Beyond Bullet Points

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 0 comments

The Theory

Beyond Bullet Points (BBP) aims to revolutionise the way presentations are made using PowerPoint. It implements a process that is ‘practical, orderly, focused and disciplined’, beginning away from PowerPoint to help the presenter form ideas without restriction. The approach focuses on the audience, analysing in detail what they want to hear and how best to convince them of the truth of the presentation’s message.

Atkinson clearly states that bullet points do not work, and displays extensive use of psychological research to come to his conclusions about the BBP approach. The reader is taught the limitations of working memory, and how best to maximise the information retained by the audience. The main points of this theory are:

  • Less is more
  • Use a familiar pattern
  • Keep the audience informed as to where they are and what they are learning
  • Use visual aids so that audiences are receiving information via two senses

The theory behind Atkinson’s teachings is widely used by presentation experts, including m62. Atkinson stresses the importance of keeping information presented to a minimum, and not overloading working memory by having too much happening at one time. The concept behind Beyond Bullet Points focuses on moving away from using PowerPoint as a cue sheet for the presenter, and instead using it as a visual aid for the audience.

What’s good about it?

Atkinson’s biggest strengths come into play in terms of messaging. Atkinson recommends really taking time to analyse the audience and moving away from PowerPoint when beginning to write. In writing the first (and most important) five headlines, Atkinson demands that the headlines answer ‘each of the questions that every audience wants to know’. These questions are:

  • The Setting Headline: Where am I, and when is it?
  • The Role Headline: Who am I in this setting?
  • The Point A Headline: What challenge do I face in this setting?
  • The Point B Headline: Where do I want to be?
  • (The Gap Between A and B) Headline: Why am I here?
  • The Call to Action Headline: How do I get from A to B?

The questions are formed as the basis of the ‘story thread’, and this theme is continued throughout the rest of the presentation. Atkinson stresses that using a familiar theme and pattern will help guide the audience, and improve the volume of information recalled.

His story template encourages the presenter to make conscious decisions about the structure of a presentation, and in particular prioritising certain ideas, and using these as a basis for the detail. Atkinson also places his most important slide, Call to Action, at five minutes (based on the assumption that a minute will be spent on each slide). This is the point at which audience attention peaks, so it is vital that the pivotal slide in a presentation is positioned here, which Atkinson notes accordingly.

What could be improved?

At times Atkinson’s approach can be a little over-simplified, which rather than engaging and interesting audiences, could bore and alienate them. The practice of writing a headline to summarise each slide is a good example of this. Atkinson recommends writing a full sentence to title each slide, and explain what is happening. Yet if an audience feel like they fully understand what they are being taught, they may not pay full attention. At m62, we practise Visual Cognitive Dissonance, whereby a visual puzzle, such as an incomplete graph, is shown on a slide. This means that the visual aid does not make sense on its own. The effect of this is that the brain is stimulated to seek for a solution, and thus the audience listen attentively to the presenter’s explanation.

Also, as Atkinson’s headlines mean that the audience will be reading a full sentence on screen, the audience will read rather than listening to the presenter. Using text in this way can be little better than using bullet points; the headline will distract more than explain.

In terms of visual aids, Atkinson suggests using simple static pictures. This, Atkinson explains, avoids distracting the audience by overloading the slides with too much detail (such as the corporate logo) and animation. However, the advice to use photos to ‘provoke an emotive response’ is in fact a little misguided. Photos will indeed create such a response – but not always in the way the presenter intended. For example, the picture of a magnifying glass Atkinson uses to visualise ‘You are searching for a solution’ could evoke a wide range of thoughts in an audience; from puzzle-solving to Sherlock Holmes. Pictures and especially images of faces should be used with caution in a presentation, and should be absolutely necessary to explain the point at hand.

On the other hand, while Atkinson is right in thinking that busy slides will divert attention away from the message, in this case animation can help. True visual aids involve a seamless fusion of presenter and slides, and moving diagrams greatly help to explain this. Yes, too much animation will detract from the main focus – there is nothing more annoying than having images ‘swoop’ or ‘twirl’ in – but, when used appropriately, animation can focus the audience’s attention on the right thing at the right time.

Similarly, a logo at the top or bottom of the screen can create a more corporate image. This is best thought of as a company letterhead. The logo can be easily programmed to stay in place on each slide, thus not drawing attention to itself as the presenter progresses through the presentation. The logo will simply create a more impressive and professional looking slide.

What does it have that others don’t?

One of the best things about Beyond Bullet Points is that it provides a detailed and easy-to-follow practical approach, explaining each action taken along the way. This means that even complete beginners to PowerPoint will be able to implement the Beyond Bullet Points approach. This feature is bettered by the bonus CD, which shows each stage in practice, as well as providing templates and layouts for use in both PowerPoint and Word.

Atkinson explains early on that there are different views available in PowerPoint – something that most presenters do not fully take advantage of. Using ‘Notes View’ in presenter mode enables the presenter to see notes while the audience cannot, and looking at an overview of all slides while preparing the presentation helps to keep the structure in good form.

Should I buy it?

Beyond Bullet Points is a good first step away from the standard – and boring – PowerPoint presentation. It explains clearly and simply how to step away from using bullet points, and why it is necessary to do so. The reader is left in no doubt that he should take dramatic steps to engage the audience, and that visual aids are the way to do this.

The book excels in explaining things to beginners: taking each point and slowly breaking it down until the reader is completely clear as to what he should be doing. The downside of this is that the approach lacks ambition. Whilst the use of visual aids is rightly stressed as important, Atkinson limits his perception of these to static pictures, and fails to see that these are not fully effective visual aids. Hiring a design company or undertaking PowerPoint training can produce a much more effective, and professional-looking, presentation.

Ultimately, Beyond Bullet Points is fantastic as a jumping-off point. Atkinson’s theories encourage the reader to make sure that the presentation is focused on the audience, and that the structure and messaging are tailored to them. The use of visual aids is promoted, and the reader is left with the firm knowledge that bullet points are dull and ineffective.

While Beyond Bullet Points may be lacking aspects of visualisation and practical advice, it should inspire readers to seek better graphics and animation in their presentations. Having understood the theory, the reader can look elsewhere to obtain knowledge of better visual aids, and thus better, and more effective, presentations.

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