McKinsey Presentation Tips – Gene Zelazny at Wharton

In the Spring of 2001, McKinsey presentation guru Gene Zelazny shared public speaking insights gleaned over his forty-plus year career (video at bottom of post).  Here, I have summarized his very well structured tips:



1. The only thing that matters at the end of your presentation is the answer to the question: Did I accomplish my objective.

2. Nervousness is natural and should be viewed as a sign of respect for your audience.  Accept that you will make mistakes.


I. Define the situation

A. Objective: Why are you presenting? What do you reasonably hope to accomplish? What do you expect from your audience?

  B. Audience: Who are the key decision makers with authority to say yes or no? How interested do you expect them to be in your recommendation? How knowledgeable are they about your topic? Why would they say no?

  C. Facts/Message

  D. Scope: Your material should be no more comprehensive than the minimum needed to accomplish your objective or the time your have with your audience.

  E. Media/Facilities: Use the simplest, most-appropriate tools for the task.

II. Design the presentation

A. Structure the story

1. Body: Do not chronologically recreate the months long discovery process you endured to find the recommendation. Start with the overall context (see II.A.2) and use the body for support.  The exception is when you have an audience that will be hostile to your recommendation and they need to be taken there more slowly.

2. Introduction: You want to light a fire in the first minute.  Use the PIP (purpose + importance + preview) approach.

3. Ending: Repeat your recommendations. Give your action program to turn your overall recommendation into reality. This includes: people responsible, time required, costs, etc.  Last, finish with Next Steps.  Note that the next steps should not be premeditated; instead, document the next steps that emerge from the discussion.

B. Sketch the storyboard

1. Visuals (based on Zelazny’s book: Say it With Charts)

a. Select the chart form

b. Write titles that ARE the message/point you want your audience to know

c. Use graphical treatment (ex: contrast) to draw attention to your message

(“Take responsibility for your point of view.”)

2. So-what

3. Transitions

C. Produce visual aids & handouts

III. Deliver the presentation

A. Rehearse: Once alone in a room out loud. Once in front of three or four constructive colleagues.

B. Set up the facilities: including physical setup, room layout, lighting, etc.

C. Set the tone

1. Competence

2. Conviction: You must believe in what you are recommending or someone else should present.

3. Enthusiasm/energy

D. Apply delivery skills

1. Verbal: natural, conversational word choice

2. Vocal: expand your range

3. Visual: open body language, natural gestures, and effective eye-contact (FYI: It is OK to occasionally refer to notes, but put them down when you are not referring to them.)

E. Work with visual aids: If your slide is complex, you will likely want to get close to it and point out the elements you are describing.

F. Handle questions: It is appropriate to say “I don’t know.”

1. Try to anticipate the three most difficult questions you will get from the most difficult people in the audience.

2. Listen the the question completely

3. If the question has multiple parts, it is OK to write down the parts

4. Pause to think

5. Repeat the question only if people were not likely to have heard it. Do not rephrase the question unless you must and, if so, you need to ask for permission to do so.

6. Assume everyone is interested in the answer so balance the eye-contact with the entire audience. (Tip: If you want to move on from the questioner, finish your eye contact with someone else.)

7. If you get a very difficult question, try to avoid saying, “I’ll get back to you later.”  Instead, it is OK to say, “I don’t know.”  Or, even better, consider reaching out to the rest of the audience to see if someone else has the answer!


Presentation SuperSummit: How to Deliver a TED Talk (Interview)

Here is a link to my session at  Marco Montemagno’s Presentation Super Summit.  I believe you will need to complete a registration form, but it is worth it for free access to all past talks as well as 19 public speaking experts including: Nick Morgan, Oren Klaff, and Scott Schwertly.


Charts Should Prove Your Point, No More and No Less

One of my favorite blogs, 99u, recently called my attention to an excellent study conducted by Chegg and Harris Interactive. The study concluded, “there is a disconnect between students’ perceived proficiency of their soft skills like leadership, communication, and organization versus how hiring managers actually rate these critical workforce skills among recent college graduates.”  Take a look at the figure, reproduced below, and measure how long it takes you to clearly see that finding.

(click figure to enlarge)


It took me a while to see the conclusion because there is so much information in the chart.  Here, I’ll propose two alternatives that support the finding more clearly.

Alternative #1: Just Show the Gaps

Charts should prove the argument their creator is making, no more and no less, in a way that requires the minimum of mental effort by the reader.  In the original chart, I struggled to realize how the soft skills were ordered until I figured out they are sorted in descending order of the confidence of hiring managers in college students’ readiness.

A way to make this easy for readers is to just show the gaps.  As the following figure shows, the largest gap lies in “communicating with authority figures and clients.”  If I were a newly hired college student, I would focus there to stand out. Also, note that I used a color for the bars in the red family since these gaps are problematic.

