THE ADVANCED GUIDE TO MCKINSEY-STYLE BUSINESS PRESENTATIONS
Introduction to Business Presentations
Why we wrote this guide
350 PowerPoint presentations are given per second. The vast majority of them suck.
They are too long, too dull, too full of useless detail, too generic. And these bad powerpoint presentations matter a lot.
They are how we represent ourselves and our work to the world, they are the culmination of our analysis and our thinking. They are our value-add.
And they are terrible.
The disturbing challenge for many of us is that ‘terrible’ simply isn’t good enough. Our careers depend on our business presentations not being terrible.
We wrote this guide in the hopes that, in our own way, we can have a disproportionate impact on your success – your success in presenting yourself, your ideas, and your value add. We hope you find this guide useful.
Our goal was to create the most comprehensive online guide to writing McKinsey-style business presentations on the web. At over 10,000 words, we think it is safe to say – job done!
Here you’ll find a business presentation writing resource overflowing with value and depth. We are holding nothing back. From presentation tools, to style guidelines and formatting tips, all the way to sophisticated approaches to structuring your logic, you’ll learn how to execute every effective presentation writing technique on the planet.
Who is this guide for?
If you need to write a business report, update a team, complete a consulting assignment, or develop an investor pitch deck, and you are not sure where to start, this guide is for you.
If you need to write a senior executive presentation and are struggling to collect your thoughts, then this guide is for you.
If you are looking for tips, tools and resources to create your presentations faster and make them better, you are going to love this guide.
From PowerPoint newbie to strategy consulting veteran, you’ll definitely learn something new that you can use to make your presentations sing.
How to use this Guide
Use The Advanced Guide to Writing McKinsey-Style Presentations in the way that works best for you. We have formatted and structured the Guide to take advantage of the web. You can use it for reference, inspiration, or as a how-to-guide. Be sure to bookmark the guide so that you can reference it in the future.
If you feel that you have a handle on writing business presentations – and just want to learn a new tip or two – then jump to the relevant section of the guide and dive in! We’re sure you’ll find some new tricks and tips to add to your arsenal.
If you have a basic grasp of writing business presentations, but are looking to add a layer of depth to your knowledge – then you should read the guide in order.
Presentation writing skills are under-rated. They have, in fact, a profound effect on your career success. In Chapter 1, we will layout the reasons why developing presentation skills can accelerate career advancement and explore why writing presentations is such a deceptively challenging task. We'll also introduce a framework for thinking about the skills one must master to become truly proficient at writing business presentations.
There is a lot of conflicting advice out there. And a lot of fantastic presentation styles which one can emulate. In the end, as with much in life, the answer to 'which style should I copy?' or 'which advice should I follow?' is 'it depends'.
In this chapter we expand on the general 'horses for courses' answer. We'll introduce you to a number of alternate schools of presentation design and layout the precise circumstances under which each is powerful. We’ll explain how you select the presentation style and approach that matches your purpose.
This is your one stop shop for understanding the various presentation ‘schools-of-thought’ and for determining which high-level presentation approach you should adopt.
The dirty little secret of presentation writing is that the vast majority of presentations that we write are not presented! At least not in a formal, auditorium kind of way.
This has profound implications on the style of presentation which you should adopt.
In this section we will explore the characteristics of the McKinsey (or consulting in general) style presentation and identify the things it does well and why this style is so useful.
There are five disciplines one must master to become great at writing killer business presentations. This is the heart of our process and of the SlideHeroes course:
- The Power of Logical Structure
- The Art of Storytelling
- The Science of Fact-based Persuasion
- The Harmony of Design
- The Drama of Performance
Your job is to communicate an answer to a question. When the audience cannot follow your answer, when they cannot follow the logical steps that flow through your argument, they become frustrated.
Logical structure helps comprehension.
But sometimes it can be difficult.
In this chapter we will dive deep into several business writing techniques you can use to help structure your presentation.
- How to group your ideas (the right number and nature; the right level of abstraction).
- Inductive and deductive arguments
- The special role your Introduction plays in establishing context and framing the question you will ultimately answer
At their heart, all presentations are stories.
Our brains are wired to learn from and remember stories. Presentations that effectively make use of storytelling techniques are easier to understand and remember.
In this chapter we explore the hows and whys of storytelling within business presentations.
The focus of this chapter is on the need for facts and data, and how to present them.
To better understand how to present facts in the form of data we will start with Edward Tufte and a theory for the visual display of quantitative information.
We will also explore the differences between tables and graphs, and how to know when to use each.
The chapter will conclude with an overview of the standard graphs that are most commonly found in business presentations.
How do I make my slides look good?
We get this question a lot. Usually the implicit assumption underlying that question is that it is a PowerPoint (or Keynote) question.
