EY’s slide does a pretty good job of clearly communicating its key messages by relying on the Pyramid Principle and slide layering, but it just barely falls short with its use of a stacked column chart instead of a line chart.
Although it doesn’t quite command the same attention in consulting circles as some of its peers, EY’s consulting presence around the world is actually very large and quite well respected. Like most other consulting firms, EY (short for Ernst and Young) produces a sizable amount of industry research in the form of white papers, conference presentations, and case studies, which they have so generously posted publicly
to help get new clients so that we can review them.
In this post I’ll be reviewing a slide from an EY presentation called, “How fit is your allocation strategy?” (source), which looks at capital allocation strategies in the life sciences industry. I’ll provide a complete breakdown of the good and the bad, and I’ll try to highlight principles that might apply to any slide building situation.
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I’ll start as always with the title of the slide, which says, “Revenue growth: big pharma underperforms relative to biotech, specialty pharma peers”. It’s simple, it’s clear, and it gets right to the point. Plus it summarizes the main takeaway from the slide. And with the title in my mind, I can now look through the rest of the details and they’ll be much easier to interpret and understand.
“How fit is your allocation strategy?” EY Consulting, October 2015
It’s a good idea to think of your slide in layers, with the highest layer being the most general, and the lower layers being the most specific and detailed. The idea behind this comes from the Pyramid Principle, and you can see it represented well in this slide. The title is the top layer and provides the highest level of information, then the bullet points provide a second level of detail, and of course the chart will provide the most granular level of data and detail.
The second layer with the bullet points is a little bit unique; usually you see these more as subtitles instead of bullets. Nevertheless it serves its purpose and provides another layer of detail to the slide.
The main focus of this slide is just a single chart, so there’s really no need to overcomplicate things. Remember that the whole point of building a slide is to help your audience understand what you’re trying to tell them quickly and easily. It’s not to include a bunch of fancy words and graphics to make yourself look smart. The bullets do a great job of summarizing the key takeaways from the chart, which for me as a member of the audience, makes the message simple and clear.
For big pharma growth is going to pick up again in 2016, which you can see with the yellow part of these columns, specialty pharma and generics will also grow via M&A, but biotech is going to struggle because it’s hard to maintain organic growth.
As I read through the bullets it’s easy for me to connect them to the visuals on the chart. But if I had to look at the chart without these bullet points to guide me, or even worse, without a descriptive slide title, I’d be left to interpret the details of the chart myself. In other words, when you let the audience interpret a slide without providing them with enough direction, they may very well reach the wrong conclusions.
In this case for example, without the guidance of the subtitles I might look at the chart and focus on the overall growth of the market (not the main takeaway), without considering the YoY growth of each of the categories (one of the main takeaways). But because they’ve organized the slide in layers, provided clear takeaways, and connected those takeaways with the chart, I know exactly what to look for and how I should be interpreting the chart details.
And this is also a great takeaway for anytime you’re reading a slide yourself. The best way to understand a slide is usually to start at the very top with the title so you can get the highest level idea first, then work your way through the different layers of the slide one by one. It’s easy to be distracted by whatever sticks out the most, in this case a chart, but sometimes that leads to a situation where you find yourself just staring at the slide, not really understanding what it means or what the takeaway is.
Despite their effective use of layering however, the slide is not without its flaws. In particular, their choice of chart is less than ideal. Often overlooked, chart selection is actually a very important part of the slide making process. A correctly chosen chart will enable the audience to understand your key takeaways in a way that is clear and natural. A poorly chosen chart however, leads to confusion and clutter.
In this case they chose a stacked column chart. Each layer of the column represents a different category, and those stack on top of each other to show the total size of the market. Anytime you use a stacked column chart like this, the emphasis tends to get placed on the total height of each column (with the column breakdown there for context). In this case the height shows the total sales for each of these four categories combined – so in 2013 it’s around $650 billion, and it slowly rises over the next few years – or is expected to rise anyway.
But what’s interesting is that the message of the slide doesn’t really focus on the total size of the market, it focuses on the growth between each of the categories. The yellow part shows pretty clear that big pharma is a much bigger market than the other three categories, but that’s not what they’re trying to show. They’re trying to show that big pharma is growing, specialty pharma and generics are growing, and biotech is struggling to maintain its growth.
Notice how they didn’t put any numbers on the top of the columns to show the total amount of sales for all categories combined. And also take a look at their use of numbers on the columns – these aren’t absolute numbers that show the size of each category, they’re percentages that show the growth from the previous year.
So really they’re using a chart that is good for emphasizing the total of a set of categories, and how that total breaks down, but they’ve adapted it to put the focus on the percentage change of each of these categories from year to year, which is not ideal. It would be like using a minivan to try and tow a boat – it can probably work, but it’s not what the minivan is made for. Minivans are made to tow tiny humans (on the inside, with seatbelts).
Now in fairness, this particular chart is really difficult to get right, because you want to emphasize the percentage change of each category from year to year, but showing how big each category is provides some important context. Big pharma is clearly a very large chunk of this market, so it’s hard to ignore that completely. So there’s not a perfect way to solve this dilemma, but one chart I would recommend trying here is a line chart that shows both positive and negative values.
Now when I look at the chart I can see which of these is seeing more growth, and which is seeing less. Look at Big pharma for example… it starts down at -1%, but then you see it climb with a big expected jump in 2016. And looking at the first subtitle, this is exactly the message they’re trying to emphasize. But then not only that, you can also see that it has consistently lower growth compared to the other categories, which is also what they’re trying to emphasize in the title.
You can still find these messages in the original chart, but you can’t quickly grasp them just based on the visuals. You have to actually look at these percentages, which is slow and inefficient for your audience. Again, think of the minivan towing a boat. It works, but it’s not great.
So basically, having this kind of chart allows you to focus on the actual growth from year to year, without drawing too much attention to the size of the total market, or the relative size of each category. If that sort of information is still important you can put it in a table below, just to give context, but the chart itself remains focused on the growth from one year to the next – which is what they’re trying to communicate with this slide.
In summary, the slide does a pretty good job of clearly communicating its key messages by relying on the Pyramid Principle and slide layering, but it just barely falls short with its use of a stacked column chart instead of a line chart.
You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.