SuperHi AMA with Zach Grosser
This interview between SuperHi and Zach Grosser was conducted in the SuperHi Community in Discord on 25 October, 2023.
We’re excited to have you, Zach Grosser (https://zachgrosser.com/), as our next guest!
Hey everyone! Super excited to kick-off this AMA today! Thanks to the SuperHi team for having me. I'll reply to each question in thread, so there is opportunity for follow-up/clarifying questions separately. As an intro, I'd like to share more about me: I'm Zach Grosser (he/him). I'm originally from just outside Corning, NY, and I currently live in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I'm a presentation designer, design agency owner (shoutout my team at https://zacht.studio/, they're the best), and instructor—including my brand new course with SuperHi, Presenting Persuasively: https://learn.presentation.design/
Excited for this! Zach, I would love to hear more about how you make your pitch to companies to hire you—why do they need you? How do you convince them? I feel like I see companies who think they think they can make great pitch decks (whether for internal or external purposes) and aren't strong on storytelling, say/do too much, and have a lack of conciseness that loses the ability to make the CTA crystal clear AND irresistible (i have feelings on these issues, lol).
Well, there's an interesting thing here because there are people that value presentations and pitch decks and know that they need to be good. And then there are the people that don't. So, there's two different strategies here: The first group is quite easy to sell on because they are already understand the need. The other group are often told—and this particularly comes up when it comes to fundraising decks that we work. They go out and pitch and they hear from a potential investor that they're deck needs to be better or one of their existing investors is like, "hey if you want to win any more investors, this is got to be better." And so we find that we have advocates; either in those potential investors, or within the organization, that already know there's value. So I think I try not to convince them because the convincing part it's not really in the sales cycle for us.
I'd also love to hear more about how closely you partner with companies—is it a close collab? What's your favorite project you've worked on and why? What impact did it have?
It is a close collaboration, yes. Usually we're working directly with the CEOs, the founding team, or the core investor group, depending on the type of organization. With larger organizations, we're still working with the Director and VP levels. But typically, we're working closely with a core group, who is deeply invested in the success of the project, and that aligns with our investment too. They're like 'we want this to be designed great.' And so do we! We often have the same goals are our clients so we do collaborate closely and iterate together quickly. On the iteration piece, I think getting feedback and input frequently is crucial to our success.
The favorite project I worked on is a hard question. The thing about my job is nearly all of it is confidential. You can imagine the NDA process for a investor deck, right? So, while there are a ton of really cool things, I generally don't get to share externally. I'll keep thinking about this and see what comes up. But one thing I can share is my new course, not to just plug it, but I had a ton of fun, but in so much effort, and am really proud of the result.
I'm curious to know how you found your niche? Was it by accident or did you actively seek out presentation design? Also what would you recommend to any designers who are also looking to make presentation design their specialty?
I got in a presentation design by accident. No regrets though, I'm certain there were many opportunities for me to pivot to other areas along my career path. An accidental career that I like!
I think it goes back quite far, I went to university for glassblowing originally and picked my school based on the ability to focus on Fine Arts and move across mediums when it felt right/there were good opportunities. So among many things, I took a design course and a seminar on Adobe CS3 (!). When I was first in the Bay Area, I worked at the Apple Store teaching software and hardware—including Keynote.
And so when I was at Square, working in food services, the presentation designer Leejay (who is amazing) left to go work at Airbnb and I was like, "I can do that job!" I know some design, I teach Keynote, I applied. So that's where I really started my career and got into the niche.
If any other designers are looking to make the the change to presentation design, I think it's just doing that. I think it's really communicating that that's what you specialize in and so making some really solid decks for your portfolio and advertising yourself as a deck designer. Because I think when people start searching out deck designers, they are looking for someone that like really has an expertise because I think a lot of times we see decks that the companies we work with have hired an agency to do a rebrand and stuff, and they also throw in like a powerpoint template. And generally, those are a little bit more, copy-paste from other projects that the agencies has worked on, which is the agency model—so it's like that is bad, but they are generally less focused and detail oriented for the specific company. You want someone that specializes for high impact presentations.
