What are you trying to say?

One of the biggest mistakes I see with PowerPoint presentations is the bullet list with too many bullet points.

A bullet list should have no more than three points. Okay, I’m not one for “set in stone” rules, so, use four points if you must.

More than three bullets and your point will be totally lost. This happens because of diminishing impact of long lists. Have you read an article that had one of those long lists of ways to do something? This is supposedly the hot technique to grab attention these days. The technique grabs attention but doesn’t hold it. The titles go something like “15 Ways to Lose 5 Pounds” or “10 Ways to Improve Your Work Environment”.

Don’t you find yourself accelerating your scan as you progress through the list? You’ll read the first one and then start the second one, scan the third, skip the fourth because it’s too obvious and then fly through the rest of the list hoping to see one item you hadn’t thought of already. Then you’re out of there. The typical reader will actually read only about 20% of those “X reasons to” articles. They are popular because they get a high click rate on the internet. People think, “I have time to read a list but I don’t have time to read an article.” When they see the list is longer than they care to read, they speed up and exit. There’s a runway effect.

The same happens when your slide hits the screen with 15 bullet points. The first thing that happens is the audience rapidly scans and judges each of your points. They pass mental judgment before you speak. Then they mentally calculate how long this slide is going to take.

Having your bullet points cleverly animate their way onto the screen won’t help. In fact, that will probably enhance frustration. As soon as the first item appears in 7 point type, they know what’s coming.

The goal of any presentation is to make a point. Let’s say sales have dropped and there are ten reasons for the decline. You want to lead into the problem with some numbers and then say you’ve identified ten reasons for the drop in sales. Up comes the bullet list with the ten reasons, each of which will now be expounded on individual slides. Doesn’t that tell the audience what’s ahead?

So what should you do if you have ten important reasons sales declined and find it necessary to cover each one? There are many solutions but I’ll give you the two best.

You can say “I’ve identified the factors that combined to reduce our sales” and then go through ten separate slides explaining each factor. Don’t say “ten”.

Or, you can group the factors into short sub-lists. For example, “Our first mistake was in marketing. We reduced advertising dollars and targeted the wrong product for January.” See? There are two items covered but I’m not using bullet points. I’m making a statement. I would proceed to make my other points in similar fashion.

Most PowerPoint “experts” will say you are wrong to have ten items in the first place. It’s necessary to boil it down to a single point. Cut, cut, cut. But I understand business. You’re not producing entertainment. If there really are ten reasons sales declined, you need to cover them. This after all, is work. You’re not trying to entertain when you have to talk about a sales decrease. So cover what needs to be covered. Just avoid the long bullet list.

Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog
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