I don’t know how to use this stupid tool to make my slides look good.
In fact, creating good looking slides is, in the main, not a question of PowerPoint skills (it is a basic tool, pretty easy to learn). It is a design question, not an IT question.
And design is a little trickier.
The good news is that the basics of slide design are not difficult to master because, in general, less is more.
This chapter focuses on straight-forward design strategies you can employ to create amazing looking slides. We will also discuss tips and techniques that you can apply to improve the delivery of your presentation.
One of the things we emphasize strongly at SlideHeroes is the need to focus on the creation of the presentation material - the content, the structure, the story and the data.
But you better believe a presentation is a performance. Delivery matters, even if you are sitting down.
This chapter focuses on the kind of preparation and practice that is required to take a well written deck and deliver a great public speaking performance.
This chapter lays out that process for you.
Chapter 1: One of the Most Valuable Business Skills you can Master
The ability to write clear and impactful PowerPoint-based McKinsey presentations is, for young and mid-level professionals, one of the most valuable skills you can master.
- PowerPoint (Keynote) is the de facto paradigm for internal corporate communication today
- The ability to present ideas and results in an understandable and compelling way can be a key differentiator (frankly many people are simply not very good at it)
- Strong communication skills make professionals more effective – being understood the first time, saves time
The problem many young professionals face is that unless they luck out early in their career and learn the craft of creating business presentations from someone pretty exceptional – they probably suck at it.
Becoming awesome is harder than most people realize
Becoming exceptional at crafting board-level presentations (presentations that kick ass) is tough. Much harder than most people realize.
Most of us initially dismiss the challenge as a PowerPoint formatting challenge – a time consuming technical challenge that should be delegated.
In fact, crafting successful presentations is a multi-disciplinary challenge that requires the mastery of a broad SET of distinct skills:
- The ability to order ideas in a logical and structured way
- The skill to utilize words succinctly, powerfully, accurately
- Numeracy, and the ability to communicate data effectively
- Taste – the appreciation for and ability to create aesthetically pleasing design
- Charisma and executive presence
Only some of these ‘presentation skills’ are taught in schools or formally in organizations. Many from this list are either very challenging to master, or are seen (by many) as simply innate.
‘How to use PowerPoint’ courses do not teach these skills either.
And to master all of them? Well, that is the challenge.
Chapter 2: The Many Schools of Business Presentation Design
There are many, many different ‘schools’ of presentation style. Different approaches to crafting and delivering a business presentation.
Here are a few to give you a flavor:
The ‘Pecha Kucha’ School
Pecha Kucha is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (six minutes and 40 seconds in total). It is a format designed to keep presentations concise and fast-paced and is often adopted for multiple-speaker events (PechaKucha Nights). PechaKucha Night was devised in Tokyo in February 2003 as an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public.
Here is an example from the author Dan Pink of a Pecha Kucha presentation. Dan briefly explains the format and then goes on to give a Pecha Kucha about a favorite topic of his. It is a pretty good example. Unfortunately Dan messes up the pronunciation of Pecha Kucha (lots of people do). If you are curious as to how to pronounce Pecha Kucha, have a look at this video.
When to use Pecha Kucha
- Oral ‘stand-up’ presentations only, good for conference presentations
- When you only have 6 minutes and 40 seconds
- When a focus on fast-pace, conciseness and entertainment are paramount
The ‘TED Talk’ School
TED Talks are, quite simply, some of the most fascinating talks you will ever hear. The power of the ideas, and the skill of many of the presenters in the delivery of these ideas, has popularized an 18 minute presentation format that emphasizes story and big ideas.
Listen to Andrew Stanton from Pixar talk about what makes a great story:
When to use the ‘TED Talk’ style
- Oral ‘stand-up’ presentations only
- When you want to tell a story
- When the focus is on big ideas
- When you are presenting at TED (of course!)
The Lessig School
Larry Lessig is a Harvard Law Professor, founding board member of the Creative Commons, and strong proponent of reduced legal restrictions on copyright, trademark, and radio frequency spectrum.
He is also an amazing speaker. Lessig has, over the years, developed a very unique style that he has continued to refine. Have a look:
Interesting characteristics of Lessig’s unique style include:
- Many, many slides; sometimes pausing for only a moment between each
- Slides contain either a single, compelling image or simple text
- Talks built around compelling stories or anecdotes
- Variable speaking pace, with an almost preacher like cadence
- Passion (righteousness even)
- Strong narrative core (don’t be distracted by the novelty of the slides). These are very, very well written talks
When to use the ‘Lessig’ style
- Oral ‘stand-up’ presentations only
- When story plays a major role in communicating your message
- When the focus is on big ideas and themes
- When your narrative is where the power is coming from
Guy Kawasaki School
Guy Kawasaki, former Chief Evangelist at Apple and a silicon valley venture capitalist, evangelizes the 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint presentations. The rule states that a presentation should have no more than 10 slides, take no longer than 20 minutes, a contain no font smaller than 30pt.
