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Ask Doug & Polly: Business presentations need structure
Ask Doug & Polly

Ask Doug & Polly: Business presentations need structure

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Doug & PollyWhite

QUESTION: I have to give a presentation to the owner of the company for which I work in a few weeks. I’m going to recommend some big changes. I know what I want to say, but I am struggling with writing the presentation. Do you have any suggestions that could be helpful?

ANSWER: As you can imagine, we’ve written thousands of presentations and business documents in our careers.

In our experience, the most important first step is what we call “hanging the document.”

That is, you have to figure out how to structure the points you want to make. In other words, you need an outline.

However, this isn’t just a random list of points. It has to have a structure. It has to hang together in a way that makes your point as clearly as possible.

Many people struggle with writing business presentations. What’s needed is a structured way to think about the presentation.

You are making a business presentation, so you hope to persuade the owner to take specific action.

In such situations, we recommend the situation, complication and resolution approach. We’ll discuss each below.

Once the structure is developed, then hang the meat on the bones by providing more detail for each point that is straightforward. The pyramid principle provides that structure.


Situation: This is a statement of the current state of affairs. It should be fact based. For example, since its founding 15 years ago, the company has grown from a startup with no revenue and one employee to a robust enterprise with $15 million in revenue and 60 employees.

Because it is fact based, it should be something with which no one can reasonably disagree. We often use this section to highlight positives. If possible, give the person to whom you are presenting credit for his or her accomplishments.

Complication: This is a statement of the problem — the issue you are addressing. For example, over the past three years, revenue growth has stalled.

It lays out why the company should take action. Without the complication, the company wouldn’t need to do anything. There would be no reason for change.

People who are resisting the change you are suggesting may well try to take issue with the complication. After all, if the complication isn’t valid, there is no need to change.

Therefore, if possible, base this section on objective facts that are irrefutable. For example, sales three years ago were $15.1 million, while sales last year were $12.9 million. People may not like this, but they can’t argue that it isn’t true.

Resolution: This is your recommendation — it resolves the complication. It should be a single point. For example, we should launch a sales growth program.

Each document should have only one main point. If you can’t boil your recommendation down to a single point, you have more than one document.


Once you have identified you primary recommendation, you should support it with a series of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive sub points.

Mutually exclusive means that the points do not overlap. There is no duplication in the points. Collectively exhaustive means that there is nothing left out.

Taken together the sub points consider all possible ways to achieve the point above it in the structure.

For example, if the main point is that we should launch a program to grow sales significantly, the supporting points might be that we should cultivate new customers and we should sell more to existing customers.

These are clearly mutually exclusive - there is no overlap between new customers and existing customers. They also are collectively exhaustive - every sale will be to a new customer or an existing customer. There are no other possibilities.

You will then support each of the sub points with another set of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive points.

For example, you might support cultivating new customers with cultivating new customers in existing sales territories and cultivating new customers in new sales territories. Again, the sub points at this level are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

If you diagram the structure of your document keeping all points at the same level in the document on the same line of your paper, you will begin to see a triangle or a pyramid emerge.

The pyramid continues to grow until your recommendations are at a sufficiently granular level to make it crystal clear how you propose to accomplish your main objective.

Doug and Polly White have a large ownership stake in Gather, a company that designs, builds and operates collaborative workspaces. Polly’s focus is on human resources, people management and human systems. Doug’s areas of expertise are business strategy, operations and finance.

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