By: Doug and Polly White October 18, 2016
PowerPoint presentations are an ingrained part of the business experience: A 2015 survey by OutsidetheSlide.com found that more than 25 percent of workers surveyed said they see at least one presentation every workday. And that may be a problem, considering the less-than-optimal way in which today’s organizations communicate through these presentations. In short, from our observations, many of these presentations fail to deliver. One of the major reasons for this is poor structure. As MindTools reminds us, without a logical, clear and well-structured presentation, your audience is unlikely to follow and remember your message. We ourselves have written thousands of presentations and business documents in our careers. And, in our experience, the most important step is what we call “hanging the document.” In simple terms, you need an outline. However, this can’t be just a list of random points. The document has to have a structure. It has to hang together in a way that makes your point as clearly as possible.
Doug learned to structure presentations when he worked with McKinsey & Company. McKinsey used a method called the Pyramid Principal. Barbara Minto, McKinsey’s first female consultant, developed this methodology for structuring business documents, which we believe is the best in the business. Below is a simple illustration of this powerful method. Imagine you are making a business presentation during which you hope to persuade the decision-maker to take specific action. In such situations, use what we call the “situation-complication-resolution” approach. Each of its three steps is discussed below.
This is a statement of the current state of affairs. It should be fact based (e.g., “Since its founding 15 years ago, the company has grown from a startup with no revenue and one employee to a robust enterprise with $15 million in revenue and 60 employees”). Because it is fact based, this “Situation” step should be something with which no one can reasonably disagree. We often use this section to highlight positives. If possible, give the person to whom you are presenting credit for his or her accomplishments.
This is a statement of the problem — the issue you are addressing (e.g., “Over the past three years, revenue growth has stalled”). It lays out why the company should take action. Without the “Complication,” the company wouldn’t need to do anything; There would be no reason for change. People who are resisting the change you are suggesting may well try to take issue with the complication. After all, if it isn’t valid, there is no need to change. Therefore, if possible, you as presenter should base this section on objective facts that are irrefutable (“Sales three years ago were $15.1 million, while sales last year were $14.9 million”). People may not like hearing this, but they can’t argue that it isn’t true.
This is your recommendation; it resolves the complication. It should be a single point. For example, “We should launch a sales growth program.” Each document should have only one main point. If you can’t boil your recommendation down to a single point, you should have more than one document. Once you have identified you primary recommendation, you should support it with a series of what we call MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive) sub points. Mutually exclusive means that the points do not overlap; there is no duplication among them. “Collectively exhaustive” means that there is nothing left out. Taken together, the sub points cover all possible ways to achieve the point above it in the structure.
For example, consider that the main point is, “We should launch a program to grow sales significantly.” The supporting points then might be:
- We should cultivate new customers, and
- We should sell more to existing customers.
These are clearly mutually exclusive points; there is no overlap between new customers and existing customers. They are also collectively exhaustive; every sale will be to a new customer or an existing customer. There are no other possibilities.
You will then support each of the sub points with another set of MECE points. For example, you might support cultivating new customers with: 1) Cultivate new customers in existing sales territories; and 2) Cultivate new customers in new sales territories. Again, the sub points at this level are MECE. If you diagram the structure of your document keeping all points at the same level in the document on the same line of your paper, you will begin to see a triangle or a pyramid emerge. The pyramid continues to grow until your recommendations are at a sufficiently granular level to make it crystal clear how you propose to accomplish your main objective.