You Need Two Decks

James Buckhouse
2 min readOct 1, 2023


You need two decks: the Backdrop Deck that you use when you give a talk and the Ambassador Deck that you create for others to flip through when you are not there.

  1. Your Backdrop Deck is for live performance. The story is delivered by you, and the slides are there to augment the emotional impact of your ideas.
  2. Your Ambassador Deck is your send-ahead or leave-behind. You are not in the room when the reader flips through it. It must represent you and deliver your story when you are not around.

Different Densities and Visual Design.

  1. Design the Backdrop Deck as if it were set-design for a one-person show: highly visual with images augmenting the emotion-to-be-felt at each moment. Limit words to headlines, punchlines, taglines, or big ideas.
  2. Design the Ambassador Deck for skim-and-dive reading, where your reader is first intrigued by the headlines and then digs into the body. Warning: If your headlines are not interesting, the reader will skim right past and never read what you are trying to share. Do not put your big idea at the end of a long paragraph. Start with the punchline. Your headlines must do tremendous, specific work.

Compromise Deck

Most people do not bother to make two decks. Instead they make a Compromise Deck that tries to do both jobs and fails at each.

Responsive Design

If it helps, think of your two decks like responsive design, but for your story. What works on a big, horizontal monitor for web design needs significant adjustment for the vertical scroll-to-the-center-of-the-Earth design of mobile. Similarly, what works for flipping through the skim-and-dive of the Ambassador Deck is different than TED-style sit-and-listen of the Backdrop Deck. Adjust accordingly.

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James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford GSB/ & Harvard GSD