Peter Mann of ItsNotRocketScience.Despite the fact that two-thirds of all business is lost at the pitch stage, and although the stakes are higher than ever before, the process of creating and delivering those critical client presentations has changed very little in the last sixteen years.
Companies’ annual reports look glossy and professional, their websites are choked full of “Flashy” animation, and their brochures are a classy four-colour act. Yet the calibre of their presentations, like the name of the potential client that has been copied and pasted onto the first slide of the apologetic PowerPoint presentation, is often still a bit of an afterthought.
The problem with PowerPoint is that it is the standard – it has been since it was launched into the market by Microsoft 16 years ago. However, its problems lie in the fact that it is not just the industry standard – it is the universal standard. School children use it, sales people use it, managing directors use it.
So, in a competitive marketplace where all your rivals are looking to snap up your potential clients, how can the “standard” help when you want to stand out from the crowd?
Well, two Scottish companies are standing out from the crowd in the world of presentation software.
Glasgow-based ItsNotRocketScience (INRS) has spent the last two years, and close to £2m, developing Pollenate, a stand-alone presentation software package – a rival to Microsoft in the corporate world.
“The biggest problem with PowerPoint is that it really doesn’t add anything to what you are trying to do,” says Peter Mann, managing director at INRS. “It can often hurt you in the way that people utilise it. It hurts your message. Good presenters who just talk do a much better job.
“We are trying to allow a presenter the ability to interact and bond with an audience, get a two-way communication going and aid that.
“The whole ethos behind PowerPoint and how it works is a problem. People use it to talk at an audience. It is fixed. That is not how you present or sell. That is how you sell badly. To be a good marketer is all about communication.”
Fighting talk, but is Pollenate a true rival to PowerPoint? “We can take on the might of Microsoft,” says Mann. “Are we as big as Microsoft? Of course not. Do I question the need for PowerPoint? No, it will remain. Are we going to be selling to every client that Microsoft has got? No. We don’t need to. But when we are in a pitch situation and we are presenting our own product, then we will win. The product is better. It suits needs but not needs that every client will require.
“Our software philosophy has always been to be the Apple Mac of software. This product will be perfect for a percentage of the market – in the same way that everyone that buys a Mac will always buy a Mac, and there is bugger-all the PC market can do about it. It is a better product for certain need groups.”
Janoo was founded in Edinburgh in November 2000, and the development of its presentation package, PitchPerfect, was quick to follow. But, while Janoo may not have aspirations of a David and Goliath rivalry with Microsoft, in this ever more advancing age, clients’ needs are changing. Dave Black, senior designer at Janoo, explains: “We are not trying to rival Microsoft. What we are offering, as a package, is much more interactive and reactive.
“We have created a much more modern business model. In the new world of digital development the websites and products that have grown organically by reacting to the needs of their users are almost invariably more successful than the ones that are fixed and concrete.
“PitchPerfect can come as a basic package, but ultimately the client can ask for any add-on functions they require.
“Rather than being a one-off cost, it can, if you want, work in the same way as any design project. We can talk about what you need, lay down specifications and a project plan and discuss any extra functions that you might want.
“We are growing in a different way. Up until about a year and a half ago we’d been creating, basically, two types of presentations; on Director, which was essentially fixed once it had been created, and then on PowerPoint, which is very open. Neither solution really worked.
“Director was a pain because you couldn’t personalise it. Oppositely, PowerPoint just got abused. If you are going to spend thousands on rebranding exercises then the last thing you want is your MD getting given presentations where the corporate blue logo has been turned pink and is heralded by an animated man with a flag. Corporate guidelines need to be adhered to. It is a common problem.”
Both companies feel that this is a problem that needs addressing. Both wanted to create a tool that would let the user update information, but only to a certain extent – to remain in control of corporate guidelines and avoid any “mini pieces of modern art”, whilst allowing various departments the ability to use and update the presentation for their own needs.
Says Black: “Many clients won’t have a great deal of design skill in-house, so giving them a system that doesn’t require a high level of design skill was our aim, coupling that with features that make it as easy and quick to use as possible.
“Although PitchPerfect allows the user to change text, text size, line spacing, etc, you can’t change the font and you can’t change the logos and colours – which means no pink Microsoft presentations, the bane of every designer that has ever slaved over a corporate ID. Sales people should be sales people, not designers. You’ve probably seen the outcome of what happens – they are not designers, and it shows (pink corporate logos and all).”