(click figure to enlarge)



Alternative #2: Apply Extreme Minimalism

Averaging all 10 gaps reveals that 71% of students and only 51% of hiring managers believe the students are very/completely prepared to use their soft skills at work. That gap of 20% is the conclusive, aggregate disconnect that led the chart creator to the conclusion.  If I were presenting this data, I might simply put a large 20% on my slide or perhaps show a bar chart highlighting the gap between the 71% and the 51%.

Which approach would you take?

Meaning of Color Across Culture for Presentation Design

While I was able to find a number of excellent articles on the web explaining the meanings of colors across Western and Eastern cultures, I found most of them too long.  Here is a very simple, in some cases perhaps too simple, lookup table for using color in presentation design.  I have included primary meanings for each color and indicated the most common secondary meaning in parenthesis.

Color Western Cultures Eastern Cultures
Black Formality (Death) Masculinity (Magic)
Blue Trust (Masculinity) Trust (Femininity)
Brown Earthy (Boring) Mourning (Earthy)
Gold Wealth Wealth
Green Health (Envy) Health (Infidelity)
Grey Wisdom Wisdom
Orange Attention (Warmth) Death
Pink Femininity Femininity (Happiness)
Purple Nobility Royalty
Red Danger (Passion) Good Fortune
Silver Modern Modern
White Purity (Simplicity) Death (Birth)
Yellow Attention (Warmth) Nobility


Here are the references I used in case you want to delve deeper:


Actionable Tips From Dave Paradi’s 2013 Annoying PowerPoint Survey

With so many opinions expressed about public speaking (something I too am guilty of),  I was excited to see Dave Paradi’s fact-based survey exploring the most annoying behaviors of presenters.

With Dave’s permission, I have taken the annoyances he found and transformed them into actionable tips:


I. Content

– Have a clear, primary purpose (to inform, persuade, inspire, or entertain)

– Have a single message framed from the audience’s perspective as: To (what) so that (why/outcome/benefit). This will help eliminate information overload and ‘data dump.’

– Apply a narrative flow that supports your purpose & message

– Customize your content (at least to a degree) for your specific audience


II. Delivery

– Instead of reading text from slides, use them as a launching and landing point

– Limit the amount of time you spend facing the screen

– Rehearse to figure out what slides belong in your presentation. Delete or Appendix the rest.  Never skip slides.

– “Mute” your slide by going to black (hit the “b” key) when you want to focus your audience’s attention on you

– Use pauses to eliminate filler words

– Plan where you will stand and where you will move to (avoid standing projector’s line-of-sight)


III. Design

– Make sure text is large enough to be read easily by people seated in the back of the room

– Proofread your slides to eliminate typos

– Use short bursts of text (or bullets), not full sentences

– Use the simplest diagram possible to support/prove the message of a slide. (Tables are rarely the best choice.)

– Use a harmonious color palette and apply intentional use of contrast

– Avoid clip-art and random images that just dress-up a slide

– Use video sparingly and only when contextually relevant (and well tested in the environment/room you present in)

– Builds are fine but avoid decorative animation


IV. Odds & Ends

– Ask yourself if the topic warrants a presentation or could be handled more efficiently with an email or a conversation

– Recognize that design software can be used to create presentations or documents.  Create one or the other depending on where and how you will use it.


Try it Out!

Dave Paradi also has a couple great, free self-assessments.  Check them out at:

Best Practices for Effective PowerPoint Presentations Assessment

PowerPoint Skills Inventory

Advanced PowerPoint Design Tips From Nolan Haims

Last week, one of my coworkers watched Nolan Haims’s webinar entitled “In the Trenches: Real World Solutions to Corporate Presentation Challenges.”  Like me, my coworker is not a designer but is interested in constructing compelling presentations.  She thought this was one of the most valuable Webinars she has ever seen and urged me to watch it.

While it starts a little slow (as Webinars do), there is massive value in Nolan’s presentation.  Since there is a lot in there that is for professional designers, here is what I extracted for the rest of us:

  1. Text:
    • Use standard fonts (see:
    • Jazz up standard (vertical list of bullets) by “chunking” them into columns (note: can use multiple text boxes or column feature in single text box)
    • Strive for high contrast (ex: white text on images looks great)
  2. Images:
    • Recolor images from disparate sources to make them feel like they are part of the same family
    • Overlay gradient boxes to improve contrast and/or vignettes to improve depth on images (see:
    • Where possible use transparent (lossless) PNGs instead of (lossy) JPEGs
    • When resizing an image, maintain the aspect ratio. If you have extra space to fill, clone and stretch an unimportant part of the image
    • Bing has excellent image search
  3. Shapes & Icons:
  4. Charts
    • Use native PowerPoint charts or embed from Excel (rather than pasting as image or as link)