Updated on 14 June 2020
Project presentation is the cornerstone of every successful enterprise and a fundamental skill every project manager should master. Whether it’s part of a stakeholder engagement plan or you’re writing an executive summary to update management on your progress, success is highly dependent on effective communication. Our article aims to showcase a few project evaluation and review techniques that you can employ to break down the barriers of business communication.
Simplify your presentation with high-level project visuals
A presentation for project stakeholders should be a broad, high-level overview to pique their curiosity rather than complex and uninspiring sets of data that only make sense to the speaker. However tempting it might be to rehash and recycle the detailed project charter that you’ve worked so hard on, especially when you’re pressed for time, don’t! Presenting data visually as a project roadmap to clients and executives adds context to facilitate understanding and allows you to only go into specifics upon request.
Microsoft Project is most often the project management software of choice in the planning phase. Few other project management tools are this well optimized for navigating the complexity of enmeshed tasks, milestones and events, or for creating deep dives. On the other hand, when it comes to generating high-level project visuals, its graphical representations, like the Gantt chart example below, are not well suited for a meeting with the project stakeholders.
An exec-level project review should summarize the strategic planning process and showcase its progress in a visually appealing manner. Remember: the challenge consists of making the information easy to digest and ensuring that audiences understand the business implications.
Creating a graphical representation of data
The best option for outlining a project’s plan is to create a workflow diagram that correlates the tasks with the critical milestones, as shown in the Gantt chart example below:
Presenting the project roadmap in this manner helps your stakeholders quickly see the scheduled tasks, as well as their duration, sequences and other task dependencies, all of which define the critical path. Furthermore, connecting the project activities (tasks) with the project events (milestones) offers clients and execs more insight, which translates to better management decisions.
Timeline vs Gantt Chart
Two main techniques are often employed to chart the strategic planning process as a graphic: timelines and Gantt charts. At their core, project timelines typically encompass only the events (milestones) whereas Gantt charts tend to show just activities (tasks). However, as we’ve mentioned earlier, the ideal project presentation should feature a blend of both tasks and milestones. For clarity purposes, you can opt for a single unified graph like a swimlane diagram that splits up these tasks and milestone according to their specific project life cycle phase.
Next, let’s take a comparative look at two frequently used alternatives for visually rendering a project charter, Excel and PowerPoint. We will explain how to make a Gantt chart in Excel using a bar graph, and how to make an Excel timeline using a scatter graph. We will also show you how to quickly make a single, unified Gantt chart + Timeline presentation in .PPTX by using our add-in for PowerPoint, Office Timeline.
Organizing your project in Excel
Whether or not you’re going to create the Gantt chart in Excel, this application from the Microsoft suite is a great place to start drafting the project schedule. More exactly, you will need to create the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) by breaking down the project into smaller pieces of work – the tasks. Make an Excel project management template that you can reuse, then list each of the tasks on the data table in the correct sequence. The tasks will form the project Gantt chart and their order will determine the project schedule.
Another important piece of the puzzle to integrate in your Excel project management template is the milestone section. Project milestones consist of all major deadlines your plan must achieve, and they form your Excel timeline. We have included a Work Breakdown Structure example below, for clarity purposes.
Note: Keep in mind that this is a high-level presentation aimed at executives and stakeholders, so it should not be overly complex. Consider trimming it down if the project schedule contains more than 20 tasks and 20 milestones, in order to facilitate understanding and keep the audience engaged.
Option 1: Making the Excel graphs
It’s worth noting that Excel is nowhere near as graphics-oriented as PowerPoint. The direct result is that your Excel Gantt charts and timelines will tend to look more like stacked bar graphs and, respectively, scatter charts.
Another drawback is that Excel doesn’t allow you to combine a Gantt chart (tasks) with a timeline (milestones) into a unified project roadmap. Therefore, you will need to create two separate visuals and combine them on one slide or present them individually. In order to do that, you will first need to make a Gantt chart showing the tasks of your project plan and then a timeline with your project milestones. Here’s how:
- Step 1: Create a Gantt chart in Excel with the stacked bar chart function
Once you have your project schedule in Excel you will add the task data into an Excel stacked bar graph and then follow approximately 20+ formatting steps to transform it from a stacked bar chart into an Excel Gantt chart, which will end up looking something like the chart below. For detailed instructions, please check out our guide on how to make a Gantt chart in Excel.
