Telling presenters that they shouldn’t use bullet points is, well, pointless. I think most people (except excessively lazy presenters) have got the message that bullets are engagement killers. But sometimes they are unavoidable.
So rather than issue an edict that says ‘thou shalt not use bullet points in your slides,’ I thought it might be more helpful to look at what bullet points do to the communication process. This might help you to use bullets more carefully and wisely.
I’m indebted to my friend Ian Brownlee for the psychological insights here. It certainly confirms what I’ve observed through experience over many years.
What’s the Point of the Bullet Point?
Most people believe that presentations are for sharing facts, figures and evidence to convince the audience of the strength of their argument. These are important considerations, but only up to a point.
The problem is that people don’t make decisions based just on the facts. Neuroscientific evidence shows that if the rational and emotional parts of the brain become disconnected, even simple decisions become impossible to make. Recent research indicates that more than 90% or our decisions are based on emotions which then need to be justified by data.
So when you are presenting, don't show them the data. Show them what it represents – the ‘what they get.’ Paint a picture of a brighter future.
ALL decisions (even ‘hard-nosed’ business ones) are a mix of the rational and the emotional. Bullet points are not strong on emotional engagement. So, if that’s pretty much all your presentation has, you have a problem.
In the world of procurement a slightly better mark can be awarded to one potential bidder simply because “it felt better” to the assessors or “they seemed to understand us more.” Multiply this effect across a range of questions and even a marginal improvement in score can make a significant difference to the overall marks and result.
Use words like ”Imagine the positive impact..!” Or “Consider how this will increase…!” This style of language initiates internal emotions - which is what you want.
Control the Narrative
Our role as presenters is to lead the audience through the ‘story’ we want to tell them. We need to focus on one piece of that ‘story’ at a time, until we choose to move on to the next stage. The best way to achieve this is to make sure we get our audience emotionally engaged in our narrative. There are techniques you can use to do this, which we’ll cover below.
Be aware too, of what happens if you ask anyone to read and listen simultaneously. They start reading and stop listening. Project a screen full of text or bullet points and you’d might as well stop talking altogether.
How to Use Bullets and Stay Connected
So, if you get to a point in your presentation where you can’t tell the story with pictures and the spoken word, if bullets look like the only option, what should you do?
How Much Can We Remember?
Here’s the other thing to remember about bulleted lists: people are most likely to retain what they hear first (when their concentration is highest) and last (the most recent thing they hear). It’s a case of front-loading vs end loading in a double bind context.
In the double bind context the first point somebody hears is absorbed and ‘accepted as a given.’ The follow up point or option is then treated as more important and retained longer in the working memory. The working memory applies a “last in, first out” concept. This is especially true if the point is emotion-based and provides more benefits for the receiver.
So the presenter who lists bullets in descending order of importance may be helping their audience remember points that are less important at the expense of key information.
The order in which you present bullet points has more significance than many appreciate. You have considerable influence over what information your audience absorbs and retains - use it wisely!
The point of your presentation is to make an impact, induce positive feelings and be remembered for the right reasons. How you avoid or use bullet points can go a long way to achieving this.
Want to go deeper? Here are links to articles by Ian Brownlee related to this topic:
The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations.
Goodbye, Bullet points. Hello, Transmediation (and Effective & Memorable Communication)
International Presentations: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? How to structure your message.
Published in the ASTD journal.
For now, face to face meetings and presentations are off the agenda. And who knows, there’s every chance that when social distancing restrictions are lifted remote presentations will remain commonplace.
The efficiency of organising presentations without everyone needing to be in the same place is something many clients will want to hang on to. So we’d better all become skilled at presenting online if we want to win new business.
For presenters and bid teams, this brings a whole new set of challenges. While many of us are getting used to Zoom and other remote communication tools we maybe have a bit of leeway. This won’t last. Expectations will increase rapidly as more people experience how online meetings and presentations can be handled with professionalism.
Is it the Technology, or is it You?
