The death of the bullet point slide

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The death of the bullet point slide

Ok, so this is more of a prophetic statement that is not quite true – yet. However, I do predict (pray!) that one day the wordy bullet point slide will become a relic of the past. But for now, all over the world, thousands of people are still brain dumping piles of bullet points on their slides without realising the damage they are wreaking on themselves and their audience.

Now if you’re squirming in your seat thinking – “er, I use bullet points in my slides all the time” and “what is wrong with it?” – don’t worry, I’m not here to attack, I’m here to help. And I can understand, we can be so used to the way things are that we’re often numbed to their true effect.

So what’s the problem with having lots of text and bullet point on your slides? In a nutshell, they distract, confuse and bore your audience. To understand why, we have to delve briefly into how the brain works.

Firstly, our brains aren’t good at multi-tasking. Our brains have limited processing power, which means we can’t effectively read and listen at the same time. Don’t believe me? Test it for yourself: pick up a book and turn on a TED talk (any book or talk, it doesn’t matter what they are). Whilst you are listening to the audio of the TED talk, simultaneously read your book. Do this for 1 minute and at the end see how much of the content of both the TED talk and the book you are able to remember. If you are really honest with yourself you will have missed large parts of either or both. The same goes for your audience when faced with a wordy slide.

Secondly, reading is a complex cognitive process. We evolved on the planes of Africa when our survival depended on seeing images and hearing sounds so our brains developed to do this with ease. On the other hand, reading is a more recent skill which the brain isn’t as efficient at. The brain actually sees text as a series of lines and shapes that it has to interpret into words. It then has to search for the meaning of that word, then fit the word into the meaning of the sentence. Finally it has to grasp the overall meaning of paragraph. This is a multi-step process of comprehension that puts a strain on the brain, slowing it down like a traffic jam. So you’re making your audience work far harder than it needs (or wants) to.

Thirdly, our brains are wired to pay attention to exciting things. On the Savannah our survival depended on avoiding danger, procreating and eating food – all powerful stimulants. As a result our brains don’t really like boring things. And what can be more boring than slide after slide of bullet points and text…zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Hence the expression “death by PowerPoint”.

So what does this mean in practice? It means that what you innocently created to help you, has just become your competition! Yup, you’ve created a gremlin! When you put up a slide full of text your audience will immediately start reading it and move their focus away from you and what you are saying. Even if this is for a few seconds, they can miss a point that is critical to your presentation. And the more time they have to do this, the more likely it is that they lose the thread of what you are saying. So rather than helping their comprehension, your wordy slide is just getting in the way. Even worse, the overload of information can often cause your audience to get confused, switch off or (heaven forbid) fall asleep. Overall the impact of your presentation is lost like the air from a punctured balloon.

I’m sure that that at some point you have experienced something similar when listening to a speaker. Perhaps you weren’t quite sure exactly why you found it so challenging to pay attention until now? Perhaps you even blamed yourself in some way – it was the late night, big meal or your lack of interest in the subject that got in the way?

I was an in-house lawyer for many years and I sat through hundreds of hours of law seminars and conferences. When I was more junior, if didn’t fully grasp what was being presented to me I often thought it was somehow my fault, that I wasn’t sharp enough or clever enough. Now as a communications trainer, I look back and realise that I was being asked to do mental gymnastics that made it impossible to take all the content in. Yes, it didn’t help that often the content was dry and delivered with as much pizazz as a BBC news reporter (a topic for another time) but that dullness was compounded tenfold by the wordy slides.

So what is the answer? If you follow 5 basic key principles then you will hugely improve the quality of your slides:

  1. Keep your slides simple with just one point per slide (better to have 50 slides that people understand than 1 slide that causes you to lose your audience).
  2. Use images to convey your point wherever possible.
  3. Try to limit your text to just 6 words per slide!
  4. Make graphs and tables simple and interesting to look at, and always talk your audience through them.
  5. If you need to include a quote or longer text, then say it out loud to the audience whilst they are reading it – then your messaging will be synchronised.

Now, you may be thinking that this may work for a TED talk but there’s no way it can work for your corporate content. It can absolutely be done, it just requires you to approach it from a different angle than before, expand your horizons and think outside of the box. Remember you are ultimately there to serve your audience, and this is what works for your audience, so find a way.

You may also be thinking that slides like this won’t make any sense to your audience when you give them as hand-outs! Trust me, in isolation neither do your bullet points. Your slides are not meant to be hand-outs for the audience. Like a magician’s assistant, your slides are there to visually enhance and support what you are saying. So let them fulfil their purpose and if you want to give your audience something to take away, do them a favour and write out (in full sentences) the key points of your talk and give it to them at the end. Tell them that you are going to do this at the start so they don’t have to take notes and can relax and focus on you – they will thank you for it.

And whilst I’m on the topic, please don’t just read out your slides – they are not your teleprompter! It looks unprofessional and breaks rapport with your audience. Instead, learn them off by heart and then create a crib sheet that you can discretely refer to during your talk. And what do you use on your crib sheet? BULLET POINTS! This is what they are meant for!

So some of you may be fully on board with what I’ve shared here. And some of you may find that it still contradicts your belief system. Either way I’m not asking you to just take my word for it, test it out for yourselves. With this newfound awareness pay attention the next time you are watching someone present with classic bullet points slides:- How does it affect you? How does it impact your comprehension? Do you miss out on any information? Do you feel yourself switching off? And then create a slide-deck using the principles I shared. Present them to people you trust and then ask for their feedback – was it an improvement on what you usually do? Was it more engaging for them?

It is my hope that (if you haven’t already), you realise that it’s time to drop the bullet points. Ditch them like that ill-fitting suit from 10 years ago that’s still lurking in your wardrobe! Times have changed, and so should your slides.

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