Building Strategy Slide Decks: The Complete Guide

How to Make Strategy Slide Decks: The Complete Guide

There’s something different about slide decks from strategy consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain or BCG. For some reason, they just seem more convincing. But it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes those presentations good.

As a strategy consultant, you very quickly realize there are two important components of a compelling strategy presentation:

  1. The ‘thinking’. This is the rigorous problem definition, analysis, synthesis, and insight that happens before you open up PowerPoint. Without this, even the most well-crafted strategy presentation lacks impact.
  2. The presentation. This is the distinctive, structured, and clear way that strategy consultants build their slide decks. Without this, even the most powerful insights lose their force.

In this guide, we show you how to do both those things. In chapters 1-4, we discuss how to structure your slide deck, synthesize your insights, and craft a compelling argument and storyline.

Then in chapters 4-8, we show you best practices for designing your slides, including quantitative slides, qualitative and conceptual slides, and executive summaries.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have the ability to craft a compelling strategy slide deck with a clear and compelling storyline that leads your audience to your desired conclusion.

1. Structuring your slide deck

If you come from a technical or research background, you’re probably structuring your slide decks incorrectly.

In those disciplines, you’re taught to build an initial fact base, outline your analyses, and finish with the conclusion and implications.

But in a corporate environment, that’s the wrong way to structure your slide deck.

You’re communicating to busy executives. And those executives are most interested in your conclusions, not your analysis.

So if you bury your conclusions deep in your slide deck, your busy audience will become impatient, frustrated, or disinterested.

The Pyramid Principle

Fortunately, there is a well-known and widely-used structure for all strategy presentations.

This structure was formalized at the strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Co. It very quickly spread to other consulting firms and became the “best practice” for all strategy presentations.

It’s based on a concept known as the Pyramid Principle.

The Pyramid Principle advocates that your thinking should form a pyramid structure that cascades down from a single, top-level thought. Underneath that thought is your insights or arguments, and the data to support them.

It looks like this:

Barbara Minto's Pyramid Principle framework

How do you apply the Pyramid Principle to your slide deck?

In the context of communicating with slide decks, the Pyramid Principle has a few implications:

  1. Start with the conclusion: The first slide in your deck should be an Executive Summary that explicitly states your conclusion, answer, or recommendation.
  2. Build a clear and logical narrative: You should communicate your rationale with insights or arguments that are structured as a narrative.
  3. Support your insights with data: Ensure that you have data that supports every argument and prevents your reader from disputing them.

2. Synthesizing your insights

As we mentioned in the beginning, your slide deck is simply a tool to communicate your thinking. Therefore, before we jump into PowerPoint, we start by structuring that thinking.

For the purpose of this guide, we are going to assume that you’ve already spent time gathering data and conducting analysis. At this stage, you have collected a bunch of data but it’s not clear what it all means.

So the first thing you need to do is synthesize your data to uncover the insights hidden within it.

The synthesizing process

Synthesizing your data follows a simple, two-stage process:

  • Determine the ‘so what’. Take a look at each of your data points one by one. For each, examine it closely and ask yourself “what is the implication of this data?”.
  • Group similar ‘so whats’. Group data that have similar ‘so whats’ together under a single insight. 

To see this in practice, take a look at this example:

Example: Synthesizing Data

Imagine that we gathered data, conducted analysis, and came up with the following findings:

  • Total workforce size reduced from 26k to 22k between 2019-22
  • Mail handled per FTE per year grew from 265k to 325k between 2019-22
  • According to employment agreements, the maximum mail handled per FTE per year is set to 330k

Right now those data don’t mean much. But let’s consider them all together and think about the ‘so what’.

In this case, those three insights together tell us that: “There is no further opportunity to reduce workforce costs without renegotiating employment contracts”.

Continue to synthesize your data until you have a number of well-formed insights that contain all of your data.

And don’t be afraid to eliminate any data that doesn’t contribute to an insight. A clear slide deck is not just about what you include, it’s also about what you leave out.

Confirm that your insights are well-formed

Synthesizing data isn’t easy, so it’s important that you check your synthesis to ensure that you’ve formed good insights.

There is a simple test that you can apply:

  1. Check that your insight is not making any claims that aren’t supported by the data supporting it
  2. Check that removing any of the data points would make the insight invalid

3. Crafting your argument

Now that you have a collection of insights that are all supported by data, you need to structure them as an argument that leads to a conclusion. This argument will form the backbone of your slide deck.

