What makes a consulting slide deck feel different?

The inside scoop on how management consultants create slides

Consulting presentation slides from top-tier companies like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are often described as being somehow different and more convincing than your run-of-the-mill PowerPoints.

Why is that?

Some of it can of course be attributed to the weeks and sometimes months of analysis and refinement that has gone into the actual content on the slides.

But there are also a series of tips and tricks of how this content is set up, structured, and designed that can manage to lift simple data and conclusions into a cohesive presentation that feels convincing and compelling.

These tips and tricks, or what you might call best practices, are drilled into management consultants from the day they start working and honed through years and years of practice.

Five tips to creating consulting slide decks

As a general rule there are five main levers consultants pull to create next-level slide decks:

  1. Structuring a storyline
  2. Structuring a slide
  3. Understanding the power of design
  4. Learning-by-seeing
  5. Living the 80-20 rule (except with slides)

Let's dive into each of them.

1. Structuring a storyline

One of the main levers management consultants pull to create high-quality slide decks is the concept of storylining. Storylining means how you structure your overall presentation in terms of which content comes at what time and the specific sequence of slides.

To create a good storyline and content structure you need to start with the purpose of the deck. Who is it meant for? Will they read it or get it presented verbally? How much time will the recipients realistically have to digest this deck? What do you want to achieve with this presentation; a decision on a way forward, a solid understanding of a situation, an alignment on timeline or something else?

All these things influence how you should structure your PowerPoint presentation. Ideally, by answering these questions you’ll get a feeling for both the approximate length you want your main presentation to be, the level of detail the slides should have, and which things you want to highlight or focus on.

Once you have the perimeters of your presentation in place, you want to start structuring your slides in the most compelling way possible to tell the story you want to get across. McKinsey, Bain, and BCG consultants typically tailor their storylines to the specific use case, but consulting storylines generally adhere to an SCR (Situation-Complication-Resolution) framework.

The SCR framework offers a method for presenting findings in a clear, concise, engaging, and intuitive manner with the following components:

Situation: This is the initial context or background of the problem or issue under consideration. It may include details about the current state of affairs, the problem's history, or other pertinent information that sets the stage. The situation can also focus on a specific opportunity or threat.

Complication: The complication represents the specific challenge or problem that has emerged within the given situation. It could be an obstacle, an unexpected development, or a significant hurdle that requires addressing. Complication can also refer to gaps in necessary capabilities to seize an opportunity.

Resolution: The resolution outlines the proposed solution to the complication or problem. It should provide a clear, actionable plan for overcoming the challenge, including specific steps, required resources, and other pertinent details that ensure success.

Maintaining a clear storyline should be evident at the slide title level, underscoring the importance of action titles. Your audience should be able to read the action titles alone and, in doing so, comprehend the main conclusions and the analytical path leading to those conclusions. In essence, your action titles should flow like a cohesive narrative and be understandable independently.

For a general look at how consultants structure complete presentations see our article here, or see real presentations from McKinsey, BCG, and Bain by clicking the links.

2. Structuring a slide

With the main storyline in place the next step is making each slide as impactful as possible. This is done by focusing on three main components:

  • Action titles: This is a concise sentence that conveys the key implication or insight of the slide, making it easy for busy executives to grasp the main message at a glance. The action title is the main takeaway of the slide.
  • Subheadings: These provide a summary of the data used to support the action title or offer additional context to the main takeaway.
  • Slide body: The slide body should be clear and concise, containing only information directly relevant to the action title. It's important to avoid including extraneous data that doesn't support the key insight. 

See more on the anatomy of a slide here.

The anatomy of a consulting presentation template slide slide

3. Understanding the power of design

Another fasttrack to great-looking slides that consultants use is a solid, well-designed slide master. The slide master sets the basics like color scheme, fonts, title placement, page numbers etc. Having a slide master with a font that is different than the built-in Calibri in PowerPoint and a color scheme that is cohesive with your company colors is a quick and easy way to elevate your slide deck. In fact, for larger client engagements houses like McKinsey and BCG will create unique templates in client colors to help their slide decks gain credibility with the client.

