Bullets kill strategies


Whether we like it or not, the PowerPoint slide has become the expected channel of business communication. Projected, printed and emailed, millions of slides are created every day to illustrate and discuss all aspects of business, including strategy.

We don’t really know how effective this slide-centric approach is, but study after study has shown that employees at all of levels of the organisation have trouble recalling the company strategy (1, 2). This includes also the middle managers who are supposed to cascade down and execute (3). Unsurprisingly, even the most brilliant strategies appear to fail at implementation (4).

Can we improve the impact of our strategy presentations? A recent publication studied the effectivity of different ways to present strategy on slide in a realistic and controlled business setting. Rather than relying on anecdotical evidence, the researchers applied rigorous statistical analysis to interpret the results. You’ll love what they found.

The experiment
Three groups of mid-senior managers were exposed to a business strategy presentation, the only variable being the type of slides. The researchers focused on three common approaches to present strategy on sides, namely bullet-point lists, roadmaps and visual metaphors.

Bullet points are often the visualisation of choice in corporate strategy presentations. They are easy to make and allow for information to be organised in smaller chunks. Probably the biggest limitation of bullet points is that they are not suitable to convey even the most simple connection within the information, beyond a hierarchical one. Additionally, it’s very tempting to decrease the font size to fit large amounts of text.

Strategy roadmaps, also called temporal diagrams, are another business presentation favourite. In its simplest form, think of a number of milestones placed on a timeline. A temporal diagram has the advantage of simplifying the information and delivering it in chronological order. This instantly reveals causal and temporal relationships, which would otherwise require a lengthy end easily forgotten explanation.

Visual metaphors are an even more sophisticated way of conveying complex information. By associating an unfamiliar idea with one that is commonplace, we can spark better understanding of complex ideas. The image of a brick wall can represent a very difficult challenge the organisation has to overcome. A rowing team on a boat the need for internal alignment and cooperation. The most effective metaphors are those that instantly ring true with your audience, without sounding cliche.

The results
The analysis of the data collected revealed that bullet points are by far the worst visualisation in terms of attention of the audience, information retention and agreement with the strategy. Participants exposed to bullet points reported losing focus during the presentation, failed to recall parts of the strategy, and found the strategy less consistent and aligned.

Importantly, the different visuals affected how the presenter was perceived by the audience. The presenter armed with bullet points was rated less prepared, less committed, and less credible than the presenters who used either the road map or a visual metaphor. This indicates that perception of the visuals is a very good and strong predictor of the perception of the presenter.

These results confirm what we probably all know deep inside, but somehow forget to implement the moment we open PowerPoint: time to ditch the bullets for good.

Kaplan, R and Norton, D (2005). The Office of strategy management. Harvard Business Review, 83(10), 72-80.

Collis, JD and Rukstad, MG (2008). Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? Harvard Business Review, 82(9), 83-90. 5.

Schaap, JI (2006). Toward Strategy Implementation Success: An Empirical Study of the Role of Senior-Level Leaders in the Nevada Gaming Industry. UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, 10(2).

Kaplan, R and Norton, D (2008). The Execution Premium: Linking Strategy to Operations for Competitive Advantage. Harvard Business Press.