I’m going soft in my old age.
I don’t know if it’s being a mother to the goobiest, silliest, most infuriatingly adorable toddler on the planet. Or if it’s my chubby Corgi giving me the puppy dog eyes when I come home with fresh duck jerky.
All I know is, I am turning into a giant softie.
Allow me to explain:
In my signature presentation session, called Get Their Attention, I talk about the Three Pillars of Presentation Enlightenment. These are three tenets that I use every day to deliver standout presentations and data visualizations to my clients and audiences.
One of these pillars is to Use Your Presentation Tool Wisely. Everyone and their mother complains that PowerPoint, (the most ubiquitous tool), is causing death by a million slide cuts. And I believe they’re wrong.
Hear me out. I’ve been able to deliver top-scoring, applause-generating, my-clients-are-my-new-besties presentations using nothing but PowerPoint.
Which tells me one thing:
We are categorically not using this tool right. And it’s supposed to be a tool, to help us deliver our message into our audience brain.
What is the first mistake I go after?
BULLET POINTS. And my audiences would agree, I go after it hard.How To Prevent Bullet Points from Murdering Your #PowerPoint #Presentations Click To Tweet
Take a cold, hard look at the following slide. Be warned: it’s not pretty.
An icy glare from your audience will be the only glacial formation in the room if you show them something like this.
The simple fact is, there is nothing more narcolepsy-inducing than a slide piled on with bullet points.
This post addresses the two biggest problems with the way bullet points are used in presentations today. It also provides a solution for using them in a way that doesn’t incite homicidal tendencies from your audience.
First, let us address the two problems:
#1: Why Bullet Points Are Killing Your Audience
Having a slide stocked with bullet points is like putting your poor audience in front of a firing squad. You’re basically battering them with too much information at once, transforming their brains into a gelatinous pudding.
During my signature Get Their Attention session, I offer an analogy that helps me understand why bulleted slides melt their brains:
Think of your presentation like a supermarket: your slides are the shopping cart, and your audience is the cashier.
When you’re building your presentation, you carefully select all your ideas from the shelves and put them in the shopping cart. And when you present your cart to the cashier, they prefer to scan each item or idea separately to understand them.
But when we use bullet points to fill up our carts or slides, it’s like flying down the aisles at warp speed, and shoving all of our items through checkout at once. Make sense?
During this journey, I couldn’t help asking the question, why do we love our bullet points so much? On the surface, it’s simple: when we enter the workforce, everyone else is doing it so that’s what we learn to do.
But I think what’s at the root is that we use our slides as a crutch to read from, instead of preparing or rehearsing.
And, we tend to create live presentations that are designed to serve the offline audience who’ll receive it through email. I believe this is a huge mistake because a live presentation that is designed for a reader will vastly underserve the live audience.
That’s why I created a concrete method for creating two documents to serve each audience which you can read about here.
#2: Why Bullet Points Are Killing You
Heavy bullet points in your presentation are killing your life. Trust me. I have another more…salacious analogy for your consideration:
Heavily bulleted slides are like a trench coat flashing of your audience.
You’re opening the coat and showing all your goodies, and instead of paying attention to you, their eyes are…somewhere else. Because all your information is available for them to read, they will read all of it. At once. And completely tune you out.
It’s for these two reasons that most presentation experts agree: an image-based approach with minimal text is best.
And I can attest that an image-based approach has worked phenomenally well for me.
However, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about this point in my presentation survey results. Comments like, “this just isn’t practical when we’re down to the wire” or “I’m just not sure I’m ready to completely let go of bullet points yet.”
And I want to tell you, I hear you loud and clear.
I’ve realized something: Digital analysts and marketers are not giving transformative TED-esque talks to their clients and teams. These are more intimate discussions, often under a completely ludicrous deadline. Most of the time, we need to be doing our actual jobs. The marketers be marketin’. The analysts be analyzin’. But, that tends to come with a healthy side of presenting, and often under the gun.
So, I realize for many reasons that this is a hard discipline to put into practice.
And what I’ve found through my own personal experience…here comes the lynch mob… through strategic and conservative use of “bullet points” slides, I have not sacrificed my presentation quality nor audience satisfaction.
And I have found that there are some situations that are best served by this method, such as a checklist. Now, before I go fend off pending lynch mob, I’d like to explain my relaxed perspective a bit.
Finding Presentation 80/20
In the last year, I adopted a rigorous version of the Paleo diet for health reasons. No, I don’t walk around my house gnawing a giant turkey leg. (As I type this, I’m gnawing on a giant chicken leg.)
Members of my food community often throw around the phrase “the 80/20 rule”. This suggests a lifestyle where you commit to food quality 80% of the time, and have a naughty food free-for-all for the remaining 20%.
This is to prevent general 28-Days-Later-style hangry deprivation zombification amongst my dedicated tribe. I just ran spellcheck on “zombification” and it is definitely a word.