There are two main ways to structure your argument:

  • Deductive reasoning: Drawing a conclusion by following the logical relationship between statements. For example, “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal”.
  • Inductive reasoning: Drawing a conclusion by observing limited evidence and generalizing it. For example, “I have only ever seen white swans, therefore all swans are white”.

Inductive Reasoning and Deductive Reasoning

Build your argument deductively

In her seminal book, The Pyramid Principle, Barbara Minto advocates building your argument using an inductive structure. She argues that inductive arguments are easy for the reader to understand.

However, we recommend that you avoid inductive arguments in your slide decks. The fundamental problem with inductive reasoning is that it can be disputed by a single data point.

In other words, you only need to find one black swan to completely invalidate your argument.

Use an SCR structure

In fact, more recently McKinsey has begun advocating for structuring your arguments deductively.

In The McKinsey Approach To Problem Solving (Staff Paper No. 66), they explain that they structure their strategy presentations using a Situation, Complication, Resolution (SCR) structure.

And McKinsey’s SCR structure is actually a deductive structure.

Let’s start with a basic deductive argument:

  1. All men are mortal
  2. Socrates is a man
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal

If we generalize this and apply it to the SCR structure in a slide deck, we get:

  1. This thing is important (situation)
  2. There is a problem with this thing (complication)
  3. Therefore, we need to respond — and here is how (resolution)

By using the SCR structure, there is a clear logic to the slide deck. And it follows a narrative structure that is easy for the reader to understand, which we’ll talk through in the next chapter.

Align your insights to the SCR structure

The next step is to align the insights that you synthesized in the last chapter to the SCR structure.

I have continued our example from the previous chapter in the box below. It shows how you might align real-world insights to the SCR structure.

Example: Aligning insights to the SCR structure

Situation

  • Australia Post is experiencing significant financial loss due to rising costs
  • Management responded by addressing the main drivers of cost growth

Complication

  • Reductions in workforce size have been significant but exhausted
  • Productivity improvements reduced operations costs below industry benchmarks
  • But cost-side measures do not fully address the profitability gap

Resolution

  • Revenues trailed forecast between 2015-22 due to mail volume declines and shifting product mix
  • We identified 4 revenue-side opportunities to close the profitability gap by 2030

4. Writing your slide deck storyline

So far you have synthesized our data to reveal insights, and organized those insights into an SCR structure.

By this stage, you probably have an emerging storyline for your slide deck. In other words, you broadly know your slide deck’s argument and the conclusion you’re trying to reach.

But before you jump into PowerPoint and start crafting slides, you should spend time explicitly writing out your storyline and the supporting data for each claim.

This process helps with two things:

  1. It quickly uncovers any faulty or missing logic in your argument
  2. It ensures that you have all the data and insights required to support your arguments

To write out your deck’s storyline, you should use a dot-dash structure.

What is a dot-dash storyline?

The dot-dash storyline clearly articulates every step of your slide deck’s argument:

  • The “dot” refers to the top-level insights that make up your argument
  • The “dash” refers to the findings and exhibits that support your insight

Example: Dot-Dash Storyline

  • Australia Post is experiencing significant financial loss due to rising costs
    • 2015-22 revenue growth was 5% p.a. and cost growth was 9% p.a.
    • Annual profit/loss fell from +$10bn in 2015 to -$13bn in 2022
  • Management responded by addressing the main drivers of cost growth
    • Employee and operational expenses made up 78% of 2015-22 cost growth
  • Reductions in workforce size have been significant but exhausted
    • Total workforce size reduced from 26k to 22k between 2019-22
    • Mail handled per FTE per year grew from 265k to 325k between 2019-22
    • According to employment agreements, maximum mail handled per FTE per year is set to 330k
  • Productivity improvements reduced operations costs below industry benchmarks
    • Processing cost per mail piece fell from $0.70 to $0.63 between 2019-22
    • Delivery cost per mail piece fell from $0.34 to $0.29 between 2019-22
  • Cost-side measures do not fully address the profitability gap, revenue opportunities must be considered
    • Workforce and operations costs savings reduce 2030 forecast losses from -$32bn to-$16bn
  • Revenues trailed forecast due to mail volume declines and shifting product mix
    • 2022 revenue $106bn compared to forecast of $127bn
    • 63% of the revenue difference was due to volume decline and product mix
  • We identified 4 revenue-side opportunities to close the profitability gap by 2030
    • Increase prices on Direct Marketing and Advertising products
    • Improve average net revenue per unit by optimizing product bundles
    • Increase volume by improving proposition for Packages product
    • Diversify into tangential products and services

5. Constructing your slide deck skeleton

Now that you have crafted a strong argument and storyline that’s supported by data, you can finally jump into PowerPoint.

