As someone who has assembled many startup board decks over the years, I thought I’d offer some advice to executives who contribute slides to board decks that should make it easier for the point-person to assemble, improve the deck’s appearance, and avoid any painful and/or embarrassing mistakes in the process. Marketing folks, who both build a lot of presentations and live in PowerPoint, tend to get these basics right. Everybody else, in my experience, not so much.
- You are your metrics. Remember the old quote that’s often misattributed to Peter Drucker, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I prefer its corollary, “if you’re not measuring it, you’re not managing it.” And, in turn, its corollary, “if you’re not presenting it at a board meeting, then you don’t care about it.” Remember, the metrics you choose to present — and perhaps more importantly those you choose not to present — say a lot about you and what you think is important. Put real thought into selecting them.
- Take the time to write a short letter. Remember the again often-misattributed quote from Blaise Pascal: “if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It’s your board — take the time to include as few slides (and as few numbers per slide) as are needed to tell the story. But no fewer. Don’t make the classic mistake of just grabbing your ops review slides and pasting them into your board deck. Don’t make the deck assembler have to decide which slides, from a pile you provided, should be in the deck.
- Provide context for numbers. Repeat after me: the board is not afraid of numbers. So don’t be afraid to present them. Don’t drown them — be selective in which metrics you show. But when you choose to show a metric, provide context so board members can analyze it. That means providing trailing nine quarters of history, sequential and YoY growth rates, and % of plan attainment. Thus, each metric translates to 12 numbers, so pick your metrics carefully.
- Use the right design template. Assembly is much easier if everyone is using the same corporate slide template, ideally a confidential version of it that includes good security footers (e.g., Company Confidential and Proprietary, Internal Use Only).
- Learn how to use slide layouts. Don’t be the guy putting text boxes onto blank slides when you should be using the Title+Content layout. One great part about using layouts is re-applying them to make sure you, or a prior author, hasn’t changed anything.
- Don’t hack the layout. If your layout doesn’t include a subtitle, don’t use one. It just makes it harder to reformat things downstream. Plus, too many folks are lazy and make a sequence of slides with the same title, only varying the subtitle. Bad habit. Integrate the two and make varying titles. Less is more.
- Don’t put numbers into embedded tables. The easiest way to get math errors in your board slides if to either cut/paste or re-type numbers into embedded Word tables. Use embedded worksheets for numbers and ideally do live total calculations to ensure all the numbers are right.
- Be careful as heck with embedded worksheets. That said, note that Office has a terrible habit of taking the whole workbook along for the ride when you paste a table as an embedded object. Don’t be the person who pastes in a table of payroll by department, accidentally including everyone’s salary on an adjacent tab, and then mailing that not only to the board, but also the whole executive team.
- Paste charts as images. The major upside here is you eliminate problems related to the prior point, the downside if you give zero power to the deck-assembler to fix things at 2 AM. The best practice is to ship your slides with charts pasted as images and attach a separate Excel file as the source. That way, you both reduce risk and give the assembler the power to change things if needed.
- No more than one table of numbers per slide. While board members love numbers, don’t mentally overload them with too many concepts on a single slide.
- Use a standard capitalization convention. I Recommend Title Case for Slide Titles. I recommend sentence case for slide body copy. It’s a pain in the neck to fix this if everyone is doing something different.
- Use a standard convention for notes and sources. I use * and ** and put the notes (which are often data sources) in 8-point type right above my confidentiality footer. It doesn’t matter where you do it; what matters is that everyone puts them in the same place.
- Don’t use slide notes. In reality, you have two choices here — either always distribute your board slides in PDF or never use slide notes. Any middle ground is very dangerous — imagine copying a slide from someone else’s deck that has embarrassing commentary in a slide note that you don’t notice, but a board member does. Ouch.
- Type text directly on objects. Don’t create a separate text box and then put it atop on object; make the text and the object one.
If everyone on the e-staff follows these tips you’ll end up with a better board deck and it will take whoever assembles it — often the CEO at smaller companies — far less time to do so.