Why BulletPoints and PowerPoints Don’t Mix

How did bullet points become standard fare in the menu of corporate communications? And are they still the right food for today’s minds that are hungry for clarity?

According to Peter Poulsen of ExxonMobil, "In the evolution of corporate communication, especially in a large organization like ExxonMobil (Standard Oil of New Jersey back in the 1950s), the bulleted list played a major role in simplifying and improving communications." Pete sent me an article describing how A.F. (Korky) Kaulakis wrote bullet points (called "Korky Dots") into his company’s history in 1958. According to Kaulakis:

"It was my belief that many capable people were not getting adequate credit and appreciation largely because the basic quality of work that was behind their presentations was lost because of lousy packaging. The problem, to my mind, came down to a lack of clarity that stemmed partly from poor organization of the story that had to be told and partly from unattractive graphic appearance."

Korky’s innovative solution was to recommend that writers use bullet points "to highlight key ideas" in their reports, a recommendation that quickly became a business standard.

In the meantime, business communications media began to evolve and shift off of the predominantly paper platform of the 1950s, and on to an expanding set of multimedia platforms, including "foils", overheads, 35mm slides and PowerPoint. It appears that the bullet point approach tagged along, without question. But have we mistakenly grafted a 1950s solution onto a 21st century media tool? PowerPoint is forcing us to ask that painful question, as bullets on a screen find themselves in the crosshairs in articles, reports, and research.

Because of the problems, it’s time to take a fresh look at bullets, and what has changed since the 1950s. What has not changed is our need for clarity. What has changed includes our scientific understanding of how the mind processes information, the fact that PowerPoint has eclipsed the written memo as the primary media for communicating information at most companies, and the increasing complexity of technology and culture. In order to sort this out, we have to clear our minds of attachments to any specific solution, including bullets, and ask Korky’s question again today:

How can we communicate clearly, organize our stories, and improve the visual display of information?

Research in memory and cognitive science describes the way the mind processes information, and offers guidlines on how to align the display of information with that process. Unfortunately, bullets on a screen are rarely part of the picture. Instead, a new list of effective multimedia techniques includes writing clear headlines, moving narrated text offscreen, selecting relevant visuals, and deleting extraneous material.

Korky’s dots were a communications innovation appropriate for written memos and reports, to break up dense passages of text, structure thoughts, and highlight important ideas. But a PowerPoint slide is not a sheet of paper, and lacks the context of dense text within which bullet points were a good idea. What is an effective technique for print, was never really appropriate for multimedia presentation.

Three cheers to Korky for discovering an innovative solution to help clarify long passages of dense text on paper media. And three cheers to us, as we discover new solutions that will help us get to the multimedia point of the 21st century.

Tip: Test for yourself whether your bullet points are working: At some point in your next presentation, hit the "B" on your keyboard to black out the screen. Hold up your hand and ask, Who can tell me the main point of the last slide? If you don’t get the answer you’re looking for, it’s time to revisit your bullet point approach and make your PowerPoint easier to understand for your audience. Look at one of your bullet point slides, then turn away from it and write down on a piece of paper a sentence that explains the single main idea. Then write that sentence in the headline area, and repeat the process for each slide in your presentation. This reinforces the research-based signaling principle, which states that people learn better when the material is presented with clear outlines and headings.

P.S. Has anyone ever come across a history of bullet points? Was Standard Oil the first to institute them, or were there other companies before them?

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3 Responses to “Why BulletPoints and PowerPoints Don’t Mix”

  1. Hmm.

    Web pages aren’t sheets of paper either, but bullet points still increase comprehension:

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html

    I think the crucial difference is that both reports and web-pages are meant to be read and absorbed as a solitary experience, and the bullet points give you hooks to hang your recall on. An added benefit is that those will largely be the same hooks that other people have, so you can converse meaningfully about what you both read.

    Powerpoint, though, is typically a group experience, and you can use many other means to provide the audience with shared experience hooks, most importantly by using your voice. Pithy, ascerbic, sardonic, or otherwise memorable ‘catchphrases’ easily serve the same purpose as a memory-hook.

    In fact, I’d say that bullet points try to do in text what good speakers do in life, rather than the other way around.

    Given that, there is one place that bullet points may be appropriate in a powerpoint presentation: In the notes area.

  2. cliff says:

    Thanks for the comment, Michael – I agree with your points. Your solitary vs. group distinction is an important one. I’ve come across research that concurs with the Jakob Nielsen study you referenced that compares narrative text vs. bullets, but haven’t seen any yet that compares bullets to images. This is an important area that needs to be explored – the ways that images and layout techniques can communicate complex ideas outside of text or spoken words, as well as in combination with them. The other issue here is the quality of the bullets, whether they’re onscreen or off — are they a list of disconnected points, or do they reflect logical and clear thinking? The best work I’ve seen in this area is Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle – it would be very interesting to see how both web and presentation designers would apply her ideas.

  3. My dad had lunch with Korky a few months ago, as Korky was an old friend of my late grandfather’s. Someday I’d like to meet him myself and talk a little about those dots.

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