Bullet points are slide killers

BULLETS ARE BORING

Bullet points don’t do well for staging your message professionally. As I see it, Microsoft is not to be blamed, because PowerPoint itself is just a software, not a method. It’s the way people use it that has oddly inflicted a whole generation.

A good example for this is PowerPoint’s default slide template. This opens up on any new presentation, displaying a host of bullet points on a blank slide just waiting to be filled. But look at the text below:

  • By the time I have finished
  • reading out these bullets to you, 
  • you could have read them yourself
  • 3 times over, while also replying to a 
  • bunch of emails on your mobile.

Your audience reads bullets much faster on their own, without you. Once they realize that in the next 30 minutes all you’ll be doing is reading out magnified bullet points from slides, they’ll invest their attention elsewhere.

Bullet points are good practice for jotting down thoughts, sketching a rough storyline and listing talking points for yourself. They could be the starting point, but are definitely not the end point of your presentation design effort.

Get rid of bullet points by sticking to one-idea-per-slide

THE RIGHT ALTERNATIVE

There is a better and very simple way to design a presentation without giving in to our tendency to fill up pages with bullet points: stick to one idea per slide. This is good practice because, at any given moment, audiences focus only on one idea delivered in the storyline.

Yes, the one-idea-per-slide rule of thumb may dramatically increase the number of slides in your presentation. And this could go against common restrictions that limit the presentation time by sticking within page count constraints, logic being “fewer slides, fewer minutes.” But often, less slides entail even more content, tightly crammed over each page with free space used up for text and bullet points. The slide count restriction makes people design very dense slides that still take a long time to present.

Ignore page count restrictions, but stick to your time limit

My advice is to ignore the page count restriction, but stick to the time constraints that you were given. A presentation with many slides can be given in exactly the same amount of time as one delivered with a few slides that are loaded with bullet points. This is because you simply go through the slides faster, while your audience is kept focused.

Why are bullet points so persistent? One reason is the habit instilled by the default PowerPoint template. Another reason could be plain laziness, since it’s become quite the norm to relate to a few bulleted pages as a finished slide deck. And there are also historical reasons.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, presenters used overhead projectors to stage their ideas, uncovering parts of transparent slides along a storyline. Later, with the arrival of word processors, transparent slides showcased whole printouts of freshly authored documents, sometimes page by page, bullet by bullet.

Slides and presenter are to play in unison, forming together a complete visual experience - literally a Slide Show. Slides are intended to support the storyline narrated by the presenter, with a continuous stream of visuals in the background. Work on gaining that total picture, and appealing to the audience as a clip or video would, where you/presenter narrate the plot that is visualized on your slides. 

Moreover, you are responsible of orchestrating the Show of Slides. The conductor’s baton for this, is the remote control you’ll hold in your hands to rapidly scan through the slides. Otherwise, you’ll be glued to your computer, pressing the page-down button away every 30 seconds to streamline the flow of slides. With a small remote control in your hand, you’re better off changing slides without the audience even noticing your timely shuffling. And you can keep direct eye contact with the audience, engaged at all times.

LITTLE TEXT, LOTS OF PICS

Another argument against bullet points, is the fact that text is an incredibly inefficient way to transfer information. This is especially apparent in content that lacks actual visual meaning. This is because the brain has to read the words, assemble sentences and only then visually phrase its meaning. The ability to convey a message quickly grasped by the brain in mental pictures, is key in any good presentation.

A food critic sits in a chic restaurant in Paris, alone at a table behind a good bottle of Bordeaux. He takes the first bite of his ratatouille, and - O! He experiences a flashback to his childhood in Provence, where his beloved mother prepared this very same dish he savored after a tedious day at school. Boy, did this taste good

A food critic sits in a chic restaurant in Paris, alone at a table behind a good bottle of Bordeaux. He takes the first bite of his ratatouille, and - O! He experiences a flashback to his childhood in Provence, where his beloved mother prepared this very same dish he savored after a tedious day at school. Boy, did this taste good

 

This text fragment is taken from the Disney/Pixar Ratatouille movie scene. I included a screenshot of the movie. Compare the picture to the text, and, as the old saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words,” because a simple image describes scenes better. You get it in a second. Images have a much higher data transfer rate, not only in terms of bits/cm². But there is more.

