When talking about gun laws, it is sometimes said that guns don’t kill people; people do. Regardless of where you stand on that issue, the physical reality is that it is in fact the bullet that makes contact and causes the damage. Tip 8 in the Presenter’s Manifesto states exactly that: Bullets Kill. And by that, we mean the text bullets on our slides. Too many bullets can kill our audience’s attention and render our presentation ineffective.
Opinions vary widely on what the right number of bullets is, and how long each should be. In the end however, a common sense minimalist approach is often the most effective. In taking this approach, we:
- Think of bullets as headlines. In his book, The Power Presenter, Jerry Weissman suggests that bullets serve only as framework to which the details must be added by the presenter. In other words, bullets should not stand alone. Using the analogy of a news article, the bullets are the headlines, and we as presenters provide the text of the story.
- Stay consistent. All bullets should start using the same part of speech. If the first bullet starts with a verb, for example, all of the following bullets should start with a verb and use the same tense. Capitalization should be consistent between bullets and from slide to slide. A simple approach is to use title case for slide titles (first letter of each word capitalized) and to capitalize the first word of each bullet. Regarding punctuation, if a period is used to end the first bullet, it should be used to end all of the rest. Using periods on some bullets and not others can be distracting to the eye. As a general rule, if the bullets can be used to complete a sentence, then a period should be used to end them, but in any case, do every bullet the same way. Using all capitals should be avoided. Ever since lower case became a reality on computer hardware, using all caps has become synonymous with shouting.
- Avoid multiple levels. Sometimes multiple levels of bullets are unavoidable, but our goal is to always avoid visual complexity as much as possible. Complexity leads to a sense of being overwhelmed (and sometimes irritation) which can lead to losing our audience’s attention. As always there are caveats, especially in teaching presentation styles where large amounts of information are indeed sometimes best organized using multiple levels. For general audiences, however, one level is best.
- Use bullets sparingly. Hard as it may be to believe, bullets do not need to be be part of every presentation, and they should always be used sparingly. Overusing them can lead to anesthetizing the audience.
When creating our presentations, we keep Tip 8, Bullets Kill, in the front of our minds. Our goal is to make things as uncomplicated as possible in order to keep our audience engaged.
This post is part of the series “The Presenter’s Manifesto”. You can find the beginning of the series here: Presenter’s Manifesto – Prologue