Geeks and Bullet Points

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I attended FOSDEM last weekend. This is one of the biggest open source events in Europe. So it was full of geeks, i.e. very smart people who are very passionate about their respective subject.

Unfortunately, many of the slides on that weekend didn't show the same level of enthusiasm. In other words, many a presentation consisted of nothing but slide after slide filled with bullet points.

But there is hope. Several speakers had apparently heard that bullet points are bad and came up with what geeks would call a workaround (i.e. a quick fix for the problem, so that you can keep on going like before without actually addressing the core of the issue). Some slide decks didn't use bullet points but instead used centered text. Those were at least somewhat on the right track, since by applying that workaround, speakers then realized that they couldn't put too many of those on a slide without the items running into another (bullet points are used to indicate the start of a new item, after all). The end result were at least a few slides that followed the "one idea per slide" rule.

Other speakers had apparently heard that using pictures was the modern way to do slides. But again, they were only halfway there, since most of those pictures were obviously selected to be clever or ironic and not so much to support the point the speaker was trying to make.

On a side note: I didn't see a single transition effect in any of the presentations I went to. Kudos. At least the overuse of such effects seems to have been eradicated.

I have no doubt that the geeks will eventually re-invent the methods outlined in books such as Presentation Zen or Beyond Bullet Points and produce stunning and inspiring slides. But I'm afraid that it will take a few more years before that happens. The communicators among the geeks (who typically hold titles such as "Evangelist") will re-discover these methods first. It will take a lot longer for the broad masses of geeks, though, to adopt a similar style. I see the need for a "Presentation Zen for Geeks" book there to speed up this process ...

Some tips for my fellow geeks

Now, being a geek myself, I know very well how hard it is to present a technical topic Presentation Zen style. I still fail more often than not. However, seeing so many common sense things being violated just makes me sad. Here's a chance to tell your fellow geeks about this cool project of yours - and then you bore them to death or confuse or annoy them. A little more preparation could have made a big difference. And don't get me started on how many times I've heard phrases like I just finished my slides, do you come to my presentation in an hour? on this weekend.

A lot of the stuff that us geeks are talking about can not be expressed with a photo. That's fine - if you have to show code then show it. But in a BIG font, please, and stripped down to the essentials. When you find yourself making a slide full of bullet points, finish the slide, then think about how you could break it down. Major points get their own slide. Minor points are usually best left off entirely (and only narrated). Et voilĂ . See if you can find pictures that support your major points. You don't need to find something too clever. In fact, leave out most of the pictures you consider funny. Having a few here and there is fine and keeps the audience alert, but don't overdo it. If you can't find a picture, let the idea stand on its own (big font again, please).

To round this off, here are some common sense items to keep in mind for your next geeky presentation (lifted from the much more extensive works of Scott Berkun and Garr Reynolds):

  • Use big fonts. Not only will the people sitting in the last row thank you for it, but it will also force you to edit what you want to say down to the core message.
  • Practice, so you get an idea how long your talk is going to be and which points don't work.
  • Arrive early. This gives you a chance to check the venue and the equipment. Don't forget to check how things look from the last row.
  • Don't overrun. Show some respect for your audience and the next speaker. Nobody ever complained about a presentation running short, but going over time will inconvenience a lot of people.

(yes, I realize the irony of presenting these items as a list of bullet points in an article about avoiding bullet points)


If you don't want to invest in a presentation book (yet), here are some useful sites to get you started:

If you're looking for books, I can recommend these:

  1. Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. If you're only going to buy one book about presentations, it should be this one.
  2. Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. Presentation Zen explains the basics and the philosophy, Slide:ology will help you with the practical side of creating slides that follow those principles.
  3. The Naked Presenter by Garr Reynolds. Garr's third book concentrates more on the act of presenting than on creating slides, but also gives useful tips for the entire process, starting from collecting material right through to the actual presentation.

Also consider Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds as an alternative to Slide:ology and Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun for some lessons "from the road".

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
Please email me for details.
Creative Commons Licence "Geeks and Bullet Points" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.