When to use a table in your slide (BCG breakdown)

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By Paul Moss

Jul 17, 2021

Using a table instead of a chart can add clarity to your slide, but you have to make sure you do it right.

In this post I’m going to do a breakdown of a slide from BCG. I’ll show you what they did that’s so effective and how you can apply their slide-building best practices to your own individual slide making. Plus, I’ll explain their use of a table and why sometimes (but not always) a table is a smarter choice than a chart. 

If you’re new to this blog, make sure you check out our other consulting slide breakdowns. And when you’re ready, take a look at our advanced PowerPoint and presentation design courses, where you can learn to create presentations like a top-tier consultant.

The title in the slide says, “In face of nationwide traditional media slowdown, NYC has been growing and gaining substantial national share.” In other words, the whole message of the slide is that the media sector in the US has been slowing down, but New York’s media sector has actually been picking up. 

BCG slide

“Evaluating NYC media sector development and setting the stage for future growth” BCG, May 2012

A great thing that BCG does in most of their slides is break up the key message of the slide into different parts to make it easier for the audience to understand. You can see that with the clear subtitles. The one on the left says, ” US media sector has shed 40,000 jobs, while NYC created 40,000 jobs”, and on the right, it says, “Subsector shift has helped NYC overcome nationwide decline”. Both support the title, consistent with the Pyramid Principle that we’ve talked about in other posts. 

BCG slide parts

The other great thing about the subtitles is that they provide enough detail to help me understand the key takeaway. In other words, they tell me what the takeaway is directly, rather than just telling me what the topic is and forcing me to look for the takeaway myself.

When you just put a simple topic, you make the audience do extra work to understand the message, and there’s not as clear of a connection with the main takeaway of the slide. If the left subtitle just said “Media Sector Changes” I wouldn’t really know what they’re trying to tell me. Likewise, I wouldn’t have a clear idea of the insight if it just said “Subsector Shift” on the right. 

BCG slide details

Then if you go down one more layer, you’ve got a nice table that provides some supporting data and the text snippets on the right that provide some qualitative support. And again, BCG is using the Pyramid Principle well to communicate their ideas clearly.

The highest level idea is on the top and attracts the most attention, the next level idea is just below it, and the details come below that. By forcing the audience to process the ideas in this way, you make it easier to understand what you’re saying and why it matters.

BCG slide on pyramid principlr

One thing you might have noticed right away is the table. It shows the percentage of New York City media sector jobs as a percentage of total US media sector jobs, broken down by category for 2002 and 2011.

For example, in 2002, New York City had 8.2% of all US Broadcasting and Cable jobs, but in 2011 that number grew to 10.5%. So what they’re trying to show is that New York is gaining share in terms of US media sector jobs. 

BCG slide

Now there are a few things in the slide that I really like. First of all, I think the design of the table is quite good. The number one rule with tables is never use the default PowerPoint formatting. Things could have looked so much worse, and every time I see a default table on a slide, it makes me cringe a little because it really only takes a little bit of effort to make the table look much better. With just a few small changes like removing the lines, adding color to the titles, and bolding the important text, they’ve made the table, and the slide itself, so much easier to read. 

BCG slide format

Another thing I like is how they’ve changed the color of the box and added a dotted line to indicate that it’s different from the data on the left. The column is meant to show the overall growth of New York jobs, so it’s not a continuation or a result of the two columns about 2002 and 2011. Separating the column visually helps me keep the numbers themselves separate. 

BCG slide columns

I also like that they’ve decided to use a table instead of a chart. Generally speaking, you should use a table when you want the audience to read the actual numbers instead of just looking at trends or exceptions in the data that can be seen visually. Tables are also good when you have different data types that you want to show in the same space.

They’ve got the change in percentage from 2002 to 2011, but they’ve also got the total job growth percentage, the total change for all categories combined, and salary numbers at the bottom. It would not be easy to show all of it in a single chart. Even if you had a chart and added text on top of it, it would still be difficult to show everything in a clean and easy-to-understand way. So I think a table is the right choice. 

BCG slide data

Now, all that said, I do think they’ve made a pretty big mistake here by not aligning the subtitle with the information in the table. The subtitle talks about how the US media sector has lost 40,000 jobs while New York has gained 40,000 jobs. But if you look at the table, there’s no mention of the total number of jobs. In fact, there aren’t even any absolute numbers at all in the main part of the table; they’re all percentages.

Now I don’t think the theme of the subtitle is off, it’s still about job growth in New York, but it’s a bit confusing not to have that data in the table. I would add a couple of lines to show the total number of jobs for New York and the US if it were me. You could even replace the salary numbers because I don’t see how those are helping to support the message at all. 

BCG slide mistake

On the right-hand side, the text looks pretty good. Essentially what they’re doing with the text is providing reasons why New York has overcome the nationwide decline in media sector jobs. And they’ve done a good job explaining that in the subtitle. I also like that they’ve kept most of the text snippets short and to the point, which is really important when you’re trying to save space on a slide. 

BCG slide pointers

I don’t care for the 100% bolded text because it makes it harder to pick out the important points, but it’s a nice clean font on a plain background, so it still works in a way. Plus, the spacing between each line helps as well. If it were me, I would have unbolded the text and maybe highlighted a few keywords, but the overall look here is still fine because the text is simple and readable.  

Overall, this is a great slide from BCG. They made the right choice in choosing a table, the logical flow of the slide is clear, and the color and design choices are clean and professional. 

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