We will start by constructing the slide skeleton. A slide skeleton is an outline of the complete slide deck with placeholder lead-ins and nothing in the slide body.

This gives us an early indication of what the slide deck will end up looking like:

PowerPoint Slide Deck Skeleton

Translating your storyline to a slide deck skeleton

There are no hard-and-fast rules for translating the storyline that you wrote previously to the slide deck skeleton.

In some cases, you can directly translate each “dot” in your dot-dash storyline as an individual slide. In other cases, you might want to use two slides to describe one “dot” in the storyline.

But, irrespective of how you translate your storyline to the slide skeleton, it’s vital that you preserve the storyline. Any changes to the storyline should happen before you start constructing your slide skeleton.

6. Building individual slides

You’ve finished your slide skeleton and it clearly articulates your argument. Now the fun part. Let’s build those slides!

Before you jump into it, there are two main components of slides that you need to understand:

  1. The lead-in: The text at the top of your slide. This should explain the implication or ‘so what’ of the slide, not describe the content of the slide.
  2. The slide body: The content of your slide. You should only communicate one insight per slide and choose the simplest method possible.

Components a PowerPoint slide: slide lead-in and slide body

What makes a good slide lead-in?

The purpose of the slide lead-in is to help your reader understand your slide deck’s argument and storyline. The slide lead-in should help your reader quickly grasp whichever part of the argument that that particular slide relates to.

There are two characteristics of good slide lead-ins:

  1. They explain the insight, implication, or ‘so what’ of the slide; they don’t describe the content of the slide
  2. They use the fewest and simplest words possible

The Golden Rule of slide building

There is a close relationship between the slide lead-in and slide body. And this relationship is best explained by the Golden Rule of slide building.

The Golden Rule of slide building is:

“One slide, one insight, fully articulated in the lead-in, and supported by the body”

In other words, each slide should only communicate one insight. That insight should be fully explained in words in the lead-in, and fully supported by data in the slide body.

In addition, there should be nothing in the lead-in that’s not in the body, and nothing in the body that’s not in the lead-in.

7. Mastering quantitative slides

Claims that are supported by data are naturally more compelling than claims supported by ‘expert’ opinions, focus groups, and other qualitative evidence.

Therefore, where possible, you should always prioritize quantitative slides over qualitative slides.

But don’t go overboard with your data visualization. Sometimes it can be tempting to show off our technical skills by choosing the most complex visualization available. This is bad practice.

You should always choose the simplest chart to demonstrate your insight.

Categories of insights that you can visualize

When you are choosing which chart to use, first think about what you’re trying to communicate. There are only four different categories of insights you can show using charts:

  • Comparisons: How one dataset is similar to or different from another dataset. For example, comparing the revenue of Company A with the revenue of Company B.
  • Relationships: How changes in one dataset correspond to changes in another dataset. For example, the increases in ice-cream sales as temperate increases.
  • Distributions: How a dataset is distributed over time or another variable. For example, the range of salaries of a cohort of employees.
  • Compositions: The breakdown of a dataset into the parts that make it up. For example, the underlying drivers of cost growth.

And in most cases, column charts, line charts, or scatter charts will be sufficient to show these things. More rarely, you might need to use a waterfall chart, area chart or bubble chart.

How to choose the right chart for your data

To help you figure out which chart to use to communicate your insight, we’ve put together a simple chart decision tree:

Choosing the right chart for your data

8. Mastering conceptual slides

As mentioned in the previous section, quantitative slides with data are naturally more compelling than qualitative slides.

But sometimes you either need to communicate something non-quantitative or you don’t have the data to communicate with a chart. In these cases, you’ll need to build qualitative slides.

Many of the same principles apply to qualitative slides. Your slide should be simple, clear, and have a compelling insight.

In other words, “this is a really good graphic” is not a good enough reason to include a qualitative slide!

Common qualitative and conceptual slides

That being said, there are a few types of qualitative slides that are regularly used by strategy consulting firms like McKinsey & Co, Bain & BCG. It’s important to become familiar with these slides.

Qualitative and conceptual slides

What’s next?

This guide is a work in progress. Bookmark this page and come back soon, as we’re currently writing out the final two chapters: writing executive summaries, and reviewing and finalizing your slide deck.