Every so often there is an upsurge in criticism about the use of bullets in presentations, often linked to criticism of PowerPoint. I agree that any presentation that is not engaging, understandable, and memorable is likely to be a failure. But I do not think that means bullets do not have their place.
Lets’ consider a famous and influential bullet list, at least for people who live in a culture or group for whom the Bible as a reference. The Ten Commandments are an example of a bullet list. Do you think these points would have lasted millennia if they were buried in the text, or depicted as an infographic?
Another place where many of us see a bulleted list, indeed a list with sub-lists, is when we read a menu. The major list might be Starter, Main, and Dessert – with each of these three broken into several options. For example, the options for the Main Course bullet list might be Steak OR Cod OR Macaroni Cheese.
Why do we use bullet lists?
Although bullet lists are frequently criticized, they remain in very common usage. That is because, when used correctly, they fulfill a specific set of benefits. These benefits include:
A. Belonging together. A bullet list says to the audience that these things belong together AND they are distinct items.
B. An unordered list. Unless we indicate otherwise, a bullet list does not mean that the first item is the most important, or that the last item is key. Indeed the sequencing of items in the list should aid the story telling.
C. Completeness. Unless we indicate otherwise, the implication of a bullet list is that it is (in some meaningful/relevant sense) complete.
D. A summary. The bullet list is a summary. It tells the reader in a short form that this is the key information about this group of items. It also sends a message that this is not all of the information, but just a summary.
The implications for business communication?
So, leaving the bible and menu behind, what does this imply for business presentations? When I use a bullet list, I am saying:
- These things go together. During the presentation I want you to understand they are a group. Afterward, I want you to remember there is a group, so that you can look it up. In most cases, I do not expect people to remember each of the items in the group.
- These things are separate items, even though they comprise a group. So, if they are opportunities, you need to choose one or more of them. If they are potential problems, you need to check each one of them.
- Unless I say otherwise, the order is not fundamental to this grouping. If there is a priority I will make that clear.
- Unless I say otherwise, this list comprises all of the items that I consider relevant to this story/presentation. This does not mean it is a complete list of everything I know, it means it includes everything I think you need to consider at this stage.
I might use a bullet list before talking in greater detail about each of the items (telling people what I am going to tell them). Or, I mighty use it to summarize what I have just talked about (telling them what I have told them). Or, I might use it on its own, and talk to the points (in which case I will almost certainly reveal the bullets one at time).
Visually, in presentations, I often do not use the bullet symbol, when showing a bullet list. A bullet list without the bullet symbol is still a bullet list – but it can make it a bit easier on the eye. However, when I write a book, article, or post, I tend to use bullet symbols (or numbers/letters), because they provide powerful semiotic clues to the reader and make the reader’s job easier.
Three Types of Bullets NOT to Use!
Some common uses of bullets are a problem and these should be abolished. Here are my top three recommendations for abolishing bad bullets.
- Never have only one bullet on the slide. If you are making just one point on a slide, it is not a group, so do not lay it out with a bullet.
- Do not use bullets for things that are not lists.
- Do not use a bullet list that spans more than one slide.