Strategic thinking is a trait that separates executors from leaders. When your boss asks you to create a strategy, know that you’re being given an opportunity to prove that you’re a leader. A well-crafted presentation is one of the best ways to merchandise your strategic thinking and should therefore be your part of your default response to a strategy assignment — research, analyze, build strategy, present strategy, execute strategy, report back on results.
There are many ways to present a strategy. There are also many wrong ways. If you’re unsure of how to approach it, this article is for you. A great strategy can be delivered in as little as six slides, which I’ll outline below.
First, please note: a strategy is not a plan.
A list of tactics with a timeline attached is a plan. A strategy is much more than that. It’s how you convince your audience that your plan is great so they’ll buy-in to your approach.
Think of the tactics as the “what” and the goal as the “why”. The strategy is the “how”. It’s the guiding principle — the elevator pitch for your tactics, backed by research and data whenever possible.
You can have a plan chock-full of tactics but lacking strategy and it will fall flat with stakeholders. Present the exact same list of tactics, but preface that with a solid strategy and you’ll get the nod you’re looking for.
Please also note: a strategy is not a spreadsheet.
Sometimes a great strategy comes to life on the back of a napkin. More likely it was a whiteboard or a spreadsheet. Regardless of how you got to that point, it is almost always better to present your strategy in the form of slides (PowerPoint, keynote, google slides etc).
Great communicators know that presenting is storytelling. You need more than just a list of steps or facts to draw your audience in and keep them engaged — you need a narrative. Slides are an excellent medium for storytelling because you can control the direction and pace of your narrative and provide emphasis and emotion through visual design. You may be asked for the spreadsheet, but you should still start by presenting slides and use the spreadsheet for support.
You really only need six slides.
There is no single right way to build a strategy, but there are certain elements that lead to a well-received strategy presentation. If you’re new to building this type of presentation, the outline below is a great place to start.
- Job to be done
- Visual Model
Slide 1 — The job to be done.
Your first slide should be a clear and concise articulation of the job to be done, including the specific goal or business problem. Feel free to get creative! It could be a well written sentence or two; it could be a graph or a single number; it could even be a single image that will instantly illustrate the problem to your audience. It’s likely some combination of these.
Whatever it is that’s on this first slide, aim for impact through brevity. What you say while pointing to this slide doesn’t need to be exactly what is written on the slide. You can elaborate verbally to provide context, but try not to make your audience read too much here. You don’t want them reading because you want them to focus on you speaking as you open up the narrative, and most people can’t do both at once.
Slide 2 — The insight.
Every great strategy starts with research, and if you’re at the point where you’re creating slides, then you’ve already spent some time researching and collecting data. Hopefully you were able to pull an actionable insight from the data, or perhaps two or three insights that pair well together to form a narrative.
Data alone does not make an insight. An insight is data plus storytelling. It’s observation plus understanding. “Coors Light has higher market share in the summer” is an observation. An insight that might come from that observation is: “When the weather is hot, people prefer to drink something crisp and refreshing — like light beer.”
The insight slide of your presentation will be written in sentence form. For certain audiences, it may make sense to first summarize the key findings from your data (ie. some exact numbers or trends ) or even pull up the data set and related analysis. For a more succinct approach, you can keep those things in the appendix and pull them up if asked.
Slide 3 — The principles.
This is the first slide that actually illustrates your strategy. This slide needs to be impactful, so make it clear and concise and use language that is sticky.
What do I mean by “sticky”? If there is one slide that you want your audience to be able to instantly memorize and carry with them after your presentation, this is it. Your word choice matters. Grammar matters. Font, slide layout, your pace and tone of voice when you read the slide — it all matters because it impacts your ability to make it memorable.
Here’s an example. Imagine you are presenting a strategy for corporate partnerships and your main principle is to allocate most of your partnership resources to a couple key partners. Below are two versions of that slide.
The two slides are addressing the exact same strategy. The first slide has helpful detail but the second slide is inarguably more impactful. You need to hook your audience and get them excited about your approach. So, lead with impact and follow with detail.
The timing of a succinct and sticky guiding principle slide is important. Think about a typical 60 minute meeting slot. The first 5–10 minutes you might still have attendees trickling in late from other meetings. Most of them will be there by minute 10, but some might get called out early — especially if they are executive level.
If there is one slide that cannot be missed, make sure you present it between minute 10 and 20 of the meeting, because this is when you’re likely to have the highest attendance. If an executive misses the details of your plan because they had to duck out early, that’s probably okay, as long as they walk away with a clear and memorable guiding principle for your strategy.
Slide 4 — The visual model.
A strategy assumes that if a problem is approached in a certain way then a desired outcome can be achieved. It’s a prediction of what could become reality, based on data, experience, insights, and creativity. A visual model can facilitate understanding of that potential reality.
Your visual model should show how variable inputs, steps, or actions are prioritized or stand in relation to each other in a process or system built to deliver the desired outcome. It could be a statistical model plotted on a graph, or it could just be words and shapes that show theoretical relationships or steps.
Some examples of model formats are 4-quadrant, 3 pillars, a funnel, a pyramid, a venn diagram, and a flywheel. Google them for inspiration. These can all be adapted to fit many strategies, and of course, feel free to create your own variation or combination of these models to suit your strategy, like in the example below.
The visual model can be the toughest part of building a strategy presentation, but it can also be one of the best ways to ensure understanding and acceptance of your strategy. It can’t feel forced, so think through it carefully and get feedback from peers before your big presentation.
Slide 5 — The tactics.
This next section is where you include all that detail that you’ve been holding back since the beginning of the presentation. Lay out the exact steps or tactics in your plan. The format can be plain, and your writing should be clear and concise.
This part of your presentation might actually be more than one slide if you have a complicated task at hand, but keep in mind that less is more. Include only words that are necessary for understanding — no fluff!
Before you finalize the section, read it through and ask yourself what questions might come up. Do you know how you’ll answer them? If the answers are easy to incorporate in the details of the plan, then do so. If the answers would take the conversation on a tangent, consider putting them in an appendix. With this approach, you avoid a distracting tangent if the question never comes up.
Slide 6 — The timing.
You can combine the timing with the tactics in the previous section if you have space in the slide, but in most cases it makes more sense to have a separate timeline slide. How long will each phase of your approach be in days or weeks? Are there any key milestones you plan to hit by a certain date? When will you be presenting progress or results back to the key stakeholders? And of course, by what date do you expect to have achieved the desired outcome? Set realistic expectations and then try to over-deliver by doing it all sooner.
Slide 7 — a totally optional conclusion slide.
You can make an impactful strategy presentation in just six essential slides, but you might find you want to end the presentation with some sort of conclusion slide. You could end with a list of immediate next steps, or a motivational quote that sums up your attitude toward the project, or perhaps just the word “questions?” to indicate that it’s time for discussion and feedback. Company norms and knowing your audience will help you decide the best route.
Your slides are done, but two last things.
Send out a pre-read of the slides a few days before your presentation. This will help keep the meeting on track. The quality of questions and discussion is elevated when participants are primed and prepared. Use the word “pre-read” in the subject line of the email so there’s no way they can miss it.
Now practice presenting your strategy in the mirror without notes! You wrote the slides — you know what’s on them, you don’t need a script. You just need to know the story and tell it with enthusiasm. Good luck!