Shellie Tucker: PowerPoint without bullets

As part of the Office Online Training and Demos team, Shellie Tucker has written about PowerPoint, Word, InfoPath, Office SharePoint Server, and other Office programs. She cares about the audience, so please provide feedback!

It was a gamble. And it gave us pause. Could we give a PowerPoint presentation and use NO BULLET POINTS? Could we divorce ourselves from the tried and true — and deadly boring? We decided to try.

You've had the experience many times: sat down in a conference room for a PowerPoint presentation, gotten the cheerful intro from the presenter, felt hopeful as you eyed the big first slide projected on the screen with its cool corporate colors, and then WHAM! Slide 2 hits you like a ton o' bricks. It is packed to the gills with text, using all five levels of bullet points and every micron of space on the slide, in the tiniest possible type — something like this:

Text heavy slide

If you had hope for the presentation, it evaporates. Once again, you're the victim of bullet-point abuse. The presenter has filled the slide with bullet-pointed text and expects you to read it all, as he or she covers each point. And you know there are probably 20 slides to come that look just like this one. The room feels airless, and you plot your escape.

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common PowerPoint experience. Even at Microsoft, where PowerPoint is developed, people who use it tend more toward the text dump-a-thon approach than to tapping the program's high visual and entertainment potential. I see why it happens. We're under pressure to deliver a certain amount of information in the slide show, and the most direct method seems to be to fill up the bullet points with it. End of story.

The sad thing is, the result is torture for an audience to sit through. By contrast, we think wistfully of those few presentations in our lives that have been fun to watch, from start to finish — with presenters who really wanted to engage us, and who used the slides to play video or display clever images or conceptual graphics that brought home what they were saying.

It was with the goal to try something like this — a slide show that would delight rather than dismay — that I and my team decided to bust out of the suffocating bullet-point clench.

Our chance

It was an effort I'd been waiting to make. I was sick to death of the standard series of text-filled slides. Also, while it's my job to write about PowerPoint, the bulk of that is in-the-trenches work, focused more on how bits of PowerPoint work than on the actual use of it, i.e.: giving presentations. I wanted to learn something new there.

At the same time, a compelling book came my way, Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft® PowerPoint® to create presentations that inform, motivate, and inspire (Microsoft Press, 2005). Wow, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Could Atkinson show me the way? (Note: There is now a wonderfully expanded 2008 edition, based on PowerPoint 2007.)

Interest met opportunity when my team was asked to give a presentation to other writers and editors in Office User Assistance. All of us in Office UA contribute to the Office Online web site, but we specialize in different programs and content. My team primarily creates online training courses for the site. Now there was an effort to give more of us in the group at large a chance to try new content. So, the goal of our presentation was to encourage others to write courses and to give them guidelines for doing that.

Part of our mission in writing training courses is to make learning Office an enjoyable thing. It only followed that a training presentation on the subject would have to be enjoyable, too.

Finding the drama

We turned to Beyond Bullet Points as our guide for a new kind of slide show. (Note: What follows is a subjective take on the BBP method and an illustration of how we applied it. I don't represent this book or have any tie to the author. That said, I can't recommend it highly enough.)

Thank the stars for Cliff Atkinson, who conceived the "beyond bullet points" approach (hereafter referred to as BBP). Atkinson helps you realize that hidden in the dry details of the information you're presenting is a story. A drama in which your audience is a key player. That's a central shift of the BBP way: your slides aren't the focus of the show. Your audience is.

Your job, as presenter, is to figure out the drama that's brought all of you together and approach your material in those terms.

  • What's the need of your audience?
  • How are you going to address that need?
  • What can your audience count on having at the end?

You address those critical questions right at the start, laying out a kind of plotline—an instant audience hook.

Getting visual

The other key to making the slide show engaging is that you maximize the slides’ visual potential. Atkinson explains that the slide needs to communicate to people’s “visual channel,” while they’re taking in what the speaker is saying through their “verbal channel.” If the slide merely duplicates what the speaker is saying, it’s a distraction. A powerful image, by contrast, completes the speaker's message.

It doesn’t mean you use no text. Remember: you’ve got your presentation “story” to tell. You do this by turning each slide’s title into a complete sentence, stating the point of the slide. And you illustrate that with an image.

So: kicking off our slide show, our goal was to deliver our plotline up front, bolstered by supporting images. You're meant to do this in the first five slides. Our first five looked something like this:

First slide with sentence and picture

You’d like to know what that involves

Writing a course is a roundabout process

Never fear: support is here

Follow these guidelines and find the training animal inside

With the slide text pared down to only a title, the onus is on you, as presenter, to give the additional commentary for each slide. In this way, you keep your relationship to the audience active and dynamic. Now they're not looking to the slide for the details, they're looking to you.

Capturing your notes

You can capture your commentary in the form of speaker notes, in that area in the PowerPoint window that is below the slide (not visible in a slide show). So, bullet points don't go away entirely, but they're reserved for the notes. The great thing is that you can print out all these notes and use the notes pages as your handout. (Notes pages are one of the options you have for printing.) The format is tidy. Here’s an example of how one page from our slide show looked printed with the notes:

Example of notes page

PowerPoint also lets you print handouts in Word (in PowerPoint 2007, click the Microsoft Office Button, point to Publish, and click Create Handouts in Microsoft Office Word; in 2003, click the File menu, and point to Send To). This requires some work with formatting, but it’s another possibility. You could opt to delete the slide images in Word and just print a nicely formatted outline for your handout, too.

Making the shift

I was sold at the start to try something different with PowerPoint. So what was the experience actually like, to make the shift to a new kind of slide show, and do so with a team of people?

Not without its bumps and challenges. Looking specifically at the BBP approach, you start by hammering out an outline, and this endeavor was gnarly. You know that there has to be a lot of back and forth among team members to come up with wording and an approach that's agreeable to all.

But one reason the BBP outline was tough was that it had to be really fleshed out before we could start creating slides. I noted, regarding the slide examples above, that each slide title had to be a complete sentence, to keep the storyline clear. Well, those sentences are drawn directly from your original outline (you do the outline in Word, and use the Slides from Outline command in PowerPoint 2007 to import them). That was quite a tall demand. I found that some of the wording, tone, and even the approach I wanted were not precisely clear to me until I was closer to a presenting situation, working with slides, imagining an audience. Also, if one person is wordsmithing the outline, other presenters may not feel that the slide wording fits with their own style.

But the biggest mental hurdle was the shift to images on the slides rather than text. Yes, I confess: losing my bullet points initially made me panic. Once we'd gotten all our slide titles onto slides in PowerPoint, we had a whole lot of blank space (over 70 slides) that we had to fill with images. Going visual felt overwhelming.

Getting in touch with good online resources for free images helped, though. (Beyond Bullet Points gives great tips on finding free ones or ones that you can license for cheap.) And then, thinking about the right image or graphic for the slide became fun. Of course, you don't always need a representative picture. Sometimes another type of shape—animated text boxes or thought bubbles — or graphic was appropriate.

As for my teammates, they took to the visual format like ducks to water.

It's worth it

In the end, I think we'd all agree it was well worth it. Our audience's feedback was overwhelmingly positive. And the effect, for me, of thinking about the audience in a new way is lasting. Having chucked the bullet-point approach, I can't go back. However I get there, in future presentations, the audience comes first.