So who says that bullet points are always bad? I'm referring, of course, to presentations. I think the humble bullet point has for too long been the scapegoat of dreadful presenters. Just because awful presenters use bullet points, it doesn't necessarily follow that all presentations containing bullet points will be terrible.
Perhaps this is just a bit of self-defence on my part, because I'm in the process of creating a couple of presentations which contain quite a few bullet points. Nevertheless, having sat in and also given numerous presentations, here is my take on the issue.
- Used well, bullet points can enhance a presentation. If they summarise what the speaker is saying, that's a good thing is it not?
- When I was training to be a teacher, we were told that the board at the front of the lesson should tell a story. If the writing was all over the place, climbing up and down the margins, and with no obvious logic, any pupil who went off in a daydream or came to the lesson late would be unable to pick up the thread of the lesson. Clearly, slides and boards are not the same, but I think the same sort of logic applies.
- That brings me on to the next point. I have found that nine times out of ten when I download a presentation, it is almost completely meaningless -- even if I actually attended the session. At least some well-worded bullet points make the slides useful subsequently.
- Although bullet points aren't the most visually compelling thing to show on a screen, they do have the advantage of being clear, assuming they are well-written of course. Contrast this with the situation in which every slide is a picture, and so as well as having to listen to the speaker you also have to try and figure out what the picture has to do with what he or she is saying. That isn't always the case, but in my experience the more intent a speaker is on demonstrating how far they have mastered the art of the 'killer presentation', the more apparently divorced from each other are the meanings of the graphics and the words. Having said that, I have been privileged to witness some brilliant graphic-intensive presentations, but I think it's difficult for a presenter to carry off.
- As an audience member, I don't mind bullet points at all, especially if they enable me to relax and listen to what the speaker is saying instead of either trying to work out what the slide is showing or furiously scribble down notes. However…
- I do get annoyed when the speaker proceeds to read the bullet points. Yes, by all means draw attention to the salient points, but a bit of paraphrasing doesn't come amiss.
- I like the speaker to have more information or insights than are displayed on the screen. For me, the bullet points should act as both a launch pad and a summary. They should not merely be a substitute for thought.
When all is said and done, I think the most appropriate type of presentation is one which is suited to the audience and the topic. A presentation by an advertising agency to a potential client would probably not wear bullet points very well. In contrast, a presentation to an audience of school leaders on the issues facing them in a particular sphere could well benefit from a liberal sprinkling of bullet points. It seems to me that, like a lot of things in life in general, whether bullet points are good or bad depends on the context, the audience and how they are used.
A slightly different version of this article has been posted on the Technology and Learning website.