*Check out the presentation for this post, which was just selected a Top Presentation of the Day on Slideshare.
You've got a presentation coming up.
You've got a lot of good material to share. So you crank up the slide software, and start typing away, bullet point after bullet point.
You're doing exactly what many speakers do. It's by far the easiest way to go, and you can do it even the night before your big speech.
And you'd be doing exactly the wrong thing, according to... well, just about every presentation coach alive.
When you go with dense bullet points, what ensues is the sort of disaster captured hilariously by scientist Fergus McCauliffe in this TEDx talk:
Now, you can certainly do a lot to make bullet points more readable and captivating, as this Copyblogger post (and the posts they link to) shows. And yes, "listicles" are all the rage right now.
But that's for written content.
When it comes to visual aid for a live presentation to real humans, bullet points may be the easiest thing to do, but they're rarely the best option.
There're loads of superior design alternatives that are simple to carry out, and that greatly help the audience understand and remember your message.
Let's look at six of them.
Note: The first three are rather common; the last three are much less common. And the 6th is by far my favorite. It's the most challenging but offers the greatest potential payoff. Stick with me 'til the end to find out. (Yeah I know, you'll probably skip ahead)
Here, btw, is the presentation for this post if you'd like a quicker read. But stick with the post if you prefer more detailed explanations.
Groundwork: Cut down to key phrases and words
Bullet points are not terribly complicated, are they?
They're simply a list of things that you'd like to talk about, and do so in some sequence.
And for you to present them like the list you typed up... well, it requires the least amount of work. It's the laziest thing to do. And audiences know that.
For example, I could use the below slide to teach my students about TED talks:
And this would've dropped their interest and engagement considerably. You've seen this happen right before your eyes.
Unless you've got a legitimate reason to put up every single word (such as when your audience absolutely must see every word of an important legal notice), it's best to identify and keep only the key phrases and words:
Here're three basic traits of effective key phrases:
- They're usually not full sentences (which take too long to read).
- They instantly remind the speaker of the point to be addressed
- They instantly remind the audience of the points that were addressed
But... these slides aren't very pretty, are they? In fact they're as ugly as they're easy to do. It's incredible how many speakers still use slides like these.
Let's re-design them, right now.
Option #1: One Point, One Slide
Now, if you're going to spend a set amount of time on each point, why would it matter whether they're on separate slides or the same slide? It wouldn't.
So let's give the three points their individual slides:
If you think three slides are going to take you longer than one, it actually doesn't - because you were going to talk about all three points anyway. It's exactly the same amount of verbal material.
And this re-design places the emphasis on the individual points while giving them powerful visual support.
If you need more details to support each point, make these the section headings and add supporting slides after them.
This has become a common design, as most decent presenters know by now the power of great photos + terse slogans. Here's an example from Erik Pesik, who has several Top Slideshare Presentations.
Now, just because a lot of speakers are doing "one point per slide with photo", should you always do your slides this way?
Because putting all points on the same slide DOES serve a purpose: it gives the audience an overview and reminds them of the previous points. When people need to take notes during your presentation, this can be extremely useful.
And this brings us to the next option...
#2: Keywords + photos on one page
Once you've homed in on the keywords of each point, it's pretty easy to fit them and their supporting images onto the same slide, like this:
To help the audience focus on the point you're addressing, have them appear one-by-one while de-emphasizing the earlier points:
This way, your audience can focus on the point you're talking about, while still having access to the previous points.
Of course, this is with only three points. If you had more points to cover, you could go with a horizontal orientation, such as this sample slide:
With all that white space, you can obviously fit five, six, seven or even more points onto the slide. But as always, do not go overboard and cram a lot of words onto a single slide.
#3: Keywords + icons on one page
This is another option that has become extremely popular in both presentation design and infographics. Even the stereotypically dull United Nations has used it, for instance on its flagship Sustainable Development Goals initiative:
Recently I helped design a presentation on eight critical factors of Silicon Valley's "innovation ecosystem". Having seen the speaker's earlier slides, he would surely have gone with something like this:
And below is my design for a Chinese-speaking audience. You don't need to understand Chinese to see the difference. Once again I had the icons appear one by one - clockwise starting from "Exit Strategy" - to follow the speaker's narrative.
FYI: If you're speaking to a young-ish audience in Asia, especially Japan, China, Hong Kong, etc, using cute or even cartoonish graphics can work well. In these countries, it's not unusual to see even serious subjects like drunk-driving and sexual harassment communicated via cute cartoons.
