5 ways bullet-point slides damage your brand

by Olivia Mitchell

Your presentation style is part of your personal brand. If you’re still clinging to bullet-point slides, it doesn’t matter how dynamic you are as a presenter, your personal brand will be damaged.

That’s because when you use bullet-laden slides in your presentation, your audience will make five decisions about you and your presentation:

1. This is going to be boring

When an audience sees the first slide of your presentation and they see row after row of bullets they’ll sink just a little in their seats. They’ve had to sit though many boring bullet-laden presentations before and they’re thinking “Uh-oh – this is going to be boring.”

Just like Pavlov’s dogs it’s a conditioned response. Paylov’s dogs salivated when Pavlov rang a bell because they anticipated being fed. Audiences deflate when the presenter uses bullets because they anticipate being bored.

2. You don’t know your stuff

If you knew your stuff, why would you need a screen to prompt you every few seconds? One of our course participants summed it up:

“I’ve been burying my expertise in a barrage of bullets.”

When I see someone presenting with bullet-point slides, I often think that I could deliver the presentation better than they can – even though I know nothing about the topic. Bullet-point slides obviate the need for your knowledge.

So take your notes off the screen, and put them in your hand. Now you can show off your knowledge.

3. You’re not up-to-date

The PowerPoint revolution has happened. People have seen PowerPoint used to show images to inspire and amuse, to show diagrams to clarify and explain, and to show charts that make data meaningful rather than deadly.

So when you show slide after slide of bullets, your audience will make that mean that you’re out-of-date and that you and your organisation are stuck in the past.

4. You’re lazy

Bullet-point slides send the message that you’re not prepared to put the work in to transform your presentation. The audience may be thinking “If you’re lazy about preparing your presentation, what else are you lazy about?”

You may be overestimating the time it will take to transform your presentation slides. Many of our course participants are surprised by how quickly they can put together a visually interesting PowerPoint presentation. See this post about The best PowerPoint slide format to see how long it takes compared to the alternatives.

5. You’re wasting my time

When you sit through a lengthy bullet-point presentation, do you think to yourself  “The presenter could have sent me the slides for me to read and that would be a lot quicker!”

Your presentation is part of your personal brand and that of your organisation. If you’re still clinging to bullets, you’re damaging your brand.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

wong words May 19, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Bullets are ruining more than Powerpoint. I am beginning to see them abused in text where, for example, 10 paragraphs are bulleted.

Paragraphs are a long established form of navigation, separated from each other with more space than there is btwn lines. Traditionally the first line was indented which helped the break up.

But bulleting each para suggests they are all important. This is is like crying wolf. Bullets are fine for 2 or 3 main key summaries/points if they are very short that is.

In addition, we all know that long bulleted lists of like items can be boring and cause mego (me eyes gloss over). And don’t get me started on bulleted lists where the content isn’t parallel.

I don’t hate bullets. I often break long sentences up by using bullets to list like concepts. They are wonderful when numbered for instructions. We can’t live without them.

But they must be preserved and treasured as the perfect tool for certain tasks. But they fail their readers when authors choose them over other visual and grammatical devices.

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Olivia Mitchell May 19, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Thanks Irene, for a beautiful exposition of the proper place of bullets. Olivia

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Brigid Anderson August 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

Hold on there. Our company presents regular seminars (in-person and web) on technical legal compliance topics. Detailed slides are a takeaway for our customers and I don’t see how we could convey the very word-heavy, technical information that are the center of our product without bullets. I hammer on my colleages about the need to keep bullets short; to capture (as much as possible) the “concept” of a legal rule or requirement. We try to avoid numerous bullets at the same level–nicely balanced sub-bullets look better and are easier for the audience to follow. I also couch my speakers to follow the slides (I think people get lost if you stray too far) but make sure they are always adding something more (examples, asides, comments about reasons for a rule, comments that put the rule in the context of other rules or practices, common administrative challenges, common misunderstandings, related rules, etc.). But not so much more that folks get lost. What’s your take on bullets in this kind of context (i.e., where we are not trying to persuade but trying to educate about complicated issues). . . .?

Reply

Olivia Mitchell August 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Hi Brigid
Teaching legal compliance issues without bullets is challenging, but it can be done. An example of this is Norman Wei, who trains people in environmental regulations. Here’s an extract from a blog post he wrote:
“I just finished conducting a 2-day presentation on environmental regulations in California. As I have done in the past few years, none of my PowerPoint presentation contained any bullet points. Here are a couple of comments about the presentation format from the audience:

“Great review of environmental regulations and law; enjoy the format; presentation was great because it wasn’t filled with bullet points; like that it was simplified.”

“Usually when a presenter uses PowerPoint, they tend to use it as their presentation. Mr. Wei used it to supplement his presentation as an aid. It tends to keep the audience more engaged and interested in the presentation.”
http://nobullets.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/some-feedback-from-the-audience/

So it can be done.

Here are some questions to ask about your current method of teaching – is it working well? do participants enjoy it? do they understand and are they able to apply the information you teach them? Research in the e-learning field has shown that generally people are not good at retaining and applying information when it’s provided by bullet-points and an accompanying narration. Richard Mayer and Ruth Clarke are two researchers/authors to look out for here. Not much research has been done directly on face-to-face training using PowerPoint – but I have written up the study of one researcher here:
http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/design/new-evidence-bullet-points/

Another distinction to make is between the slides and the take-away material. They do not have to be, nor should the be, the same thing. The take-away material should include all the detailed technical information.

I hope this is helpful.
Olivia

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Brigid Anderson August 12, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Out of town on vacation this week but looking forward to exploring the resources you provided . . . environmental law regulations with no bullets? I’m willing to be persuaded! Thanks, Brigid

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Olivia Mitchell August 12, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Have a great holiday.
Olivia

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