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:


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:


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:


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.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!


  1. Along the lines of #5, I worked with a CEO who told me flat out, “We need the text on the screen because my salespeople aren’t smart enough to remember all of the important points of the presentation.” I was stunned. Obviously this CEO had bigger problems than just the company’s sales presentation. I wanted to tell him to either higher better salespeople or fire the person training them, but don’t sabotage the presentation because you don’t have faith in your team. I’ll never forget that objection.

    • Hi Jon

      The illogical reasons that people come up with are amazing! Olivia

    • That’s what a paper and pen are for…taking notes…I guess no one does that anymore…since everyone distributes bullet point filled slides as handouts.

  2. Thanks for this, Olivia! Love the text break-up analogy.

    I’ve heard the same “my people aren’t good enough to present smartly” line to which I try to suggest heavily scripting the NOTES section for them.

    You’re right in leading by example. The reason people present badly is because they see bad presentations all the time and assume this is the standard. Their boss delivers a bad bullet-pointed presentation, so they do the same.

    It might be possible to change the leaders the top, but I believe Seth Godin’s Tribes theory of changing from the bottom is effective too.

    • Hi Nolan
      Yes, part of the problem is that the standard is bad bullet-point presentations and so that’s what people expect.

      Yes, it doesn’t have to start at the top. It can come by just one person making a change to just one slide. They’ll feel the audience perk up- and think – “Oh that worked”. And next time they present they might convert a few more slides. Somebody in the audience will go “Oh I liked that slide and how it worked” and they’ll try something similar in the next presentation. A slow and gradual revolution – person by person, slide by slide! Olivia

  3. I like my bullets as much as the next guy or gal but ditched ‘em — for the most part–for a half-day workshop that I did 8 times this week. Not only did I not miss my trusty bullets, but many people commented favorably on the slides. I used pictures to convey messages, “sayings” to relay concepts, and (okay, I’m not ready to go cold turkey yet) only 3 bulleted slides. True confessions: I had lots more fun in this new-fangled bullet-free world…and so did my participants. Much more time involved in its preparation, but well-worth it in the end.

    • Thanks for sharing Nancy. The positive experience that you and the audience enjoyed as a result of your presentation, is what will spread the revolution most effectively. No need to go “cold-turkey”, just a gentle slide-by-slide approach… Olivia

  4. Perhaps another issue is that we are entrapped by words. Words are beautiful things and capable of serving us well, making us feel good, allowing us to express ourselves or making us feel sad. But they can also be used to hide our feelings, to conceal our selves and to cover up our lack of understanding, and in many cases our lack of any real thought. I’m a teacher, and when I have (reluctantly) to get involved with Education Managers I am more often than not, simply appalled by their never-ending use of jargon and big-sounding phrases which are a substitute for the genuine concepts which were their starting point. “A manual self-sustaining eco-unit maintenance implement” is a poor substitute for a good picture of a garden shovel.

    • Hi Martin

      Nice point. I’ve also found that people are concerned about making things simple and clear – like showing a picture of a shovel. They think having a complicated jargon-rich sentence like the one you quoted above makes them look clever.

      But clever people make complex things simple.


  5. We’re launching (re-positioning) a brand. Corporate wants a standarized presentation to assure consistent messaging. Of course, lots of bullets. Even worse – a black background with orange text that is barely visible without a high resolution projector in a darkened room. I’m doing what I can to fight it. Any ideas?
    P.S They’re even trying to figure out a way to password protect so that it cannot be altered in the field (sigh). ;-(

    • Hi Art
      There are two issues here:
      1. Trust – they don’t trust people out in the field
      2. Effectiveness of the design.

      The trust issue is a biggie but outside of my field of expertise.

      How can you persuade them to change their minds on the design issue? On the basis that you’ve put forward both logical and emotional reasons why the design won’t work, and they haven’t listened, you could suggest that they get external feedback. The external sources may give exactly the same advice as you, but because it comes from someone external, corporate may be more receptive. Unfair but realistic. Here are two options:

      1. Suggest that given the importance of the presentation, they have a professional designer look it over and give feedback.
      2. Suggest that they do a test tun of the presentation with a few clients/potential clients before rolling it out. Specifically ask those clients for feedback. This has the advantage of not costing anything, being eminently sensible, and also building engagement with clients.

      Hope these ideas are helpful.

  6. Hi Olivia,

    I think another element in this discussion is an audience’s fairly high tolerance for bad PowerPoint presentations. Although when asked, audiences say that heavily bullet-pointed slides are very annoying, it seems rare that those same audiences reflect this feedback on presentation evaluations or smile sheets…thus contributing to perpetuating the problem!

    • A couple of comments from one who presents–and watches–many PowerPoint shows:

      — You mix two things: having slides with bullets points, and reading the bullet points. I use bullet points as my outline, and talk from it without reading it. I use them as an overview, or to list items in a series, e.g., “Here are six reasons small business owners resist hiring the help they need. I’ll focus on the first two.”

      — People who are lousy at bullet points may also be mediocre with graphics and illustrations. Too much info. Too intricate. Not left up long enough. Too much cutesy stuff. Tiny text. And they STILL read off the slide!

      — I’m often grateful for bullet points to help me stay on track and follow a wandering speaker.

      It’s not an either/or. Use each where they work. And don’t read them!


      • Hi Mike
        Thanks for your comments – you bring up a number of interesting points:
        – You’re right that I don’t make a significant distinction between reading from bullet-point slides, and talking from them. Either way they are not the most effective way for the audience to take in information (though I agree that reading from bullet-point slides is worse!)
        – Bullet-points are great as your outline and notes – however, I would suggest printing them out (as ‘handouts’ in the Print Dialog box, two to a page) and using them as your notes. There’s no need to show them to the audience.
        – I also get that if the speaker is rambling all over the place, the bullet-points can help the audience. But my aim is to encourage best practice.

    • Hi Kathy
      Yes, it does seem that bullet-point slides are the accepted standard. Many people simply don’t know any different. But there is a movement underway to revolutionize the way people use PowerPoint. I’m optimistic that we’ll see a change! Olivia

  7. Great post, Olivia!
    The reason most people use bullets is so they can read the screen. Take the bullets away and they have to know their material. Heaven help them if they should accidentally hit the “B” key while presenting and a black screen comes up. Suddenly they are the center of attention. It would be like standing in front of the group in their underwear.

    If we could only get these people to join Toastmasters for a year, so they can learn to be the center of attention, and actually enjoy presenting instead of fearing it.

  8. Hi John
    Lovely way of putting it. I think Toastmasters is a wonderful organisation – I was a member for 10 years or so – and did a huge amount for me in building my confidence. But they don’t seem to have joined the PowerPoint visual revolution – judging by example slides I’ve see on the website. Olivia