The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations

In this article I will only refer to presenters / presentations. However, the information also applies to trainers and training courses)

Unfortunately, one of the most common types of slide found in presentations and training courses is that of the “Bullet Point”: A list of long, often complex sentences which the presenter believes or hopes will help communicate their message effectively. Frequently, the presenter insists on reading each bullet point aloud (A Reading Master Class!) Which is often seen as insulting the audience’s intelligence and the presenter seems to go outside the written text which can confuse the audience. More often than not it is a crutch for the presenter instead of an aid for the audience. Even worse, it is often used with a dark blue background and white or yellow letters which is a great way to get the audience to disconnect from the presentation. (1)

Also, It is often shown as an “Open Show” slide where all the information is presented at one time. This is a big problem in a presentation as anything that is projected onto the screen immediately takes precedence over what the presenter is saying. The audience have to read, and understand, everything on the screen BEFORE the can pay attention to the presenter.

It is important to remember that the use of PowerPoint is to produce “Visual Aids” which are designed to help the audience to clearly understand a complex topic. They are NOT designed to act as a substitute for the presenter. “In a June 2013-2014 study, the results indicate that 88% of audience members disconnect from presentations when it turns into a master class reading lesson (2).”

It is the Presenter’s job to “control” the audience during the presentation and this includes their conscious and subconscious mental processes.

Social markers vs content:

Please read the following and identify the main message of the communication:

- Open the door!

- Would you please open the door!

- If it’s not too much trouble, would you please open the door!

- I would really appreciate it, if you could do me a favour and open the door!

- I know we have only been together for a short time today. However, I would really appreciate it if you could, whenever it is convenient for you, stand up and open the door.

Obviously, the message is “Open the door” in all of them. Apart from the first one which is the most basic and clearest one, all of the rest of them have what are known as “Social Markers”. These show the speaker’s perceived status relative to the receiver. The first one is from the absolute power to a subordinate. The last one is from a very subordinate person to the perceived as the most powerful: The longer the social marker used, the higher the status of the receiver.

End-weighting

In a post-graduate study that I undertook many years ago, investigated exactly what audience remembered with information listed as bullet points and our results showed that, in general, if the first point was memorable for some reason, the audience remember the concept. The degree of recall decreased with each successive point. The audience did, however tend to remember more clearly the last 2 or 3 points. This is another example of the primacy / recency effect in action.

Priority of the writer vs the reader

Task: Before continuing reading this article, Rapidly write down the five things that are most important for you in a relationship:

I am sure that you have written the most important one first and then in descending order of importance. Possibly, the last one or two are of much less importance the first ones. This has a very serious effect in presentations: The writer/presenter’s order of importance is usually from the most important to the least important while the reader will focus on, and remember most clearly, the last ones. Also, implicit in a bullet list is the relationship between the elements in the list which may, or may not, be clear to the audience.

In English & Spanish and many other languages, the main content of the communication is usually at the end. In spoken communication, we have the examples shown above.

Where is the main content of a written communication:

- in a paragraph – at the end.

- in a scientific communication – at the end (the conclusions)

- In a Detective story – at the end (Identification of the criminal)

Animation

In order to use bullet points effectively, it is highly recommended that the presenter animate each one to appear when they decide to show it: they then decide for how long the audience will see it and they also decide when it is time to move on to the next point. Finally, it forces the presenter to talk about each point in a way which the audience can follow. In this way the presenter is controlling the subconscious mental processes of the audience and it also allows them to elegantly make their presentation longer or shorter depending upon the time available: A.K.A. “An Accordion Presentation”.

Capital vs Small letters.

It is vital that the orthograpic rules of the language are followed in presentation slides exactly the same as if we were writing a report or other document. There in, in my opinion, NEVER any reason to write complete sentences or paragraphs in block capitals – even for titles.

Letter size

The minimum size for letters should be 28 point (Ariel). If the presenter really wants the audience to be able to read what they have written.

Deletion of redundant words

Do NOT write complete, complex sentences. Instead, write the key words that will pique the audience’s curosity about what you are going to say and therefore make them listen and pay attention in order to understand the message completely. Consider them as a “hook” to catch the subconscious mind of the audience.

E.g.,

“We will increase sales by 20% in the next quarter (Q4) after the launch of our new product” (BAD)

vs

” Sales (Q4) + 20%: New product.” (Good)

As you can see, there is much more to using simple “Bullet Points” in a presentation. There are alternative ways of communicate which are more effective and that will be the discussed in a future article.

Your feedback would be appreciated.

(1). “The results of a study done by Brownlee & Associates regarding this topic have been published in an article: “How to kill a presentation stone dead in three easy steps.” June, 2012. The link can be found below.”

Ian Brownlee is a specialist in communication and negotiation skills training who lives and works in Spain and does training worldwide for multinational organizations.

5 Easy Ways to Discombobulate a Presenter

Definition: verb (used with object), discombobulated, discombobulating.

[dis-kuh m-bob-yuh-leyt]

- To confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate: feeling disconnected or unbalanced.

E.g., The speaker was completely discombobulated by the hecklers.