In addition to the basic slide master, you should have a selection of good slide layouts to pull from. Layout refers to the way the different elements of the slide like title, text boxes, graphs, headlines etc. are placed. The function of the slide layout is both to make it faster for you to build new slides and to have a consistent grid across slides. The consistency element especially makes your slide decks feel complete and liked you’ve put effort into them.
If you don’t already have a solid library of slide layout templates, then see our Consulting Toolkit to give yourself a headstart.

Finally, management consultants typically have some overall design guidelines that they follow. This is both in terms of how and when to use color (e.g., in new BCG slides the main color is various shades of green while a soft red, an electric blue, and a sharp yellow are used for highlighting messages or key points on slides), as well as specific setups like no-fly zones (the area of a slide that should be kept blank), takeaway boxes (high-lighted text boxes with a main message), and fixed grids or elements like graph placements and headlines for text boxes. For a deep dive on McKinsey’s approach to design, see this article.

All in all, adding the design element to slide will elevate even the most boring, simple bullet point slide to something that looks and feels like a well-worked-through, important message.

4. Learning-by-seeing

Structuring a PowerPoint presentation and creating a compelling slide layout are two skills that can be built over time. But consultants in the top-tier houses also have a secret sauce that helps accelerate their slide production; an extensive internal library of old cases and general presentations. This means that whenever a consultant needs to create a new presentation they can search the internal database for that specific type and see previous cases they can copy and paste from, or simply draw inspiration from.

These cases are - crucially - not just empty templates to be filled out but are real cases that provide the full storyline, structure, and useful background content for specific needs, e.g., a digital transformation strategy in Insurance or a go-to-market plan in Telecom.

At Slideworks, our mission is to create a slide library like we used to have at Bain, McKinsey, and BCG so everyone can have access to high-quality, ready-to-use presentations. We feel the real value of databases like this lies in the case examples, where templates are translated to full storylines with real content. So in our library we’ve included real-life, sanitized cases in all our packages with specific use cases. This way you get more of the learning-by-seeing element that you would otherwise learn as a management consultant.

You can find our library of slide packages here.

5. Living the 80-20 rule (except with slides)

Consultants talk a lot about the 80-20 rule of spending your time and effort on the 20% that will affect 80% of the results. In consulting projects this cascades all the way from scoping and framing a project correctly to deciding which work streams to include in the project to selecting which analyses to conduct and which data points to chase.

However, the same 80-20 approach does not apply to the final slides. The overall storyline may have been cut in a ruthless manner, but the final slides that make it into a deck from houses like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain have in almost all cases been through a fine-toothed comb.

This is because details matter. Even if it seems trivial, small things like spelling mistakes, varying font sizes, page numbers jumping about etc. affect the overall perception of the presentation. 
Strategy consultants typically work on projects that are critical to top management and can be sensitive to things like future revenues or people’s jobs. So the clients and broader organization need to trust the conclusions of a consulting project with little or no hesitation. In this context, small mistakes on things like spelling or misaligned slides can lead the recipients to question if the analyses and data gathering have been just as sloppy, and if the recommendations can then ultimately be trusted.

Therefore, even though it’s a drag and you sacrifice sleep or social time, management consultants will generally prioritize making sure the entire slide deck is checked, double-checked, and triple-checked.

Create your own management consulting slide deck

Whether you’re a consultant or not, being able to put together a convincing presentation is a huge benefit in many positions. It helps get your message across more efficiently and effectively, and it ultimately makes it easier to convince your stakeholders and decision makers to agree with whatever you’re proposing or have faith in whatever work you’re presenting.

These five levers are ones we’ve picked up from our own years of consulting. In addition to these we’re building a library of both articles and templates for you to use to create your own management consulting slide presentations. We hope you’ll find it useful.