Images are emotional pieces of information

IMAGERY FOR MEMORY

Images are emotional pieces of information. Emotion plays a big part in memory, triggering a recall of information, similar to the food critic taking a bite and unlocking a rich set of childhood memories (visuals, smell, sounds).

Advertisers use this technique all the time. Powerful images displayed on billboards, printed media, TV commercials, all hammer branded messages into our brains. Remember the Benetton ads from a few decades ago? Some advertisers push this technique of emotional shock to the extreme.

You have access to the same image databases as professional designers

The objective of your presentation is pretty much the same, so find the right visual to appeal to your audience’s palate, and make your story memorable.

An example. Pitching to investors a new company that developed technology for more sticky websites, if you were to use bullet points, you’ll probably boast the slogan “We make websites more sticky.” Everyone will read this, and most probably forget it a bit after the presentation. If you include an image, say a threatening one of a user zapping away on their remote, chances are these investors will remember the slide and message even after 3 months.

There are other good presentation props that have strong emotional stimulus, besides visuals. This is where your originality and creativity can really boost the show. In a recent TED talk, Bill Gates wanted to give the audience a feel of what it’s like to live within range of malaria mosquitos all the time. He release a few mosquitos into the audience (watch the video here). I am sure the people sitting in the room got the point. Moreover, they will not forget it. Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate refers to this as a STAR: Something They will Always Remember.

Pictures are not always the right solution

EXCEPTIONS

Not all the slides in your presentation or, in fact, all presentations, are suitable for the big picture, big font, little words style. Here are some exceptions.

  • A graph or a table illustrating a batch of data obviously needs to contain more information. We’ll discuss designing good data charts later in this book.
  • When the whole point of your slide is to emphasize the relationship between a number of things, there is no alternative than mentioning them all on one slide. Stretching the message across several individual slides may loosen their relativity. In such cases, find a creative solution and avoid listing them as bullets. For example, you can use brief explanations in interconnected text boxes to illustrate the relationship. 
  • Keep in mind that an audience of 5 people in a small conference room ready to go over the financial results of last quarter, are more apt to handle denser slides than the large audience of a TED talk.
  • In some cases you might use PowerPoint or Keynote as a word processor to write a document that is meant for reading, not for presenting. That is perfectly fine.

It is completely okay to mix styles within one presentation deck. Often, you’ll need to use big bold visuals in the opening sequence of your presentation, just to make a grabbing statement about the problem the company you are pitching is about to solve. Later on in the same presentation, you can switch to a denser slide design, for example, when you discuss the financials, list competitors, or point out the company’s strategy.

Some people take the idea of “one idea, one picture” too far. I’ve seen presentations were every single word was supported by some sort of image, regrettably even cliché ones. For example,

  • We are under pressure (visual of orange press) [click]
  • and the company is entering a slippery slope (visual of a ski piste) [click]
  • as we are thinking hard (visual of confused man) [click]
  • about a possible way forward (visual of an open road ahead). 

This type of slide design is popular on online slide sharing platforms, such as SlideShare. Maybe it works for an online audience, but for a live audience, 10 clicks per minute shuffle too many slides, too many random images, and too much inconsistency.

In fact, sometimes it can actually work better not to present a slide at all. A blank screen focuses the audience’s attention back to the presenter. In PowerPoint you can create a blank screen or a white screen by pressing “B” or “W” on your keyboard in presentation mode. Personally, I prefer to place an empty slide inside my presentation where needed, to avoid the old slide from popping up again when I press B or W to continue the slide show.

QUICK SUM UP

Keep in mind the distinction between slides that are meant for reading and those meant to support what you are orally presenting. Avoid bullet points. Instead, design visual slides that convey your message across associatively. Don’t be afraid to use images and other emotional props. In the next chapter you will find out where to get good images, and how you should format them.