Presentation Design – The Death of Bullet Points

When was the last time you went to a presentation and came away impressed by the slides?

It is, of course, fashionable these days to speak negatively about PowerPoint, and how most on-screen presentations put audiences to “death” with an onslaught of one bullet-pointed paragraph of words after another. It is also true that the same people who like to trash PowerPoint often create mind-numbing program themselves, and then claim that it’s not their fault – their bosses make them beget slides that turn brains to butter.

Although businesspeople are pretty much stuck with PowerPoint these days, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, there have been a few pioneers out there who are trying to change the ways we use slides to convey information or persuade others to see things our way. And so even though PowerPoint is still very much alive and kicking, we think that bullet points as knowledge builders might be doomed: some designers at the cutting edge are trying new forms and structures.

One person whose work you should know if you don’t already is Cliff Atkinson. According to Michael McLaughlin, coauthor with Jay Conrad Levinson of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants, “Cliff Atkinson believes he’s built a better mouse trap. He wants us to dump boring, bullet-riddled slides, and he has a creative solution: he taps Hollywood-style storytelling to transform PowerPoint presentations from endless lists of bullet points into compelling communications.”

Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points shows you how to use the power of storytelling to make PowerPoint presentations effective communication tools, not just speaker notes. With Atkinson’s method, you not only produce presentations that are not boring, but you are also forced to think about what you are saying in a way that all audiences relate to: telling them a story.

You should also be aware of Lawrence Lessig, who has created a buzz over the last couple years with what he believes is a “minimalist” presentation design approach. It’s interesting, and definitely worth getting up to speed on it if you’re in the presentation business. The best example of this style that we’ve seen is in a keynote given by a guy named Dick Hardt. You really need to watch this performance to appreciate its power as an antidote to the common business presentation. Here is just one link:

The problem I have with this approach is that while its followers consider it minimalist because there is typically no more that one word or image on the screen at a time, virtually EVERY word in the narrative is projected, so that with a little practice, the presenter simply delivers a completely pre-written script. It is interesting to watch and definitely holds your attention throughout, but rather than putting the presenter at the center of the process, the result is that 99% of the audience’s attention is drawn to the screen.

The really scary thing here is that it probably will have huge appeal to NewGens and younger, who unfortunately have no idea how to relate to another human except through the interface of some electronic device. So this is presentation as video-game / hip hop / text-message-me-from-the-end-of-the-bar. The presentation IS the screen, and the presenter gets kudos for his electronic design skills rather than her ability to be human.

Of course, your Master of the PowerPoint Universe here has not been asleep at the switch for the past couple years, this year you will see the World Premiere of what we are offering up as a whole new language of presentation design, with its own very tight grammar, all based on using minimalism to focus the audience on the presenter.

We haven’t yet decided how to brand it (“Beyond Bullet Points” is already taken, and “Pointless” doesn’t sound very value-added). Internally we’ve been referring to it as The Language of the Bar because we use vertical lines (bars) instead of bullet points to both set off paragraph levels and also presage to both the presenter and the audience how much more (if any) will follow on the screen after the last reveal.

It occurred to us a while ago that whereas bullet points do work to set off one huge group of words from another huge group (the 3-line ‘paragraphs’ we usually see), they don’t make a lot of sense when you do what you should do and never have more than a few words on each line. The line itself sets off the one point from the next. So if you’re using PowerPoint properly, that is, to simply key the audience where you’re going and key you to what you’re going to say, bullets become superfluous. Bonus: your slides look a lot cleaner without them.

Back to this new presentation language: although both Atkinson and Lessig dispense with bullet points, we believe that rather than just throwing out structure altogether, there are increases in both comprehension and retention when the presentation conforms to a set of predictable rules – a grammar, if you will. We believe that when your grammar presages what’s to come (in a haiku, for instance, you know exactly how many words are coming next), you create both heightened expectation and the comfort of knowing how much brain RAM you have to reserve.

Long-term readers know we’re committed to showing the world that PowerPoint (and also Apple’s Keynote, which we’ve been using lately) is NOT the problem. We don’t know if this is the answer, but we know you’ll really, really like what you’ll see.