When to use the ‘Guy Kawasaki’ style
- When you are pitching to Guy Kawasaki (or other VCs)
- When your audience already has a good understanding of the content and likely structure of what you will say (as Kawasaki’s VC-pitch examples illustrate in the video above)
Sit-down style presentations
There are many other styles. You may have noticed that these approaches to presentations have one thing in common; these Schools are all oriented towards the ‘stand-up in front of a crowd and give a speech’ type of presentation.
When we say presentation, we often mentally picture ourselves standing in front of a crowd. And this is a problem.
The majority of business ‘presentations’ are not made standing-up in front of a crowd. Instead, they are made sitting down, around a table, updating a project team, or presenting our thinking/ideas/suggestions to our boss.
The context of these types of ‘sit-down’ meetings has a profound effect on the style of the presentation we need to give.
These types of meetings and presentations:
- Will be more detail oriented (performance to-date, operational reviews, financial reviews, project-plan updates, etc.)
- Consist of small groups, in a more intimate setting
- Are more likely to result in discussion, going off on tangents or drilling-deeper
- Likely have the participants holding a hard-copy of the presentation in their hand, inches from their nose
- Can cause similar levels of public speaking anxiety as speeches
Speeches, in this context, are, shall we say… inappropriate.
Yet the vast majority of the ‘presentation training’ literature is focused on teaching what we should do when we are standing up in front of our audience (to give a speech). Some of it focuses on the creation of the presentation, but for presentations in a forum type setting.
Our focus here is on what to do when you are sitting down. Our focus is on the creation of content for the presentations we give everyday. The project update / status report / executive board business presentation.
These types of business presentations require a specific presentation approach that the consulting school of presentation design is tailor made for.
Chapter 3: The Consulting School of Presentation Design
McKinsey & Co. are universally regarded as the gold standard in strategy consulting. McKinsey’s multi-million dollar advice is delivered in a very specific way.
There are a number of factors that make the McKinsey presentation, or Consulting style of presentation, unique and powerful:
- Clear, logical structure: The presentation takes you step by step through an argument
- The logic is sound (bullet proof!), the argument is complete
- Strict, consistent slide format – minimalist in design
- Data intensive: Assertions are proven with facts; and facts are data-driven whenever possible
- Quantitative data and other evidence is displayed and structured in simple and clean charts
- The key messages are contained on the slides of the presentation
- Can be read in advance, forwarded to others without losing meaning
This is not an exhaustive list of the characteristics of this style of presentation, but these are perhaps the most material. Hopefully you can see how they distinguish the consulting business presentation style from other approaches.
Zen-style presentations popularized by Garr Reynolds, for example, stand in stark contrast (reliance on imagery; focus on conference-style presentations).
Fine, but does this approach work outside of consulting?
This approach to business presentation design applies across a range of different business situations:
- Board meetings, senior executive meetings
- Solution selling
- Project updates / status meetings
- Start-up investment pitches
- Financial performance reviews etc. etc. etc.
If you are still in doubt as to when to use this style of business presentation, here are a few tests to apply:
- Is it a business situation?
- Do you need to communicate information in some depth?
- Is it a ‘sit-down’ type setting (almost intimate)?
Have a look at the following presentation for an example of why the first test above is important ;-)
Chapter 4: The Five Disciplines
To create great presentations requires skills across a wide range of areas.
There are 5 disciplines one must master to effectively write and present impactful business presentations:
- The Power of Logical Structure
- The Art of Storytelling
- The Science of Fact-based Persuasion
- The Harmony of Design
- The Drama of Performance
The rest of this Advanced Guide to McKinsey-Style Presentations will dive deep into each of these disciplines.
Chapter 5: The Power of Logical Structure
Structure is a beautiful thing.
It brings order, clarity. It enables understanding. We know it when we see it (even if it is just subconsciously) because comprehension immediately becomes easier. Our mind is automatically sorting information into distinctive groups and establishing hierarchies of relationships between these groups (semantic network model) all the time.
Effective structure is the first commandment of presentation creation.
But what is logical structure? How do you create a presentation that has logical structure?
There are half a dozen or so tricks, which when employed obsessively, can allow you to quickly cut through most of the pitfalls (and fairly unhelpful theory of logic) to produce a structure that works.
Group your ideas together to form an argument
Your mind is automatically imposing order on everything around you, all the time. You are grouping, classifying and imposing relationships on all the information your brain processes.
The goal in crafting a presentation is to facilitate the mental processing that is going on in the mind of your audience. To make this processing as easy as possible.
