Good Slides Reduce Complexity

Avoid slide-crimes with these 5 concepts for more effective presentations

Welcome to the SEO MBA - an email newsletter all about leadership, management and consulting skills for SEO professionals written by me, Tom Critchlow. (And there’s an online course coming soon!)


I worked at Google for two years, and in that time I learned nothing about SEO - instead I spent two years putting presentations together. Turns out this is a rather useful skill. 

In the SEO industry there’s an abundance of presentations - but a lot of what you get exposed to are conference presentations. These are great, but they have a very different style from corporate presentations. They tend to use GIFs, memes, and entertainment as a way to keep you engaged. It’s a performative way of presenting information - where the goal is to keep you engaged from start to finish.

In the corporate world, however, the point of a presentation is typically to convince the decision-maker of your point as quickly and clearly as possible. Since most of these are happening inside companies and aren’t posted on slideshare, we get exposed to these presentations less frequently.

When you think of a good corporate presentation, you might think of something that needs to be visual. A quick Google provides me with a “consulting slide template” that looks like this:

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love making pretty slides, and working at Google taught me to be pretty good at it. But that’s not the key to effective presentations. Instead, it’s about how compelling your argument is and how clearly you can make your point.

When you’re putting together a presentation, you need to be laser-focused on the clear, concise and credible aspects of executive presence so here’s 5 lessons for making more effective presentations:

Every Slide Should Say 1 Thing

Every slide should have a single key point - this might be something like “Organic traffic is increasing” or “The recent algorithm update drove 20% decline in traffic”. Once you decide on the single point of the presentation, everything should be oriented around that key point.

The biggest slide-crime I see is generic slide titles. People think that presentations need logical flow, and if we’re going to talk about site speed, we should title the slide like a book chapter:

Oh no. Why is the most prominent part of the slide saying something generic? Instead, always make your slide title say the key point - make sure the slide title says something, even if the exec doesn’t look at anything else. If we’re talking about site speed, lead with the point. Maybe something like this:

Or:

Once you decide on the key point, work hard to make sure that the slide backs up the point and only talks about the point. If our slide title is “we have the slowest site speed of any of our competitors” things you might want to include:

  • Chart of site speed vs competitors

  • Data around our site speed

  • Supporting information about why site speed is important

Things that it might be tempting to include but should actually be their own slide:

  • Recommendations for improving site speed

  • Cost of investing in site speed

Finding the right specificity of a slide is a balancing act - you need to judge information density, complexity and how familiar your audience is with the topic. But always make sure each slide has a single point.

Make the slide titles tell a story

Once you are in the habit of ensuring that each slide title conveys the point, you can start to think of slide titles as an outline - where each slide title actually leads from the last to tell a story. Remember the 5 slide pitch to the CEO (I promise I’m going to stop talking about that example soon), here’s roughly what the slide titles looked like - a short story telling the point:

Doing this is useful for several reasons. Not only does it make the presentation easier to consume for a busy executive, but it forces you into good logical thinking too. Looking at the outline, it’s easy to spot where there might be missing data, where you might need a more compelling point etc.

Use an Executive Summary for the shortest possible version of the pitch

Almost all presentations have some kind of summary or preamble, but this is wasted space - it’s the slides you skip when starting the presentation. But who recognizes this:

When you’re presenting to senior executives, you often only get through a few slides. Interruptions, clarifications, sidebar conversations… It’s easy to run out of time. So it’s super important to create a compressed version of your presentation at the front. You’re not saying “what’s to come” but rather you want to tell the whole story using only the most important bits.

This is what that 5-slide CEO presentation is all about - it’s enough information for a busy executive to understand what you’re asking for and make a decision even if they don’t see the full presentation.

In practice, I often find that I’ll put together a longer, more-detailed presentation only to find that the executive summary is the actual presentation and everything else is some form of appendix.

This is how I think about it:

Essentially, the executive summary is the key pitch, where further sections aren’t necessarily designed to be read in order. Rather,  they are discrete sections that outline and add detail and information for each distinct initiative.

And don’t forget to make good use of the appendix. I used to kind of ignore the appendix as a “slide graveyard” but actually it can be very useful to have a place to put data points and charts. The key is to try and make your appendix easy to jump to - each slide should tell a clear, self-contained data point (they don’t need to be in order). That way you can easily jump to it and pull it up during your presentation.

Use visuals to explain, not decorate

Another common mistake is to use visuals as some kind of wallpaper - visual decoration to add color to the presentation. How many of us recognize a slide like this:

Here we have a screenshot of the blog because… we’re talking about the blog? This is just decorating a slide with wallpaper - the image makes no point. (Also, notice how this slide actually doesn’t have a point?)

Instead, we should use images sparingly and only when they add information to the slide. Consider something like this:

Here, the screenshot is informative because it shows what the recipes carousel is and how prominent this recipes box is - which may not be obvious to executives not close to SEO.

A good litmus test for images on slides: can you add a meaningful caption to the image - i.e., is there a point to the image? If you can’t write a caption for the image, you likely don’t need it there.

Good Slides Reduce Complexity

SEO is a complex domain that covers a wide array of disciplines like editorial quality, technical performance and more. So it’s important to be able to present ideas in a way that executives can get their head around them - you need to present ideas with clear mental models for the reader. This helps executives understand what’s going on and ensure everyone is on the same page when discussing the initiative.

One of the simplest ways to reduce complexity is via categorization - which, as it turns out, is an expert skill. Knowing a lot about SEO should allow you to clearly segment and label different types of initiatives or outcomes.

Take a look at this slide, for example. I’m presenting a content strategy to a client who’s investing commerce content and I need to try and make the point that they should not just write the “best VPN” page but also write a bunch of supporting content. This slide takes the opinion that of all the possible keywords to write about, there are only five kinds of content:

This kind of categorization is simple but powerful - it allows executives to “wrap their head around” the space. They don’t need to understand all of the details, but they now have a more nuanced understanding of what content we’re making and why vs simply “writing VPN content”.

(Also, notice how this slide uses a clear headline and focuses on a single point!)

Don’t be Afraid To Break the Rules

Lastly, consider this. The very best presentations I’ve seen (shoutout to Jonathan Jarvis from the Creative Lab) did not follow these rules. Once you start to make things that look formulaic, you risk people tuning out. Most companies won’t want presentations with GIFs in them, but don’t be afraid to be provocative and bold to create a truly effective presentation. 

Until next week,

Tom