The $5000 bullets — avoiding bulleted lists in your slides

Chris Rock jokes that rather than worry about gun control, bullets should be made to cost $5000. I suggest transferring the idea into your presentations. Those bulleted lists? Think of them as very expensive, and to be used incredibly sparingly. To help you with that, this post will give some ideas on alternatives to bulleted lists that alter the display of the information, but not the underlying list-like content.

It’s not really that bulleted lists are that inherently bad. But they are so over-used in presentations that you should be actively trying never to use them, to make sure you’re not lazily lapsing into filling your slides with them — nothing communicates a lack of effort to your audience like slide after slide of bulleted lists.

Bulleted lists are over-used for a few reasons:

  1. They have become something of a default, both in presentation software, but also in people’s minds when making slides. I think that links in to the next point:
  2. They are an easy way to fill space. A blank page in Word can be intimidating, but at least you only have to worry about content — as you type, the layout is automatic. Bulleted lists are a way to reclaim this simplicity in presentations. Without them, you have to consider both the content and the visual design. This is harder, but it will allow you to make better slides!
  3. I usually plan my presentations by making a list somewhere of the points I want to make. That’s fine, but there is then more work to be done to transform the bulleted list into a set of slides. Slide after slide of bullets is a sign that the presenter did not have the thought (or time) to actually do the real work of preparing a talk — they just dumped their initial plan into a series of bulleted lists.

The ideal route to avoiding bulleted lists is just to design completely different slides, splitting up the content of a list into several slides or using diagrams. This is easily said, but it’s a big enough topic that it will require another post in future! Today I just want to show what you can do when you feel like you really must have a bulleted list. Because bulleted lists are so cliché, I believe it’s worth using a different design, even if it’s still a list at heart that’s presented just slightly differently. Here’s a basic example from one of my talks:

The bulleted list was transformed into a spider diagram

In this example, the bulleted list was transformed into a spider diagram.

It’s not breathtakingly wonderful, but I still think it’s better than the original bulleted list (top-left). A different alternative from another talk is:

Same content; more interesting visual display

Same content; more interesting visual display

The content is still the same but, again, it at least looks slightly different to the usual list.

If you go so far as to ban yourself from using bullets, you’ll find that you start to come with up more imaginative designs (constraints breed creativity). My personal favourite from my own talks is a related work slide. I wanted to give a list of all the related work in an area and talk through a couple of them. (Researchers’ aside: in general, I’m not sure it’s worth having related work in a talk, but for this talk it was a saturated research area, so it seemed worthwhile talking through the differences between our work and the large amount of existing work.) My slide started out like this:

This related work slide is awful...

This related work slide is awful…

A horrific wall of bulleted text — and I had set myself the challenge to have no bulleted lists in the entire talk. One flash of inspiration later, and I had this:

...this version was much more captivating.

…this version was much more captivating.

Try the bullet challenge yourself: construct a talk without using a single bulleted list. It’s a bit tricky, but you might surprise yourself with what you come up with as an alternative. In general, I usually try to avoid bulleted lists entirely. One or two might creep in — but even you can often display them in a slightly more interesting format, which stops your audience switching off.

I once heard a teacher describe giving some no-bullets advice to a set of school pupils — the teacher said the pupils’ presentations were much worse than the usual bullet-supported ones, because the pupils could no longer use the slides as the structure of what to say, so they got totally lost while giving the talks. The nice thing about the nearly-bullets-but-not-quite format of the slides shown here is that they still retain the underlying structure, and can still act as prompts for less experienced presenters (contrast that with the more advanced technique of just having a picture or single phrase on a slide).

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