pitch deck requires thinking like a magician. The trick is to create a compelling story, says Trevor Thomas—

“Magic,” the famous illusionist Ricky Jay once said, “is all about structure. You’ve got to take the observer from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the astounding.”

The Pledge: With that in mind, I’d like to attempt some magic of my own. I’d like you to think of something magical–something extraordinary, astounding even–and I’ll guess what it is.

Got it?

The Turn: Were you thinking of a PowerPoint presentation?

I’ll take your silence as a “no,” which is understandable as typically, PPTs are boring. They’re dry. They’re the very opposite of magical.

Bad templates. Too many slides. Too many words. Unintelligible charts.

Often, we blame PowerPoint for these issues, but blaming the platform is like blaming a blank sheet of paper for bad writing.

That said, PowerPoint’s interface suggests a process that we’d be wise to ignore, but few of us do.

(Please note that these issues are exactly the same in other platforms. So, if you belong to the “Keynote is superior” crowd, or the new age “Why aren’t you using Google Slides?” brigade, this is still for you.)

The nature of both platforms is one slide. Then another slide. Then another. Click “add slide,” or copy and paste, and another slide pops up right below the last. It’s a process that is reminiscent of building, and so we’ve long used the metaphor of building a presentation.

In that metaphor lies the fatal flaw.

At their core, presentations—like any other form of communication—are stories, and we don’t build stories. We write them. The same must be true for presentations.

They need to follow a typical story structure, containing a clear beginning, middle and end, and—when done properly—have some fun twists and turns along the way.

While not impossible to accomplish through building, there is a better, more consistent, and more time-tested way of creating extraordinarily astounding presentations.

From Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to Harmon’s Story Circle, numerous templates or structures have been proposed, all of them built around beats.

Beats allow you to break your story (or presentation) down into distinct components that will help you see the whole story more clearly. Most stories are divided into acts (typically three), and the story beats live within those acts.

A wonderful device to help visualize, craft and edit this structure is a boarding tool. This could be a real-life white board and post-it notes, or a simple online tool, like Google Jamboard.

Either way, what you want is a “surface” that allows you to capture all your thoughts and then easily move those around to create your storyline.

In the last couple of years, I’ve moved my boarding online, and am now a full-time Jamboard enthusiast. I even used it for the column you’re reading now. When I began, I used it to gather the different ideas I had for the story:

Looks like a mess, I know. But with a collection of ideas laid out in an easily editable format, I was able to start turning them into a story.

I determined my key beats (in blue) and then created the story points (yellow) under each. And if you look closely, you’ll see that through this process, I eliminated an entire section I’d originally planned to be my introduction. I tried moving it around, but ultimately concluded it would be one twist too many, so it got cut.

This gave me a framework that guided my writing, and was easy to refer to as I crafted. The same is true for presentations, perhaps even more so, as the linear structure translates beautifully to slides.

In either case, the stage is now set for magic.

At the outset, I asked you to picture something. In magic, that’s called the pledge. It’s when a magician shows you something ordinary, something you can easily identify and relate to. Next, comes the turn.

That’s where the magician does something extraordinary with the everyday object. In some cases—like my “magic” trick—the turn is far less extraordinary than expected, but used as a diversion to set up the close of the trick, which is known as the prestige.

A classic example: a magician shows the audience a normal ball. She then proceeds to make the ball disappear. Impressive, but the real magic happens when she makes it reappear.

It is this simple, three-part structure that can make a PowerPoint presentation magical.

The Prestige: First, you want to show your audience something familiar. A singular item or topic. Depending on the story you’re telling, it might be bland or attention-grabbing, but it must be something they can easily recognize, and leaves no room for debate. The background, the situation at hand, the problem to solve are all very typical presentation pledges.

Next, you need to do something unexpected—or, at the very least intriguing—to that topic.

This will generally require some build up, which could include research, quotes, anecdotal evidence, anything that builds upon your pledge and guides your audience towards a fresh thought or perspective: A new way of thinking about the problem, or the true enemy. That’s your turn.

Now, you have your audience’s attention, and it’s extremely important that you do everything in your power to hold it. Getting from your turn to your prestige might take 30 seconds or five minutes of new research of findings, stories or analogies, but every second of that needs to be purposeful.

You want your audience on the edge of their seats waiting for a solution they never saw coming. It will differ based on the presentation’s subject, but if built to and delivered properly, your prestige should be magical.

One of the most famous examples of this presentation structure can be found in Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone in 2007.

His pledge: Apple is launching three new products—a widescreen iPod, a phone, and a new web device. All familiar, somewhat expected, but the stage is now set.

His turn: they’re all the same product. Perhaps many in the audience saw this coming, and that’s fine, as it sets him up perfectly for his conclusion.

His prestige: the mind-bending, world-altering capabilities of this singular device, the iPhone. All this in 14 minutes.

“Wait,” I can hear you saying to yourself, “you expect me to present like Steve Jobs?!”

Fair point. He is widely regarded as one of great presenters of modern times. How about an example from someone who is an objectively awful presenter?

In 2015, pre-Bondesque-global-villain-era, Elon Musk was set to introduce Tesla Energy to the world. Unlike Jobs, Musk wasn’t selling a sexy new mobile device. He was selling a battery. But how he sold that battery was absolutely magical.

In his Forbes piece reviewing the talk, Carmine Gallo pointed out that “consumers don’t buy products and services. They buy a solution to a problem.” Further suggesting that it’s important to “present the problem before the solution.”

That was exactly what Musk did in his pledge, by exposing the realities of a fossil fuel addicted planet. His points were dramatic, but grounded in fact, leaving little room for debate or disagreement.

With the problem to solve firmly in place, he began his journey towards the solution—with a brief stop on the sun. This slight diversion was expert sleight of hand, as he led his audience to believe that solar energy is the answer, when, in fact, he was just setting up his true turn, which he identified as the “missing piece”: batteries. Tesla batteries.

It was a wonderful introduction to his new offering, but merely the precursor to his prestige: the entire night—the facility, the session—had been powered by Tesla batteries.

Throughout the 18-minute talk, his slides were simple, but visually arresting. The only words he employed were way finders, and his charts were singular, full-screen and comprehendible with little to no explanation.

It was a masterclass. And it was given by a man who can barely go 10-seconds without chuckling nervously or awkwardly looking around as if searching for an exit.

And yet, the proficiency of the presenter is almost an afterthought because the story is so well written. Regardless of the platform in use by Musk or Jobs, their presentations were carefully conceived, and then written, and edited, and written again, and then—and only then—“built.”

These two examples are in the 15–20-minute range, but this approach works for any length, and is actually even more useful the longer or shorter your presentation needs to be. Longer, because it will help you organize more content, and shorter, because it will help you crystallize your point as efficiently as possible.

And while it may seem that boarding and writing will increase your work, in reality it will save you time, and the results will be nothing short of magic.

Trevor Thomas is vice-president, strategy, at VMLY&R in Toronto.