How to persuade other people to ditch the bullets

You’ve read Presentation Zen and Slideology and you’re convinced about the benefits of using visually-engaging PowerPoint slides when you present. But everyone else in your organization stubbornly sticks to the bullet-point slides. How can you persuade them to change their minds?

The absolute first thing to do, is to be a good role model. When you present, demonstrate the effectiveness of presenting with visual slides. This is the most persuasive action you can take.

However, it’s not always enough. There’s an obvious irony to the fact that when people are surveyed about presentations, their No 1 “hate” is people reading off bullet-point slides. Yet the majority of presenters probably read off bullet-point slides. I’m sure there’s an overlap between the two groups:

reading-off-slides-overlap

People are reluctant to change their slide style for a range of reasons. Different people will have different sticking points. To change their minds you need to engage directly with their sticking point. Find out what it is by asking them what they like about bullet-point slides.  Then you’ll be able to offer just the right counter-argument, encouragement or advice which may entice them to make a change.

Here are the common reasons why people are reluctant to ditch bullet-point slides and how you can address them:

1. People are emotionally attached to their bullet-point slides

Bullet-point slides are a security blanket for many presenters. They give them reassurance that if they have a mind-blank, they can just read off the slides and survive get through the presentation. People also imagine that if they have bullet-point slides, the audience will focus on the slides and not look at them. And for them that’s a good thing.

Don’t just grab their security blanket off them. To go bullet-less would be far too frightening. Encourage them to convert one or two slides to start with and see how they go. Suggest that they also have hard-copy notes (which is a useful back-up for technology failure anyway) and that they gradually transition from using their Powerpoint slides as their notes to using their hard-copy notes. After weaning themselves off their PowerPoint slides as their notes, they’ll be more willing to try out visual slides.

Note: This is probably the No 1 reason why people stick to bullets, though they may not admit it and use one of the reasons below instead.

2. Some people genuinely like bullet-point slides when they’re in the audience

Difficult to believe, but true. I think there are some people who have adapted to the bullet-point style of presenting. Possibly this is particularly true of the generation that has recently gone through university and college and been educated by a continuous diet of bullet-point slides. They had to adapt to the bullet-point style or fail. Now they’re adept at reading the bullets and gleaning any additional nuggets from the presenter.

For these people, acknowledge that they have adapted to the bullet-point style, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best learning method for most people. Point them to the research of Professor Michael Alley. Michael Alley is a Professor of Engineering Education. During the summer break he transformed the teaching slides for a specific class and then compared the test results of the students who took the class prior to the slide makeover and those who took the class after the makeover.  Here are before and after examples:

alley-pre-make-over alley-post-makeover

[Note: If you want to be able to read the slide, click on it to be taken to a larger image. I put them side by side so that you could compare them directly.]

The students who were in the “pre-makeover” class received an average score of 59% when answering a multichoice question based on the slide, while the post-make-over class average was 77%. (For more details on this study including the “conditions” of the experiment and the statistical results see Michael Alley’s article). So presenting information visually increases learning for most people.

3. Some people don’t want to stand out

In many organizations, bullet-point slides are the way presentations are done. They’re the standard (still). To do anything different is to stand out and attract attention. And many people are not up for that.

If you suspect this is the reason (or they tell you), suggest that they just change one slide out of their whole slideshow. Convert one slide of bullets to a photo or simple diagram. They’ll get to experience the positive audience reaction when they show a more engaging slide and will be encouraged to try it some more.

4. Bullet-points are quick to prepare

This is true. So is sending a text to your boyfriend or girlfriend to break-up. Doesn’t mean it’s effective or the right thing to do.

For these people, here’s what I suggest. Have them identify the  3-5 major points in their presentation. Have them express these as assertions – a full sentence which completely expresses the point. Then put each assertion on it’s own slide in a large sans-serif font on a plain background. Plain assertion slides like these make effective presentation slides. They help the audience grasp and remember the main points because of the visual emphasis they’ve been given. They’re far better than bullet-point slides, and take less time to prepare.

Then, if they have more time, the next step would be to add relevant visual evidence to the slides – a photo, a simple chart or diagram. That’s the most effective. This chart shows the effectiveness of different slide styles versus the time they take to prepare:

time-v-effectiveness1

5. Bullet-point slides allow other people to deliver the presentation

Many organizations stick to bullet-point slides for this reason. It’s sad because it means their standard for a presentation is somebody (anybody) reading off the slides.

But I accept the reality that in some organizations this is the way it’s done. Doesn’t mean you have to have bullet-point slides. Put the bullets into the notes pane of PowerPoint, to be the notes for the speaker (which is all they ever were). You’ve then freed up the screen so that it can be a visual for the audience.

6. “Visual” people like bullets

You may recognise this as relating to the theory myth of learning styles. Chris Witt has recently blogged on the lack of scientific credibility of learning styles theory. But even if the theory were credible, this statement represents a confusion between verbal and visual. Even though we “see” written words, they are essentially verbal – not visual. Below is an adaptation of an illustration in Richard Mayer’s book Multimedia Learning:

words-are-verbal

True visuals are photos, pictures, charts and diagrams. These don’t just help “visual” people, they help all of us, because anybody who can see has a strong visual sense.

But remember the best way to change the way other people do PowerPoint, is to be a great role model.

Are there other objections to visual PowerPoint that you’ve encountered? Write a comment to tell us about them and we can discuss how to address that objection.

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