Consulting firms all around the world consistently rely on the Pyramid Principle to build high-quality presentations with proper slide structure.
Consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG rely on proper slide structure to communicate insights to their clients. In this post, I’ll show you exactly how they use the Pyramid Principle to structure their slides, and why it makes such a big difference in the clarity of their presentations.
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What is the Pyramid Principle?
Put simply, the Pyramid Principle is just a structured way of communicating your ideas where you start with your main point and then work your way through the supporting details of that main point. It is represented pretty well with a pyramid because you start right at the top of the Pyramid and then move down to the bottom with more supporting details and data.
Let’s say I am trying to communicate the idea that LeBron James is my favorite player. I would first start with the main point, and then provide my three key arguments for why he is my favorite player. Then below that, I could provide supporting details for each key argument.
In this visualization, each idea is meant to summarize all the ideas below it. For example, the idea that Lebron James scores a lot of points summarizes the two supporting details about his career average of 27 points per game, and him being the 3rd highest all-time scorer.
This style of top-down communication works really well in a variety of settings, including email, face-to-face communication, and of course, PowerPoint presentations — which is what I’m going to focus on here.
The first example on our list is BCG. The slide is an excellent example of the Pyramid Principle because it is well-structured and clear. The slide title says “Melbourne seen as a cultural and creative city”, which is the main point the slide creator is trying to communicate (which is why it sits at the top of the slide in bold green letters).
Then they’ve split the main point into two key arguments: “Melbourne perceived by Australians as the country’s leading cultural city” and, “International travelers also perceive Melbourne as a creative city”. Then below each subtitle, there are four supporting points that are meant to provide support.
“Melbourne as a Global Cultural Destination” BCG
In this example the Pyramid Principle is quite easy to see. The title of the slide is the main point, the subtitles of the slide represent the key arguments, and the bullet points below that make up the supporting details and data. Each aspect of the slide fits into one of these three layers, and everything on the slide has a purpose.
By structuring the information in this way, BCG makes it easy for the audience to process the contents of the slide quickly and easily. There’s no question about what they’re trying to say, or why they’re trying to say it.
With data-heavy slides like this, it can be easy for the audience to get lost — especially if they’re trying to listen to a live speaker, read the words on the slide, and think critically about the slide’s message. Even for a smart person, this can be cognitive overload. Organizing the slide into digestible bites significantly reduces the mental load on the audience.
The next slide from McKinsey is also reasonably straightforward. It’s from a deck about high-growth emerging economies, which they refer to as “outperforming economies”.
The title of the slide says “A pro growth agenda of productivity, income, and demand propelled the outperforming economies”, and the slide itself shows the three areas that have propelled the growth for these emerging economies: productivity, growth, and demand.
“Outperformers: High-growth emerging economies and the companies that propel them” McKinsey, October 2018
There’s a few data points on the slide and a nice visual in the middle to break down the three main categories, making it pretty easy to spot the different layers in the Pyramid. So obviously, just like in our last slide, the main point will be represented by the title. That is what they want us to understand and take away from the slide first.
Then next the key argument level is also pretty clear with “higher productivity”, “boosting demand”, and “strong and inclusive growth” shown in bold text within each bracket (and also mentioned in the title). Then lastly, the bottom layer of the pyramid is represented by the various bullet points within each bracket (below the key arguments).
Altogether, it makes for a well structured slide with a clear message and clear supporting points. Despite not be organized visually in the same way as the BCG slide, the slide is very well structured and easy to understand.
Then lastly, we have a slide from Bain, and this one is slightly more complicated than the first two. The title says “Greater than 60% of growth in 2011 continues to come from new customers. However, share from existing customers improved.” The slide is all about the luxury goods market in China, and more specifically, they’re trying to show where the growth in the market is coming from.
“China Luxury Market Study” Bain & Company, December 2011
The BCG slide was organized neatly into the left and right sections of the slide, and in the McKinsey slide they were bolded with bullet points underneath. What’s tricky about this slide however, is that the Pyramid Principle is not clearly visible at first glance.
The title of the slide still represents the main point, and the key arguments are not emphasized visually, but logically they’re still present. The first key argument is that growth is coming from new customers, and the second key argument is that growth is coming from existing customers. Then if you look through the body of the slide, you’ll notice that everything falls into one of these two categories.
In the waterfall chart for example, notice how it is split into these two categories: new customers (as represented by the red columns), and then existing customers (as represented by the dark grey columns). Then on the right hand side of the slide, each of the bullet points can fit into one of the two categories.
For example, the first bullet says “China market is still supply driven; new store openings create new demand.” This clearly fits into the key argument about growth coming (in part) from new customers. Combined with the key argument about growth coming from existing customers, these two provide solid logical support for the main point.
So despite not having an easy visual layout like the previous two examples, this slide is well organized logically, and provides a nice structure that helps the audience clearly understand the main message, as well as the support for that main message.
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