- Step 2: Create a timeline in Excel using the scatter chart function
To create a timeline in Excel you will need to use a scatter chart. Add your data to the scatter chart then follow approximately 25 steps to format it so it looks like a timeline presentation, as shown below. If that’s easier, check out our easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide and a how-to video tutorial.
Note: However familiar and accessible this Microsoft application may be, there are certain limitations that make it less than ideal for project presentations, including:
- No method to combine an Excel Gantt chart with a timeline. Executives and stakeholders should be able to view the tasks and milestones in conjunction with each other for better visibility into the critical deadlines and activities.
- Making a project roadmapproject roadmap featuring a timeline or Gantt chart in Excel requires advanced operating skills. Converting Excel’s stacked and scatter charts into Gantt charts and timelines depends on properly following a specific sequence of formatting steps.
- The resulting diagrams are not as visually appealing as a PowerPoint slide and considerably more difficult to share with everyone involved.
Option 2: Create the project roadmap as a native PowerPoint slide
So far, we have shown you how to make a Gantt chart in Excel and mix it with a timeline, in order to provide your stakeholders with a 2-part overview of your project schedule. Next, let’s take a look at the alternative: using a PowerPoint timeline maker with embedded Gantt chart functions to generate a slide with both graphics combined.
PowerPoint is perceived as a superior tool for building project presentations. Since it is a graphical application, it is designed for creating and communicating charts in a visual way. Additionally, since it’s a common tool in enterprises, PowerPoint is familiar to audiences, and slides can be easily shared. There are two main ways to build project slides in PowerPoint using our Office Timeline add-in:
- Create the Work Breakdown Structure template in Excel and import the data
Earlier in the article we have included a Work Breakdown Structure example made in Excel. The first option relies on using the import feature from Office Timeline and bring in the data tables with tasks and milestones. To import the project schedule you created in Excel, use the Office Timeline Pro wizard which will link to your project spreadsheet (or .MPP file, if you prefer Microsoft Project). Here’s a quick demo:
There’s another reason to import the data from an Excel spreadsheet and that’s the sync feature. In short, since the PowerPoint slide is linked to a worksheet, it can be synchronized and updated with the click of a button when the spreadsheet data changes. Check out a brief synopsis of how sync works:
Note: For better visibility, Office Timeline also allows you to import tasks and milestones directly into swimlane templates.
- Use a Gantt chart or timeline template (swimlanes are also supported)
There are definitely advantages to importing the data file from an external application like Excel or Microsoft project. However, that isn’t your only option. Office Timeline comes with an extensive collection of professional templates that can easily adapt to a wide variety of different project types. These timeline templates are embedded in the add-in and there is also a free gallery with new ones added regularly, for your convenience.
Simply replace the default data with your own tasks and milestones, and Office Timeline generates the graphic for you.
Note: Customizing a timeline or Gantt chart template with your own data can be done at any time from the user-friendly and highly intuitive interface. Update it easily whenever there are changes in your project schedule, restyle it and share it with your team, all from within PowerPoint. It’s very flexible!
Writing an executive summary or stakeholder engagement plan is all about clarity, and the best way to achieve it is to complement the data with professional, visually appealing graphs. As you’re adding tasks and milestones to your project roadmap, it also becomes easier to trim the fat and focus on the game changers. This way, you’ll obtain an actionable and compelling high-level overview, rather than get tangled in the specifics.
If you regularly find yourself liaising with the management or your stakeholders and dread the thought spending hours creating presentations with the traditional tools in the Microsoft Office suite, then check out Office Timeline. Available as a free version, this handy project roadmap creation app can save you time and ensure you drive your point home without the drawback of an intimidating learning curve. For the more complex timelines, we recommend giving the Pro Edition a try.