When you think about the different ways you can get news, you have quite a few options at your disposal. Some people prefer to watch TV, some prefer podcasts, and some prefer a good old-fashioned newspaper. You might not immediately consider a PowerPoint presentation as a means of bringing yourself up to speed with current events, but why not? Presentation slides give you a virtual stage on which graphics and text can mingle to bring data to life and make complicated information digestible. The Presentation Center at National Journal capitalizes on presentations as a medium to deliver information about Washington DC’s most topical issues. As a Washingtonian myself, I had the opportunity to meet with Alistair Taylor, Director of Strategic Content & Presentations, to learn more about this unique organization.


Q: Can you briefly describe the Presentation Center and how it relates to the National Journal?

A: Founded in 2012, Presentation Center is National Journal’s most popular tool, and our members use it to help them understand and communicate the implications of key policy and political developments to their stakeholders in Washington and beyond. Our membership is primarily made up of government affairs and public policy executives at major corporations or trade associations, many of whom work in the Washington offices of companies that are based elsewhere. Members use policy slides from the Presentation Center in their company newsletters, as complementary visuals to bolster their own presentations, as well as in executive board room meetings when they’re briefing their superiors on what’s going on in DC with tax reform for instance.

Our Presentation Center Concierge service produces custom PowerPoint slides on policy issues and other specific topics on-demand at members’ request. The Presentation Center team also crafts slides and resource decks that offer briefs and insights surrounding daily news and major policy in several distinct content verticals such as healthcare, energy, tax, economy and finance, trade, and education.

To give you an example, we received two separate concierge request this morning: one was asking for slides with data on a certain legislator’s environmental voting records, and another for information on a potential education bill that’s been sitting in the house.


Q: When did the Presentation Center come to life? Did it come out of demand, or anticipated demand?

A: It started off relatively small, and demand for it increased as we introduced the specific content verticals a few years ago, and also through our efforts to introduce Concierge to the market last summer. The growth of Presentation Center aligns with broader shift within National Journal intended to promote our suite of research and consultative services alongside our journalism.

Presentation Center has resonated well in Washington’s government affairs and advocacy community, and demand for it continues to grow year after year. Considering that PowerPoint is a very common medium for presentations throughout offices in Washington, the format is very familiar to most of our membership. My wife is a consultant and she always says, “if something isn’t in PowerPoint it doesn’t exist”.


Q: Have you seen it develop or change from its inception?

A: The industry verticals were introduced to satisfy expected demand for more in-depth coverage in particular policy areas. Healthcare and tax have been the two big topics in Washington in the last six months, so that’s been a huge focus of interest and those verticals have allowed us to serve that in a much more detailed way.

Concierge has also been a huge growth driver for us, as members have grown to appreciate access to content customized to satisfy their highly specific requests. People are generally interested in tax reform, but for large pieces of legislation, there are countless angles in which clients may take interest.

Concierge requests tend to center around questions like how will certain tax reform policies affect a specific company’s investments and how might reform affect educational institutions. How will a certain policy affect certain foreign companies? What does it mean for pharmaceuticals? How will it affect charities?


Q: What kinds of people use your services? Is it mainly political people preparing for political events, or people from other industries trying to stay on top of political events?

A: Our membership is mostly government affairs and public policy folks, and as a non-partisan organization, we work with clients representing all sorts of policy interests. For example, we work with energy companies and environmental organizations alike, so we always stick to the facts to ensure that we produce analysis that is objective and useful to anyone regardless of their political affiliation.


Q: Are the slides primarily intended for education? How do you keep unbiased?

A: We rely solely on gold-standard sources for data, such as resources from the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) or JCT (Joint Committee on Taxation) or congressional research service reports. Then it’s just a matter of laying out both sides of the argument and sticking to the facts. All of our content is available in a white label fashion, so members can download our slides and edit them to their liking, but what we produce is based solely in objective, verifiable facts.


Q: How do you make your slides easy to use and edit for your members? Is this something that affects the way you create your presentations?

A: All of our content can be downloaded in PowerPoint or PDF format, including the underlying data sets, so we’re providing all the constituent elements in case members want to use our research in other ways. For example, some members might want to use our logo as third-party validation, while others may prefer to replace ours with their own.

