6 Alternatives to Bullet Points

 

First things first: bullet points are not inherently bad. They can be very useful in written documents. When used in presentations, however, they stop your presentation being as effective. (They often turn presentations into written documents) In fact, your audience engages less, remembers less, agrees less and likes you less when you use bullet points in your PowerPoint presentations. (International Journal of Business Communication, 2015)

So why take that risk?

Usually the answer to that question is one of: 1) It's what I've always done, 2) It's the easiest way thing to do, or 3) Because what else would I do?

For me, 'we've always done it this way' is not a reason to do something. 'This is the best way to do it' is a reason to do something, and sometimes that overlaps with that we've always done, but not always. 

Presentations are often huge opportunities. You have a room full of people giving you your attention (with potentially thousands more online afterwards) and you're there to talk to them about something significant. So although bullets may be easy, why not make the most of the opportunity? Why not do everything you can to not only get your message across but to get it to stick in people's minds? And finally, the 'what else is there?' issue - well, here are five alternatives to using bullets.

(Subscribers, there's LOTS of images in here, some of them stacked up as slides. It's probably going to be a lot easier to view this on the website itself rather than in an email / feedreader - here's the link.)

1) Just put fewer words on the slide

An example of using fewer words without reducing the impact

An example of using fewer words without reducing the impact

An obvious and straightforward place to start. Take away everything you don't need - if it's surplus to requirements, if you can remember to say it out-loud, or if it doesn't really matter whether you say it or not, just get rid of it!

The example here is a slide I used in a recent workshop. I could of course have listed all the ways in which marketing is changing, using bullet points to separate them. But I felt the slide would have more impact with just a single sentence written on the screen, me listing examples out loud, and a visual metaphor as the background image.

2) Cascade the key messages across multiple slides

Rather than making four or five points on one slide (and risk your audience reading ahead and getting out of sync with you the presenter), make one point per slide over four or five slides. This gives each point room to breathe, and helps with signalling to ensure your audience understands and remembers you.

If you're making several points on a theme you don't have to make new slides from scratch for each one - just do the first slide, right-click and Duplicate it, then edit the text on the duplicated version. I've used this technique in the examples below (use the arrows to switch between slides):

If you've got the most recent PowerPoint you can use the Morph transition between the slides, which works really nicely.

People worry that this method will mean a longer presentation but this isn't the case - you take the same amount of time overall, but cycle more quickly through the slides.

3) Use colour to make lists readable, rather than use bullet points

An example of using colour to differentiate chunks of text

An example of using colour to differentiate chunks of text

There are times when you need several points on a slide - for example when you're showing an audience what you'll talk about, or are summarising something, or making comparisons. In these instances neither of the first two techniques are appropriate; you need all the text on one screen. So just write it out like you normally would, but get rid of the baggage and negative associations of bullet-points by not using them - and recreate the POINT of them (making text easier to read) by using alternating colours.

In the particular example shown here, I've actually built up to what you see over three slides. The first just says has the alternating colours text list much larger and in the centre of the screen, then the second is as you see above but with the Bodleian's reply hidden, and then lastly the slide you see here.

4) Highlight key sections of your slide, one by one

I do this a lot - sometimes by building the content of the slides one animation at a time, or by changing the colour to highlight each section, one at a time. Again it means you can have all the points on screen, but you're not using bullets and you're in sync with your audience.

In the example below I've got all three points on screen but each one is highlighted yellow (picking out the yellow from elsewhere on the slide) while I talk about it - again use the arrows to move between them:

5) Turn your bullet points into something visual

An example of using icons instead of bullets

An example of using icons instead of bullets

A fifth option is to basically use bullets without people thinking 'Aargh, bullet points, death by PowerPoint here I come' etc. Use icons (for example from iconfinder.com) as bullet points - the images will help your audience learn. A basic example is shown here.

6) Combine several of the techniques above

The final example below is how I introduce the timings for my Presentation Skills training days. It does what a single slide with bullet points would do, but uses colour and visual elements over three slides to introduce the information in a more engaging way. Part of the reason I bothered doing this is the slides allow me to talk about each part of the day in turn, whilst staying in sync with my audience, AND it allows the audience to see the full day's timings in one go on the final slide of the sequence.

So there you go! Several ways to avoid bullet points. It's really worth taking a small amount of time to rewrite presentations to avoid bullets: your audience will thank you for it...