There are three core principles that will help you dramatically improve your PowerPoint presentations. Everyone has sat through a presentation when they thought to themselves “is there anything worse than this?”
#1 Vertical Flow
When you first start at McKinsey, one of the first things you are taught is that a slides title should always be the takeaway of the slide. Other firms are more flexible with this rule and might put takeaways in other places of the slide, but as a good rule of thumb put the main message of the slide as a title.
Don’t label a slide “Overview: Diabetes.” Give them a piece of information like “Diabetes is the fastest growing disease in Western nations.”
Then prove it in the content of the slide.
Often people make a mistake here by not thinking about the audience. You have likely done a lot of research and are more interested in showing how much research you’ve done and information you found. Avoid this tendency.
Instead, you want to help prove or support the title of the slide. You want to keep it as crisp as possible without extra information and proving your point definitively. Here is an example I like to use to show this:
In this case, the title is clear and the content of the slide only serves to prove and reinforce the point.
You may not always start with the title and then fill in the information. Often it is more of an iterative process where you are making sense of information and experimenting with different titles to synthesize the information you offered. In a real consulting team, you may go back and forth countless time fine-tuning the messaging.
#2 Horizontal Flow
The second part of this is ensuring that the titles actually fit together and tell a cohesive story.
A good trick I still use to this day is when you have a completed PowerPoint presentation, go to the outline view and just read the titles.
You can also copy and paste all of the titles of a slide into a Word document or google doc and read the titles as you would a piece of writing.
The goal is not to be Dickens, but to make sure that there is some level of logic to the overall flow of the presentation.
If it doesn’t make any sense as you read from slide to slide, you may want to revisit the overall logic.
#3 Overall Flow + Structure
It does not matter how much information you have. Unless your audience spent as much time as you analyzing the data, they will be overwhelmed with mounds of data, tables and analytics.
To persuade, you need to tell a story. This means simplifying and structuring your information down to the most important points and then making sure that the individual elements fit together using the pyramid principle and other tips for persuasive presentations.
Beautiful slides without a story will be a painful experience for your audience but a powerful story without great slides is still an amazing story.
Think about it. If Richard Branson presented a size 4 font PowerPoint slide, you would still want to listen because his story would be compelling.
I hope you aim to create compelling slides, but if you’re still getting started, nail the story.
I advise an undergraduate consulting group on the consulting principles taught at strategy consulting firms. The students are usually most eager to learn how to make a professional looking slide. These students are pretty sharp, so it typically only takes them a few weeks before they can craft a slide that looks similar to one from a consulting firm.
Don’t mistake templates and formatting for deeper understanding.
After about 2–3 semester-long projects, it starts to click for the students and they internalize the deeper principles of storytelling, persuasion, and structured ideas.
Anders Ericsson has helped popularized the term “deliberate practice” which he used to show that the difference between experts and novices in most domains is not innate abilities, but often the result of deliberate effort paired with feedback.
In strategy firms, you get almost constant feedback on your slides, story and structure. This is imperative if you want to get better.
The best way to get started is to find a friend to practice these skills with. Or even better, find someone with experience at a strategy firm and ask them if they will give you feedback on your slides.
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