episode 7: Do Bullets Kill An Audience?


Do bullet points kill an audience? In this episode, we discuss the misuse of presentation software and the issues it can cause. More importantly we cover what our audiences can do to overcome this deadly pitfall.


So why do we have the dreaded “PowerPoint kills” mentality?

  • Troy: PowerPoint was developed to use a bullet list as it default content methodology. Keynote was developed with a visual structure. One is perceived as a creative application (Keynote), the other as a business boredom application (PowerPoint). But each is just a canvas to be used however the presentation designer imagines. So the term “PowerPoint kills” is because the first impression from virtually every PowerPoint template is to use a bullet list, which is what everyone does, and that promotes the philosophy that PowerPoint is the problem. But it is not the application, it is the use of the application that determines how presentations are perceived.
  • Nolan: Let me add that PowerPoint is the only application, that I know of, that tells you what kind of content to start creating when you start a new default file. If you open up Word, it doesn’t say: “Start writing in iambic pentameter.” If you open Excel, it doesn’t say: “Start entering your quarterly sales figure.” But PowerPoint says right off the bat: “Put a header here” and “Start putting bullet points here.”
  • Sandy: Well of course, when we bring up “PowerPoint kills” mentality, we have to discuss Edward Tufte. Mr. Tufte has made a lot of money and fame of off hating PowerPoint — particularly from his book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, where he featured the now infamous Space Shuttle Columbia crash slide.


Annoying PowerPoint: What do audiences say?

  • Nolan: Tufte aside, our MVP colleague, Dave Paradi conducts a survey each year where he researches the audiences across the globe to keep tabs on what bothers them most about “PowerPoint.” The number one spot, year after year, is the complaint that the presenter reads his slides.
  • Sandy: And his #2 listed item is PowerPoint users use full sentences. This is a big deal, because it is human nature to read what is on a slide. So  even if the presenter can overcome reading the slide and paraphrases the content, the audience cannot.
  • Troy: I have never been good at following the rules and I started presentation design because the idea of a text book looking list of text is just boring and conveys little for a story. So I am always siding with the audience and developing speaker support that is just that – supporting the presenter, not showing the full story.


The science behind why Bullet points are bad

  • Sandy: So I’m a presentation designer with a business mindset – I guess you could say I use both sides of my brain. So when it comes to helping my clients get away from text-heavy slides, I use science to help them understand why it’s important. A huge source of information is Richard Mayer’s book, Multimedia Learning, which was also simplified by Cliff Atkinson in his book, Beyond Bullet Points. I think it’s important to understand the science because it helps clients understand why you approach design the way you do. When I say, “Retention for a slide full of bullet points is 20% vs. a slide with a headline and graphic is closer to 80%,” people understand that I’m not designing slides just to be “pretty.” The science gets them almost every time.
  • Troy: I often explain my reason for developing presentation content the way I do by saying, “This is setup for the audience view,” which means I 100% agree with you Sandy – just in simpler, less business, terms.
  • Nolan: My thinking is that even though bullet points were created to separate items in a block of text, we have become so used to them, that they have stopped working. I think a list of bullet points still looks like a big block of text and, quite frankly, people don’t want to read a lot of words. So psychologically, it looks like dense content. I think every time someone has to do that visual carriage return down to the next bullet point, a little part of them dies.


