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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!

PowerPoint – Adding Animation to SmartArt Graphics

To animate or not…always a tricky one. The general feeling in a business environment is to not add any sort of animation. I have come across some customers whose house rules are so restrictive that most of the functionality within PowerPoint has been rendered redundant.

The problem with animation is that people can get easily carried away when adding animation to their slide and simply add animation because they can rather than use it purposefully. You may well see so much animation and varied transitions between slides that it actually detracts from the content of the presentation…or makes people feel ill because they feel more like they are on a rollercoaster as images go flying past their eyes!

So it’s probably safe to say that too much animation is not a good thing. But what is too much? Most presentations are made using bullet points…too many bullet points. This makes it boring and people tend to read on if all the bullets are shown on screen straight away. Bullets can now be easily replaced with SmartArt objects, and these can be animated to show one segment at a time. If you have not tried this before, this is how it is done;

Standard bullet points

Standard bullet points

Assuming you have a slide already set up with a number of bullet points, click on the text box to select it and go to CONVERT TO SMARTART on the HOME tab in the PARAGRAPH group.

SmartArt graphics options

SmartArt graphics options

Click on one of the SmartArt diagrams available or if nothing catches your eye, click on MORE SMARTART GRAPHICS to see the whole list of graphics split into various categories.

Bullets converted to SmartArt

Bullets converted to SmartArt

Once you have chosen one you can use the edit panel to the left of the graphic to alter your text. Depending on the graphic selected you can type additional text in other areas such as the grey area in the example above. If you are not happy with

The chosen graphic pick another until you have the best that matches your requirements.

Immediately you can see that you have something a little more interesting than a handful of basic bullet points.

To add a little more interest you can animate the graphic.

Go to the ANIMATIONS tab and pick from a wide range of animation effects. This is where a little self-restraint comes in handy. You may want to consider if a particular movement emphasises your point or is it just animation for the sake of animation and picking something a bit wild. This is something you have to decide for yourself I’m afraid!

The main types of animation you can apply are:

  • Entrance
  • Emphasis
  • Exit
  • Motion paths

You can control your animation through the ANIMATION PANE, setting timings, how the object appears etc. If you are going to have a lot of animated objects on one slide it may be worth naming each object as it helps you identify them easily within the animation pane. From the HOME tab, go to the EDITING group and click on SELECT and turn on the SELECTION PANE. In here you can rename each object on the slide to something a little more meaningful that just Diagram 1 etc.

Naming objects on a slide

Naming objects on a slide

So at the moment we have given the whole SmartArt graphic an animation which is fine but it would be better to animate each part of it separately to add more interest and to not reveal the entire plan in one go. In the animation pane select your object and click on the arrow on the right hand side to reveal all the options available to you to customise the animation.

Animation options/settings

Animation options/settings

Choose whether the object is animated by a click or whether this happens automatically…whichever you prefer.

The option that is important regarding animating SmartArt is EFFECT OPTIONS.

Animation options on a SmartArt graphic

Animation options on a SmartArt graphic

Go to the SmartArt Animation tab and choose from the options in the drop down list. Depending on the type of graphic selected and the number of elements that make it up, the animation may vary slightly in terms of how it works. Again, if the animation is not to your liking pick another graphic and see how that one behaves using the various options.

Here is one example. Each element is animated by a click.

And the same bullet points but using a different animation and graphic. Again, each element appears on a click.

So next time you are preparing a presentation, spare a thought for your audience. If you were watching your presentation would you be happy sitting through 10, 20, 50 slides with nothing but bullet points? Probably not. So add a little interest by having a number of animated SmartArt graphics. It’s not OTT and can actually help to get your message across.

In another blog I’ll show you how to add single and multiple animations to objects on your slide.