« Mike Rohde likes pens, too | Home | Starting up again »

March 31, 2005

Trying to get by without those bullet points

Terry Frazier clued me into an interesting idea: banish bullet points in your PowerPoint presentations. The idea is explained in a book called Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. Cliff has a supporting web site with some good ideas.

Atkinson cites research that says if you put bullet points up on screen and expect people to then listen to what you're saying, you're fooling yourself. Atkinson advocates stripping your PowerPoint slides to an almost Zen-like level: a short phrase as a title with an image that support your idea. The title should be an actual thought or useful idea, not a category. Most PowerPoint slide titles are categories: they tease, but don't provide real information. Atkinson further suggests putting the real meat of your presentation in the PowerPoint notes area, and using complete sentences in those notes rather than bullet points. The real payoff: when you do your presentation, people will have to give their full attention to you in order to find out what it's all about. One part of Atkinson's message hit home: if you do 20 slides each with 7 bullet points, you've just put 140 discrete pieces of information in front of your audience. And you really expect them to remember any of it?

I was intrigued by the idea and bought the book; it arrived two weeks ago. By chance, I had a presentation I was ready to start working on. I thought I had two weeks to put it together, but schedules changed, and I ended up with just a few days to put together a 45 minute-plus presentation.

I decided to go for it. I took the plunge. I did a presentation - 42 slides - titles only, no bullet points on the slides, lots of juicy meat in the notes. I didn't have time to put together supporting visuals, so the slides were stark, bare, just the titles.

Using complete ideas in the titles was a win. Instead of vague phrases like "Disaster Recovery Issues", I used concrete phrases like "Disaster Recovery is difficult because we have multiple farms" and "Keeping the customer data replicated is the key" for my slide titles.

The response was positive. I can't separate the feedback on the form away from the from the story I told, but perhaps that's the point. (I did take care to warn people that the lack of content in the slides was deliberate.) I did the presentation remotely, so I emailed everyone the complete PowerPoint file. One person apologetically told me he looked at the notes view during my presentation.

I did have a bit of trouble with one aspect of the approach. Atkinson's books leans heavily on what he refers to a Hollywood approach - a three-part structure that relies on a formula that goes back to the Greeks for presenting a story. He recommends you establish a setting, an imbalance (the problem you want all to consider), the balance (what you need to do to fix the problem), and the solution (how you intend to fix the problem.) That's all part of what Atkinson calls Act I, an appeal to emotion. Act II is the meat of the presention - an appeal to reason. Act III closes it out with a restatement of the problem and pressing for acceptance of your solution.

My problem was that my presentation was basically information, not meant to present a problem and a solution. I had to work to come up with a problem/conflict that I wanted people to focus on. But hat struggle was valuable, though; Atkinson correctly points out that you need to give people a reason to care about what you're talking about. And the structure forced me to concentrate on the story I was trying to tell, not on a laundry list of details.

I got good feedback after the presentation, so I'll use the technique again. Maybe next time I'll actually get some images to go along with my naked slides.