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PowerPoint – Alternatives to Bullet Points

Bullet points in presentations have a very bad reputation, not because they are necessarily bad things, but because they are over-used and misused. Seth Godin (marketing/presentation guru) describes bullets as aggressive, and usually represent a disorderly random list that is easily forgettable. Garr Reynolds (author of Presentation Zen) argues that text laden bullets are actually a barrier to good communication. Even psychologists have studied the effect of bullet points and Chris Atherton (cognitive psychologist) concluded that “bullets don’t kill, bullet points do”.

So, all in all, a pretty damning indictment of bullet points.

Unfortunately, the dominance of the text heavy bullet point slide still exists in the workplace today. It is still far too commonplace to see presentations made up almost entirely of bullet points.

I mean…does this look in any way interesting?

Bullet point hell!

Yawn! You wouldn’t want to sit through that, so why inflict it on others?

Now we know that bullet points are the devil incarnate, what are the alternatives?

The best solution that all the leading presentation experts point to, is use a picture. It may be a cliché to say a picture paints a thousand words…but it does. Images, if chosen carefully will elicit an emotion from the audience which they will remember more easily and far longer than they will a list of words.

Assuming you work for a slightly more conservative/traditional organisation which expects to see bullet points and the whole screen image thing is a step too far, then try to get a bit more creative in how you present your bullets.

Use SmartArt

SmartArt graphics are ready-made and editable graphics that can convert the humble list into something a bit more interesting. As with bullet points themselves, don’t over use SmartArt and definitely don’t use the same one for every slide.

If you have bullet points, and you have managed to reduce the text down to key words, you can convert your bullet points into a SmartArt graphic very easily.

Here we have some very basic bullets;

Basic bullet points

On the HOME tab, look at the PARAGRAPH group and you’ll find the option CONVERT TO SMARTART.

Convert to SmartArt

Click on that to open a selection of SmartArt graphics.

Initial list of SmartArt

If you don’t like any of those shown, click on MORE SMARTART GRAPHICS and choose from the whole list of available designs which are arranged by category.

Full categorised SmartArt list

Click on your preferred graphic and PowerPoint does the rest.

Converted bullets

Use the formatting tools to customise the appearance and if you want to, you can add some simple animation (nothing too distracting!) to show your “bullets” one at a time rather than all in one go. Remember, if there is text on a slide your audience will read it, and not only that, they will read it far quicker than you will present it, so anything you say about your slide is of no interest as everyone knows what’s coming up.

Speech Bubbles

A simple alternative might be speech bubbles or similar shapes that contain a word or two. Again…only use key words not paragraphs!

Thought/speech bubbles

In the example above, it does mean having more slides to show my three points but that’s not an issue. Remember, you don’t want people staring at the same slide for too long, and by that, I mean no more than a minute or two. If the slide becomes a distraction turn the screen black (press the B key) and just talk to your audience.

Notice that I have changed the eye position in each slide to look towards the thought bubble (done with Photoshop). It might seem like a minor point but as viewers, if we see a face, we are automatically drawn to it and then we automatically follow the direction of the eyes. So, if the eyes are looking in the wrong direction away from the object you’re trying to get people to look at, it causes a subconscious meltdown.

So, there you have two alternative ways of showing bullet points. There are of course many other ways of doing this, using custom graphics etc. but these two are readily available in PowerPoint and easy to create.

There is however, a caveat to all of this. When putting together a presentation there needs to be a common theme or design running throughout so that the audience knows that all the points you are making are somehow connected. The temptation to pick random images and graphics to simply avoid bullet points won’t be as effective as a set of slides using a common theme or design.

Putting together visually impactful and meaningful presentations takes lots of thinking, planning and preparation.

This last point is probably what pushes people towards creating bullet lists – they are quick and easy to put together, requiring little thought or planning. Unfortunately, that translates into uninteresting and unmemorable slides. A short list is sometimes the way to go…just don’t turn your entire presentation into one massive list!