The problem with bullet points (and what to do about them)

Posted by

I've carried around this idea about a presentation demonstrating what's wrong with bullet points in my virtual back pocket for a while now. But where exactly would you give such a presentation? I thought about making it a lightning talk, which are now common at regular conferences. But even then you'd risk alienating many of the other speakers when you tell them - even light-heartedly - that their presentation style just plain sucks.

And then Barcamp Stuttgart 4 came along, and with its "anything goes" attitude, it was now or never. An unconference is a good place to pull off something like that. And even if I were to step on a few people's toes, it's less of a problem than at a conference with lots of full-time speakers ...

So here's the content of that presentation (which I deliberately did not put up on Slideshare, since the slides need some explanation):

How not to do it

The problems with a slide like that are:

  • As soon as you put up the slide, your audience will start reading it - from top to bottom.
  • Which means that they won't be listening to you while you talk about the first item(s).
  • Since reading is faster than talking, your audience will be through with reading the slide before you're through with talking about it.
  • Which means that they won't be listening to the rest of your comments either, since they already know what's coming.

In other words, such a bullet point-laden slide is an entirely inefficient (and ineffective) way to deliver your message. About the only way you could make it even worse would be by putting even more words on the slide and then read it out word-for-word to the audience (and, sadly, this is still happening in conference venues around the world every day).

At this point, someone in the audience pointed out that presentation software will let you uncover bullet points incrementally, one at a time, so at least the audience won't be able read ahead. This is true and it's a bit better than uncovering everything at once, but I'd consider this only a workaround (which also gets in your way when you have to move back and forth through your slides, e.g. during Q&A). The point of this presentation was to discuss a much better way.

So, what can we do about it? The solution is pretty simple, actually: Only have one idea per slide.

One idea per slide

Why, exactly, do we have to cram several separate thoughts onto the same slide? Slides don't cost anything! At least not any more - this may have been a valid reason, back when slides were actual photographic slides which cost a fortune and had to be prepared well in advance of the presentation. But these days? A new slide only costs you a click in your favorite presentation software.

Someone from the audience suggested that people are still taught rules about how many slides you should have in a presentation and how long you should put up each slide. I guess that's playing into this "fear" from having too many slides. Forget about those rules!

Okay, so now we only have one idea per slide. Make it short and sticky, i.e. try to phrase it in a way that it summarizes your point and is easy to remember, yet still short. Only a few words! In a big font, preferably. You're going to put up that slide and then explain what it means. This is why you're there, presenting, in the first place. Otherwise, you could have sent a Word document with the text of what you have to say and saved everyone lots of money in travel expenses.

Hmm, but that looks a bit dull, doesn't it? Just a few words? Well, some speakers actually adopted this as their style. Garr Reynolds calls it the "Lessig Method", after Lawrence Lessig (creator of the Creative Commons license), who's known to give presentations in this style. You need to be a really good presenter, though, to pull that off. So for the rest of us, there's a better and more doable way: Use photos.

Use photos

The idea is to pick a photo that emphasizes your point. Pick a motive that's clear and memorable. Or, sometimes, you can also pick something clever or ironic (but don't overuse that approach - I'd say only once or twice during per presentation; be very careful with this if you're presenting at the CEO level or other audiences that are known to be a bit stiff). Let's try it with the one idea per slide slide:

Going with the "idea" bit, one of the first things that probably comes to mind is a light bulb. It's not very original, but let's try it. We'll pick a nice clear photo of a light bulb and put it on a slide. Not bad. Ignoring for the moment that this may no longer work in a few years (with classic light bulbs being banned in EU countries, for example), this is something that your audience will most likely understand when they see it: Light bulb = idea.

Hmm, maybe it would be better if the light bulb would actually light up. That may be a stronger picture, mostly influenced by what we're used to seeing in comics and animated movies. Also, we could try to find something less sterile (but then again "sterile" may actually be better for some audiences - see above). So, let's find a "warmer" photo with a light bulb that's actually on. Nice. It would give the audience something to look at while they listen to you talking about the "one idea per slide" rule.

