When should you stop using bullet points? Now

They are the fast food of PowerPoint presentations—quick, easy, but ultimately likely to clog the flow of your life blood: clear communication. So says this veteran speaker.

As a general approach to effective PowerPoint presentation design, bullet points are not OK.

Let me give you a bit more back story. I’ve answered a handful of questions on Quora, a crowdsourced Q&A site. Some have been about social media and marketing, but most address presentation questions. Someone recently answered a question that I had once answered, so I get the notification in my email. The question was, “What makes a good PowerPoint presentation?” (Yes, pretty open ended and generic). As I read the latest answer, my fuse finally ran out and I answered:

“Six bullet points per slide. Each bullet point with no more than 6 words.”

Now, let’s get some perspective on this. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, right? The PowerPoint landscape is so bad (though we’ve made great strides in the last five years) that if all those who use PowerPoint followed this guideline, we’d be way better off than we are currently.

That said, this tip is a copout. It’s a compromise, and I’m done with compromising. No approach to presentation design should contain a reference to bullet points. I do use them on occasion, but if I were giving someone a five-minute lesson on effective presentation design, you certainly wouldn’t hear me addressing how many bullet points are OK.

What bullet points have to do with weight loss?

Let me explain this differently. If a person is trying to lose weight, the formula is pretty simple: Exercise, count your calories, make proper food choices, and drink plenty of water. If this person is grossly overweight and eats at McDonald’s twice a day, every day, then even just reducing their fast-food intake to twice a week instead of twice a day will quickly result in weight loss. But that approach won’t work forever.

Cutting down to twice a week would surely be difficult, but why give in on the two? My suggestion would be to cut out fast food all together, because allowing it twice makes fast food acceptable, to a point. But it’s not acceptable, and people can reach their weight loss goals faster if they never touch it. It’s about changing the lifestyle, and a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have room for fast food.

The same goes with bullet points. When it comes to providing an approach to designing effective presentations, there’s no room for bullet points. Does that mean you’ll never see a bullet point in an effective presentation? No.

I live a very healthy lifestyle, but I do visit McDonald’s, though very rarely. Let’s just say when I visit McDonald’s, I’m never able to remember the last time I visited. And if you look at some of the greatest presentations, even those by the late, great Steve Jobs, you’ll find bullet points.

Effective presenting sans bullet points

My point is that you can’t provide an approach to effective presentation design that accepts bullet points. Remember my approach to weight loss? Did I address fast food? No. I hint at it, with my mention of proper food choices (because simply counting calories isn’t enough), but I don’t provide an acceptable number of visits to McDonald’s every week. If you ask, my answer will be zero.

The same goes for my approach to effective presentation design: I don’t provide an acceptable threshold of bullet points, because you have to figure that the designer will use at least that many on every slide. If your child asks what their curfew is, do you give them one that’s even a minute later than you’re comfortable with? No way, because as a parent you know that your kid isn’t coming home even one minute earlier than their curfew, and probably a minute or two later.

Am I being too grumpy? Or is it time that we stop coddling PowerPoint designers (both professional and amateur) and expect more of them?

Jon Thomas is the founder of Presentation Advisors, and the Director of Communications at Story Worldwide. He blogs at PresentationAdvisors.com, where a version of this article originally ran.


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