Creating a good presentation can take a monumental amount of time, effort, and sometimes money. But fortunately, we can look to the consulting industry as a north star for high-quality presentation building best practices.
Over my career I’ve seen thousands of presentations – as a consultant, as a client, and now as an instructor. I’ve seen high quality slides from people at all different companies and in all different positions. But most often, the best slides tend to come from consultants.
This makes sense if you think about it… a consulting firm’s main deliverable is most often a PowerPoint deck, so it’s in their best interest to make these decks as high quality as possible. Especially when you consider the high price these consulting firms charge their clients, the
focus on obsession with slide perfection feels slightly more justified.
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The list of what sets consulting-style presentations apart from most other presentations is long and varied. But in my experience there are four things consulting firms do that set their presentations apart from the rest of the corporate world.
The biggest challenge any consulting firm faces in their presentations is having a large amount of data that they need to show in a small amount of space. The way they can do this so effectively is by putting proper structure to their slides.
More specifically, consulting firms follow the Pyramid Principle (see our video explanation here). The idea behind the Pyramid Principle is that when communicating you want to start by saying your main point first, before providing any details. In a normal conversation this is easy to do: “here is my main point, followed by reasons A, B, and C.”
But doing that same thing visually can be a little more tricky. Essentially you’re trying to help people look at the main point of your slide first, and then look at the details. Although it might not be immediately obvious, this is something consulting firms do extremely well.
Take a look at this slide from BCG for example. It’s from a presentation that’s trying to assess the relevance of Melbourne as a cultural destination. Can you spot the main message of the slide?
It’s right at the very top: “Melbourne has some leading education institutions.” Instead of telling you the main point verbally, they have to draw attention to the main point on the slide so that you look at it first. The way they do that here is by making the title a very eye-catching green, putting it right at the top with a line underneath, and making it the largest font on the slide.
But then the way they structure the rest of the slide is also very important. Again going back to the Pyramid Principle, they want you to see the second layer of detail next, which in this case is the subtitles of the slide. See how they’re slightly less obvious than the title, but still made to stand out? They’ve made them bold, and put lines underneath so they grab your attention.
Then lastly the logical bottom layer of the pyramid comes in the form of the text and charts. This is the supporting detail and data.
The visual layers of a slide might not be something you notice consciously, but this is something that consulting firms care about quite a bit. They want you to process the levels of the slide one layer at a time because that’s the most efficient, and structuring it according to the Pyramid Principle is how they can trick your brain into doing it naturally.
The second difference I see most often is in the use of visuals. Typically, these visuals come in the form of charts.
Charts work well for consulting firms because they provide a couple of really important benefits. The first is that they allow the audience to process a large amount of information quickly. And secondly, they provide instant credibility.
Consulting firms are hired to provide really expensive advice, so it’s important for them to show how they reached their conclusions, and why those conclusions are credible. From my experience, clients and executives like to see data because it provides them the evidence they need to make informed decisions.
Let’s take a look at another slide from the same BCG presentation. This one is all about how fewer students are choosing to study creative subjects.
Notice how prominent the chart is on this slide. It still follows the Pyramid Principle structure by starting with the main message (the slide title), then going into the details with the chart, but really there’s not much else to this slide. The chart does most of the talking.
Can you imagine how much harder this slide would be to understand if instead of a nice chart they decided to put a table with all the same numbers? It would take a lot longer for the audience to process the slide, and the connection with the main point in the title wouldn’t be quite as obvious.
In most consulting style presentations charts play a really significant role – they help the audience understand the information quickly, and they’re a great way to provide support for the key message. So if you can find ways to include relevant and insightful charts in your own presentations, you’ll be much better off.
The next difference is the emphasis on insights, and this is a big one. As a junior consultant I remember all the time people asking, “What’s the so what?”. Which is really just a way of saying, “What should the client take away from this slide?”.
As annoying as it was to hear this question on repeat during the life of a project, it’s actually incredibly important. When a client looks at a slide they’re going to be overloaded with information, so it’s important to help them quickly and easily understand what they need to know, and how they can act on it. This is something consulting firms understand well, and they have a number of tactics to make sure their slides can be processed quickly and easily.
One that I’ve already mentioned is the use of an effective title. Rather than just putting a topic for the slide at the top, the titles are a full sentence that clearly spell out the key takeaway from the slide. This is a hallmark of any consulting style presentation.
But notice how they how clearly draw attention to the insights in other parts of the slide. With the subtitles they’ve essentially done the same thing. Instead of saying something like, “Creative Schools”, they’ve spelled out in clear and plain english what they want you to know, which is that “Melbourne has some of the world’s best creative schools”. Then on the right they’ve done the same thing, “Student tertiary participation in art and design is relatively strong”.
Here’s another example of showing insights from the same presentation.
Notice how they have a callout for the chart to show that Melbourne has 800 venues, equivalent to the 5th highest per capita. That’s something that I can already see just by looking at the chart and the numbers at the bottom, but they’ve called it out because it’s an important insight that they want me to understand.
Then finally notice how on this slide once again the insights are made clear. Above each chart is a line that tells the audience exactly what they should takeaway from the chart. It’s simple, direct, and very clear.
Then the final difference I tend to see often is a
focus on obsession with formatting. I can remember being on consulting teams where we would gather together before sending a final presentation to the client, and each with our own printed copy, we’d go through every single detail on every single slide to look for any sort of formatting error we could find. Misplaced logos, font sizes that were a half size too small, or even an extra space between words.
At the time it felt ridiculous, but over time I came to realize just how important these sorts of things are in representing the name of the consulting firm. For these firms, their product is typically a PowerPoint deck, and they charge a lot of money for that information, so packaging it in a way that brings credibly and prestige to the firm is really important.
Here’s a prime example from the same BCG presentation:
In this slide there’s a good variety of different elements – a chart, a callout, quote boxes, footnotes. But notice how everything is so well placed. For example, despite the quote on the right being a bit shorter than the one on the left, they kept the boxes the same size so it looks more visually consistent. Or see how the numbers below the chart are all perfectly aligned in a straight line, and also all evenly spaced apart.
You might have also noticed the formatting consistency from slide to slide. When you compare this slide with one of the previous slides it’s easy to tell just how visually consistent BCG is, even for little things like the color and design of the callout box.
This sort of stuff probably feels really small and insignificant, but when you put it all together it really makes a difference in improving the overall look of a presentation.
Creating a good presentation can take a monumental amount of time, effort, and sometimes money. But fortunately, we can look to the consulting industry as a north star for high-quality presentation building best practices. With a focus on structure, visuals, insights, and formatting, these firms are able to create presentations that are clear, engaging, and persuasive.
Melbourne as a Global Cultural Destination
Boston Consulting Group / Victoria State Government
You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.