This captures it perfectly – from the New Yorker

My rant on getting past presenting in an endless stream of bullet points generated a lot of response both in the comments and on email. Thank you all for your time and your ideas (which you can read here). My follow-up thoughts are below.

Interesting point by Ed regarding the difficulty of presenting scientific, technical or financial information without resorting to all the worst that slideware like PowerPoint has to offer. For his specific example of a lecturer in plant molecular biology, I suspect that the key is going to be ‘less slides / more talking’ with his captive audience furiously scribbling notes along the way. The slideware comes into its own when an example requires more explanation and illustration. But I would contend that there is absolutely no point in transcribing the lecture down onto bulleted slides – that will reinforce the feeling of “Why am I here? I could just download this.” in the attendees. For more on presenting in the academic environment, I really like Aidan Hammond’s blog Academic Persona – I just wish he’d post more.

Lisa points us to Cliff Atkinson and his excellent Beyond Bullet Points approach and I would add that every serious presenter should also read Edward Tufte’s thoughts on conveying dense information in a way that human beings can absorb, understand and take action upon.

Which leads me to the comment by the ever-pithy Muurfmann. I have heard this line so often, I could cry … “You can’t step outside the box in your presentation style in my company or you will be accused of being ‘too different’ or ‘showboating.’”

I once worked in exactly that kind of corporate environment and, given that I didn’t like rugby, had no interest in cars, soccer or motor sports, didn’t play golf and wasn’t much of a drinker; I guess I was always regarded as being a little … different. [Actually, upon reading that sentence, it would appear I’m not much of a man at all. Maybe I’m just a very burly woman who really let herself go …] So I agree with Muurfmann – in most corporates, if you suddenly move from the Headline / Bullet / Bullet / Bullet model into an all-visual, all-singing, all dancing approach, like as not, you will be hauled off to a room with no corners. But perpetuating an outmoded and demonstrably ineffective approach is not the answer either. If revolution isn’t acceptable, how about evolution? Maybe slip in something eye-catching/effective every now and then? I have used this insidious approach many times and it’s surprisingly effective …

But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think common sense and reason can have a place – even in the corporate world.

1. A picture paints a thousand words. See how long it takes you to effectively describe the image below using bullet points.

How about this one?

Now, be honest. Wouldn’t a picture do a better job? And equally, wouldn’t more people understand a well-crafted chart than table after table of figures?

2. That being said, I recognise that some things just can’t be conveyed well in the visual medium. Chet Huntley used to say that this was why the nightly news was full of images of people robbing banks rather than stories about banks robbing people. A P&L is a P&L is a P&L. Pretty damn hard to spice that up. But I see no reason to show the Actual, Plan, Prior Year and the Latest Estimate columns all at once. For the rare person whose brain is multiple-intelligences-wired for mathematics, that may be fine. For the other 93% of us, it’s just a sea of numbers and it will take a very skilled presenter to get past that initial wincing reaction.

If you need to explain dense columns of figures to a large audience, you need to take a bit of time and gradually build your picture; otherwise you are going to leave nine out of ten of them gasping like fish out of water. Bottom line, I would argue that a presentation is the wrong medium for material of that nature in the first place.

3. Dick Hardt and Lawrence Lessig notwithstanding, putting chunks of text onscreen plus the same words coming out of the presenter’s mouth in narration just doesn’t work. With the body of knowledge that is available at this juncture, arguing this point makes as much sense as negotiating with the law of gravity when you are standing on top of a cliff. Richard Mayer has a great body of work on this and I found Lee & Bowers’ piece on the topic fascinating too. This is not negotiable in the same way that gravity is not negotiable. This is brain architecture.

Whether you present because you have to or because you want to, it is imperative that you understand how people take in their information. Have you ever explained what you do for a living to a 7 year-old child? Slightly different language than the same description in a job interview I suspect. You must understand how people understand. If you’re not already subscribing to the fabulous Dr Ellen Weber over at Brain-Based Business do so now.

Summary Thoughts
Everywhere I go, there seems to be enormous resistance to moving on from the Headline / Bullet / Bullet / Bullet model. And yet, I rarely find anyone who smugly points to their bullet points with pride – there’s a growing sense of dis-satisfaction with that model. So why the resistance to changing? When I drill down on this with clients, three reasons keep popping up. My follow-up questions centre on allowing people to see just how bone stupid self-defeating these reasons excuses are.

(1) Time – “We’re so busy, I don’t have time to rehearse, so I just stick all my words up there and use PowerPoint as an AutoCue”
Okay, you’re ferociously busy and don’t have time to rehearse. Doesn’t that suggest that your presentation is an irrelevance? [Wait for stammered denial then follow up with] Well then, wouldn’t it be fair to say that if it’s important enough to present, it’s important that you should actually know your stuff? How about if we block off a little bit of time in your diary in advance of the presentation? Would that help?

(2) Confidence – “I hate presenting, so I feel safer when there’s lots of words up onscreen for me to hide behind.”
You can still have lots of words up onscreen on your laptop if you use the ‘Presenter View’ in PowerPoint and you can make the stuff that the audience sees on the big screen much more compelling and effective using this approach. What do you think? Worth a try?”

(3) Conformity – “I can’t be seen to be showboating. Around here it’s navy suits, polished shoes and Headline / Bullet / Bullet / Bullet.”
Would it be fair to say that the essence of your answer is ‘That’s the way we’ve always done things around here’? [Wait for sheepish response] Well how about this? Let’s take an evolutionary approach and just change a slide here and there. No showboating, just a little dusting of sprinkles on top to hammer a point home every now and then. What do you think?

Wally captured the key to modern presentation in his comment – In a world where I am being deluged with information overload every single day, why should I listen to you? Your duty as a presenter is to be relevant. If you are going to deliver a presentation, what do you want to happen as a result of that effort? The vast majority of presenters want their audience to absorb, understand and take action upon the material. In order for this to happen, they have to recognise your relevance and then recognise the material’s relevance; then they might be ready to start the absorption part. Your task as the presenter is simply to help them!