Dodging bullet points

Gepubliceerd op: 28/11/2023
Bullet points

Bullet points are the perfect means of boring your audience and lose your connection with them. Here I explain why this is the case. I also provide alternatives for bullet points.

Ever heard of the seven-times-seven rule? It was a piece of presentation advice I received as a biology student. On a PowerPoint slide you can use up to a maximum of seven rules of text containing a maximum of seven words per rule. The rule was meant to prevent a surplus of text, but it desperately fails in doing so. Following the rule you end up with forty nine words on a slide. With a reading speed of 200 words per minute, it takes the average reader 14,7 seconds to process such a slide.

The visual channel always wins

Using PowerPoint (or comparable software) during a presentation has its advantages. By adding visuals to the experience, you utilize two information channels. Through the auditory channel you send information in the form of spoken words, rhythm, intonation, pronunciation, pitch, silence and volume. At the same time your audience receives visual information by means of body language, mimicry, and slides. The good thing of this dual channel communication is that you have more bandwidth at your disposal. A well attuned PowerPoint presentation works better than a presentation without visual support.

However, in this rich mix of signs the visual channel always wins. Visual information automatically attracts attention and is easier to decode. Decoding language requires attention and is a cognitive heavier process. This is especially true for a second language, like English is for most people in academia. Written language confronts us with an extra translation step (from visuals to sounds to meaning). In other words: visuals speak to our lizard brain and words to our neocortex. This makes visuals a very strong rhetorical tool. We tend to believe our eyes.

Why bullet points are killing

Back to bullet points. When confronted with written text on your slides, your audience will feel the urge of starting to read and understanding the text. This requires attention and cognitive capacity not available anymore for you and your spoken words for at least 14,5 seconds. This repeated loss of connection with you and your story during a series of slides full of bullet points will ultimately result in mentally tuning out. Even to the trained listener, who knows that they should ignore the slides in order to stay tuned, the continues effort to resist the urge to read is tiring. Thus, you arrive alone at the end of your presentation. Receiving no questions does not mean you were crystal clear.

Hence the saying: death by PowerPoint. In hindsight, I wonder how I survived all the lectures presenting an structureless stream of blue slides full of yellow bullet points.

Bullet points kills the connection with your audience. They also send an implicit message. Thanks to our evolutionary wiring, what is understood with cognitive ease feels more true than what causes cognitive strain. Thus the effort your audience needs to invest in decoding your slides, contributes to a loss of persuasiveness. Also, you implicitly say that you do not care about design, that you did not care enough about your audience to honour them with a pleasant experience.

Do something else

I hope that the above mentioned reasons convince you to avoid bullet points where possible. But, what to do with the information that you routinely would put in bullet points? My strategy is to first look for other ways of structuring information then the vertical list. Possible alternatives are:

  • Timeline. If you show events that occur chronologically or sequentially, a timeline running from left to right is the go-to alternative.
  • Comparison. When comparing two or three elements, you can put them in a horizontal orientation. Think about a pilot and a follow-up, your competitor’s approach vs your approach, or treatment and control. Put the status quo on the left, the novel alternative on the right to use the flow of time from left to right.
  • Spatial. This is worthy of a separate blogpost. But let’s stick to some basics of plotting elements on a known physical object. Say, you have three sub-projects and a fourth synthesizing one. Use the three as columns that support the forth as a roof to get a Greek temple. Sometimes a pyramid does the job. Think of how Maslow’s pyramid stacks human needs from basic physiological needs at the bottom to self-actualization at the top. Or, use a bridge to connect two hitherto isolated elements. Through our instinctive understanding of physical logic, we get the idea in one glance. Without the base, the top of the pyramid will fall down.
  • Geographical. Want to talk about events happening on certain locations (e.g. the stages of your career)? Use a map to structure your slide.
  • Categories. Sometimes it is a matter of categorization. Put insects with insects, blood cells with blood cells, and books with books.
  • Matrix. Healthy volunteers and patients receiving a treatment or a placebo, should be put in a 2 times 2 matrix. Yes, this is a mini-table.
  • Cards. Does none of the above apply? Equally important elements can be represented with a deck of cards. Each card contains (like a quartets card) a picture, some key words, and a surrounding box. A drop-shadow makes it extra card-like. If there is a sequence, e.g. with work-packages, run from left to right following the numbering of the elements.

When none of the above mentioned alternatives applies, consider to distribute the information over multiple slides. It is never a good idea to combine a collection of elements on a slide that cannot be ordered into a meaningful representation.

When bullet points are allowed

By the way, as you have noticed, I am not a anti bullet point purist. Sometimes bullet points are a good way to structure things. In each of the allowed cases of bullet point use, your audience should not have to think about the meaning of each element. This is the case for:

  • Table of contents. You show a list of talking-points at the beginning of your presentation. Because this type of list is well-known, your audience immediately understands that you will talk about each point later on. By presenting the sequence of talking-points, you also give your audience a sense of what’s coming.
  • Summary. A list containing the most important talking points helps your audience to see in one glance what you have been talking about. As any marketeer knows: reply a message if you want to make people remember it.
  • Recipe. If you want to communicate the ingredients of an apple pie, a list is a perfect way of doing that. The words ‘apple’, ‘flour’, and ‘sugar’ below the title ‘apple pie’ need no explanation.

Main image: Bullets on White Background by Tony Webster on Flickr.

Hermen Visser

Hermen Visser

Hermen Visser (1985) studied Biology at Leiden University. Already during his studies he developed a passion for science communication and took his first steps as a trainer. He taught students in layout skills and the graphic software Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. Since his graduation in 2011 he works as a freelance science journalist and trainer. He was radio and web editor at the editorial offices of the Dutch broadcasting agencies. VPRO and NTR. Currently he writes as a freelancer for VPRO Gids and Trouw.