For another example, here's a presentation with professionally-designed icons from presentation designer agency Ethos3:
What if you don't know how to make icons, and don't want to pay a graphic designer?
Luckily, free icons are all over the place. Some quick Googling turned up resources such as this collection of 40 free icon sets.
The three design options above are pretty common. The next three are somewhat less so.
#4: Alternate background images
A downside of putting every single point plus photos/icons onto one slide is that the visual elements may become tiny - there just isn't enough space!
The 4th design option addresses this problem:
- Keep your points on one side
- Simply switch the background photo to support whichever point you're talking about
- Insert a gradient, semi-transparent layer between the text and the photo so that whichever photo you use, the text will always be visible
A beautiful real-life example of this technique comes from Bill Gates' 2010 TED talk. The core of his talk was a formula for the biggest drivers of CO2 emissions. He kept the formula on top while switching the background images:
Pretty neat, isn't it?
But the neatest part of all? You don't need to be a designer to pull this one off. It's actually a pretty simple design you can do right within Keynote and Power Point.
#5: Wall of Text
90% of the time presentation experts would tell you to cut down on the number of points and words on your slide.
This design goes in the opposite direction.
Put all the words up there. All of them. Form a great wall of text with it.
Then selectively highlight key ones you're talking about.
This design achieves two effects at once:
- It conveys a sense of abundance - as in "holy moly there's a lot of disasters!" (you could of course also convey good abundance).
- Yet it uses contrast to let you drill in on specific terms and words.
I haven't seen it applied much to presentation slides, but it certainly shows up in other designs, such as the cover of Nate Silver's excellent book The Signal and the Noise.
#6: Rethink the List Entirely!
At last, the sixth option.... the most difficult yet with the greatest potential payoff.
Actually... you might want to begin with this step. Ask yourself:
- Is my list of points really just a list?
- Or is there some underlying structure that organizes them?
- Can I visually represent this structure?
If there is indeed a visual structure, it can be extremely effective in helping the audience understand and remember your messages.
You''d be giving visible shape and contour to your ideas, and instead of just hearing you, your audience will be able to see your ideas.
Take, for instance, this random list of things: friendship, respect, family, trust, sex, confidence, loyalty, creativity, good food, art, leisure, intimacy, achievement, meaning, security, expression, music, autonomy, sleep...
Would you remember this list a week from now? Don't think so.
But Abraham Maslow organized them into a hierarchy of human needs, and it became one of the most influential frameworks ever.
Common ways to organize a list of points are: by chronology, by geography, by place (such as when organizing technologies by where they're used in a home), by function, by steps in a process...
Here's good recent example I witnessed in person.
At the 2015 TEDxTaipei annual event, BMW's Alexander Kotouc spoke about the future of transportation. He could have simply thrown a list of future technologies at us, and that would've been interesting but forgettable.
Instead, he organized the technologies into a journey most of us can relate to - in this case his journey from his home in Germany to the conference center in Taipei. (Below is a mock-up of his slides, as the video of his talk hasn't been made public yet)
He proceeded along this journey, highlighting each "leg" visually as he described the ongoing technological revolution that would completely change the way we move about this world. This was much more engaging and memorable than a loose list of transport technologies would've been.
Another excellent method is to use a visual metaphor.
Whether you agree with the metaphor or not, this is certainly more memorable and easier to recall than a long list of terminology. Compelling AND accurate visual metaphors are hard to find, but they are worth every bit of your effort.
Bullet points are always the easiest option in slide design, and rarely the best. With just a little bit of effort and creativity, you can massively improve your slides to boost audience understanding and memory.
What about you? What are your favorite ways to re-design the bullet point? I'd love for you to share them in the comments below.
- Are bullet points appropriate for ANY presentation? Yes - when the star of the show is the text. For instance (as mentioned before) when students must read and understand important school regulations. Another case: I took a course on international law in grad school, and the professor used slide after slide of bush-thick bullet points. And it was perfect, because we were going to be tested on the legal texts, so were ultra-motivated to read the words. But my guess is that you won't have the luxury of motivated audiences for most of your presentations. You have to motivate them, and nothing kills motivation like dense bullets.
- The story structure - Yes, this one is conspicuously absent from the post, because it deserves many posts of its own. Organizing your points into a story is arguably the best way to present. For instance, take the "Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem" slide from above. Instead of going through the 8 elements like a list, I suggested that the speaker weave them into a story - how an entrepreneur encounters the 8 elements on a journey to founding her startup. And this resonated with the audience much better than a list did.
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