Powerful Point — How to build a story with slides.
“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”
— Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal¹
The clue is in the name. PowerPoint.™ To make a powerful point.² Yet so often, we’re left clueless and befuddled about the point of the slide. So we blame poor old PowerPoint.³
Imagine driving down a busy highway. It’s raining. Suddenly, a car roars past you, swerves between two lanes, brakes, and swerves again — all to beat traffic. A few miles further on, you see that same car in a pile-up, surrounded by broken glass. Do you blame the car? Or the driver? You should blame the driver. He’s an idiot. ⁴
So why blame PowerPoint?
The slide that infamously caused General Stanley McChrystal to comment, “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”
How to build a story into your slides.
You may have noticed a recent trend. People are taking their old PowerPoint slides and calling them “narratives.” Or while showing their slide, they are talking about their “story.” But, the slides look the same: clinical, institutional, chock full of information, and eye-wateringly complex. They contain none of the aspects of storytelling we expect.
So how do you turn your slides into a story?
First, start with a point.
Every slide should have a point. Even if that point is, “the war in Afghanistan is complex.” Think about the point this way, when your boss asks you, “what’s the point of this slide?” — what are the first words out of your mouth? It may be that you want to show, or to explain, or to establish common ground, or to reset, or to pivot. Whatever it is, that’s your point. It should be something you can explain in a sentence or two that captures the entirety of what that slide is about.
For us, this is a hard and fast rule — that every slide should have a point. That every presenter should know the point of that slide. We’ve built it into our slide templates. A text box, off-screen, to the right that reminds presenters, “What’s the point?”
If you know your slide’s point, you can speak to it and expand on it. Knowing the point helps you build your slide. It informs the words and pictures you use — to make it easy for people to understand your point. It also helps you edit your slide — anything that does not make the point easier to understand is a candidate for removal.
Next, turn your point into a headline.
Imagine, for a second, that someone took a micro-nap during your presentation. Their attention wandered. They tuned out. Now they’ve tuned back in. You want them to know what you’re talking about and the point you are trying to make. Capture it in a headline. A clear, compelling sentence that makes your point.
Use evidence to back up your point.
You want people to believe you. You need to show evidence. Put information on the slide that backs up your point. Confusion and information overload are not your friends. Use visuals, charts, or data. Make the evidence on your slide clear, simple, and compelling.
Build an information hierarchy.
Bad news. People won’t read what’s on a screen.⁵ They will scan it first. That means you need to know where their eye will go, and if you can, direct it. You must understand the information hierarchy of each slide.
Think about the content of your slide in levels. Level 1, most important, level 2, important, but less important, and so on. This helps you build an information hierarchy. Level 1 should capture the point of your slide. It’s your headline, plus perhaps the most prominent feature. Level 2 is the supporting information. Level 3 fills in some details. Avoid more than three to four levels of information if you can.
Making your information hierarchy visible. Tell your audience what is more important than what.
Every headline is a beat in your story.
Each slide is a stepping stone in your story. You move from one to another in a logical order. No stone is too far from the other, with your content nicely chunked and easy to consume.
A good test for this is what I call the flipbook challenge. Remember when you were a kid? You made a simple animation of a stick figure walking or diving off a platform? Each stick figure a frame on a notebook page. And when you flipped through the pages, the stick figure walked or dove?
Put your slide deck to the same test. Flip through the slides, only reading the headline. Those headlines strung together are your story. They are the stepping stones of your narrative. And without further explanation, they make sense. They have a stream of logic and a flow that’s easy for the audience to follow.
Your story is structured in three acts.
Your story comes in three parts. Think of the three acts in a play. The first part is the Hook. The Hook is a way to begin and have your audience lean in and engage from the get-go. The second part is the Meat. These are the bite-sized chunks of your argument. Each set out on a slide. The third part is the Payoff. This pays off the Hook, sums up your argument, and asks your ask of the audience.
Hook, Meat, and Payoff is a bone structure for your presentation. It’s simple but effective.
Your story, told with slides.
If you want to tell a story with PowerPoint, remember these “How-to’s.”
Every slide should have a point.
Every slide has a headline. (To get the point across).
Every headline is supported by evidence.
Every slide has an information hierarchy. (To visually show your evidence)
And every slide is a beat in the story. (Structured - e.g., Hook, Meat, Payoff)
That’s how you make a powerful point.
Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads the design and product development of fassforward’s services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, culture, decision-making, information design, storytelling, and learning design.
Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic.
Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.