We can do this in two ways:
1. Rule of 7 updated: limit the number of your groups to 4
George Miller, a Harvard psychologist, published a famous study in 1957 entitled ‘The Magic Number Seven, Plus Or Minus Two‘. This led to a well know rule of thumb that stated people only had the capacity to process 7 chunks of information at a time. Further research has enabled us to refine our understanding of how this rule changes depending on our definition of ‘chunks’ of information. More recent conclusions state that people can really only process 4-5 concepts – and only one at a time.
As a consequence, we should seek to structure our ideas into groups of 4-5 or less.
Put simply – there is no such thing as 7 or 9 of anything. If you have a list of 9 things, then you need to go up a level of abstraction and group them into 3-4 buckets.
It is easy to take this insight too far. There is no magical number of bullets per slide. Edward Tufte has some interesting things to say about this here. At its core, this is about a relatively self evident truth: Your audience will struggle to process information. Help them out by being aware of the number of discrete ideas you are sharing at any one time.
2. MECE: Ensure your groups are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive
MECE stands for mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. It is terminology that today is synonymous with McKinsey and other top-tier consultancies.
The term refers to the idea of structuring lists of ideas in ways where the list is:
- Collectively Exhaustive (collectively, the ideas in the list cover all possible components of the idea)
- Mutually Exclusive (individually, each idea in the list is distinct from each of the other ideas, there is no overlap between ideas)
The easiest way to get your head around these ideas is with an example.
The following list of the 7 dwarves is not collectively exhaustive
We are missing Doc!
The following list of options for where to go for dinner is not mutually exclusive:
- Restaurants East of our current location
- Italian restaurants
- Restaurants with music
- Restaurants South of our current location
There is overlap within this list. There could be Italian restaurants east of us. Some restaurants south of us could have music.
This ‘test’ (is this list MECE?) is extremely powerful technique in ensuring logical structure and improving the clarity of your presentation.
You will be surprised at how many groups of ideas you will create which will fail this test – and result in you thinking about additional, great points and ideas that make you argument even more powerful.
Inductive vs deductive arguments
Deductive reasoning starts out with a general statement, or hypothesis, and examines the possibilities to reach a specific, logical conclusion.
The scientific method uses deduction to test hypotheses and theories. The deductive argument presents ideas in successive steps. An example of this type of argument is:
- John is ill
- If John is ill, he will be unable to attend work
- Therefore, John will be unable to attend work
Inductive reasoning (know also as induction or ‘bottom-up’ logic), is a kind of reasoning that constructs general arguments that are derived from specific examples. Inductive arguments can take very wide ranging forms. Inductive arguments might conclude with a claim that is only based on a sample of information.
Here is an example of an inductive argument.
- Two independent witnesses claimed John committed the murder.
- John’s fingerprints are the only ones on the murder weapon.
- John confessed to the crime.
- So, John committed the murder.
Generally, our advice is to construct inductive-based arguments. They are easier for an audience to absorb because they require less effort to understand.
The challenge is that our instinct when writing a presentation is to present our thinking in the order we did the work, which is usually a deductive process.
DON”T DO THIS. No one cares what you did. How hard you worked. They want an answer to a question, not a tour of what you were up to for the last month!
Pay special attention to the Introduction
The start of a presentation requires special attention from a structural point of view.
It contains many traps which can lead unsuspecting authors astray. The purpose of the presentation is to address a question in the mind of the audience. The objective of the introduction is to establish the groundwork to plant this question, so that the rest of our presentation can focus on answering it.
The best approach for achieving this is Barbara Minto’s SCQA framework. Buy Barbara’s exceptional book The Pyramid Principle.
Context (or Starting Point): Where are we now?
Financial performance last year was fantastic, but growth has stalled in the first quarter…
Begin at the beginning. The Situation/Context or Starting Point is the background or baseline that anchors the rest of the story that will subsequently unfold. It is comprised of facts that the audience would be aware of and agree with in advance of reading the presentation. This helps to ground the presentation and establish a common starting point.
Typical situations are “we took an action”, “performance was good”, “we have a problem”.
Soon the audience will be asking themselves “I know this – why are you telling me?”. This is where the complication comes in.
Catalyst (or Complication): Something has changed…
A strategy for returning to growth has been proposed…
What happened next? The Complication creates tension in the story you’re telling. The key objective of the complication is to trigger the Question that your audience will ask in their mind.
Typical complications: “something is stopping us performing the task”, “we know the solution to the problem”, “a solution to the problem has been suggested” and “the action we took did not work”.
Question: The question in the mind of the audience
Is this the right strategy?
The Question arises logically from the Complication and leads into the Answer. It is not explicitly stated in the introduction, it is implicit.
Typical questions: “what should we do?”, “how do we implement the solution?”, “is it the right solution?” and “why didn’t the action work?”
