Why bullet points on slides don't work

presentation skills Mar 14, 2022
Why bullet points don't work

It's time to dump those text-heavy slides from your presentations. A growing body of research in Europe, in the US and in England shows they simply don't work. 

A list of bullet points on a slide is not the best way to communicate. In fact it’s possibly the worst way to communicate.

Researchers at St Gallen University in Switzerland found that bullet points actually make information harder to remember

They experimented with three different ways of supporting the same editorial content:

  1. Text on slides
  2. Visual metaphor
  3. Road map or info graphic

The visual metaphor and the info graphic both scored much higher in terms of engagement, agreement and recall among the audience, who were 74 managers taking part in an Executive MBA program.

A researcher at Northeastern State University in the US went further. Dr Mitch Ricketts concluded: "Bullet-point lectures ... tend to combine spoken words and displayed text in ways that may actually decrease comprehension."

The problem is simple, as UK psychologist and expert in visual communication Dr Chris Atherton explained: "We cannot listen and read simultaneously. Our default is to read - it’s faster." 

So, when there's a lot of text on your slides, your audience is too busy reading to listen to you.

And the result? Your meaning may be lost. 

It's all about what happens in the brain. Language processing - words and speech - happens just above ears. Visuals get decoded at the back of the head.

If a presenter puts up a text-heavy slide and reads it verbatim, there's a meltdown in the language processing department. Words and sounds are being decoded, but at slightly different rates - because the audience has been skim-reading the words and is way ahead of the presenter's voice. The unit gets overloaded.

Meanwhile the workers in image processing are bored: there's nothing for them to do. So they've got their feet up.

The answer is to get the two teams - the language processors and the visual decoders - back in harmony.

And you do that by sharing the burden. 

Use relevant images, road maps and info graphics to convey much of the information, and then layer in words that provide insight or context.

In other words, reduce the text on the screen and increase relevant visuals.

Bob Krulwich, a reporter on US television, came up with the concept of sticky storytelling.  His strategy - in his words - was to "plant an image in the audience's brain, and attach a thought to it." The image gets attention, and gets the audience thinking - then the words give added value.

Try this with your next slideshow. Find the image that speaks to your subject. Then attach a thought to it. 

If you can get your audience's language processing and visual decoding teams working in harmony, you'll get much greater engagement from your listeners - and much more retention of your all-important ideas.