Oh, right: Where's the "per slide" bit in that photo? It's not really represented, is it? So maybe we should take a step back and find a better motive. Well, I couldn't find the motive I had in mind for this, so here I'm approximating it with some stock graphics (don't do that in your actual presentation!): A row of light bulbs, only one of which is actually switched on while the others are off. This represents the "idea" bit as well as the "per slide" bit (with the other light bulbs representing the slides that are yet to come or have already been shown). I'm sure there's such a photo on the usual stock photo sites out there - I simply didn't have the time to find one while preparing for this session.

This also demonstrates some of the downsides of the approach of using photos:

  • It'll take time - sometimes lots of time - to find the right motive.
  • It may cost you money! And you better double-check the rights of a photo before you download it from the web and use it or it may cost you a lot of money!
  • Sometimes, the motive you have in mind just isn't out there.

But let me tell you: It's worth the extra effort! Or, to put it another way: You have a cause for that presentation, don't you? You want to sell something or tell people about an idea or make them change the way they are doing things. You want to succeed in this or you wouldn't be giving that presentation. Then it should be worth the little bit of additional effort to make your presentation more effective (and less dull).

Further reading

You've probably heard the title of the classic book on avoiding bullet points: It's called Beyond Bullet Points, written by Cliff Atkinson. Personally, I didn't like this book. Factually, there's nothing wrong with it - it gives all the right reasons to avoid bullet points and explains how to do it. I just couldn't stomach the author's writing style - I found it too pretentious and "american" for my taste (but that may be only me - you may want to check it out nonetheless and make up your own mind).

The other standard book on the topic is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. This would be my personal recommendation if you want to read more about how to make better presentations. It's not only a book about avoiding bullet points but goes on to develop a style that extends beyond slides to the act of presenting itself (further explored in Garr's later book, The Naked Presenter).

While Presentation Zen does a good job of explaining the concept of more effective presentations, you may find yourself in need of more concrete help when actually designing your slides. For this, my recommendation would be Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. About the only thing I don't like about this book is its title - so don't let that fool you. It will provide you with detailed information on all aspects of slide design that you'll ever need and blends in well with the Presentation Zen approach.

Further Session Notes

My above presentation was actually only a small part of the Barcamp session. We then went on to discuss various aspects of presentations (both the slides as well as the actual presentation performance), mostly starting from bad examples. Some of the topics we touched upon (in no particular order):

  • Preparation: In some organisations, the person preparing the presentation and the person actually delivering it are not the same. This may not be easy to change but shouldn't be used as an excuse for not reviewing the slides and practising before presenting it.
  • Arrive early. There's so much that could go wrong, from being late to having forgotten important pieces of equipment to incompatibilities between your laptop and the projector at the venue. If you arrive early, you have a chance to address these issues. You should be up and running with your setup at the scheduled time - don't make your audience watch you boot your laptop.
  • Finish in time. Especially at conferences, remember that people in your audience will want to move to another room for the next session. So don't go over your allotted time. This will also give the next presenter after you enough time to prepare for their session!
  • Your company's logo doesn't have to be on each and every slide. Just the first and last slide are enough. Your audience will know who you are. Your message is more important than your brand (usually), so concentrate on getting that right.
  • At the start of your presentation, you only have a very short window to grab your audience's attention. Don't waste it with "about me" slides. Putting up an agenda is also not really needed most of the time - unless you're going to cover a lot of stuff, it should be enough to simply mention it.
  • Consider what you put up as your last slide during Q&A. It shouldn't just be whatever happened to be the last slide in your presentation. Create one that repeats your core point or at least contains your contact information.
  • What do you do when you're pretty much forced to give a presentation and are not used to doing so? If you're willing to learn, then start small: For example, if you're a developer of sorts, you may already be participating in daily Scrum meetings. Those are small presentations that you give every day! So the advice is to start small, in front of people you know. Ask them for feedback, then go from there.

I'd like to thank the people who particpated in this session at Barcamp Stuttgart for their input and the lively discussion we had. You brought up quite a few aspects that I hadn't considered yet, e.g. in corporate environments, and helped broaden my horizon for the typical issues people encounter when giving and attending presentations. Thank you!

Photo credits

Creative Commons Licence "The problem with bullet points (and what to do about them)" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.