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How McKinsey designs data-heavy slides

by | Dec 1, 2021

Overall, McKinsey does a good job of showing a lot of data in a small space by having a strong title, choosing the right chart, organizing the information into clear sections, and bolding the important parts of the text.

In this post I’m going to break down a realistic consulting slide from McKinsey. I’ll show you how they’re able to show a large amount of information in one slide, while still being able to communicate a clear message. What might look like a dense mess of text and numbers, is actually a carefully crafted slide with a clear structure and insightful takeaways. 

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The slide I’ll be reviewing is about identifying the future demand for electricity in the U.K. and finding ways to reduce that demand.

mckinsey presentation title page

“Capturing the full electricity efficiency potential of the U.K.” McKinsey, November 2012

This slide in particular is showing how much the UK could potentially reduce their yearly electricity demand. The title says, “If implemented in full, electricity efficiency measures have the potential to reduce UK electricity demand by (about) 146 TWh per annum by 2030.”

mckinsey side with title underlined

There’s a nice waterfall chart on the left with some details, then on the right there’s a box that shows key insights, and a box that shows comments. The first thing to note is the overall organization of the slide. When designing your slide it’s important to clearly separate the different categories of information on the slide, especially if the information looks similar. For example, the two boxes of text could easily blend together, but they’ve categorized them into key insights and comments, which makes it a little easier for the audience to read and understand. 

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Of course I also really like the title – it’s the biggest font on the slide and attracts the most attention, which is great because you want the audience to read that before they read anything else. It’s going to give them nice context before diving into the details of the slide, which will make it much easier to understand the insights quickly. It is especially true when you have a chart, which can have any number of takeaways. The title helps the audience know what to look for, and with a nice large and attention grabbing title, you encourage the audience to read that before searching through the data. 

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I also really like the specificity of the title. They’re telling you exactly what they want you to know, including the exact number, which is really important on slides like this where the amount of information can be disorienting. Your goal is always to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand the message you’re trying to communicate, and little things like this make a difference. 

Alright, let’s talk about the chart just a little bit. It’s a waterfall chart, which is best used when you’re trying to show how you get from one value to another. In this case they’re showing how you get from the 2030 “policy off” projection – basically the expected demand in 2030 if they do nothing – to 2030 demand assuming ‘full abatement potential’ captured – which is just the number they think they could get to if they did everything right. Then they’ve also included an extra column that shows 2030 DECC central “policy on” which is the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s projections for the current policy. 

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So at its core, the chart is showing where the potential electricity savings could come from, represented by each of the different categories: 63 TWh from residential, 42 from commercial, etc. And if you add these all up, the total is about 146 TWh, which is the number they’ve called out in the title. 

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The reason why waterfall charts are so good for showing how you get from one value to another is because it’s clear to see how the different categories stack together to make up the difference. Plus they’re all separated out, so you can isolate each category easily. You could technically do it with just a single stacked column, but the result would be messy and unclear. Waterfall charts also seem to have a nice logical flow to them, almost like steps in a staircase. In this case the steps bring you down from the baseline projection to the potential demand, and you can clearly see the impact each step has on the total change. 

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There’s a few important keys to making sure your waterfall charts look good. The first is to make sure you include data labels on each column. It makes it much easier for the audience to understand the breakdown of each category. Putting the data labels on the Y axis for example, would make it hard to grasp the size of each individual column because they’re sort of floating in space. 

Untitled design

The second key is to include extra information on the chart, especially information that shows the difference between the major columns. They’ve called out the 36% number which gives the audience a good sense for the magnitude of the difference. They’ve also included the numbers at the top, which are a bit confusing at first, but provide good context. They’re meant to show how much each reduction makes up of the total for that sector. So for example, a reduction of 42 TWh for the Commercial sector is about 38% of the total expected demand for the Commercial Sector in 2030. 

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Then one other important key to building good waterfall charts is to use different colors to distinguish between the categories. In this case they’ve done it twice – to highlight a part of the Residential Sector demand reduction, then again, to show the expected demand with the policy in place. It is especially important to call out because the whole point of the project is to identify what they aren’t doing to reduce demand that they could be doing, which is represented by the difference between the two columns on the right. It doesn’t seem to be the emphasis of the slide per se, but the context is really important. 

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Overall, I think it’s a pretty good chart. If it were me I might have made a few small corrections to emphasize what’s shown in the slide title. For example, I probably would have included the 146 TWh number somewhere on the chart, maybe instead of a percentage. Plus I think they could have used the colors a bit differently to emphasize the difference between two columns. But overall, the message is clear and I agree with their choice to use a waterfall chart. 

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On the right hand side they’ve got two sections. One that says key insights, and another that just says comments. In the key insights box it shows where the reduction is expected to come for each category. For example, in Public Admin improved insulation, lighting controls, and LEDs are expected to be key drivers for the reduction in electricity usage. 

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I like that they’ve bolded the important keywords, especially considering how much text and information is on this slide. Small things like that can really make a difference. What I don’t like though, is their decision to call this box Key Insights. I don’t think the insights are from the chart, I think they’re just what they’ve called them: Key Drivers. I would have removed the subtitle line, and changed the title to Key Drivers. That would have made things a little more clear. 

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Then the box below is called comments, and if you read closely, it’s really just supplemental information that helps you understand the data. They could have easily moved it down to the footnotes section, which is probably what I would have done, but it’s not a big deal to have it where it is so I think it’s fine. 

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Overall, McKinsey does a pretty good job of showing a lot of data and information in a small space, while keeping it clear and readable. They do this by having a strong and attention-grabbing title, choosing the right chart and making the chart easy to understand, organizing the information on the slide into clear sections, and bolding the important parts of the text. The end result is a clear slide that would work well in a realistic client presentation.

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You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

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