Writing your first slideshow: The art of pitching

Ex-Evolution Studio director Matt Southern offers tips on how to nail that presentation, no matter what the context
Author:
Publish date:
Matt_Southern.jpg

In the past 15 years, I’ve given hundreds of game-related presentations. From sales pitches to GDC and Develop talks, and from marketing briefings, to game launches and university lectures.

Over those years I’ve had some praise, and plenty of criticism, for the way I present, and I’ve significantly changed the way I use slide software. Slides are never as good as live code, ripomatics or animatics, but are often the best option you’ve got.

There is a lot of advice out there about presenting and pitching, but not as much about writing slides. So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on creating them, especially aimed at people who might be new to doing it.

Sometimes my presentations have had world-class talent involved: Graphic Designers, Video Artists, an Art Director and Audio Designer. Other times I’ve been given half a day to write slides on my own for a WebEx to Japan, and still achieved what was needed. It did it by observing a few basics. Even if you are handing your work over to others, these basics will save time and you’ll be able to collaborate better.

Customer Needs

The killer question for making slides is the same one for actually making games: who is your customer? When briefed to give a presentation, find out as much as you can about the audience: their roles, their personalities, how jetlagged / hungover they’ll be. Ask yourself - what do they need from you? How can you respect, surprise and delight them instead of giving them more of the same? What keeps them up at night and how you are going to solve it for them?

With this in mind, remember that it will be you who connects to the audience, not the slides themselves. Your eye contact, your body language (always stand up if you can), your passion and energy, your honesty and humour are what matter. Slides are only ever there to support you. Write them with this in mind. 

It’s a story

The second thing to remember after identifying your audience: it’s always a story, and you are always selling it. Whether it’s an overview of a user test, a lecture on network architecture, a fan preview session, a team briefing, or a PR crisis response. All stories. All sales.

Start away from the computer to structure your story. Use index cards or scraps of paper and a marker pen to write your story, one interesting topic per card. Lay them on the table and play around with the flow of your story. Think about how each section might connect to the next: an overview of your gameplay might link nicely to hyping your Game Designer, which links to name-checking your world-class Writer. That then links to your backstory, then to your characters and so on. Or does it work better to go Designer – Writer – backstory – gameplay – game? Shuffle the deck and see. Once in a ‘Develop in Brighton’ talk, I spoke for 10 minutes before I introduced myself, to see if it felt fresher to an audience used to seeing ‘all about me’ on the first slide.

On the back of each card, list ideas for images that might convey what’s on the front. When you’re happy, it is time to open the software, remove all the appalling default settings, and turn each card into one slide. 

The Software Basics

  1. Change the default format of the slideshow from 4:3 to 16:9 (PowerPoint and Keynote both give you the option as soon as you create a new file).
  2. Use one or two fonts. If you use more, it looks like you just discovered fonts. Same with colours.
  3. Consider using an off-the shelf font. Grab one from Da Font or The League of Movable Type or buy one. Make it reflect the tone of the story, but not be too self-reflexive.
  4. Delete and disable the default bullet points as soon as you open the software, and don’t use them. If you need a list, just do a list. It doesn’t need bulleting.
  5. Use transitions or animations extremely sparingly, if at all. The only one I use is ‘Fade’ (or ‘Dissolve’ in Keynote), because it is reasonably subtle, makes the move from one slide to another less abrupt, and can make communication clearer (for example if the chronology of a list is important). Again, anything else makes it look like you are new to the software.
  6. Don’t use a corporate template. Don’t put a corporate logo on the same place on every slide (use it once). If a conference organizer sends you a template with a frame and logo on it, pretend you never got it.

Slide Design

A slide show is not a document, so I don’t treat it like one. I use one image on each slide as my default. For slides, think in visuals. Slides are the Quentin Blake to your Roald Dahl. By all means leave more detailed documentation behind (make it visually consistent with your story) – a brochure, sales sheet, USB drive. 

Pictures

Use amazing, full-screen high-resolution images. Obviously if you have the luxury, get in-house or freelance artists to produce mind-blowing concept art, overpaints, renders and storyboards specifically for the presentation. They’ll excite the audience, and fill you with confidence about how awesome your story looks.

If you need ‘found’ images, limit your search to large images only, to avoid stretched, pixelated pictures when you broadcast to the screen. If your presentation will go ‘public’ (slideshare, youtube), use ‘Usage rights’ search filters so you aren’t breaching copyright, and always give credit where due (Google Image Search has both size and usage right filters. 

Use the rule of thirds – for images and your text. Find or crop images so that the focal point is off-centre, use images that naturally have white / empty space, and place your (few) words into them.

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

Words and Numbers

Having focused on images, wherever possible now use a maximum of 10 words. Aim for half that. Like George Orwell said - If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Try taking all the words off the slides, use one big image, and see if you can say out loud what was written instead. It very often works better.

Don’t put complex data (milestone plans, resource plans, budgets, timeframes, forecasts) or spreadsheets into slides. Identify the vital, salient numbers (like a breakeven figure or total budget) and just show them, or produce a graphic to summarise more complex output.

When you present, never read your words verbatim off the slides, it’s painful and confusing to watch. In fact, do your best not to look at the screen yourself.

Notes, Scripts and Rehearsals

Both PowerPoint and Keynote have the option for you to write notes, and then present slides on one screen whilst reading the notes on another. I’ve used these notes as a script to read out verbatim, I’ve used autocues (often without a choice) and I’ve completely ‘winged’ it. Each has its place, and a full script can really ease nerves, but I’ve definitely had the most success and audience rapport with semi-improvised, well-rehearsed stories. I strongly urge you to try that method as your ‘default’. If you’re trying to do the crucial thing of conveying what a game is like pad-in-hand moment-to-moment without any code, don’t read a script. Use presenter notes as intended - as prompts of things to remember to say.

The general rule – ‘the more you rehearse, the better you’ll be’ – isn’t strictly true. You can over-rehearse, lose some of the vitality and spontaneity your story needs, or even spill over from confidence into arrogance. I rehearse with three goals in mind: to make sure the story is easy to follow, to confirm I have the right duration (which eventually becomes instinctive, and can’t be measured by number of slides), and to further improve the talk. Choose your audience carefully. The best feedback is from people with a vested interest in seeing you succeed, who push you to continually improve. For me, building the slides is also a form of rehearsal. 

In Summary

You are the presentation.

You are selling a story to an audience who you’ve done your homework on.

Your slides don’t look like you just discovered PowerPoint, mainly because they lean towards big, beautiful images and you’ve transcended the default options.

Plus you started on paper, and you rehearsed the right amount.

I really hope these guidelines help people when preparing a presentation. Drop me a line if you want more help writing slides or pitching: matthew.j.southern@gmail.com

Good Luck!

Matt Southern worked at Evolution Studios for 10 years as Producer, Game Director and Studio Game Director, prior to that he collaborated with the games industry for Liverpool John Moores University. He is currently building an independent studio and consultancy. 

Related

14 ways to improve your game pitch

Just in time for devs looking to perfect their pitch before Interface tomorrow, independent developer and former head of strategic content at SCEE Shahid Ahmad reveals the best ways to secure that vital deal