21 Feb

Ban the bullet point!

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Steve Jobs

When you present, do you feel pressured to capture as much information on power point as possible? Do you fill up every slide with thousands of words so that your audience doesn’t miss a thing?

A few months ago we looked at preparing engaging presentations. One key aspect was to make sure that your visuals (e.g. power point) supported, but did not distract from the message you were trying to get across. There are many things you can do to ensure that they support your message in the best possible way.

Have you ever seen a presentation given where the presenter simply read through a list of bullet points on a slide? What did you think of the presentation? What do you recall it being about? What key points do you remember?

Chances are, with a presentation read off slide bullet points, you found the presentation somewhat dull and it is highly likely that you recall very little about the presentation message.

So, why should we ban the bullet point?

Bullet points form the foundation of most power point templates. These templates encourage us to list information as text in points and subpoints. Often businesses encourage us to use this format through in-house templates as well. This format usually means that many of us fill a slide with lots of words and few, if any, pictures or diagrams. 

Research into the cognitive theory of multimedia learning points out that following a presentation in which information is presented only in text, there is a significantly lower recall and application of knowledge than when the information is presented as both illustrations and words. (“A cognitive theory of multimedia learning: implications for design principles.” R Mayer and R Moreno

In the worse case scenario, this means that if your presentation is constructed with only text in bullet points, then your audience will recall very little of the information you are trying to impart. Now, supposing that you have spent hours preparing and practicing and also supposing that there is a hoped for benefit from doing the work, you have potentially wasted yours and your audience’s time.

What can you do to improve your slides without bullet points?

  • Stop using bullet points (OK, I know that there are bullet points in this blog…but  this is not a presentation)
  • Summarise your message in as few words as possible on the slide (even one word !) and provide the detail verbally
  • Use a relevant visual to accompany the word/s

This might seem too simplistic and you may argue that your presentations contain highly technical information or that the slides act as a handout for the audience to take away. Following on from the ‘words with picture’ benefits mentioned above, research has also shown that words are more effective when presented auditorily rather than visually. In a study of students learning about the formation of lightning, those who viewed an animation whilst listening to a narration generated 50% more effective test results than those who viewed the same animation with only corresponding on-screen text. (Mayer and Moreno, in press)

So you can support even technical learning without bullet points and lots of text. It may mean that you just have to think about it a little harder. Just remember – YOU are the expert presenter, not the slides. People have come to see YOU present, not just to read slides! So help them get something out of it, through cognitive principles. (Remember, people can take notes, or you can provide handouts and resources afterwards.)

When you start to prepare your next presentation, think about these principles and banish the bullet point!

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