The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations.

© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporation(In this article I will only refer to presenters / presentations. However, most of the information also applies to trainers and training courses)

Unfortunately, one of the most common types of slide found in presentations and training courses is that of the “Bullet Point” : A list of long, often complex sentences which the presenter believes or hopes will help communicate their message effectively. Frequently, the presenter insists on reading each bullet point aloud (A Reading Master Class!) Which is often seen as insulting the audience’s intelligence and the presenter seems to go outside the written text which can confuse the audience. More often than not it is a crutch for the presenter instead of an aid for the audience. Even worse, it is often used with a dark blue background and white or yellow letters which is a great way to get the audience to disconnect from the presentation (link to the article )

Also, It is often shown as an “Open Show” slide where all the information is presented at one time. This is a big problem in a presentation as anything that is projected onto the screen immediately takes precedence over what the presenter is saying. The audience have to read, and understand, everything on the screen BEFORE the can pay attention to the presenter.

It is important to remember that the use of PowerPoint is to produce “Visual Aids” which are designed to help the audience to clearly understand a complex topic. They are NOT designed to act as a substitute for the presenter. As our survey results indicate that 88%  of audience members disconnect from presentations when it turns into a master class reading lesson. (link to the article).

It is the Presenter’s job to “control” the audience during the presentation and this includes their conscious and subconscious mental processes.

Social markers vs content:
Please read the following and identify the main message of the communication:
– Open the door!
– Would you please open the door!
– If it’s not too much trouble, would you please open the door!
– I would really appreciate it, if you could do me a favour and open the door!
– I know we have only been together for a short time today. However, I would really appreciate it if you could, whenever it is convenient for you, stand up and open the door.

Obviously, the message is “Open the door” in all of them. Apart from the first one which is the most basic and clearest one, all of the rest of them have what are known as “Social Markers”. These show the speaker’s perceived status relative to the receiver. The first one is from the absolute power to a lowly subordinate. The last one is from a very subordinate person to the person perceived as the most powerful: The longer the social marker used, the higher the status of the receiver.

In a post-graduate study that I undertook many years ago, investigated exactly what audience remembered with information listed as bullet points and our results showed that, in general, if the first point was memorable for some reason, the audience remember the concept. The degree of recall decreased with each successive point. The audience did, however tend to remember more clearly the last 2 or 3 points. This is another example of the primacy / recency effect in action.

Priority of the writer vs the reader
Task: Before continuing reading this article, Rapidly write down the five things that are most important for you in a relationship:

I am sure that you have written the most important one first and then in descending order of importance. Possibly, the last one or two are of much less importance the first ones. This has a very serious effect in presentations: The writer/presenter’s order of importance is usually from the most important to the least important while the reader will focus on, and remember most clearly, the last ones. Also, implicit in a bullet list is the relationship between the elements in the list which may, or may not, be clear to the audience.

In English & Spanish and many other languages, the main content of the communication is usually at the end. In spoken communication, we have the examples shown above.
Where is the main content of a written communication:
– in a paragraph – at the end.
– in a scientific communication – at the end (the conclusions)
– In a Detective story – at the end (Identification of the criminal)

In order to use bullet points effectively, it is highly recommended that the presenter animate each one to appear when they decide to show it: they then decide for how long the audience will see it and they also decide when it is time to move on to the next point. Finally, it forces the presenter to talk about each point in a way which the audience can follow. In this way the presenter is controlling the subconscious mental processes of the audience and it also allows them to elegantly make their presentation longer or shorter depending upon the time available: A.K.A. “An Accordion Presentation”.

By “Animation” I mean that the material just “appears” – it does NOT appear as moving text, nor letter-by-letter, nor with sound, nor undulating or any other fancy type of distracting elements.

Capital vs Small letters.
It is vital that the orthographic rules of the language are followed in presentation slides exactly the same as if we were writing a report or other document. There in, in my opinion, NEVER any reason to write complete sentences or paragraphs in block capitals – even for titles.

Letter size
The minimum size for letters should be 28 point (Ariel). If the presenter wants the audience to be able to read the text easily.

Deletion of redundant words
Do NOT write complete, complex sentences. Instead, write the key words that will pique the audience’s curiosity about what you are going to say and therefore make them listen and pay attention in order to understand the message completely. Consider them as a “hook” to catch the subconscious mind of the audience.
“We will increase sales by 20% in the next quarter (Q4) after the launch of our new product” (BAD)
“Sales (Q4) + 20% : New product.” (Good)

The use of the latter type of text creates a situation where the audience members are required to perform a mental “hypothesis formulation / resolution” activity: Since they have very little information, they have to hypothesise about the meaning of the text and then listen to the speaker to find out if their hypothesis is correct. This means that the audience are mentally participating in the presentation which obviously increases their involvement and retention.

As you can see, there is much more to using simple “Bullet Points” in a presentation. There are alternative ways of communicate which are more effective and that will be the discussed in a future article.

Your feedback would be appreciated.

© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, Spain, September, 2014.

About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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4 Responses to The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations.

  1. Len Strachan says:

    Great article. I have had the “the presenter leads the presentation, not the presentation leads the presenter” conversation more times that I can recall. I’ve also seen presentations with size 8 Arial text because “it is super important that all this information is on this slide”…

  2. I strongly agree – it’s sad that bullet points are so common, and I agree with most of your other points too.

    In particular, it’s good to subtly animate slides so they reinforce the speaker’s words, without distractions. Also, it’s great to use less text.

    In fact I’ve written several posts on similar points, and I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on any of them. (Links to your site are also welcome!)

    For instance, this one’s about how many words to put on a slide, with input from Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and other experts:

    I didn’t follow a couple of your points though. For example, you said animation lets speakers “elegantly make their presentation longer or shorter”. That reminds me of seeing presenters trying to rush through animated slides when running out of time – “elegant” wasn’t the word that sprang to mind!

    If the slides aren’t animated, they’re a lot quicker to race through if the speaker is running behind. (That’s still a terrible situation, but at least the speaker has to make far fewer clicks to get to the next point that they still want to talk about.)

    Anyway, as I said I concur with most of your post, so thanks for promoting discussion about all this.

    • ianbrownlee says:

      Hi, Craig,
      Thank’s for your comments. By “making the presentation shorter or longer” I mean that the presenter can spend 10 seconds on the point or 10 minutes – It all depends on how much time they have! Re Nancy Duarte, I don’t think that she is such a guru as many of her ideas are from the last century. Alsoshe is, for me, too oriented toward American presentations and not International ones. I believe that, in general, any study older than 2004 needs to be considered less valid because of the changes that have occured in communication over the last 60 years. I do not believe in prescribing a minimum / maximum length per point as can be seen by the example given. As Einstein once said¦ “Give what is necessary – no more and no less.”
      Please feel free to contact me of-line if I can provide any additional ingormation.

  3. Pingback: ianbrownlee

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