Great presentations – or death to bullet points

I’ve spent a fair amount of the day today looking into fantastic presentations, and what makes them look fantastic. Presentations are really hard aren’t they? Getting up in front of people. Putting your points and ideas up there to be criticised. We need to give ourselves the best chance of interesting and engaging people, to increase the chances of a better.

I think the first thing you can do is get rid of bullet points. It’s a well worn argument that bullet points are awful, but they’re still around so it’s obviously worth repeating. It’s not the fault of presenters, well, it’s mostly not the fault of presenters. It’s mostly the fault of the presentation programs confronting you with bullet points as soon as you open them. (I’m looking at you as well, Keynote, not just PowerPoint.)

The problem with bullet points, as most people use them, is that they’re actually the presenters notes on screen for everyone to read. A typical reading rate is between 200-700 words per minute, whereas a typical speaking rate is 150-160 words per minute – and we’re always being told to slow down when we’re speaking aren’t we? So what do those statistics tell us? They tell us that the audience are able to read the presenters notes far faster than the presenter can speak them. Which means the audience are constantly being told things that they know already. Which means the audience are likely to be bored by the second bullet.

Unfortunately the next “weapon” provided by presentation programs, like PowerPoint and Keynote, is animation. We can animate the bullets in one by one, which seems great. After the first couple of bullets though, we realise we still have a problem with clutter on the screen. The bullet points which have already arrived are visual (and cognitive) weight above our new points, and so we start to lose our clarity of message. I’ve seen presenting guides recommending I “aim for six to seven bullet points points per slide and six to eight words per point”. I think this is way too many, I think six to seven words per slide is a much better limit. Why? Because as much as you don’t want your audience getting ahead of you, you don’t want them behind you either. You want your audience with you, absorbing each challenging point you pass to them. There’s a couple of presentations online which demonstrate a wholly different, totally bullet point free, approach.

Lawrence Lessig has a hugely influential presentation style, his smooth fluid presentations flash up just a couple of words up on screen at a time. The slides change frequently and serve as punctuation and emphasis for the points he’s conveying. At least one of Professor Lessig’s presentations is online, Free Culture (from a conference in 2002). Nip over and watch the first five minutes (up to say, when he’s talking about Walt Disney), I’ll be here when you get back…

Taking this style of presentation further is Dick Hardt. Dick’s presentation on Identity 2.0 is a smooth flowing narrative, with few words on screen, lots of repetition and some simple concepts at the heart of it. Go away and watch the first five minutes or so, again, I’ll wait… 

Look mum, no bullet points! I think Lessig and Hardt’s presentation style is fantastic. I don’t suggest that it’s the only style worth looking at for presentations, and it’s certainly one which requires a fair amount of effort to rehearse and produce. So why do I think the style is so good?

Both presenters pace the ideas at a speed suitable to our comprehension, meaning we have time to accept and examine each idea as it comes along. Each point of each idea is presented on screen (in this post I’m mainly concerned with how onscreen elements can affect the presentation as a whole) in isolation, with no distractions or other points.

Both presenters repeat themselves at frequent intervals, Lessig even calls it the “refrain”. They circle and builds upon their central ideas throughout the presentation, returning to them again and again to make sure we’ve taken these messages on board.

A strong story is also evident in both presentations, maybe it’s not a traditional bedtime story but there is definitely a narrative line being drawn throughout. Both presenters start at a beginning and take the audience with them until they reach the conclusion. As Seth Godin says, communication is the transfer of emotion. You want to sell your idea, so you need other people to like it. We’ve been selling and telling stories around camp fires for generations and generations, centuries and centuries, stories are powerful ways of putting your point across. So does this mean you need to turn your presentations into funny “I went down to the park” stories? Not necessarily, but your presentations do need to start somewhere, build on that starting point, and connect with the audience, taking them on a journey of discovery (with the aim of them discovering that whatever you want to tell them is correct).

Personally I’m trying to find a more visual style, which borrows from Lessig/Hardt, but uses thematically linked full screen graphics to back up my messages. I’m hoping that this approach will hit the audience from two angles: my spoken word will be processed more objectively, whereas the visual imagery will reinforce things on a more emotional, or even visceral level. If you come along to my next presentation, you can let me know whether I’ve succeeded.

My closing plea to you is that there are many many ways of structuring and designing your presentations to be far more effective than simply relying on bullet points. These presentation styles may require some more effort, but aren’t the points you want to make and the ideas you have to convey worth it? Please, next time you open PowerPoint or Keynote and see the bullet points just say no.

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  1. Great article – I couldn’t agree more. The first time I saw this approach being used was by Chris and James at menusandblocks. They used lots of slides with just a few words on each and it really pulled you in.

  2. I always notice, and pay more attention, when I see a presentation slideshow without bullet points. It suggests to me that the presenter has been more thorough in their prep work.

    Not enough presenters use boxes of baby ducks as a metaphor though.

  3. and some of us are stuck with the same manner of presenting as we used 20 years ago with Harvard Graphics.

    You make some excellent points. What you did not mention – and is key to the presentation – are the following two items (grin)
    1. What is the purpose of the presentation?
    2. Who is your audience.

    If I am talking to to the military – bullets all the way. Knitters? Why put up anything other than pictures of interest. Words are excess and only needed if people are taking the presentation home. Medical Professionals – clear, structured and as many and only as many charts and graphs as are needed to clearly illustrate the points.

    Cultural differences, are significant, not just in terms of language (ex. US, UK, DE) but the expectations of style and presentation content – again – audience.

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