A simple way to look at it is that a good presentation is just like a well-told story. It has an enticing beginning, it conveys some level of passion or enthusiasm, it’s well illustrated, and it concludes by pulling together all the critical pieces. The delivery is clear and articulate and eye contact and body language make it easy for the audience to engage with the presenter.
However, in reality, the “story” has often been written by many different authors, it doesn’t fit together well and the illustrations have received little critical assessment. To make things worse, the presenter is using the same template that hundreds before him have used. Your name and company has been dropped proudly on the first slide to add that “personal touch” and the presenter apologises time and time again as he skips through irrelevant slides.
A book should be something that you put down and pick up as you choose, yet traditional presentation methods are time-line-based, making it virtually impossible to effectively jump backward and forward during a presentation.
Says Mann of Pollenate: “Slides can be fully animated and motion controlled. I describe the file format as virtual video, not an M-PEG and not an AVI. It is not a video-type, which is important. Similarly, it is not like Flash either. The problem with all of those file formats is that they are time-line-based. They have a start, a middle and an end. Presentations don’t work very well on time-lines. You need to interact with your audience. PowerPoint is self-habitual. Watching PowerPoint is so classically conditioned that it really is nodding-off stuff for an audience.
“Whenever a sales person wants to sell something to me, it is so stage-based. They will come in and shake my hand, we’ll have a bit of chitchat and they will apologise while they boot up Windows 98 for three-and-a-half minutes before we get to it. He will say, ‘Now, I’m sorry for this, I’m going to give you a PowerPoint.’
“They are here to sell me something but they start with a big apology – that makes a lot of sense?
“But they will bring in the PowerPoint anyway and we are clicking through. It looks like the same slides that he has had for the last year, the same slides that he has shown to every potential client. He might have my name and company details on the first line, but that is as far as the personalisation goes. As we click through it he will be saying things like ‘these slides aren’t relevant’ and ‘just ignore these ones . . .’. Then he will find the one that he is looking for, “. . . this one is.” But the reason for that is you are fixed. In reality, you need to be able to respond to an audience.”
ItsNotRocketScience now has a franchise network set up, including ambassadors in Sydney, Seattle and San Francisco, to take the product on.
“We don’t know these markets. We work with people who do,” continues Mann. “But we have to know and trust these people. There is an important quality control issue. We can’t have our ambassadors destroying the products.
“The new media industry has had a tough time. It’s been knocked for six. People need to find new ways of generating new revenues so we are putting a product and service in place that have a high value potential. It generates good margins where new media companies can deploy the skills that they have already in a new way. There is a real demand in our industry for finding new ways to make revenue.
“People have used PowerPoint because they have got it, not because they have bought it. It is part of a standard package.
“We know that this is a unique product. Companies in San Francisco are taking this product on as a franchise. So, I think that it is safe to say that we’re doing something different.
“The presentation market has existed for decades. It is part of the multimedia industry that existed before web. It is a tried and tested market and people know that budgets exist for it. What we are doing is really just trying to leverage that.
“PowerPoint is stuck in a productivity space, it’s in an office environment. That is where it has missed a trick. Presentation is not about productivity, it is not writing a letter or churning out a spreadsheet, it’s about entertaining, selling a message and building an impact.”
We may currently be forced to live in a world where pointy-haired managers use and expect PowerPoint presentations and where we must now translate every new idea and proposal into endless streams of four-bullet/one-graphic PowerPoint slides, but there is hope: “In ten years’ time I hope that we won’t be hearing people apologise as they stick on a Pollenate presentation,” says Mann. “That is what must not happen. What we are offering is a way for clients to make a dramatic difference to their products. It is aspirational. It is not apologetic. It will add something to your product; it won’t take anything away. If you take your own words and put them on PowerPoint you are almost devaluing what you are saying, the audience will be bored with what you have got to say, regardless of how exciting your message is, having a detrimental effect on your words, your statement and your image. You are better off not doing it.”
“I don’t think that it would be fair to say that Microsoft has run its course yet,” adds Black. “They have more than enough ideas up their sleeves to keep the public happy. But as companies become more and more IT-literate and more and more IT-dependent, more specialist needs tend to emerge.”
At the end of the day, presentations should be about lifting your words, not apologising for them.