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August 12, 2012

Design effective presentations

If 50% of success is showing up, having an effective presentation gets you at least an additional 25%. (And, of course, a good delivery accounts for the other 75%.)

When it comes to good slide decks, we can all learn from the strategy consultancies; after all, these guys charge six or seven figures per month, and, in the end, their deliverable is a presentation. Even if their conclusions are right on target, if they were doing a bad job presenting them, their clients wouldn’t hire them again. So let’s talk about your typical strategy consultant’s approach to designing an effective presentation.

One way to look at it is to think of design at two levels: the macro level—i.e. the story that you are telling—and the micro level, that is, the slide design.

Craft effective presentations by starting with writing a compelling story

Whether you’re dealing with 10 slides or 78, crafting a compelling story requires you to understand clearly your objective for the presentation, understand which material will lead your audience where you want them, and arrange your material in the right order.

Strategy consultancies rely on Minto’s pyramid principles to organize their thoughts. Minto’s approach is based on recognizing that effective communications start with an introduction that include a situation, a complication, and a key question, and that the body of the communication can be organized in pyramids, with ideas relating to others in a logical way.

Minto recommends organizing communications in pyramids.

Minto recommends organizing communications in pyramids.

To create your message, adopt a top-down approach by identifying your primary idea and then storyboarding: that is, writing only the taglines of your slides so that they work together to tell that compelling story of yours.

Ideally, you would start developing your presentation early on in your project. Therefore the storyboarding process is iterative, as it requires guessing what your analysis will tell you. Once you’ve conducted the analysis, it is rather common to discover that you guessed wrong and that you need to modify your story.

Create your compelling story by storyboarding: writing it as a series of taglines.

Create your compelling story by storyboarding: writing it as a series of taglines.

An important consideration is to identify at which level of detail you want to talk about your material. This usually depends on the length of the presentation and other factors, such as the type of audience you’re addressing (are they detail oriented?), the type of argument you are making (is it going against their preconceptions?), and the stakes.

Choose the right amount of detail for your message based on the time available for your presentation.

Choose the right amount of detail for your message based on the time available for your presentation.

Then, ensure that each of your slides work

The other component of an effective slide deck is to ensure that each slide works well. There is a lot of talk these days about having a minimalist approach to slide design with very little text and lots of photos explained by the presenter. While this might be visually attractive, it’s important to realize that your personal preferences shouldn’t drive your slide design; instead, you should let the intended use of your presentation drive it.

We tend to lump all presentations together and find one style that applies to all. But that’s misleading. Keynote/Powerpoint presentations are just a medium of communication, like books. And what makes a good book varies greatly with its application: a kid story and a tax code might just be written into books but, to be effective, they’ll need to look rather different. (Although there’s probably a case to be made about tax codes benefiting from looking more like kid stories).

The primary use of your presentation–not your personal taste–should dictate your slide design

The primary use of your presentation–not your personal taste–should dictate your slide design

So it’s good to have a flexible slide-design philosophy. But there is one component that should be in all presentations: self-sufficient taglines. That’s because forcing you to think to create these clear and concise bits of thinking and writing them on paper forces you to clean your logic. (And the counter argument that having self-sufficient taglines removes the need for a presenter is weak: the presenter is still needed to establish an emotional relationship with the audience, answer questions, and drill down in further details when needed).

Good taglines are a vital component of effective presentations

Good taglines are a vital component of effective presentations

To complement your taglines, you’ll need to use the right format to present your information. There are various options: text, photos, quantitative charts, etc., each with their own characteristics. It’s important that you pick the right one(s), as this will make it easier for your audience to understand you and retain the information.

Choose the format that best supports your slide’s idea

Choose the format that best supports your slide’s idea

In the end, step back and think about what’s best for you

While presentations have been around for a while, there still isn’t a consensus on what makes a good one. We’ve all been conditioned to use this medium of communication from experience, rather than a well thought-out theory. Experience is fine as a learning tool, but it’s also stochastic as it depends on what you’ve been exposed to.

Therefore take the time to revisit how you approach your style of communication, questioning why you are doing what you are doing. If you have a strong reason, then keep doing it; otherwise look for alternatives.

To learn more, download our slide deck on designing effective presentations.

Alley, Michael. The Craft of Scientific Presentations. Second ed.: Springer, 2013.

Minto, Barbara. The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking: Pearson Education, 2009.

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