Sunday, September 18, 2011

On bullet points...

Most people who know me will have heard me give them the 'I hate bullet points' monologue when triggered.  Those who've worked on a presentation with me, may have had the experience of me un-bullet-pointing a presentation we'll be delivering together.  Brutally.  Not in a mean way - but it would take a *lot* to persuade me that a presentation should have bullet points in it at all.  And if they are there, they should be minimal and contain only the key points expressed succinctly enough that they could be written on the back of stamp.

What's wrong with bullet points, I hear you cry (well, possibly you're not bothered either... but if you are, here's the problem with them) - they make you read out what's on the slide.  That sounds a weak argument, doesn't it?  But the moment you start reading from the slide, you should sit yourself down, distribute the handouts and invite your audience to peruse those instead.  It's a presentation, not a book group.

I've seen people turn their back to the audience and read directly *to* the bullet points in front of them.  I've attended presentations where the entirety has been someone reading the thing out... bullet point by boring bullet point.  Or, one of the worst I attended where someone managed to cram 28 separate bullet points on the same slide... and helpfully said 'I doubt you can read these' as they then read every single one out.  Not good.

The other thing that bullet points do is that they restrict your flow.  Instead of the presentation flowing from start to finish, it becomes a race with hurdles which you must jump to progress to the next slide.  Miss out a bullet point and people wonder what happened.  Even if you don't specifically mention the bullet point, you feel obliged to say 'I'm skipping that one' or a variation on the same.  But what if as you're presenting you realise that your audience needs more or less of what you're saying?  The bullet point hurdles sit, obstinately on screen... refusing to budge... and force you to clamber over each and every one.  They don't let the presentation breathe or respond.

So, my manifesto for presentations...

1.  Remember you are presenting - the audience is there to hear and see you.
2.  Your slides are in the background.  They are not the presenter.  You are.
3.  Think of slides as visual punctuation.  They accent points.  They highlight specific elements.  However, like all punctuation, they are not there to provide the substance, they are there for structure.
4.  If you find yourself reading out your slides, you've got it wrong.  Watch out for these moments and make a mental note to yourself to sort it out.  If your audience has to wade through reading them, then they aren't listening to you.
5.  If you're going to use images, really use them.  Don't be too literal.  Don't distract.  Don't go for cheap laughs (unless that's what you're after!).  Think about what you want the audience to feel.  Think about how visuals might help you emphasise your point.  Think about where they're placed.  And when.  And what size.
6.  Less is more.
7.  This doesn't necessarily mean less slides though.  Two or three words per slide to make specific points can be flipped through very quickly as you speak - which might well mean more slides than normal.  This is okay - think of it as a process of animation.  Lots of frames to make one moment of animation.  If I'm displaying data, I may have several slides to build up the chart so that each element I want to focus on has space.
8.  If you're starting to prepare a presentation don't start in PowerPoint.  Get the framework planned first before you go near something that might force you into thinking in bullet points.
9.  If you really want bullet points, put them in the notes section of your presentation.  They're for *your* benefit.  And if other people want to have access to them, share the presentation with them afterwards.
10.  You don't need bullet points if you know what you're talking about.  A good presentation takes time.  And practice.  And thought.  But all the thought that went into it, means you don't need all those bullet points.  They're a safety net which prevents you from really talking with your audience.

Oh, and the irony of me presenting the above as a numbered bulleted list doesn't escape me.  But this is okay - you're reading this.  You're *meant* to be reading it.  If I were presenting it, you'd probably get about 10 slides with images and me making each of the points in a range of ways!
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