Answer (or Solution): Your answer to the question
Yes, it will drive growth because…
The Answer to the Question is the substance of presentation and your main point. It is your recommendation. Summarize it first – completing your introduction – then break it down into details and write the main body of your presentations. This is where we develop our inductive argument, deploying groups of MECE ideas on the way to proving our point.
Call To Action (or Next Steps): What you want the audience to do
We need to do this next
The call to action is the list of next steps that you want your audience to do.
You need next steps.
In fact, the next steps are the objective of your entire presentation. You want to identify these next steps early in the process of developing your presentation so that you can be sure to design a presentation that drives your audience to the action you desire.
Don’t leave the thinking around what the next steps are until the end.
Chapter 6: The Art of Storytelling
Author and Screenwriter
Storytelling is a timeless human tradition. Before the written word, people would memorize stories that shaped cultures for generations. We are wired for communicating through and learning from stories.
All presentations are, at their heart, a story.
Via storytelling techniques we can elevate our presentations to something that moves people. Sometimes, it is obvious that this is our goal. We are presenting at TED. We are making a speech to our employees about our new strategy. We are delivering our first State of the Union address…
Often, it is not.
Our topic may feel mundane – lacking the grand themes that great stories seem to require. When this happens, often our mistake is in framing the objective of our presentation as an exercise in conveying information – to update.
Rather, the objective of our presentations should be to persuade. To, in-fact, establish in the minds of the audience an important question, and persuade that audience of the validity of our answer.
When we need to update – we need to identify the question the audience should have in their minds as a consequence of the update. In many case it will be ‘what do I need to do next’.
As a rule of thumb:
Why stories are effective
There are a couple of reasons why stories can be more effective than fact-based arguments at persuading audiences.
1. While some opinions people hold are rational and thought-out, many others are emotional
What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Your favorite sports team?
You cannot change an emotionally charged opinion with a rational argument, but you can get your audience to empathize with a hero in a story and thereby affect the emotions they have connected to that subject.
Presenting a rational argument immediately activates the audience’s critical mind, inviting him or her to analyze and counter-argue. By immersing your audience in a story, you bypass that resistance.
2. Stories are memorable and as a consequence are easier to repeat later
As we have discussed, our brains think in terms of stories. We find it easier and more efficient to process stories. In fact, we have a pronounced bias towards stories.
As a consequence your audience is much more likely to remember the stories you tell them (and the messages those stories contain) and more likely to repeat them to others.
What makes a great story?
As a primer, have a listen to Academy award nominated documentary film maker Ken Burns (The Civil War, Jazz) talk about story (especially the fist half). In the video Burns explores what makes a great story. The ‘3’ Burns references is what we are seeking to capture in any great presentation.
Nancy Duarte does a fantastic job of exploring how story is critical to the creation of a great presentation.
In this video, Nancy makes the point that stories and reports occupy opposite ends of a spectrum.
She makes the case that in order to convey the meaning behind your report, you need to introduce elements of story, in order to engage with your audience on a more human level. The appropriate balance you need to strike between story and reporting will be entirely driven by the context of your own presentation.
Chapter 7: The Science of Fact-based Persuasion
We can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.
Pragmatist philosopher (1859 – -1952)
The Bare Assertion
CEO: So you are saying that I need to invest $100 million now or we will go out of business?
CEO: And why is that again?
Presenter: Because I said so…?
To convince and persuade in today’s corporate world business people must construct evidence-based arguments. They must demonstrate, not simply assert.
Edward Tufte makes a great case for what he calls informational depth.
Executives are not dumb. When you are presenting to them they need informational depth. When people are presenting to you, you need to figure out what their story is, but also need to decide whether you can believe them. Are they competent? … Detail helps credibility.
Author, statistician & professor
This, unfortunately, requires significant effort, work, and thinking to pull-off.
The effort required to do this is also a key reason why so many poor presentations lack a fact-based approach to persuasion. There are no short cuts. This is where real effort pays off with discriminating audiences.
Often discriminating audiences (senior executives, investors, advisers, challenging customers) will see their role being a ‘stress-tester’. They will test your assertions. Challenge your data. Poke, probe and dissect your analysis.
Your audience does this because they suspect what you are saying is important. And if they act on what you are saying, and it turns out you were wrong… well this would reflect negatively on them. So, in a way, receiving the third-degree in a presentation can be a good sign.
If you pass the test.
It is for situations like this that you need data, facts and proof. You will be eaten alive if you simply assert.
But your data, facts and proof should be in support of your structure, your story. The goal is not to squeeze in all the analysis you have done. Inevitably much of your analysis will not be required to make your central argument. Be equally ruthless in sorting and prioritizing what analysis is required to make your point.
Tables and Graphs
They are fundamentally different.
