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Moving Beyond Bullet Points: A Three-Step Approach

By: Cliff Atkinson

Page 2 of 4

Read Cliff's interview here...

Date Created: May 17th 2006
Last Updated: February 26th 2009

...continued from Page1

Can I See the Focus of the Presentation by...
Does This Presentation Balance My Spoken Words and...
Does This Look Interesting to My Audience?

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Can I See the Focus of the Presentation by Reading Only the Slide Titles?

The first question to ask about any set of PowerPoint slides is whether they help the viewer quickly understand the main idea of the entire presentation. At this initial stage of your analysis, reviewing the specifics of individual slides is not as important as seeing how the slides work together as a whole. To take a look at the big picture of any presentation, clickView, Slide Sorter to display thumbnail-size versions of all of your slides in a single view, as shown in Figure 1-1.

Slide Sorter view of the Contoso PowerPoint presentation
Figure 1-1 Slide Sorter view of the Contoso PowerPoint presentation

As you review your slides in this view, ask yourself, "Can I see the focus of this presentation by reading only the slide titles?" When you review any presentation in Slide Sorter view, you should be able to determine the main idea of the presentation at a glance. If you can't confidently grasp the focus of your presentation in Slide Sorter view, your audience will not confidently grasp the focus of your ideas either. In the example shown in Figure 1-1, the main idea is as hard to find as a needle in a bullet point haystack.

The titles of these example slides don't help you see what is most important because they are category headings—like those you see in almost all PowerPoint presentations. These generic headings designate a general category of information for a slide but offer little about the specific information the slide contains. A category heading like "Growing demand" is actually an information placeholder that asks the implied question "What information belongs to this category?" You naturally answer that question by listing the category items with bullet points.

A category heading can help you quickly brainstorm a list of information, but as you can see here, it does nothing to help you quickly understand what is the most important information on a single slide or across the slides in a presentation. When you read the three headings in this example ("Growing demand," "Market research," "Forecast"), they really don't say anything specific. To find out what the headings mean, you need to invest extra time you don't have to connect all the dots of the bullet points below the headings.

Remember: Using generic category headings as the titles of your slides makes it difficult for both you and your audience to see the focus of your presentation.

Category headings put an extra burden on you and your audience as you both struggle to see the focus of your ideas through the slides in your presentation. As your audience views these headings and their corresponding stacks of bulleted lists, slide after slide, it's no wonder that they find the presentation unfocused, hard to understand, and overwhelmed with unnecessary details.


Does This Presentation Balance My Spoken Words and Projected Visuals?

The next question to ask of any presentation is how well it balances your spoken words and projected visuals. You can analyze a presentation using these criteria by looking at the PowerPoint file from a little-used perspective called Notes Page view. To review your file from this angle, select any slide and click View, Notes Page to see a view similar to Figure 1-2.

Contoso presentation
Figure 1-2 The Notes Page view of a selected slide from the Contoso presentation.

In Notes Page view, the top half of the screen displays the slide that appears on the screen during a presentation. The text box below, which does not appear on screen during a presentation, can be used to write down the words you will speak while you show this slide. In this example, as in most PowerPoint presentations, all the information has been squeezed into the slide area above, while the notes area below was ignored. The result is that the relationship between your spoken words and projected visuals is not addressed.

Because half of the available real estate for information is not used, the slide area becomes the single place that holds both spoken words and projected images. This creates a scarcity of resources in the slide area, which predictably produces overloaded slides. Words will usually take priority over visuals, so you will tend to see slides filled with text—which is what the Contoso board noticed. Visuals added to these already crowded slides will usually shrink to the size of postage stamps so that they can squeeze between the boxes of text. These dynamics produce slides that are overly complex and difficult to understand. The result is usually information overload for your audience.

Always remember that no PowerPoint slide exists in a vacuum. You are standing there speaking to your audience while you project the slide. That means that you must effectively plan how your spoken words and projected images relate to each other. If you don't balance what you say with what you show, you are certain to create an imbalance in understanding for your audience.

Remember: Ignoring the notes area forces you to squeeze all of your information into the slide area.


Does This Look Interesting to My Audience?

The last question to ask about your presentation is what impact your slides will have on your audience. Audience response can be difficult to predict, of course, because your audience is not present during your analysis. But you can get a rough idea of how things will look to them if you click View, Normal to display your slides in Normal view. This time, when you look at a slide, imagine that your audience is in the room viewing it, as in this example:

PowerPoint Presentation

This technique will give you a sense of what your viewers will experience when they see this slide. Unfortunately, the view in this example doesn't look engaging. What your audience experiences is exactly what you experience when bullet points appear on a screen. What was once interesting suddenly becomes dull. The atmosphere becomes formal and stiff, and relaxed discussion stops. It's almost as if bullet points take aim at whatever is interesting and lively in a room and silently kill it.

In your analysis, you've already noted some of the roots for these common audience symptoms, including a lack of focus and overloaded slides. Another obstacle is the monotonous background of the slides. As in most PowerPoint presentations, these example Contoso slides were created using a design template with a single, predesigned background. Using a single background gives slides a uniform look, but it also prevents you from using a wide range of design techniques to visually highlight the most important information on single slides or across slides. It can also make your slides appear repetitive or tedious, which might cause boredom and inhibit understanding.

These problems can create confusion and frustration for an audience when a presenter simply reads bullet points from slides to an audience. The most common audience response to this situation is, "If you're going to just read me the slides, why do I need to be there? Just e-mail them to me!"

Showing and reading bullet points to an audience undermines the purpose of presentations. People attend presentations to learn about a topic as it is explained by another person. When you read bullet points, the slide is doing the talking, not you. This becomes a counterproductive exercise that can waste both your time and your audience's. Being chained to the sequence of bullet points in your slides can also severely constrain your ability to demonstrate confidence in your topic, express your personality, and make a real connection with your audience.

Remember: Reading your slides to the audience constrains your ability to demonstrate your confidence, express your personality, and make a real connection.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The Contoso board has given you an opportunity to use your analysis to transform your PowerPoint presentation beyond bullet points. When you close your PowerPoint file, you think for a moment about what you have to do. You're confident that you have good information in your current presentation, so your main challenge is to present that information in a new way that makes it easier to understand. You have a great deal at stake here because you want to make a good first impression in your new job and you want to help Contoso meet its financial goals next quarter with the successful marketing launch of the IQ Pill.

But what strategy will help you to move the Contoso PowerPoint presentation beyond bullet points and make it focused, clear, and engaging? To find out you need to step back from PowerPoint for a moment to see the bigger presentation context.


Continued on Page 3...

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