We’ll also produce our content in slide templates specifically requested by members. Some members only need to use one slide out of a deck—or sometimes even just one element of a slide—so we try to make that easy to do.  And if we encounter a more complex request to interweave our research into a presentation that was created externally, we’re happy to do that as well.

The most common types of events that members use Presentation Center for in Washington are corporate fly-ins; there’s a fly-in season in D.C. during which members’ stakeholders come to advocate around certain policy issues, and our members like to provide their guests with briefing and background materials before they meet with certain influential Members of Congress.


Q: How do you select topics for general presentations? Is it solely based on what’s trending, and anticipation of what will be trending?

A: Our Presentation Center team meets each morning to pitch ideas for slides, akin to what you would see in a newsroom, and on days with major political developments, we often all collaborate to prepare content surrounding dominant news stories. For example, a few weeks ago our team focused on content related to the outcome of the special election in Alabama.

There are some things that happen you can’t anticipate, but there’s a lot of policy in DC that you can see coming. In defense, for instance, the national security strategy is supposed to be released any day now, so we’ll craft content on that when it’s released, but we don’t know exactly when that will happen.

We also try to explain the ‘story behind the story’. Last week someone from our team mentioned that, when the US reaches the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department has to take ‘extraordinary measures’ and we all realized that most of us didn’t know what that entailed. So we had someone put together a detailed deck on what those “extraordinary measures” actually are, such as the government deciding to delay federal pension plans for three or four months.


Q: Do your researchers make the slides too?

A: Yes, we combine those two capacities.


Q: How do you allocate work? Is it based upon specialist knowledge?

A: Each member of the team is responsible for coming up with ideas for their assigned verticals. Generally, we know that clients will be interested in big picture topics such as education and tax reform, but there will always be niche requests that require us to dive a bit deeper. We try to distribute to legwork fairly among our team and work closely to pull it all together.


Q: Do you feel like you need to provide more guidance when people are viewing presentations without a presenter? How do you do so? How do you strike a balance between enough text and too much text?

A: When we get requests direct from our members we always ask: What’s the context? Who is the audience? Where are you presenting it? What kind of deck are you looking for? The answers to those questions should determine the ultimate way you approach the deck. When dealing with public policy issues in D.C., its also important to consider the audience’s level of familiarity with the issue when deciding on the type of language to use in a presentation.


Q: How do you and your team find working in PowerPoint?

A: I know people grumble about it but honestly, it’s a program like any other. There are bad presentations of course there are, but its not like if you read a bad article or a bad novel you blame Word. There’s a strange PowerPoint fixation. Is it perfect? No, but we quite like it.


Q: What are your favorite PowerPoint tricks? Maybe an animation, or a shortcut.

A: Everybody’s got their own, but mine is probably undo!


Q: How did you come to be involved with the Presentation Center?

A: I’ve been here just about a year and a half. My background previous to this was on the publishing side. I worked for a British research and publishing consultancy firm that focused on international economic and political affairs—emerging markets in particular. Then when I moved back to the U.S., I saw this opportunity, and it seemed like a really interesting way of approaching what’s going on in D.C. I grew up in this area, so I’ve always been fascinated by D.C. and policy, so it just seemed like [Presentation Center was] a really great, interesting, and innovative way of presenting information on these topics.


Q: What does your day-to-day work look like?

A: We send out general content and vertical content in push emails around 3pm each day, so there’s this rush and lead up to that to make sure we’ve got everything done. That immediate pressure subsides and then we tend to do the longer-term research stuff in the afternoons. For example, if we’re working on a deep dive deck on an issue like the opioid epidemic that’s going to be 40, 50, 60 slides, we would focus on crafting that in the afternoon.


Q: What is your favorite/best presentation you’ve worked on?

A: We’ve been coming up with some really cool stuff lately taking congressional tweets and doing Twitter/network analysis [to see] how those Members of Congress interact with one another through social media and what kind of language the GOP uses surrounding certain discourse related to coal, NAFTA, China or other controversial topics.


Q: How would you like to see the Presentation Center continue to develop?

A: I think we’ve got some really interesting ideas we’re considering for other verticals or expanding the model to other markets more broadly. Whether we apply it outside of the beltway or in new industries, I think it’s an exciting model that can have many uses.

The Presentation Center is a research branch of the National Journal. To learn more about the work that Alistair and his co-workers do, or how you can become a member please click here.

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