Even just the mechanics of getting everyone on the presentation team to make their contribution in a slick and professional way takes some planning and practice. Don’t do your learning in front of your client or your most important audience.
Thankfully, we’ve largely got past the stage when presenters routinely apologised for the technology (or their mastery of it) in face-to-face presentations, we don’t want to replicate that painful experience remotely.
Help Your Voice to Help You
Probably the most important change to grasp is that you are even more reliant on your voice. In my coaching sessions I have always emphasised how important it is to modulate your tone and pace, to use strategic pauses and repetition, to add colour and changes of pitch.
Online presentations don’t allow you to move around. Gestures have less impact. Eye contact isn’t possible (but do make sure you look directly into the camera). Your voice is pretty much all you have at your disposal to bring energy to your presentation.
Supercharging your vocal delivery probably won’t come naturally. It almost certainly won’t feel natural at first. But work at it. Maybe record your script and play it back without images, just to see what sort of impact your voice has.
See What Others See
The next thing I would urge you to do is think carefully about what other participants will see. Position your camera so that it is more or less at eye level. If you are using the camera built into your laptop you will probably need to place your computer on something to bring it to the right level. The ‘up the nose’ shot probably isn’t your best angle.
Make sure you are well lit and that the background is uncluttered with nothing to distract the audience.
These few basic tips will help you be more engaging and persuasive in your online presentations and meetings. I’ll be sharing others over the coming weeks. If you’d like to get into all of this in more detail and have the opportunity to ask questions, I’m also hosting some free webinars on online presentations.
I'll be releasing the details of the next webinar soon - drop me an email if you'd like an invitation: [email protected]
Being a presentation skills coach offers an unrivalled viewpoint for observing leadership behaviours. For a start, there is usually time pressure. There’s also an added squeeze when the presentation in question is for a ‘must win’ tender.
Major presentations of this type are always a team effort - both in the preparation and delivery. Members of the presentation team have different levels of experience and confidence in their abilities. And, above all, the chances of success depend heavily on the quality and quality of preparation time.
Major sales presentations, in fact, are a lot like many other business challenges. Which makes leadership behaviour (whether positive or negative) highly significant.
Preparation and Engagement
The preparation process involves me working with the team to fine tune the presentation and allow team members to practise their parts and get helpful feedback.
Some senior staff want to engage with this process from the start and make it a priority to do so. For them, it’s an opportunity to work with the team to draw out their expertise and help them to develop as individuals. They accept collective ownership of the process and the outcome.
Others take a different approach. They are happy to let more junior staff get on with the nitty-gritty of pulling together data and arguments and putting them into slides and supporting documents. They probably think of this as delegation.
They have confidence in their presentation skills so don’t see it as a good use of time to be part of the rehearsal and refinement process. Then they materialise at the eleventh hour, appearing like Moses with tablets of stone and start taking the process seriously.
Directive or Collaborative?
Let me give you an example of a less than helpful intervention by a leader. They appear near the end of the process and announce… “changes need to be made to the presentation!”
Yes, that’s the presentation the team has just spent days preparing and a whole day rehearsing. “This is going to be a late one - better send out for pizza.”
Time pressures then nudge the process towards being more directive and less collaborative.
At a stroke, the rest of the team is effectively told that their time is less valuable. That their input isn't quite up to scratch. Sections of the presentation they have become comfortable with presenting are being changed before their dismayed eyes.
Calm and order are usurped by disruption and stress. And what for?
Priorities and Outcomes
This scenario is quite common. It’s not done consciously (at least I hope not), it’s usually a reflection of how busy senior staff are. It does, however, have an effect and it does speak about priorities.
Maybe it’s not realistic for leaders to be present for all of the preparation, but it’s massively helpful when you can be there when goals, structure, key messages and win themes are agreed. And it also helps if you keep checking in to add input and encouragement throughout the process and avoid throwing everything up in the air right at the end.
As I said, it’s about priorities. And what, I wonder, can have a higher priority than winning new business, developing your team or working together to achieve a common goal?
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.