Of course, as you savvy analysts probably know, 80/20 refers to the Pareto principle, which actually means that 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. So, my Paleo peeps are a little off the mark with this one. And so will I be too.
Because I’m going to similarly misuse this principle to illustrate my relaxed philsophy on bullet points.
And just so you know, I’m not the only one who feels that bullet points can have their place in certain presentation scenarios. Dave Paradi of Think Outside the Slide and Gavin McMahon of Make a Powerful Point both offer balanced perspectives on this issue.
So, in my own pursuit of balance to achieve presentation 80/20, I will give you the only way I find it acceptable to use bullet points in presentations. Think of it like…a gentle detox for pathogenic PowerPoints.
But first, I’m going to ask you to commit to a presentation manifesto:
I SHALT NOT ABUSE THY BETTER BULLET POINT SOLUTION IN THE NAME OF MINE AUDIENCE
Pinky swear? Okay…here we go.
The Better Bullet Point Solution
The first step in the Better Bullet Point Solution is to stop calling them bullet points. That is a meaningless phrase. I prefer to call them “story points”, which at least lends some usefulness to them.
Hopefully, you are using them to tell a meaningful story, yes?
Now let’s address the first problem, which is the firing squad of text aimed at your audience. Here are my guidelines for softening the blow:
- Try to limit to 1 bulleted slide per 5 image-based slides
- Keep the bullet points as succinct phrases
- Keep the phrases between 6-9 words per line
- Don’t let the lines run onto the next. If they do, it’s too long.
- And don’t use actual bullets! They decrease the data-ink (or pixel) ratio and add cognitive load. If you must, use a simple arrow or a custom graphic that is relevant to your brand or the topic.
- And guess what – you don’t need the actual bullets to use this strategy! All you need to do is make sure you’ve entered each point.
Here’s a simple slide illustrating these principles: Now, let’s get to the good part: transforming the flash job into a striptease.
The art of the striptease has stood the test of time because it taps into the exact attention-getting centers of our brains. Revealing only a little bit at a time, the viewer is able to focus on one thing at a time, and build anticipation for what’s coming next.
This is the only striptease I know of that IS safe for work, rest assured. The trick is called “dimming bullet points.” Here’s the idea:
- Animate each point in one at a time with a medium fade
- This prevents the audience from skipping ahead…
- By using a “dimming bullets” animation…
- You’re diverting their attention to the point you’re currently speaking on!
You see how your eyes are drawn to the next bullet, leaving the last one as a distant memory? This technique will corral your audience’s attention and stop them from discreetly pulling out their phone to dominate some Candy Crush Saga.
Ready to see how it’s done?
How to Use the Better Bullet Point Solution
This is going to be one of the simplest tutorials you’ll ever read. You won’t know what to do with all of those leftover brain cells you stored up for the winter.
The PowerPoint Method:
- Create a text box
- Type in your first “story point”
- Hit enter, and type your second story point
- If you want extra spacing in between, adjust the line spacing here:
- Select the entire text box (either with your mouse, or if you’re in the text box, hit Escape)
- Go to the Animations tab, and select your preferred Entrance animation (I recommend Fade at .25s speed)
The only little hack I add to this is removing the dimming action from the last bullet point on each slide, so that it doesn’t dim unnecessarily. Moving to the next slide will end the thought neatly enough.
The Keynote Method:
Keynote understands the dangers of bullet points and built in the dimming technique for you. Here are the steps:
- Follow steps 1-3 in the PowerPoint method
- Click to select the entire text box
- Click the Animate tab
- On the Build In tab, click Add an Effect
- Click Dissolve
- Set duration to .50 s
- THE KEY: Set Delivery to By Highlighted Paragraph. Keynote deliciously does the dimming for you!
Now, because I heart you, I created a special PowerPoint and Keynote template set that has bulleted text boxes with this animation already built in. It will walk you through the process as well.
All you have to do is copy the boxes to your presentations and update the text. Easy peasy, onion cheesy!
Just click the download image below to grab your copy:
I sometimes get so attached to a principle and go “all in”, that I forget that there’s a balance still to be found. Not everyone is ready to completely abandon the bullet point framework.
And acknowledging that the majority of internal meeting presentations are not TED Talks, I realize you have to toe the line.
Now, if you are speaking at an industry conference with a high-impact setting, I suggest avoiding this method. I find that in a setting with the potential for heightened energy, the single-idea slide approach works best.
In life, we all seek balance, striving for excellence without steamrolling ourselves in the process. I hope this perspective and tutorial has helped achieve that for your presentations today.
Because at the end of the day, bullets don’t kill. People using bullets the wrong way do.
Are you ready to start using story points? Let me know your thoughts!
- Bullets: Flickr / rwr / Every Bullet Has Someone’s Name On It
- Firing Squad: Flickr / Agathman / Emperor Firing Squad