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Why sometimes your slide DOESN’T need a chart (and other lessons from BCG)

by | Oct 6, 2021

Charts are useful for displaying insights, but they’re not always the best choice for a slide.

Most people would agree that a chart adds credibility to a slide. Even outside of consulting, charts are widely considered to be the most efficient way to display quantitative data – and indeed they are! 

But are there situations when using a chart doesn’t make sense? In this post, I’ll explore that question as I do a full review and breakdown of a BCG slide from the presentation “Melbourne as a Global Cultural Destination” (link below). 

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 of the slide says, “Melbourne seen as a cultural and creative city” and then the slide is broken into two sections. One section shows how Australians perceive it, and the other section shows how international travelers perceive it.

The first thing to notice is how everything on the slide fits into one of these two buckets. In other words, there’s nothing on the slide that doesn’t support the overall message. This is consistent with the Pyramid Principle that we’ve talked about in other posts. 

SEE MORE: A complete BCG slide breakdown

BCG slide

“Melbourne as a Global Cultural Destination” BCG

The title provides the overarching message, the subtitles then split the message into two parts, and the data points support their respective subtitles.

I also like the title for this slide. On consulting style slides, you’ll often see a title that takes up maybe two or three lines, which is completely fine, but it’s certainly not a requirement. Here the title is a complete sentence that captures the main idea of the slide – no need to add filler words to make sure it takes up two lines. 

BCG slide subtitles

Another thing that’s good about the slide is how neatly organized it is. Everything seems to be aligned and distributed properly, which serves two purposes. The first is that it just looks professional. Notice how everything is perfectly aligned, the icons are distributed evenly, and everything is in its proper place.

Most top consulting firms obsess over their slide format, and it is because the slides themselves are their primary deliverable. In a very real way, it is what their clients are paying top dollar for, so if there are any mistakes, it’s a reflection on the firmNot to mention, the executives who are looking at these slides are used to seeing high-quality presentations, so they’re going to notice if something is off, even if that’s just a misplaced logo.

Then the second benefit to a well-organized slide that you might not think of consciously is that it makes it easier for the audience to read through the slide quickly. There’s quite a bit of data and information on the slide, but BCG has made it incredibly simple to understand how each of the pieces fit together.

BCG slide perfect alignment

The line at the very top, for example, helps draw attention to the title and separate it from the rest of the slide. And then likewise, the lines underneath the subtitles summarize the data points below them. Again, it’s not something you might think of consciously as you’re reading through the slide, but it’s helping your brain process the information more efficiently. 

Alright, let’s move on to the numbers on this slide. We’re kind of programmed to believe that charts are always better because they show data clearly and professionally. And in truth, they typically add some weight to the message we’re trying to deliver.

BCG slide

In a chart, you typically compare categories of data against each other. But here, the numbers are meant to stand alone. 

A common option for displaying quantitative data is to show a bar chart. In this case for example, you might have a bar that represents 57% of Australians thinking that Melbourne is a great cultural city, and perhaps a second one that represents the 50% that think it’s a good city for theater. But the issue is you’re not meant to compare these two against each other.

BCG slide

You might have also noticed for the section on the left that they put numbers for Sydney as well. So in theory, they could have put a nice bar chart to compare Melbourne with Sydney.  Unfortunately, this raises a couple of problems.

SEE MORE: Deloitte Consulting Slide Breakdown

The first and more practical reason is that the right side doesn’t have that same comparison, so the slide might feel just a little bit uneven. It’s not a huge deal, but remember that our brains prefer organization and structure, and this might just add another layer of unnecessary complexity. It’s a small detail, but it’s still important.

And then the second reason is that Sydney is supposed to be a reference point, but not the comparison. In other words,  the message of the slide is that Melbourne is the country’s leading cultural city. So even if Sydney is the top contender, without any other cities listed, it just looks like you’re trying to show that it’s better than Sydney. 

Another option here would have been to use a series of pie charts. As we outlined in this YouTube video, pie charts are good for showing the portion something makes up a whole. On this slide the numbers represent the percentage of Australians who think Melbourne is a cultural city (or at least a percentage of survey respondents anyway). So in theory, you could replace these numbers with a nice pie chart that shows your numbers more effectively.

But the obvious downside is that this would lead to a cluttered slide with a lot of charts. This is a bit ironic because usually charts are supposed to simplify sets of data so that we can understand them better, but in this case I think it would make things more complicated. 

It’s worth emphasizing here that just because you can use a chart doesn’t mean you should use a chart. The numbers pop well, and they’re very easy to notice, so they probably make a little more sense than just using a chart. 

SEE MORE: Storytelling with Data: How McKinsey creates clear and insightful charts

So, in the end, they decided to use these numbers, which I think was the right call. They’ve also done a couple of things to make it easier for us to read the data, like bolding the numbers and making the font size extra large. They’ve also ordered the numbers from largest to smallest, which forces us to notice the larger numbers first, and also brings some organization and structure to the slide. 

BCG slide number ordering

Then the final thing to talk about is the icons. In general, I’m a big fan of icons because they make it easier to understand the text on a slide. But I don’t particularly like the gray and the white contrast. I’m having a tough time understanding what some of the icons mean, which defeats the whole purpose of the icon.

Just a simple icon without a background probably would have worked a little bit better. And ideally, it would be something like a dark green or similar color, so it’s easy to see and doesn’t blend visually with the numbers right next to it.  

SEE MORE: How to Design Effective Presentations: 5 Practical Tips from the Consulting Industry

Overall, this is a solid slide from BCG and a great example of an effective (albeit chart-less), display of quantitative information. The slide is very well structured and organized, making it easy and natural for us to process the information quickly and easily. With just a few design tweaks this slide could have been a home run, but as it is the slide is still very high quality.  

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

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