Don’t blame bullet points for bad presentations – too much of anything’s to blame

Close-up of angry man pointing at the viewer and shoutingAs I’m sure you know from bitter experience, poor presentations are very common. In fact, I’d say poor presentations are the norm, which means:

What a huge knock-on effect from presenters not getting their message across well!

Now, you’ve likely noticed that poor presentations almost always have lots of bullet points. So you might naturally assume that to be an effective presenter, you should ban all bullets from your slides.

But if you think that, I’m here to tell you: You’re wrong.

There are better ways to present a list than with bullets

Sure, there are better ways to present a list than with bullets on a slide. (At the end of that post, also see the many bullet-alternatives suggested by other bloggers, like Connie Malamed and SlideTeam.)

It’s just that you mightn’t have enough time to smarten up your slide like suggested by those posts. And besides, if you focus too strongly on avoiding bullets, you might cause yourself other problems. Let’s look at a real-life example to see how

A few years ago, I watched a webinar presented by a well-known author. He’s written a book about how to present, and he runs a presentations consultancy. He also hates bullet points with a passion!

So in his webinar, he didn’t use a single bullet point. (In fact he used very little text at all. Kudos to him on that.)

Sadly though, what he did instead was fill every slide with either a photo or a cartoon-like picture, with just 2 or 3 words on it at most. And what’s more, in his 50-minute talk, he showed almost 180 slides – and they were all exactly like that.

50 minutes of rapid-fire pictures. What an onslaught!

If you do the maths, you’ll realise he showed each slide for just over 15 seconds on average. Imagine sitting through 50 minutes of rapid-fire pictures. What an onslaught!

There were no charts, diagrams, quotes, screenshots, statistics, or other visuals to help persuade his audience, or to give them variety and mental “breathing room”. Just dozens upon dozens of samey, sleep-inducing slides

My point is, bullet points themselves aren’t the problem. The problem’s having too many similar slides. (It doesn’t matter whether they have bullets on them, or pictures, or charts, or anything else.)

Give your audience varied content that’s thought-provoking

So to avoid giving a poor slide presentation, don’t try to avoid bullets at all costs. Instead, give your audience varied content that’s thought-provoking (but without overwhelming them), and with just enough visuals to support what you’re saying.

Your audience’ll love you for it. And most importantly, your talk’ll be much more likely to achieve what you intended!


Over to you

What do you think? How much of a problem do you think bullet points are in a presentation?


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6 thoughts on “Don’t blame bullet points for bad presentations – too much of anything’s to blame

  1. BTW, I don’t think bullet points in their more traditional form are always bad either. Sometimes it seems to me that seeing the previous bullet points gives you a summary of what’s come so far, and having the audience keep that summary in their mind can be important for understanding. It seems that’s harder to do with the 2-3 word per slide model. I’ve tried a “roadmap” or “breadcrumb” type model, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of advantage over traditional bullets.

    I should say that whenever I do this, I use the click-to-advance feature for each bullet point (because I don’t want the audience reading ahead), and keep the bullet points to a very few words. Click-to-advance, of course, requires a bit more understanding of PowerPoint, and most of us don’t know any more about PowerPoint than we learned in our first fifteen minutes with the tool.


  2. Craig, I think this is a great point. Unfortunately the overuse of clever pictures seems almost as bad as dense, text-filled screens. I really do think that some written material does help me understand. And isn’t that what it’s all about – audience understanding? If it’s not, what’s the point?

    I suspect the biggest problem here is that there is so much visual information being presented, your mind can’t take it all in. I’ve done presentations where I have a lot of slides, but each one has essentially a single bullet point with only 2-3 words each. I’m basically feeding people bullet points, just one at a time rather than presenting all the bullet points they do not need.

    This reminds me of something I read: I can’t remember who wrote it, maybe Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte. They talked about using images as decoration. Now, Garr or whoever was talking primarily about using clipart, but it strikes me that this presenter was also using images as decorations – just really big decorations. And when the decoration is really big, it is even more distracting.

    It also reminds me of something I saw in a marketing presentation done by the company I work for. In the background was lots of teachers and students doing various things with tablets. I found myself thinking things like “what are they doing?”, “I wonder what’s up on that tablet?” and “I wonder if they had problems with responsive design.” Different viewers might be distracted in different ways, but I guarantee we’d all be distracted. (Unfortunately, as a software developer/architect nobody pays attention to my opinion on presentations and keynotes…)


    • That’s spot on about the pictures being just decoration. Because the slides came in such quick succession, they each represented very minor points, and it’s hard to portray such minutia vividly in pictures – especially cartoon-like drawings!

      I’m glad this struck a chord with you, and thanks for your thoughtful comment Gary.


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