When I was first asked to start giving business presentations almost twenty years ago, I looked at several books for suggestions. I also recalled some of the training I’d received in a high school speech class. One common theme in the advice was that the written materials for effective presentations should have as few words as possible.
I found this to be profoundly confusing, as it didn’t fit my own experience with convincingly presenting data or with the successful presentations I had already seen.
I think the disconnect was caused by the different ways we use the word “presentation.” In some cases, we mean something like a speech. A speech is a monolog and the audience is typically large. Perhaps the topic is qualitative or conceptual. For the CEO of a Fortune 500 company giving a keynote speech at a conference to 2000 delegates, this is good advice and the conventional wisdom is, indeed, wise.
In other cases, however, when we say presentation we mean something like “discussion document.” In these situations the point is often to discuss the material to explore different angles on the topic so that all of those with a stake in the topic can get comfortable with the conclusion or voice concerns. The audience is generally less than 20 people. Frequently, an organization is trying to make some sort of decision, so having data is important. Finally, these types of documents are often reviewed without the original presenter or author present. Therefore, it’s important that the documents stand on their own.
The fact that we typically use the same software—Microsoft PowerPoint—to make slides for both types of presentations has probably helped obfuscate the significant differences between the slides needed for each.
At Woodlawn Associates we most often work with presentations of the second type. Here are three rules we use to make them as effective as possible:
1. Slide titles should explain the main takeaway of the slide
The conventional wisdom for slide titles is that they should be very short—just a few words. By contrast, Woodlawn presentations often have a title that is a complete sentence. Our belief is that the title should explain the slide’s key takeaway. U.S. Army guides to writing call this putting the Bottom Line Up Front (“BLUFing”).
Too often we see slides with a cryptic or unhelpful title and a chart that requires the reader to decipher what is important. Consider a slide with title “Gross Margin, 2007-2012” and a graph of gross margin during the period underneath. This is a simple slide but still requires the reader to decipher the graph to figure out what happened. Did margin go up, down, or stay the same? Is any change significant? Why is it important?
These type of slides make the reader work for the answer. Worse, when the data is more complex than in this simple example, the reader may have no idea at all what the author wanted him to conclude from the slide.
A better title would be something like “Gross margin has declined 23% in the past five years, limiting the funds available for R&D.”
Here are a few more examples:
|Sales Projection||Sales will increase to $410M by 2014|
|Customer Acquisition Costs||Dealers spend an average of 17% of revenues on acquisition, or $5373 per customer|
|Customer Referrals||Despite it being the lowest cost large channel, many dealers have not optimized for customer referrals|
|Optimizing Value of Customer Base||Optimizing value of customer base requires models of customer lifetime value, churn, and elasticity|
One rule of thumb is that someone flipping through a presentation reading only the titles and nothing else should still be able to understand the key messages of the presentation. This also makes writing an executive summary really easy.
We make some exceptions to the “complete idea title” rule. If the content of the slide is a simple list, summarizing the entire contents of the list in the title would be redundant and it is still easy for the reader to grasp the key takeaway of the slide at a glance.
2. Each slide should have one main chart, table, or graphic
When it comes to presenting data, Woodlawn’s practices and conventional wisdom are similar.
The type of business documents we create usually have some type of data or analysis that supports the conclusion we’ve stated in the slide’s title. Often it is most effective to present this data in a chart, though sometimes a table is appropriate. Sometimes the data is not quantitative but a diagram or graphic makes the idea more clear. In any event, we try to avoid putting more than one main idea on a slide.
Of course, there are cases where the content of the slide is extremely qualitative and no chart, table, or graphic is needed. Conversely, it sometimes makes sense to use two or more charts on a single slide. However, these cases are the exception.
3. Include enough text on slides to explain and support the key takeaway
In the text on our slides, we don’t skimp on words. We provide additional support for the conclusion of the slide (given in the title) or the data or analysis we used to draw the conclusion (given in the graphic element). We do that by explaining the major assumptions behind the analysis, explaining where the data came from, giving additional supporting data, or explaining the logical flow of our argument.
This is not to say authors should write books on PowerPoint slides. Text should be concise and directly support the main idea of the slide. Putting the main takeaway of the slide in the title helps, though, because it becomes easier to identify superfluous text in the body of the slide. Often the problem with slides that truly do have too many words is that the author himself is not clear about what he is trying to say.
The Three Main Elements of Effective Slides
Finally, one tactical observation: we usually find that if we are tempted to use a font size of less than 10-12 points, we really have more than one idea and need to have more than one slide.
Developing Effective Presentations in Business
So a presentation is not always a presentation. Most business presentations are not speeches. At Woodlawn, we’ve found that for the types of presentations we develop most often, we are best served by writing the main takeaway of the slide in the title, using one main graphic element per slide, and using text to support and strengthen the slide further.
To download a short PowerPoint presentation with some example slides, click here.