Being Trapped between Bullet Points and Photos

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There is not the one way to do a presentation. Instead, there's a pool of recommendations, best practices, approaches, and tools that you can pick from for the unique circumstances of your next presentation. What works and what doesn't will depend on factors such as the audience and the topic, but also your personality as a speaker.

To illustrate that, I often share links to posts with recommendations by other speakers about how they create their presentations. A few days ago, I almost shared yet another such link, since I agreed with the author's general approach: Getting away from the computer to think about the main message of your talk, for example, and building a story arc. But then the article came to the fateful point where the author wrote words to the effect of after that, it can take me anything between 4 and 40 hours to write the slides.

"Write" the slides?

And indeed, the author's presentations were all text heavy, with lots of bullet points (with sub points, even, revealed one at a time). Oddly enough, though, there were also a few slides with full-screen photographs.

Now, I'm not writing this to make fun of this speaker; I'm trying to understand what's going on in his mind. It seems familiar, actually - I've been there myself.

The topic of the slide decks I saw was software development. So the author is a fellow geek. Which means that he's caught in that all-too-familiar dilemma of having to present to an audience that's heavily focused on facts and hard data and at the same time trying to apply the proven aspects of a modern, more visual presentation. The question he's probably hearing a lot after his talks is "Can I have your slides?"

A common misunderstanding of the "modern" approach to presentations à la Presentation Zen is that you should "use photos", preferably for everything. But that's not what it is about. It's about giving your audience what they want and - more importantly - what they need.

So of course if you're giving a presentation about a topic related to software development, such as an API, you will have to show code at some point. That's what the audience will expect to see and you cannot not show code without losing credibility. When you're talking about the motivation for choosing the technique in question, however, that is the perfect place to emphasise your points with the use of (appropriate) photos. Visuals, if chosen carefully, will help bring your point across and will also help your audience remember it.

Information is not as important as you think it is

For technical talks (not limited to software development and similar geeky topics), it's also important to keep in mind that the actual information that you're presenting is nothing special. Your audience could easily look all this up themselves, as long as they have the right keywords to search for. So the information you're presenting is not as important as you may think it is. It's more important to tell them why it's important.

If you look carefully, this is true for many technical talks: Once you've been told about some promising new technique, some new software package, etc. and you see the possible benefits, you make a mental note to check it out. But you won't try to remember many of the actual facts like, say, the installation requirements. You know that you can easily look those up. The only important bits to remember are the name of the thing (i.e. a keyword for a Google search) and the benefits (i.e. your motivation for trying it out).

Let go of the Bullet Points

And this is the key to "letting go" of the notion that you need to put all the information about a topic on your slides. The goal of your talk should not be to "inform"; it's to tell your audience about the benefits of your approach or product and to motivate them to try it out. So these things should be at the centre of your presentation. Concentrate on things they need to remember (keywords!) and on things they can not easily find on the web; lessons learned from using the software, for example, which also provide a great starting point for storytelling.

For your slides, this means that you can let go of the bullet points. Pick the most important facts, put them each on a separate slide with an appropriate illustration or photo - and only talk about the details. People can't read and listen and the same time, so this approach works better than bullet point slides. Also, the visuals will provide hooks for the audience, so that they can look up the details again later and refresh their memory.

It's time that we overcome our obsession with bullet points. I know it isn't easy, but it's worth it - and it works.

(Image Credits: "Hole in the sky" by Jo Naylor, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "Being Trapped between Bullet Points and Photos" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.