How many projects do you have going on at a time? When did you know you found your niche and how did you find clients in the beginning? Aside from books and data viz, are there any other resources you use?
I would say 3–8, typically? Sometimes a bit more, but I like to not spread myself and my team too thin, even if we can balance it. I got really lucky here, I had worked at Square which allowed me to interact with a majority of the company across all teams. So when I first started out, it was clients coming to me directly. Someone had a slide need and thought, 'Zach is the person I know that does this.' So, I'm fortunate that have had a network to start getting new clients.
For inspiration, I typically am looking for non-presentation inspo, like websites and print media—anything that visualizes image and text beautifully together. If you want slide inspo, deck.gallery is relatively new and highly curated so far.
If your question was more around other types of resources, let me know, happy to answer further!
Can you describe your typical workflow when working with a new client on a presentation project? Like how do you pull out the story from them and help clients avoid the common pitfalls of design and storytelling?
Yes, so everyone's at a different starting place. Sometimes our clients are like, "hey, we have an idea. What do we do now?" And sometimes it's all the way on the other side, with, "We're content complete. We did a design pass. We went out and presented and we got feedback that we need our pitch to look better." And everywhere in between. First, trying to find a starting point, where's the content? What is the design direction? Are there brand guidelines or are we building or evolving a brand from somewhere else/nothing?
And then, I love to start with the story. The story is the most important part of a presentation. I try to pull that out, as you say, from the clients by asking them to talk about their company, their goals, where they're going in the future—all without them presenting their current deck. I want to hear from them directly. Then it's us focusing on the target audience, in this example of a fundraising deck, an investor audience. And focusing through that lens, knowing what they want to hear in a pitch.
The common pitfalls of design and storytelling: sometimes we just have to be the experts. They're coming to us for our expertise in design and storytelling, so we need to play the authority. We have to say, "this is a design best practice. Or this is a decision we need to make for accessibility reasons. It can be really hard because the types of people that we work with, as I mentioned, are the top of the company and a lot of those people think they know best. So it's really relying on things like, "I do tons of these. So there is an expertise here."
I'd love to know more about the process of your course itself; everything flows so well and i was wondering how you determined the subjects you wanted to cover?
Thanks for saying that. At the start of the process the flow and order of my course was what I felt I was weakest at.
This took a lot of time. I really got a lot of help from from Par and Lou and the rest of my SuperHi Plus cohort to build this. I think that it really started with a meetup in Amsterdam. Zacht Studios, my agency, partnered with Pitch and Framer to host a design event earlier this year. I spoke at the event and used the outline for my course as the outline for my 15 minute talk. That gave me a lot through rehearsing, presenting, and getting feedback from that event. I was able to iterate and figure out the structure of my course from there. I also just tried to think about 'how do I get work done?' Then, 'how do I like to learn?'
I really wanted to make sure that the process I was teaching was as authentic to the process steps I use when I do design work. I structured my course as closely to that as possible.
And how did I determine the subjects I wanted to cover? Sometimes, as part of the cohort process for making all this, I would just roll the camera and talk. So for the Confidence lesson, I would have three bullet points about what that was going to include and I would hit record and talk for ~45 minutes about Confidence and those three bullets. Then it was re-watching, collecting more ideas to fit with that, developing those ideas further, and then doing it again—until it was the final recording that you can see in my course.
Thanks so much for such a detailed answer! It's super interesting to see how everything came together.
How did you start your own business, especially in a foreign country? Any tips?