When you have data that you would like to present, resist the urge to throw it into the sexiest 3D pie chart you can create.
Instead, think first about how you intend to use the data and what point you are trying to make with the data.
Graphs and tables excel at different things and depending on your purpose, one will be a better choice than another.
The primary benefit of a table is that it makes it easy to look up individual values. There are four uses of data for which a table is a good option:
- Look-up individual values
- Compare individual values (but not entire series of values)
- Present precise values, and
- Present both summary and detail values
Business Charts, on the other hand, present the overall shape of the data. Graphs are used to display relationships among and between sets of quantitative values by giving them shape.
Use charts and graphs when:
- The message or story is contained in the shape of the data
- The display will be used to reveal relationships among whole sets of values
Quantitative values can be represented in graphs using the following:
- Shapes with varying 2D areas
- Shapes with varying color intensity
When determining what type of graph to select, it is absolutely critical that you first consider what you are trying to say with the data.
When you are in the diagnostic phase of your work, you may not know what the data has to say, so you will try a few different approaches. But once it comes time to creating your presentation, the data on the page exists to support the message you have in your headline. You will have a very specific message you will want the data to convey. You will have a specific relationship that you will want to represent.
There are eight types of relationships graphs can display:
And here are what graphs are best to illustrate each type of data relationship:
Chapter 8: The Harmony of Design
Graphic Designer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker
Some people don’t see the same way you do
Some people’s visual processing thought routines are more word oriented, others are more visually oriented.
Visual thinking is the phenomenon of thinking through visual processing – it has been described as seeing words as a series of pictures.
Research by child development theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that about 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% thinks exclusively in words.
This research has a profound impact on how we need to think about communicating our ideas. It is the principle reason (although most people don’t really recognize it) why there has been a shift from the vertical memorandum (written in word, exclusively text), to the horizontal PowerPoint presentation (written in PowerPoint, containing text and visuals) – modern presentations are easier to understand!
It demands of us as presentation creators to continually think about how our ideas and concepts can be represented both verbally, but also visually.
Design is important, but can be challenging
Design, for many, is a challenge. Many attempt to solve this problem by hiring an agency to design a PowerPoint template for them. Or outsourcing the entire presentation design.
We recommend a different approach, one rooted in investing a bit of effort and in applying a good understanding of the type of design that works best for presentations.
Invest the time to make the presentation look decent
Many people believe (or use an excuse) that ‘it’s the content that counts’.
If you can’t be bothered to spend the time to make your presentation look professional, why do you think I am going to give you the time of day? It is about credibility.
Spend the effort to make the presentation look good (it isn’t that hard).
Download our free template to get you started:
Practice a simplicity design ethos – not simple thinking
The very basics of slide design are not difficult to master because, in general, less is always more.
The very best presentation design eliminates the excess. It is a minimalist strategy to focus on only what matters, and to avoid distracting the reader away from the central point.
This minimalist design approach is not an aesthetic preference. It is a design strategy to support our presentation goal – the communication of our message. The design of our presentation, of each slide, should be solely focused on supporting that goal.
Focus on what your point is, and the key evidence required to prove that point – design around this.
You do not need to be a graphics designer to create very effectively designed presentation slides.
Here are some basic design rules of thumb to get you started:
Rules of Thumb (applied aggressively, obsessively)
1. Adopt a message driven slide layout
- Have a single, primary idea per slide
- Put this main idea in your headline that spans the top of the page
- Make your headline no more than two lines long
- Put content in the main body of the slide that contains the proof of the main assertion / idea that is in the headline
2. Align all elements on each page neatly
- Make sure the position of the headline on each slide is in the exact same spot on every slide
- When you flip through your slides (like with those old picture books that created moving images when you flipped through them) the position of the headline should not move, the font size should not change
- This also goes for other common design elements on each slide (logo, copyright notice, page number etc.)
3. In many instances a picture is worth significantly more than 1000 words
- Use powerful, relevant images
- Do NOT use stock photography
- Do NOT use clip art
- Use images judiciously, don’t go over board
4. Colors should be muted; brighter colors used for emphasis
- Don’t use bright colors like red, orange or yellow, except to highlight an important point
- Use a tool like Adobe Kuler to design an attractive color scheme that won’t give your audience a headache
5. Use whitespace, use contrast
- Be careful to use enough spacing – whitespace between lines and paragraphs is good
- Whitespace improves legibility, increases comprehension, increases emphasis, and creates the right one
- Use contrast to emphasize difference
- Ways to create contrast include using contrasting colors, sizes, shapes, locations, or relationships
6. Don’t use crazy animations, 3D, or random special effects
- Just don’t. Emulate modern ‘flat’ design style (think Metro interface, google design refresh etc.)
