How to Design Effective Presentations 5 Practical Tips from the Consulting Industry
You don’t need to work at McKinsey or Bain to learn how to take slides from Ford Focus to Ferrari F8. In fact, you can get 80% of the way there with just a few simple tweaks.
Most consulting firms have an unhealthy obsession with PowerPoint slides.
As a young consultant, I remember entire meetings that were focused on the design and structure of a client presentation. Instead of discussing the strength of our argument or the viability of our analysis, we’d overanalyze the wording of our titles, the color in our visuals, and the font size of our text.
At the time I rolled my eyes through every one of these meetings. But over the next 10 years of my career, I began to see the genius of these subtle design and structural choices. What these consulting firms had figured out through decades of selling PowerPoint decks that cost more than some Ferraris, is how to leverage principles of structure, logic, and design to create top notch presentations that are clear, engaging, and persuasive.
Fortunately, you don’t need to work at McKinsey or Bain to know how to take your slides from Ford Focus to Ferrari F8. In fact, you can get 80% of the way there with just a few simple tweaks. But first, you need to understand “the problem”.
Anytime you present slides the audience is faced with a tough task. In addition to listening to what you say, they’ll be trying to read what you have on the slide, think about what you might say next, and consider how they can contribute to the conversation. Even if your audience is smart and engaged, this is too much information for their brains to process all at once.
You might be tempted to create “minimalistic” slides, like what you might see Tim Apple doing at a product launch or keynote presentation. The idea being that if you can minimize the information on the slide, the audience will be more likely to focus on you and your message, rather than on the presentation.
This is generally a good approach, but in most realistic work settings it’s impractical. Unless you’re launching a new iPhone to an auditorium full of people, it’s likely that you’ll need to provide a lot of detailed information to your conference-room-sized audience — sales numbers, a marketing plan, or an investment pitch, to name a few examples.
So that leads to a situation where you have to create a dense, content heavy presentation, but one that the audience can understand quickly without being overloaded mentally. In other words, you need to help the audience process a large amount of information, as efficiently as possible.
Nail the Title
The first step towards creating an easy-to-process slide is to nail the title. As the most important part of your slide (by a long shot), your title should provide a summary of the slide content and help your audience clearly understand the key takeaway.
A common mistake I see people make here is to just put the topic of the slide content (e.g. “Sales”). This is not something that’s going to help your audience process the rest of the information quickly. Instead, put a full sentence here, 1–2 lines typically, and tell your audience exactly what you want them to know.
Take a look at this slide from Deloitte as an example. The title says “Retailers are in a challenging position: They are not highly trusted AND consumers hold them accountable to ensure privacy.”
Note: All of the presentations referenced in this article are publicly available. You can find source information and links to all documents below.
The title tells me everything I need to know about the slide in just a couple of seconds. Imagine how much longer it would take to understand the main point of the slide if the title instead said something like, “Retailer Challenges” or “Consumer Privacy in Retail.”
It might feel a little unnatural to write something like this at first, but when you can make it simpler on your audience by summarizing the entire slide quickly, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to hold their attention and persuade them of your key message.
Guide the Reader
You want to design your slide so that the audience understands the highest level idea first, before diving into the details. This is going to give them the context they need to understand what you’re trying to tell them.
Take a look at this slide from BCG for example:
If you focus on the chart first without having the right context, it’s hard to see the key takeaway. It shows VC media investments by city over time, but it’s unclear what they’re trying to tell me. Is it that total VC investments are growing? Is it that Silicon Valley VC investments are growing more than other cities? Or maybe something else? Without the right context or guidance we don’t know how to interpret the details of the chart.
But now go back and read the slide title first: “Media VC investment has exploded in New York City over the past 10 years”. And then the subtitle: “Media and Entertainment VC investments increasing sharply in New York City.” Now with the right context to guide me, it becomes significantly easier to understand what I should takeaway from the chart.
This is the most efficient way to “process” the slide — starting with the highest level idea, which is the title, and then working my way down through the different layers.
This way of communicating is based on the Pyramid Principle, which is the idea that communication works best when you start with your main point first, then work your way into the details.
Notice how this slide is designed to guide me through the different layers. They want my eyes to naturally go to the highest level idea first, which is the title, so they make that the biggest and most obvious. It’s also green when the rest of the text on the slide is black.
Then the next layer of the slide is the subtitles, and those are the next biggest text on the slide (barely), and are underlined to help attract attention to them, but not so much attention to where I look at them before I see the title.