My business was actually a front to get my visa. So I moved to the Netherlands and one of the ways to get a visa here, as an American, is to have a Dutch company that you start and invest in. And so that's what I did. I'm on the DAFT visa—Dutch American Friendship Treaty. And I started my business to really be a vehicle for working with Figma, who had offered me a job to lead Design Education. I was at Figma full-time and the first year of my Dutch company was majority just invoices to Figma for my payroll. After that, I was freelancing. I think I mentioned in my course that to start my own business for real was also an accident, which I love this story. I was in Dutch class and met my first hire, Dona, there. We do a lesson where we learn to order in Dutch, and then they take us to a bar around the corner, and everyone orders a beer in broken Dutch and then class is over. And it really was the first time we got to know each other as classmates, aside from the where are you from and how many siblings do you have sort of question that are early on in the lessons. And we've been friends and colleagues ever since. I had done the classic freelancer mistake of taking on too much at once and Dona was looking for 8–10 hours of work to supplement her other projects. from there, we have scaled. Aside from that, there are just a lot of leaps of faith and making mistakes.
For everyone wanting to start a business, move countries, or both, I would say that it is harder than you think and also can be way more worth it than you think too. Pros & cons, happy to discuss more in-depth with anyone.
Do you have any tips/tricks from the presentation world to overcome imposter syndrome, and sound and look like you really know what you're talking about?
Imposter syndome is real! I definitely experience it. I like to reflect on the definition of imposter syndrome, which to paraphrase this, is the idea of someone that is high performing or capable of a task or role or whatever, feeling like they are a fraud. So, through that definition, you have to be good enough to do something to even feel as an imposter over it. The skills need to be there in order to experience the syndrome. So, by fact of having imposter sydrome means you are where you belong and good enough. When you are up on stage, you are there because that audience and organization wanted to hear what you had to say. This can apply to much more than public speaking of course!
How do you define success with a pitch? Is it how you feel it went/ personal targets or converting a pitch into paid work?
Usually at the beginning of a pitch process, in the discovery phase, I do want to find the goal(s) of the presentation. So they are typically one to one. I think there is the other side of it though, that I think you are implying here too, where I can feel successful about a pitch even if I don't win the work.
Generally, I find a lot of comfort, and even drive, in the fact that everyone is walking around with vastly different success metrics. The classic ones like, making a ton of project, do not need to be mine. I think it's important to constantly reflect on your values and goals—and also be willing to change them—to determine success for you.
How important is to build a persona in your opinion with any kind of presentation work? As opposed to being a person that navigates through a highly competitive world.
I think that you should be yourself, as much as possible, rather than creating a persona to try to inhabit while presenting. Oftentimes a presentation's goal is to convince, persuade, or sell something, and all of those require the presenter to be authentic to get the audience to come along for that ride. So being authentic, I think, is really important and can be the competitive edge that you have over others!
The concept of authenticity is a very complex one and it's most often times translated in wanting to be something you're not, something out there that appears to be in this or that way. It's nice you mention persuasion, as I think it's really nice to inform as opposed to persuade. Is it enough to inform? I know these are all subtle, but curious how do you reflect on these topics.
These are really subtle, I appreciate that too!I think informing is part of persuasion, they aren't mutually exclusive.
For me, I want to highlight persuasion because I think the format/medium of a presentation requires a respect for the audience and especially their time. We have a lot of great, known mediums for informing. The joke/reality of "this meeting could have been an email." is the core idea here. If I want to inform, I could send a doc or email. Beyond informing, you can involve your audience, bring them along on a journey, and: persuade them of an idea or concept or change (of mind). And that is a valuable use of the medium of presenting.
I appreciate your highlight here, and am very sensitive here with overselling as we're living in an overabused world. However beyond perceptive and ethical basis, you do have to deliver in the end something you've committed to. One last question, what does persuasion have that informing doesn't?
I think persuasion needs a call-to-action. While informing can have a CTA, but it's optional.
Thank you for all your insightful answers, Zach!
Thanks so much for having me!! I'm around if anyone needs anything!
Again, I've just launched Presenting Persuasively: https://learn.presentation.design/