PowerPoints: Fewer bullets, more confidence.

My PowerPoint decks have always been heavy on the bullets.

OK, really heavy.

But I tried something different this week for my presentation to a conference of graduate-school financial aid professionals.  I was asked by the Access Group to talk about the impact of the new credit-card legislation on their students, and I certainly could have gone down the “heavy on the bullets” approach.

Two examples: The Kudzu and Fear slides

But I decided to go the other way.  I outlined my presentation, wrote my speech, spent a lot of time thinking about how to illustrate my points without hiding behind bullets, and used iStockPhoto.com to find professional quality photos for my slides.  I then created two pages of Speakers Notes, which I copied onto one page and passed out in lieu of a deck that wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t in the room with us.

What did I learn?

  • I spent more time thinking about the flow of my presentation and the audience’s experience than I ever had before.  It finally started working when I decided on the “one thing” that I wanted them to leave with  — Risk and Fear are the drivers of changes in the card industry and the new business model that issuers are creating.
  • I spent coming up with stories to illustrate my points,  It helped that I set up a format for my outline that included Headline, Graphic, Key Point, Supporting Data, and Story for each slide.
  • My presentation was more memorable (i.e., sticky).  People were smiling at some of the images I put up on the screen.  For example, I used Kudzu (aka the plant that took over the Southeast) as the illustration for a slide about the unintended consequences that have arisen from the bill.  It took me two sentences to make the connection, but it worked.  Very few people smile at bullets.
  • I probably swung the pendulum too far in terms of marrying the illustrations to charts and graphs.  In retrospect, I could have easily added a few charts that would have made a few of the slides work even better.
  • On the other hand, I had a section that outlined changes in credit lines, household card debt,  account closures, and mail volume.  Would have made a mind-numbing slide of bullets in the past.  This time, I used a photo of a rollercoaster just before its first plunge and two 28-point boxes that showed open credit lines falling from $4.7 trillion to $3.4 trillion in just over a year.  That approach enabled me to tell a story that used data rather than being driven by it.
  • This approach also added a bit of serenity to my final preparations.  I was changing my own personal Speaker Notes, rather than changing slides.  I did make a last-minute decision to change the order of two slides to improve flow and help with transitions, but that was no big deal.

I know changing my approach will take time, but I got my feet wet on this one.  I’m sharing it with a few friends to see what they think.  There are some great resources out there to get you started — I’ve been reading Nick Morgan and Jan Schultink.  You can’t go wrong with Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, who has a Must Read book of the same title (and a new coming out soon) and a website.  The link is to the website.   Seth Godin put together a great site dedicated to becoming a really good graphic designer. 

The most important benefit to this approach was how I felt as I entered the room.  I had a strategy and I had a message.  And I had confidence.


6 thoughts on “PowerPoints: Fewer bullets, more confidence.

  1. Great post! Isn’t it liberating to use visuals to illustrate all those bullet points. Besides, with the bullet points on the screen, the temptation to actually read them to the audience can be overwhelming.

    I’ve been working through “Beyond Bullet Points” and “Presentation Zen” all year. It’s caused me to rewrite all my programs. I am having a lot more fun presenting and, yes, seen many more smiles.

    1. Liberating is the perfect word. This experience has reminded me that achieving simplicity requires hard work and lots more thought than just plopping something out on a piece of paper. Thanks for the great comment.

  2. Hello, everyone. I placed this posting on a few LinkedIn groups and have gotten a number of responses. I thought you’d be interested in what they said. I will note that my response to the last one from Richard (which was the first one) pointed out that I was coming from a Fortune 500 environment where heavy bullets are the norm and the new approach would have been a major risk.

    Hi, Peter.
    Sounds like you learned a good lesson.

    I think it’s important to remember that slide presentations are a way to reach the visual thinkers/learners in your audience, and to reinforce the words you speak.

    Heavy bullets (or just lots of text) in a presentation is like having a website with page after page of unbroken text–so difficult to read that even the best message gets lost, or puts the reader to sleep.

    And, re graphic design: one of the things I constantly remind my clients is that even if a plug and play software program exists, sometimes it’s better to call in an expert. I’d do this with important presentations–like you, I’m not naturally a visual thinker.

    (And think of the trees you save by passing out the takeaways rather than the whole deck!)

    — From Sarah L.

    Coming from a corporate environment before I started speaking seriously, I was PowerPointed to death by all levels of creative and boring presentations. I make it a point to never use them and instead use a flip chart. That way, I can keep the lights on in the room (keeps the people from napping, too) and my presentations are far more interactive.

    Most PowerPoint presenters forget the original PP rule of 1-2-3 – 1 topic, 2 points readable over 3 feet away per slide.
    — From DeBorah B.

    Sounds like the Financial presentation went well – even if you went to far to the left. I’ll bet your enthusiasm came through as well to the audience.

    I too use photos and other images to “set-up” the bullet points stuff. I also learned years ago to not read bullet pts. I add a single point takeway to the bottom of the slide and let the audience review the bullet pts that support the takeaway. (A good rule of thumb is that your presentation should still make sense if some one only read the takeaways).

    Your note will reinforce the fact that a picture can say a thousand words.

    — From MattK

    I agree! Having done close to 700 daylong seminars over the last 5 years I let the PP go 3 yrs ago. I used to get complaints about my PP show–one thing or another. After over 3 yrs of using OLD FASHIONED flipchart, I had two (2) complaints, out of thousands of participants, who would have preferred PP. I found that interesting.

    — From Bekah C.

    Peter, for someone who is a “communications” consultant I would have thought you’d move down this path sooner. That path has taken me 3 years!

    Once upon a time I relied heavily on PowerPoint for my talks because it was an easy way to manage the structure. Used as a Cue, it meant i could rattle off stuff because I knew my stuff. But that included LOTS of dot points and too much info. I set myself the task to reduce the info I was putting up.I progressed to inserting pics( but still leaving all the info) – to pics with less info – to some pics and some info – to pics – to nothing!

    Yes, I’m now comfortable speaking without any PowerPoint because I know the structure of my talk and the stories to elicit the “experience” for my audience. It’s a big mindset change to move from giving data to telling stories

    That said, I tell a lie, I still use pics but big simple ones that add to my story lines. The difference is – I don’t need them! So when i do use PP Pics its to add to the experience, not a substitute for it.

    The bonus is that my seminars/workshops are now delivered in a similar vein. More fun for me and more enjoyable for the participants.

    There was another thing that helped my transition. I’m passionate about dancing – mainly rock, swing and jive and I get by on ballroom and latin. Combining this with my speaking topics, I use dance as the metaphore as well as for energy boosts and audience participation. It has created a real point of difference for me in the marketplace too.

    I dare say a lot of speakers have/are going through something similar…..
    — From Richard W.

  3. Whether lecturing to international MBA students at the University of Dallas Graduate School of Management, leading global Webinars on how to connect with audiences, or speaking internationally on how to fully develop personal brands, I’ve found that including short video clips engage and impact.

    My blog which emphasizes video, http://www.kaplitzblog.com, has attracted more than 100,000 visitors over the last few months domestically and internationally — especially China. User feedback is: “We love the video, continue to go light on PowerPoint.”

    As Richard W. points out, it can create a point of difference for you.

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