Then the next layer is the chart on the left, and the bolded text on the right, which again is slightly less obvious than the subtitle or title, but still more obvious than the bullet points below them. Then lastly the bullet points are the bottom layer, which attract the least amount of attention.
If you can format your slide in this way, using text, bolding, colors, and shapes to help guide the reader through the different layers of your slide, you’re going to help them understand your presentation quickly and with as little effort as possible, which is exactly what you want.
This one might seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget or misinterpret. Remember, your primary goal isn’t to make the slide look prettier. That’s important, but it’s not the main goal. The main goal is to help your audience process the information on your slide as efficiently as possible. And visuals are a great way to do that.
One obvious visual is a chart, which can help you tell a story with your quantitative data. But another commonly overlooked visual comes in the form of icons. Icons are great for helping the audience understand the text and titles of your slide quickly.
In this slide from PWC the icons make the slide more aesthetically interesting, but the real value comes from the nice mental boost they provide.
Without thinking, my brain can look at these icons and have some idea for what they represent. That way I can skim through the slide without having to read every single word. Remember the problem we talked about in the beginning — the audience is trying to mentally do multiple things at once — so even little stuff like this is going to help them out.
Without the icons here this slide would have way too much text. But because they’ve bolded the main points and connected them with easy to understand icons, it’s much easier for me to look at the slide and understand what they’re trying to tell me quickly.
You can see the same thing here in this slide from Bain. Notice how they use the visuals down at the bottom to make it easier on me to see the country each column represents.
Obviously I could just read the names of each country, but the flags make it that much easier for me to process the details and get to the main point of the slide. It’s a small and easy addition to add these visuals, but it’s very effective.
Annotate your Charts
Charts are a very common element in management style presentations, but they’re often used incorrectly. People sometimes assume that as long as the data is there, the insights will be clear (a huge mistake).
By the time you show your slides to the audience, it’s likely that you’ve already looked them over many many times. You automatically know where to focus your attention and what the insights are, but your audience is likely looking at your slides for the first time. So you need to do whatever you can to help them see the insights quickly — especially on your charts, where people often get lost.
But thankfully, this is really easy to do. You can add color, arrows, circles, or even text, right on top of your chart. It’s something that often gets neglected but that can make a world of difference. In the parlance of the corporate world, it’s what we refer to as “low-hanging fruit”.
On this slide from Bain you can see it done very effectively. First they used red on the columns that matter most to help them pop a bit more. But then secondly they added a callout to show the top 3.
What’s interesting about this is that they’re not telling us anything we can’t already see ourselves — it’s very clear what the top 3 brands are just by looking at the chart. But Bain is smart and they know that anything they can do to make the chart easy to understand quickly is going to help the audience stay engaged.
This is an easy one to do, you just have to remember to do it.
Bring a Perspective
There’s nothing more important for adding life to your presentation than bringing a perspective. And what I mean by that is you should find ways to show what the data in your presentation actually means, rather than just using the presentation as a way to show data.
Tell the audience what you see when you look at the data. Or better yet, tell them what it means for your company (or their company if it’s a client).
An easy way to think about this would be to imagine what you might say in a live presentation setting. After you show your slide, what kind of natural voiceover would you add? Make it a little bit easier on your audience and just add that information directly to the slide.
This again goes back to the idea that you want to make it easy on your audience — tell them what you want them to know, don’t make them discover it themselves.
Let’s look at another example from BCG, this one from a presentation on electric cars. The slide shows a table comparing the viability of electric cars in different markets.
It’s actually a really simple slide — there’s just a title (notice that it’s bright green and very obvious?), then below that is a simple table with just a few rows and columns.
But what’s important to notice is the callout down at the bottom, which says “China provides the most favorable combination of energy prices and mileage for EV penetration”.
If I looked at the table long enough I could probably reach that same conclusion myself. But they’re giving me a shortcut.
They’re telling me exactly what they see when they look at this table, and in turn, what they want me to see. They’re very clearly and very directly bringing a perspective, and it makes the slide much easier to understand.
If you take nothing else from this article then remember this: The best presentation designers don’t create slides that make them look smart. They create slides that make their audience feel smart. They do whatever they can to help the audience understand the slide quickly, efficiently, and with a minimal amount of mental effort.
And sometimes that just might mean you have to spend a few meetings overanalyzing the size of your text or the wording of your titles.
Paul Moss is the founder of The Analyst Academy, a company that teaches people and organizations all around the world how to structure, design, and build world-class presentations. He is an experienced Management Consultant and Corporate Strategy professional, with many years of combined consulting, strategy, and tech experience. Paul is a graduate of Wharton Business School and Brigham Young University.
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