Solutions to overcome bullet point pitfalls

  • Nolan: So understanding why we need to avoid bullet points is one thing, but how can users get beyond bullet points?
  • Sandy: When creating your presentation, start from scratch without even opening PowerPoint.  Starting to create a presentation in the software limits the user to creating only the content they are capable of creating in that software. So starting with paper allows users to not be limited by what they think they can and cannot do with PowerPoint. It also helps them understand when it’s time to turn their presentation over to a presentation professional. Another big thing is the one concept per slide rule. Sometimes a single slide should be broken down into multiple slides to create an entire new section of a presentation.
  • Troy: If you must use bullets, think like a newspaper headline. How few words can be used to convey the message. The traditional slide design rule is 3-5 bullets per slide, but lots of people follow the rule by making 3-5 really long sentences or paragraphs in bullet form. The real essence is 3-5 words per statement, make it easy for the audience to see-read-absorb-and refocus on the presenter. I don’t get as much push back on that idea as I used to – but I think a lot of presentation classes in the past instilled the idea that your presentation should only be so many slides. But dividing content across multiple slides does not change the talk time – and often it makes it quicker. What was really being said is: “You have 10 minutes to present – don’t go over.” The number of slides is irrelevant to the talk time, 6 bullets on 1 slide is the same talk time as 6 slides with 1 key message on each slide.
  • Nolan: Yeah, I’m slide number agnostic as well. My solution for avoiding bullet points is “chunking” the content into visual containers and the easiest way for people to do that is using SmartArt.
  • Troy: For my training programs SmartArt is a key focus and I introduce SmartArt by renaming it “Smart-Start” for visual layouts.


Do you feel Microsoft unintentionally created the death by PowerPoint, or by endless bullet lists, with the default presentation and virtually every template being an information structure of bullet lists?

  • Nolan: Yes.
  • Sandy: Well you could say that but I would also add that they’re making attempts to get away from that with the addition of SmartArt and very recently the addition of the new Designer tool.
  • Troy: I don’t want to blame Microsoft, but the concept of information displayed in a bullet hierarchy has become identified with PowerPoint, mostly because that was the only layout promoted by Microsoft. Keynote does not get that reputation because in general creative types were the primary users of Macs and they quickly shunned the bullet list idea. Other apps have played the backlash against bullet lists with default styling and templates that completely avoid bullets. Prezi, Haiku, even Microsoft’s new presentation app Sway – often describe themselves as “not PowerPoint” but they are all, including PowerPoint, just presentation apps. What these apps are really saying is “no bullets.”
  • Nolan: But to be fair, it’s also the way people construct information today — which might be influenced by PowerPoint– but it’s too often a list of random “things.” There’s so little processing and structuring and organization that goes into the vast majority of business presentations.


What are some of the ways you see people trying to format and emphasize within bullet lists?

  • Sandy: I see a lot of bold face use and underlining — which I personally hate.
  • Troy: The one I cringe at, from a designer point of view, is using a different font in the middle of things to emphasize that information.
  • Nolan: I see a lot of bolding and highlighting with color. But when people do that, their heart is in the right place, it is just not really accomplishing what is really needed. It is much better to take those important words and put them at the start of the text phrase, not bold or highlight words buried in the middle of sentences.


What are common bullet list formatting issues you see – besides formatting with bullet lists?

  • Nolan: Bullets get colored with color of first word and to change the bullets back is a big manual formatting thing, if you even know what to do.
  • Troy: Creating a new text box, or copying a text box from another presentation, and it does not use the same bullet type, bullet spacing, and things like line and paragraph spacing. So slides end up just a jumble of formatting styles which is another distraction item for the audience to focus on.
  • Sandy: I like to create bullet lists without bullets. Very recently, Echo Swinford and Julie Terberg uncovered an ingenious solution to making this formatting much better by replacing bullets with the Zero Width Space bullets in the Unicode list which lets you maintain Tab functionality.


Do you have a term for redesigning a bullet list into a slide that has the same text, but not displayed as a standard, boring, bullet list?

  • Nolan: Chunking
  • Sandy: Graphic text
  • Troy: Visual Layouts


Wrap up

  • Sandy: “PowerPoint kills” is a misnomer. Any presentation will “hurt,” no matter what the software, if it is misused.
  • Nolan: Anytime I see a list of bullet points, 95% of the time, I’m going to chunk it out horizontally. With my designers, all I need to say is “chunk that out.”
  • Troy: I have been fortunate to focus my presentation design career not working on business slides, but highly visual stage shows where bullet lists are not a consideration. As our client base has grown, we now do a lot of presentation design for business level presentations, which we are constantly providing alternatives to the traditional bullet list, developing a story line for the visual content and integrating visual presentation design concepts into business presentations to avoid bullet points from boring the audience to death.

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