- The wow of your presentation comes from the power of your ideas. Spiral animation entrances are not going to help
7. Don’t use pie charts
- This is a pet peeve of mine, but pie charts are visually difficult to interpret – other chart types (bar charts) are significantly more effective
- Serious presenters know this and don’t use them – when you do it makes you look like an amateur
8. Use Typography
- Custom fonts give your presentation a nice distinctive look that allows it to stand out in a sea of Arial
- Many great custom fonts are now available for free – check out Google Fonts, they can be downloaded and used on your desktop within PowerPoint
Chapter 9: The Drama of Performance
The passions are the only orators that always persuade.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Author, moralist (1613 – 1680)
Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.
UK Prime Minister (1874 – 1965)
The presentation has been written. The work has been put in. It is time to start thinking about the act of delivering the presentation.
Our view is that ‘winging it’ tends to not be a good strategy.
Preparation, once the deck has been written, means practice.
We suggest the following approach:
1. Develop a script
Write down a formal voice-over script of what you will say. Write this down in advance.
Adopt simplified language. You want to be interpreting the content on the slide, not reading it!
2. Memorize the script
Rehearse until you have memorized your script. We know this is boring. Try speaking the script out loud. In our experience it is very difficult to memorize a script simply reading it to yourself.
3. Finally, abandon the script
Once you have spent enough time memorizing the script you will start to feel comfortable deviating and embellishing.
Use your script as a road-map during delivery, rather than a crutch. It is your safety net.
This robust approach takes time and, to be honest, may only be appropriate for the most important of meetings. But it works.
Deliver with Conviction, Passion and Drama
You must believe in your material for others to believe in you.
A fact-based approach to persuasion, and logical structure are techniques that, when applied, position you to have a very high degree of confidence in your material.
The standards are high (and sometimes unforgiving). By meeting them in advance, you can enter the room with a high level of confidence in your material.
Enthusiasm is contagious.
Show your passion for the material. If the topic is as dull as dishwater, show passion for the elegance of your thinking and the power of your recommendations. This is killer.
A little drama (mixed in with some storytelling) can really elevate a presentation.
This drama can be inherent in the complication/catalyst. It is also embedded in the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). Play this up and occasionally reference the implications of what you are saying to this.
Chapter 10: The Process to Write a Killer Presentation
What follows are a set of presentation tips in the form of a step-by-step list of what you need to do to create a killer presentation. The SlideHeroes course includes an interactive checklist that allows you to keep track of each step as you progress.
Before you start, determine where in the thinking process you are.
Ask yourself the following key questions:
Have you finished your analysis, and are now embarking on the final phase of summarizing your findings? Or are you still trying to figure out the question you should be answering?
Often people will turn to PowerPoint long before they have completed their thinking – try to resist this urge, use paper instead.
Once you are finally ready to write your presentation – stop.
Consider crafting your elevator pitch instead.
Imagine: your meeting has been cancelled, but you manage to catch your audience in the elevator on the way out of the building. You have 1 minute – what do you want to say?
Often we are better at ‘getting to the point’ orally. As soon as we start thinking in terms of a presentation, we can sometimes lose the plot. This exercise will help you capture the main thrust of what your presentation is meant to convey early on in the process.
A. Apply our ‘Who, Why, What, How’ Process
Begin the process of writing a business presentation by reviewing our 4-step process. This process is your roadmap of what you need to do. Briefly review what you need to do at each step:
- Identify WHO your audience is
- Determine WHY you are speaking with them
- Determine WHAT your answer is to your audience’s question
- Decide HOW to best communicate that answer
Once you have taken stock, determined where you are in your thought process, and are ready to proceed.
The first major step is to identify WHO our audience is.
This sounds easy. But there are critical nuances that you need to be aware of which we will explore.
B. Identify WHO your audience is
Determine who the hero of your presentation is (hint it is not you – it is your audience).
A nuance to be aware of is that sometimes the true target of your presentation may not be obvious. You may be speaking to a group you don’t know well and, as a consequence, may not have a full understanding of the political dynamics at play. Who are the true decision makers? Who can truly help you progress to the next step?
During this step you need to take the time to identify who within your audience you are truly speaking to – who matters.
C. Profile your Audience
Once you have identified your Audience, spend some time profiling them.
Ask yourself the following questions about your audience:
- How much will the audience know about the situation/topic before we start the presentation?
- How do they prefer to consume information?
- Visual bias? Numerical bias?
- Pre-read in advance?
- What is the best timing of messages?
The second major step in our process is determining WHY you are presenting and your goal for the meeting.
D. Determine the Context of the Presentation
The next three tasks in our process are focused on building our Introduction and isolating the question we are answering for our Audience.
The reason we are creating a presentation, is always to answer a question that is in the mind of our audience.
The context is the background to the presentation. It contains information the audience already knows.