The purpose of this article is to ensure that people responsible for organizing presentations are made aware of some of the problems that can be caused by a lack of psychological training in this area, and its application in the real world, so that they can take appropriate action to ensure that the presentations they are responsible for are successful.

In previous articles, I have talked about how everyone involved in a communicative event, be it a presentation, training course, meeting, etc., arrives with preconceived ideas and expectations about what will happen, the location, the type of interaction, the people, unspoken norms of behaviour (both verbal & non-verbal) and many other elements. All these are based on their previous experience, knowledge, education, culture, etc. When these expectations are not reached – especially in a presentation context, it can seriously affect the clarity of the communication and the perception of the presenter and their message.

This was brought home to me last week when I attended a series of three presentations in the headquarters of a major telecommunications organization in Spain. The speakers were worldwide Subject Matter Experts in their areas of specialization. I must declare that I am a friend of one of the presenters in this event.

The main discombobulators in this event were:

(1) Room set-up.

- The initial site chosen for the presentations was a “standard format” room: The presenter at the front of the room and the audience in front of them. There was a full range of audiovisual support available and was what I believe to be a typical presentation set up. This is the “traditional” type of room where many presenters have accumulated much of their experience and generally tend to expect this type of venue.

In the case used as an example in this article, the room was perceived as being too small for the expected audience. So, at the last minute it was decided to change the presentation site to a different room which was an unusual design.

To give you an idea of the room set-up The screen was in the centre of the room with a wing on either side which restricted the vision of the presenter to the audience immediately in front of them, unless they moved so far forward that they were almost among the front row of the audience.

(2) No computer in front of the Presenter, only behind them.

The computer which the presenters were to use was on a lectern at the back of the stage which, had it been used, would have made it impossible for the presenters use orientation, proximity, gaze and other non verbal elements to enhance their communicative competence with the audience. All three presenters decided NOT to use it and as a result they were continually looking at the screen to see what was being shown and not focussing on the audience and reading their non-verbal communication.

There are three possible options to resolve this problem:

1. Have a monitor on the floor in front of the presenter so that they can see the screen easily.

2. Have a monitor suspended from the ceiling for the same reason as in #1.

3. Have a laptop computer on a table placed where the presenter wants it NOT where it is most convenient for the organization. This is the easiest, low-cost option!

(3) Focus on the screen and NOT on the Presenter.

The attitude of the organizers appeared to be that it is the screen that is the be-all-and-end-all of the presentation and that the presenter was a mere adjunct to the material instead of the other way around. This attitude was reinforced by the fact that there were two large screen monitor directed towards the audience located on each wing of the room.

It is the presenter and their verbal & non verbal communication that are the most important parts of the presentation. The content on the screen are known as “Visual Aids” – The word “Aid” should not be confused with “substitute”!

It might be more productive to have the presenter on the monitors instead of their slides!

(4) Wifi / Cloud storage / problems.

There were problems with the wifi system. It appeared that one or more of the presenters had intended to use a presentation located in the “cloud” – However, in the first presentation, the problems were sufficiently serious to interrupt the flow of the presentation and discombobulate the presenter. Based on this experience, it is worth reminding everyone that it is better to take your presentation with you in a pen drive rather than trust that you will have the ability to access it in the cloud.

(5) Timing, Seating & Problem solutions.

The session was scheduled to run from 17:00h to 21:00h. Normally, one would expect a break after each presentation or half-way through so that both the audience and the presenters can relax somewhat, stretch their legs and psychologically process the content / messages communicated during the presentation which generally leads to greater retention of the content. A short break also allows the following presenters to find solutions to the problems they have identified during the previous presentation(s).

As an aside and on a personal note, the seats were also uncomfortable, especially for four hours!

Consequences:

1. The first presenter was walking up and down the width of the auditorium like a caged lion; frequently turning to see what was on the screen, turning their back on one side of the audience and then on the other. In general, their non-verbal communication (gaze, orientation and posture) were not a true reflection of their skills.They appeared to be producing extremely high levels of adrenalin, testosterone which results in lower levels of cortisol due to the stress caused in this environment.

2. The second and third presenters were more anchored in their preferred presentation point which meant that the audience were more focussed on them so that the content of their communication (visual, verbal and non-verbal) entered into their subconscious mind via their peripheral vision. However, it appeared that both presenters were discombobulated by the environment. This resulted in the audience members seated on both sides had greater problems seeing the presenters.

It must be stated that ALL of the Presenter did an excellent job bearing in mind the unexpected and unnecessary problems encountered in the presentation site. I am sure that in a “normal” presentation site where the organizers are aware of, and have taken steps to ensure the correct application of, the psychological elements related to presentations, the presentations would have been much better.

There are many other elements that can discombobulate presenters, trainers, meeting leaders, facilitators, etc., for additional information, please feel free to contact me.

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The author has been in love with languages and communication since the age of 11. He has spent most of an interesting and colourful life being involved with languages: learning, teaching, research and Investigation, and then extending his knowledge into other areas such as Kinesics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, adult education, ericksonian hypnosis, Neuro Linguistic Programming and a range of other areas. Most of his clients are in the Healthcare, Information systems, Grand consumption, travel & transport, Food, drink and Hostelry industries and also politics.