How would you like to come across during a presentation? Check all that apply — Lazy? Safe? Unimaginative? A rule-follower? If you use a bullet slide, you are checking all those boxes. That’s what bullets on a slide sub-consciously say about you. “But,” I hear you say, “That’s what the template made me do…” or “I had to get these points across, bullets are the best way.”
Bullets may seem like the only way, but they are not the best way. Because they’re a default setting in PowerPoint and Keynote, it becomes a mindless task as you work out your argument and build your presentation, bullets just happen. How do you get away from them? First let’s look at what they actually do for you.
Every slide you make should have a point. Journalists would call it a Headline. The US Military (Which seems to have an acronym for everything) calls it B.L.U.F. or Bottom Line Up Front*. Michael Alley of Penn State** calls it an Assertion. Whatever you call it, your point must be clear and memorable, and has to occupy primary real estate on the slide, so that the audience’s eye goes to it first. It’s more memorable as a short, meaningful sentence — think Revenue Growth is Driven by New Customer Penetration in Key Markets vs. the more antiseptic Key Performance Indicators. The first actually tells you what’s happening, the second works well as a label for a chart, not as a headline.
After you’ve put your bottom line up front, written the headline, or made your assertion, it’s time to back it up. I like what Alley has to say here, and think that Evidence works best. Think data with a dash of emotion. Usually this might be a compelling chart or picture, but sometimes it’s a series of bullets. There is no hard and fast rule — but I would start rethinking what you have to say once you get beyond 5 sub-points (bullets), or you have to go into sub-sub-points (sub-bullets). If that’s the case you are probably trying to cram too much in, and so going into detail the audience doesn’t need, OR, if all that stuff is necessary you need to restructure the point you are making on each slide.
Don’t get me wrong, what they do is invaluable. A typical bullet slide is a headline statement or assertion, with three or four points supporting or detailing that assertion. It’s difficult to make it through a presentation without a few of those. My objection is to the way they look.
Here’s an example of a couple of typical bullet slides, and alternatives.
*Also referenced in Dan Roam’s great book Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work
**Another Great Book, Michael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid
***Kudos to Ryan Mathe, who showed me the bubble trick to replace bullets. Thanks Ryan.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.