Free yourself from bulletpoint tyranny!

19 September, 2007

As a regular presenter I’m forever looking for new ways to make my slides more memorable and find new ways to communicate my message more clearly.

Over the last few months I’ve read a lot of articles about PowerPoint slide design (Presentation Zen is particularly good), and they seem to be unanimous on one thing – images = good, text = bad. The traditional method of presentation – identical corporate slides filled with bullet points and loads of text – is apparently passe, mainly because most people’s cognitive powers do not stretch to listening and reading at the same time.

So why is it that EVERY SINGLE BLOODY PRESENTATION I ATTEND still persists with this format? Even Philip Kotler, the ‘father of marketing’, whose recent conference in Ho Chi Minh City I attended, did it this way – plain white slides crammed with text which he simply read off the slides, adding very little extra. If he can’t get it right, how can anyone else? Are people like Garr Reynolds and Guy Kawasaki just pissing in the wind?

People’s brains work like this. If you stand up & start speaking, they’ll listen to you. But if you show them a lot of text on a screen at the same time, they’ll try and read it. But they can’t do both. So either they’ll ignore you, or they’ll ignore your slides. Either way, your message is diluted. Give them handouts to read as well, and you might as well just give it up and go home.

So today I tried something new. I was giving a talk to the European Chamber of Commerce here in HCMC about customer retention/loyalty, a talk focusing on concepts rather than lots of graphs and technical data. I wanted people to listen to me, not spend the whole half hour reading stuff off the screen.

So I kept it simple. Each slide had one relevant, high-quality image, and just a few words. No-one got handouts. Once the audience looked at the slide and grasped what the concept was, they wanted to know more and so listened to what I was saying. And because each slide was attractive and different to the previous one, and they had no handouts to tell them what was coming next, they paid attention.

Here are some examples. This slide is to illustrate the ‘leaky bucket’ analogy I mentioned in my recent entry about Richard Dawkins – the audience read the question and saw the picture, and their interest was piqued. This meant they listened to what I said:

Leaky Bucket

This one illustrates the ‘customer loyalty ladder’. Sure, I could’ve done this with bullet points, but then so would everyone else. Why not use a nice image of a ladder, and have the text appearing vertically from the bottom?


Finally, I moved onto customer loyalty, and who better to illustrate the concept of loyalty and faithfulness than a cuddly labrador:


I’ve never had such an attentive audience. Some of them looked a bit baffled at first, but once they grasped the format & realised there was nothing for them to read, they concentrated on my talk. Several of them approached me afterwards and said how much they’d enjoyed it and how different it was, which was great.

But it wasn’t just good for the audience, it was good for me too. Getting rid of the text from your slides helps you focus your mind on what you’re saying, and gives your talk a conversational quality that audiences appreciate. I found that, as I’d rehearsed and knew what image was coming next, I didn’t need to look back at the screen at all and was able to give the audience my undivided attention.

This approach may not work if you’re delivering a highly technical presentation, or one involving a lot of facts & figures, but for communicating ideas and concepts, particularly in a training scenario for example, it is highly effective. It requires a bit more work than the traditional approach (you need to source good pics – try – and you really need to know your talk as there are no bullet points for you to cling onto) – but it’s more fun to deliver and more enjoyable, and coherent, to your audience. Give it a try, and let me know how you get on!

4 Responses to “Free yourself from bulletpoint tyranny!”

  1. leveragethis Says:

    PS my slides are now available in slightly simplified form as I test out the new Google Presentations app – click the link below:

  2. Gavin Says:

    Hi Tim
    Thanks for sharing – I agree with the need to break away from bullet points. Liked your example. I must add some to my own blog as they bring the ideas alive. Tried to look at the presentation via google aps but didn’t like it (the software not the presentation!) Seemed very slow, clunky and unresponsive. Don’t think it was just my internet connection. How’s live in Vietnam?

  3. leveragethis Says:

    I just used Google as I needed a quick place to upload the slides for some of the attendees, & I already had a Google account! You lose a lot of the entrance/fades etc when you use Google so I wouldn’t use it to present, but to make slides available to people who’ve already seen them it does a basic job.

    Vietnam’s good, been here 5 years, booming at the moment which has its advantages & its disadvantages!

  4. […] recently wrote a piece on getting away from bulletpoints and rethinking your whole approach to slide design, and being forced to include a corporate […]

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