The proper use of bullet points

by Derek Featherstone

Bullet points are often vilified. And rightly so, because they're so often abused. If you use them the right way, they are actually a great learning tool.

When I'm presenting, I don't use a lot of slides that have words on them. I tend to stick with titles, phrases or tweetable quotes, and large photos. I rarely use bullet lists or paragraphs. Probably because I've feared that having the bullet points will lead me to the most primitive form of content delivery: reading bullet points.

But that's all about me. What about the audience? Maybe they want to read bullet point summaries of things. Maybe they're even partly useful to the audience, because they help the audience with learning. In fact, bullet point summaries can be quite effective if they're used properly.

How do I use bullet points properly?

View bullet points as a summary or recap tool, not a content delivery tool. Too often bullets are used on every slide. They shouldn't be, and you know it. Here's an example of how I think bullet points should be used:

Slide 1: big photo, with a focus word on it. Slide 2: other big photo, with another focus word on it. Slide 3: pithy quote, something that is totally tweetable Slide 4: photo or other example that illustrates the point Slide 5: bullet point summary of the things you talked about in 1 to 4.

See? Just a summary. Not every slide. And when you use them to summarize, you won't be tempted to fit paragraphs and sentences into each bullet point. Conciseness is the key to making them easy to scan for the reader.

When people rail against bullet points, it isn't that they're against bullet points. It's that they're against bullet point abuse. When everything is a bullet point, nothing is a bullet point.

Next steps

In your next presentation, think of bullet points in a new way. They're not completely evil if you use bullet points:

  • sparingly,
  • concisely, and
  • to summarize your points.

See what I did there?

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