Read time: 3 min.

Over the past several years, there has been a movement to improve how presenters create their slides, and there’s a need for the movement still (that’s why I am here).

But sometimes, when there is a problem to solve, the proposed solutions can lead us to the opposite extreme. When that happens, there is still a problem, but now it’s just on the other side.

I've seen this happen with presentation slides. To combat the common mistakes being made, people suggest extreme measures. These suggestions often lead to even more confusion, because they often aren't reasonable for the particular purpose of the slide. Ever felt that way?

In the real world, not every presentation is solely for inspiration or entertainment purposes. Many are for informational and educational purposes. Those take a different approach when designing.

That being the case, not every slide in your deck can be, what I call a “Successories Poster” style slide. Those are great for many purposes, but they aren't the only slide style you need. Sometimes, in order to be effective, your slides need to have words, graphs, charts, and sentences on them.

And sometimes they even need bullet points, which is the topic I am finally getting to.

I like bullet points.

They are great tools for helping communicate efficiently, because they help with scanning. They are great in emails, bloggers love them, and they can work on presentations slides too.

Bullets have gotten a bad rap lately, though.  But they aren't the bad guys they’re made out to be.

Why the bad rap?

The reason for the bad rap is that people misuse them in slides. That’s all.

Presentations slides evolved into bulleted, complete sentences of everything the presenter would say. That IS bad. Don’t do that, please. That is not the purpose of bullets or your slides.

These violations prompted many rules on the subject to prevent the misuse, “No more than 6 bullets per slide…six words per bullet…” These rules, however, are not very helpful. A slide created this way is still misusing bullets, making them the “bad guys.” But not using any bullets isn't the answer, either.

So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water… bullet points are the fastest way to achieve their purpose. Sure, if you had time to create some alternative way to meet their purpose visually, that would be great. Connie Malamed, the "eLearning Coach," wrote a great article called "6 Alternatives To Bullet Lists," if you do have time. But the reality is, there is not always the time or a graphic artist handy to make it feasible.

When you understand the purpose, you can use them with confidence…and no guilt.

So, what is their purpose?

What are bullet points meant to do?

  Act as little visual targets

They help your eyes quickly see where an item in a list starts and where a new one begins. Without them, it is possible from a glance, to think you are looking at a paragraph. It takes more time and effort to sort things out.

Some people say to not even use bullets, but I would only agree with that if there is no need for a visual target. Items that are short and separated enough to clearly be seen as separate could sit there without a bullet. But I like using them anyway.

  Show a group of items together

Sometimes it is important to show things that relate - together. It helps people create a kind of package for the information in their heads. If you don’t use bullets in this situation, you may make it harder for people to associate the items and remember them.

It is possible that you would have several items that go together. If you follow the rules of only 6 bullets per slide and you have 7 or more things, you wouldn't be able to put them together. I think that might make a certain Disney dwarf even grumpier.

If they go together, it’s okay to show them together with bullets. If you need to go into detail about each item, you could have them “click in.” one at a time. If you need more than a few seconds on each, then you can start with them all together, then have a slide about each. That way you don’t sit there with 7 bullets on the screen for half an hour.

  Avoid implied sequence or importance

If you list items with A, B, C or 1, 2, 3, it implies sequence or priority. This can cause misunderstandings if you didn't intend a particular order. So if you are listing cooking steps, don’t use bullets, use numbers. You don’t want to bake your cookies before mixing them. But you could use bullets just to list the ingredients and your cookies would still survive.

Bullets help you communicate items with neutrality. A bullet says “here’s an item, no judgement, just an item. Catherine S. Hibbard, expert business and technical writer, goes into more detail if you need it.

So, bullets have a purpose. With these principles in mind, you can forget the rules. Sure, if you have 6 bullets on every slide with each one followed by a complete sentence, you might want to reassess.

But, as long as you are using them for their purpose, use bullet points with no apologies?

What are your questions or comments about rules that you have a hard time following? Please share them below.

Cheers,

Nick


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