Show and Tell

by: Michael W. McLaughlin

Whether it’s a proposal, training seminar, status update, or final report, consultants use slides for nearly every presentation. Unfortunately, too many presenters misuse slide decks as a glorified cheat sheet for remembering what to say next.


consultant jobs,consulting job board,find jobs
Whether it’s a proposal, training seminar, status update, or final report, consultants use slides for nearly every presentation. Unfortunately, too many presenters misuse slide decks as a glorified cheat sheet for remembering what to say next.
And we’ve all snoozed through one of those seemingly endless presentations while the monotone speaker flips through dozens of indecipherable slides. By the time the Q&A session rolls around, most of the audience is either numb or answering email.
No one wants to lull an audience to sleep, but it happens. What’s much worse is when a speaker’s slides compound the soporific effect of a bad performance. Poorly-conceived slides can do as much damage to your message and credibility as poor delivery.
Follow the simple rules below to transform any slide presentation from a necessary evil into a powerful way to get your point across.
Cut to the Core
You might think that the weightiest slide deck gives you the highest likelihood of success. But some of the most effective presentations I’ve seen had just a few words on each slide.
You may have enough data to fill a hard drive, but that doesn’t mean you should show it all. It often seems easier to keep a slide in a presentation than to remove it. After all, you’ve done all that impressive work and you want somebody to see it.
Instead, make every slide count. Ask yourself how each slide and every word on it contributes to the message of your presentation. Instead of thinking about reasons why items should stay in the presentation, look for ways to cut to that core.
Each slide should amplify your message, not test viewers’ eyesight. Use a separate document, or an appendix, for details that you think the audience has just got to see. Resist the urge to dump data, however important it may be, in the main body of your presentation. Choose the salient information and hold the rest back. Otherwise, your data will drown your message.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules about the right number of slides to use. But if you’re heading into a sixty-minute meeting with more than twenty or so slides, think again. Chances are good that you’re going to lose your audience long before you get to the end.
Simplify the Complex
If you ask clients what they look for in a consultant, you’ll often hear that they want someone who brings clarity and resolution to complex issues. A well-crafted slide deck can help you create the kind of clarity clients want.
Of course, we can’t do without some bulleted lists in this business. But rather than creating page after page of bullet points, make sure each slide contains a single, stand-alone concept. Follow the newspaper format, and begin each slide with a headline that offers the key point or reason for that slide. Headlines should build the overall narrative of your argument, from slide to slide.
For example, instead of a slide titled “Order Management Issues” (which I’ve seen more than once), use a title like “Last Year, Customer Order Accuracy Fell to 65%–a Record Low.” Use successive slide headlines to build on that.
For instance, the next two slide headlines in the sequence might be: “Customer Returns Reached the Highest Level in Three Years.”; and “Customer Service Reps Worked 40% More Overtime in the Past Six Months.” Coordinated headlines provide a framework for your perspectives on the issues.
As you use headlines to frame the story you want to tell, rely on the body of each slide to illustrate the supporting details. In the body of the first slide above, maybe you would show a simple chart of historical order accuracy. Each point in the body of the slide should expand on the headline.
Many speakers like to add a tag line at the bottom of each slide to draw a conclusion or to transition to the next slide. In our example, the tag line for the first slide could be, “An analysis of seven competitors shows their order accuracy averages 93%.”
Viewers should be able to get the main point on a slide even if they see it out of context. As you look at your slides, ask yourself: “If this slide was separated from the rest of the presentation, would people understand it?”
What’s Your Point?
Of all the sins of slide presentations, being wishy-washy tops the list. Your slides present your case and lay out your call to action. What do you want your listeners to do?
Naturally, your facts must be strong and supportive. But you must also state your conclusions and recommendations clearly, unambiguously, and with conviction. Many consultants believe they are making a strong case for their ideas, but often they just fizzle out.
Instead of suggesting that the client “may achieve substantial benefits from a new inventory management system,” be precise. Spell out the specific, quantified benefit and how you plan to achieve it. Avoid the word “may.” Whenever possible, be certain and confident in your statements.
Think Five Minutes
Your first slide or two will set the audience’s initial impression. And nine out of ten audience members will start reading before you start talking. If you hand out copies of your presentation before the meeting, expect people to flip through it before you utter a word.
Use the first slides to grab their attention and point in the direction that you plan to take them. To develop the content for the first two slides, assume that you have only five minutes to deliver your entire presentation. How would you use that time? You’d probably summarize the essential facts that led to the conclusions you have developed.
The five-minute exercise is always productive, even if you don’t need a single summary slide. The exercise will help you sharpen your focus and find any soft spots in your logic. It forces you to be concise, without the support of your extraneous materials. It makes you strip your argument down to its most fundamental elements.
Beyond the Rotating Logo
I’ve watched consultants fiddle with fonts, text placement, and bullet styles in the final hours of their preparation, when rehearsal, messaging, and delivery should be their highest priorities. Save yourself time and don’t try your audience’s patience: create a consistent, standard design for your slides before you develop your content.
That design needs to include more than just your firm’s logo in the corner. Aim for design simplicity. Use a small number of fonts, and design for wide use across the various documents you create. A pre-set design will ease your presentation development process, and you’ll establish an important element of your firm’s visual identity.
They May Still Shoot the Messenger
Not even a perfect slide deck will make up for lackluster presentation skills or off-target findings. But a muddled slide show will distract people’s attention from your ideas. And remember, your listeners will probably send your slide presentation around to others who weren’t there. Will your slides communicate effectively without you?
Too many presentations fail that simple test. Abandon the laundry list of bullet points and work toward clear, concise slides that will generate the results you want long after you’ve left the scene.
Michael W. McLaughlin is a principal with MindShare Consulting LLC, a firm that creates innovative sales and marketing strategies for professional services companies. He’s the author of Winning the Professional Services Sale, and the coauthor of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. His newsletters, Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant, reach a global audience. Before founding MindShare Consulting, he was a partner with Deloitte Consulting, where he served clients and mentored consultants for more than two decades.

Author Details

Michael W. McLaughlin
MindShare Consulting LLC