McKinsey interview

I was recently interviewed by McKinsey & Company, and the interview is posted on their internal "Communicate" website.  It's only accessible to current McKinsey staff (who can click here), so I've agreed to post it on my blog too.  I have also added "translations" of McKinsey jargon in [square] brackets. It's a good synthesis of some of the core principles I have articulated in my books and on this blog.  

In addition to the interview, McKinsey consultants are being given copies of my forthcoming book, The Presentation: A Story About Communicating Successfully, With Very Few Slides. (Subscribers to the Extreme Presentation Breaking News email list will also receive a copy, in ebook form.  Subscribe here.)  

From EM [Engagement Manager] to charting guru

Alum [i.e. former consultant] Andrew Abela (Toronto [office], 1992-1998) is now Chairman of the Department of Business & Economics at the Catholic University of America and author of Advanced Presentations by Design. In this interview he shares some of his thoughts about effective charting and previews his next book project – your contributions welcome.

Presentation idiom. You define two in the book—ballroom style and conference room style. How should they differ? 

Most slides contain some mixture of bullet points, charts, or tables. Bullet points alone are a communications disaster: research shows that presenting slides filled with bullets while speaking at the time is less effective than speaking without any slides at all (because people are trying to read the bullets and listen to you at the same time—which means that they do neither particularly well).

Adding charts or tables is better than just bullets, but the real issue is how much detail should you put on each slide? And the answer to this is: it depends on the context. The two most common presentation contexts are (1) presenting to a large audience, where you’re trying to inspire them with a big idea or two; and (2) presenting to a smaller audience, where you’re trying to persuade them to do something: make a decision; accept a recommendation; execute a plan; engage the Firm [McKinsey & Company]. 

And this is where presentation idiom comes in: different contexts call for different idioms, or presentation styles. Ballroom style is where you’re inspiring or entertaining a large audience with a few big ideas. In this style you’ll have slides with minimal text and lots of colorful, attractive images.  

Conference room style is for persuading a small audience. Conference room style slides have lots of details—but only relevant details—on them. Research has proven the perhaps obvious point that providing the relevant details is essential if you’re going to persuade people to act on your recommendation. But research also demonstrates the less obvious point, that adding weak or irrelevant details reduces persuasion. 

So in order to persuade, slides have to contain all the relevant details, and only the relevant details. You can’t communicate details in anything like a ballroom style slide, which is why we need an alternative, which is conference room style. But how do you ensure that the details aren’t overwhelming? Make sure that your slides pass the squint test.

Squint test. What's that, and how can it help people craft more effective charts? 

The challenge for a conference room style slide is how to fit all the details you need and still keep the slide lucid and attractive. Conventional wisdom says that slides should not be too “busy,” but research contradicts this. So long as the slide is well designed, then showing more steps in your logic—and therefore more details—on the same slide actually strengthens comprehension and persuasion.  This is because the audience doesn’t have to keep the content of multiple slides in mind to follow your argument. 

The way to make sure that a slide is well designed is to follow what designers call the “squint test.” Squint at your slide, so that none of the text is legible. Can you still tell what the slide is about? Is it about a linear process, a cyclical process, a convergence of events? If the layout alone gives the viewer an idea of what the slide is about, then the slide will pass the squint test. In order to create a slide that passes the squint test, identify the overall point of the slide, and then lay out the slide in a way that visually reinforces that main point. 

We don’t know for sure, but the strong hypothesis is that when a slide passes the squint test, the viewer, upon seeing it, has some idea of what the slide is about and is therefore willing to listen to the presenter. A slide with just a list of bullets, by contrast, gives you no idea what it is about, and so the viewer automatically starts to read the bullets, which distracts from what the presenter is saying.  

To paraphrase Edward Tufte, what we’re trying to achieve on each slide is simplicity of design and complexity of detail. The detail provides the content that is necessary to persuade the client to do what you are asking them to do, while the squint test ensures that your slide’s design is simple enough to enable the detail to be understood clearly. 

To me, the ultimate presentation is one slide long: beautifully designed to pass the squint test, containing all the necessary details, with absolutely everything that is not directly relevant ruthlessly stripped out of it. This is not just fantasy; in my own career at McKinsey, I had a couple of occasions where we had a great success with one-slide presentations. In one case my ED [Engagement Director] and I ran a hugely successful two-hour meeting with the client CEO and his team, with just one slide. In another case, a colleague in the Toronto office (Patrick Pichette, now CFO of Google), reduced his client’s entire production process and his team’s recommended improvements to a single, superbly impactful slide.

New project. What's next for you on the book front?

I just finished my brief “novella,” The Presentation. It is a narrative account that conveys the concepts of presentation idiom and squint test, as well as the S.Co.R.E. method for developing a compelling storyline, as part of a short story. I think Firm members [McKinsey consultants] will find it a quick and useful read; you can also give copies to any clients who need some help with their presentation design skills.

My next book takes a deep dive into the topic of slide layout—it’s all about the squint test. It will have a large number of real world examples of great slide layouts. Right now we’re collecting the examples. I invite anyone reading this who has any examples to share to email them to me and, with the appropriate permissions and sanitization, we will include the best ones in this book. 

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