Structuring Your Strategy Story (Part 1)

I was catching up with my friend Rob a few weeks ago, and told him how I was helping a number of clients build presentations for strategy recommendations and new business pitches.  As Rob and I have known each other and worked together for many years, he told me that I should “call Malcolm Gladwell and let him know that you’ve now reached 10,000 hours of PowerPointing”.  I would have thrown my pint at him, if I didn’t need it to drown the fact he was probably right.

Over these 10,000 hours, I have come to appreciate the importance of establishing a solid structure for telling (and selling) strategy. A poorly structured presentation weakens your argument, undersells your ideas, and bores your audience.  Strategists play a pivotal role in building presentations, as we are typically responsible for providing insight into the problem, framing the core opportunity, and proving why our recommendations are sound.  In fact over the past few years, I have spent as much time structuring strategy presentations as I have developing the actual strategy recommendations. 

So with the hope of shaving off a few thousand hours for other Strategists, I have outlined a few different structures that I have used to build strategy presentations.  I will break this topic into two posts: (1) Presenting the Problem, and (2) Presenting the Solution.

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Presenting the Problem

For this initial ‘wind-up’ portion of a presentation, a Strategist often shares insight into the problem space by exploring factors such as customers, culture, competitors, channels, technology, and business areas.  This initial insight needs to establish credibility with the audience, but most importantly needs to lead to the crux of the problem to be solved—propelling the rest of the presentation into the resolution (i.e. your recommendations).  The structure that you use to tell this part of the story will depend on the nature of your content, profile of your audience, and your own personal presentation style.  The following are four different structures that I have used:


1. Synthesizing Data Into A NEW Insight

This structure involves presenting a number of different points of data and pulling them together into an insight that appears fresh, actionable, and inevitable.  It fits best for presentations where you have data that ideally the audience has not seen, and you have an audience with enough time and interest to listen to a longer set-up.  The drama comes from connecting seemingly disconnected dots.

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2. Reframing The Original Question

This structure involves setting up an argument for how the audience may be approaching the core question a wrong, or at least in a limited way.  It fits best for presentations where you want to be more provocative with the audience, and set up a ‘zig when others zag’ story.  The drama comes from challenging convention in a thought-provoking way.

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3. Illustrating The Gap To Be Closed

This structure (Duarte’s Sparkline) involves contrasting the current state from a future state that is more desirable and possibly attainable for the audience.  It fits best for presentations where you have a clear and compelling vision to sell, and sets up a ‘how to get there’ story.  The drama comes from tantalizing the audience with the size of the prize.

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4. Dramatizing The Burning Platform

This structure involves illustrating that there is a significant issue on the horizon for the audience that they cannot ignore, and that they may in fact be able to use to their advantage.  It fits best for presentations where you need to build a sense of urgency, and can set up an ‘innovate or die’ story.  The drama comes from describing danger ahead that can be addressed now.

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Once you have effectively presented the problem, your audience should be leaning in to ask the inevitable “Ok.  How?”  For Part 2 of this post, I will outline a number of different structures that I have used for presenting the solution.  Hollywood screenwriters refer to this point in our current structure as “the cliffhanger” :-)