E. Identify the catalyst of the presentation or meeting
The Catalyst is the complication in the story that has resulted in the problem we are here to answer.
What happened, changed or was realized that is causing us to meet today? What led us to do the analysis or work to answer your question?
F. Determine the Question
Determine the question you are there to answer.
Most questions will fall into one of these 4 types:
- I have a problem: Why did it happen? or,
- I have a problem: What should we do?
- I have a problem, someone has suggested a solution: Should we adopt that solution?
- I have a problem, someone has suggested a solution: How should we implement this solution?
G. Determine your objective / next step for the meeting
You need next steps. You need a call to action. The objective of your presentation should be for your audience to DO SOMETHING as a result of you presenting your material.
What do you want your audience to do?
What do you need your audience to understand to achieve the meeting’s goal?
The third major step is to determine and write WHAT your answer is to your audience’s question.
The Power of Logical Structure
H. Gather existing work, develop new thinking
Do the work.
This is where your own domain expertise comes in. Suffice it to say, you need to do the work, the analysis, the thinking to answer the question.
- Gather existing content (improve on it)
- Conduct new analysis
- Conduct brainstorming sessions
I. Summarize and organize your ideas
- Organise your argument into logical groups
- Bucket arguments into MECE groups
- Use visual thinking tools to capture and organize your ideas
The Art of Storytelling
K. Storyboard the presentation
Storyboarding is a technique for writing that was first developed by Walt Disney for use in the creation of animated movies.
Have a listen to Pixar describe how they use storyboarding in film:
Storyboarding is a fantastic technique for developing presentations because it allows you to work on text, visuals and structure simultaneously.
The Harmony of Design
L. Develop a slide template
M. Develop content for each slide
- Write out each heading for each slide
- Write out each sub-heading for each supporting piece of evidence/chart
- Design charts and supporting visuals
- Open PowerPoint!
- Populate slides with supporting evidence
The Science of Fact-based Persuasion
N. Develop graphs and tables for your data
- Determine what tables or chart types are best for the data you wish to show
- Create the tables or charts
- Reduce and eliminate chart-junk
- Design tables and graphs to emphasize the key data elements that support your story
The Drama of Performance
Practice makes perfect. So practice.
- Do an initial run through of the presentation. Speak the presentation out loud and improvise
- Write this version down as a formal script
- Run through the presentation two or three more times working on length, simplifying language
- If the length needs editing, revise the presentation, eliminating or combining slide ideas
- Present to someone else to solicit feedback and simulate a ‘live’ presentation
- Run through the script a few more times and then park it
- Get a good night’s sleep; review the script once or twice just before the presentation
- Conduct a pre-presentation flight-check to ensure you have everything you need
- Deliver with conviction, passion and drama
- Focus on just a few things to ensure a great delivery:
- Manage your stress – quite your mind, breathe, relax
- Adopting the right ‘tone’ and approach
- Being yourself. Relax!
- Communicating both verbally and physically (kinetically)
- Answer your Audience’s questions
Chapter 11: The Tools
Below are the set of presentation tools we recommend to create fantastic business presentations.
I know everyone rags on PowerPoint. It just isn’t PowerPoints fault.
It is still the best we have got.
Pretty cool ‘zoom’ transition effects. Kind of hard to use, places huge emphasis on design skills.
We can do so much better than PowerPoint and Excel…
Plotly charts look great. The interface is easy to use and there is a good variety of chart types to select from.
Similar to Plotly, RAW produces great looking charts. There is a wide selection of chart types (you can also create your own). Powerful.
Web apps that help create fantastic graphics, easily.
Image design tool. Very, very easy and quick. Pretty Awesome.
Poor man’s Photoshop. Particularly good at retouching photos.
PowerPoint plugins that can turbo charge your productivity
Plugin that enables you to quickly create complex Waterfalls, Marimekkos, Gantts and Agendas within PowerPoint. A favorite.
PowerPoint Add-In to improve visual quality and help with proofing.
The YouTube for presentations.
Chapter 12: Final Thoughts & Next Steps
If you have made it this far, well done! ;-)
If you are still hungry for more here are some great books, blogs and courses(!) that may pique your interest.
We recommend the following great books:
- The Pyramid Principle, Barbara Minto
- Slideology, Nancy Duarte
- The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte
- Show Me the Numbers, Stephen Few
The following blogs are among our favorites:
- Storytelling with Data, Cole Nussbaumer
- Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds
- IdeaTransplant, now SlideMagic, Jan Schultink
The SlideHeroes course takes the concepts covered in this Advanced Guide to Writing McKinsey-Style Presentations and drills deeper into each. In the course, video lessons and PowerPoint slide examples allow you to fully explore all of the many concepts discussed in this Guide.
Try our Free Trial to get a flavor of the course.