May 02 2009

How to Reduce and Simplify Bullet Points in PowerPoint

Bullet points illogical?

Long bullet points illogical?

How many times have you been cramming to prepare a PowerPoint presentation and it dawns on you that the bullet points in your slides are way too text heavy? It is very common for people to “brain dump” all of their ideas or thoughts into “stream of consciousness” bullet points as they create slides.

However, this creative technique becomes a problem when you fail to revisit your bullet points and simplify them so that your audience isn’t staring at a wall of text. It can be challenging to reduce and simplify what you wrote — but it needs to be done.

When I recently read Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte, I discovered she uses the same approach that I do for simplifying bullet points. If sharing this approach prevents just one audience from suffering through another bullet-point-intensive, “death by PowerPoint” session, my efforts were not in vain.

Step 1: Admit your slide has a text problem

Pretend as though you are an audience member for your upcoming presentation. Do any slides feel text heavy? Be honest with yourself. Remember the golden rule of PowerPoint presentations — always do what is right for your audience. Very few audiences enjoy paragraph-length bullet points.

Examine the font size of your slides. If they fall below 24 pt then you might be on to something. Also, look at the number of lines you use for your bullet points. If you use more than two lines anywhere, then they’re definitely leaning text heavy. Depending on the type of presentation, two lines might even be too much.

The first step is admitting that you have a problem

The first step is admitting that you have a problem

Step 2: Highlight key points within bullet points

Go through your bullet points and try to highlight the main point of each bullet point. Try to bold only the key parts of each point — limit it to as few words as possible.

Think of it as an approach to rehearsing your slides. What key part of each bullet point do you need to mention during your PowerPoint presentation?

Look at the bullet points and highlight the key phrases that you would remind you of the key points

Highlight the key phrases that you will help you rehearse for your presentation

Step 3: Remove all extraneous copy from bullet points

Focus on the main phrases in the bullet points instead of everything that you want to say about a point. It’s okay to cover details verbally that are not reflected in your bullet points. In fact, most presentation experts would encourage it! Otherwise you’re just reading the slides to your audience. Boring.

Re-write the highlighted phrases if they are inconsistent with the other simplified bullet points.

Cut out the extraneous content that can be spoken to, not necessarily shown

Cut out the extraneous content. Speak to that content when you present

Step 4a: Add an image to increase slide appeal

If you’re pressed for time, it may only be feasible to add one relevant image to the slide. Visuals will enhance the slide and make it more memorable.

In some cases, the bullet points may not be conducive to matching visuals or they may require more time to find than you have. Don’t submit to the urge to add unrelated “decorations” to the slide. Be strong.

Remember the image needs to be relevant

Remember the image needs to be relevant

Step 4b: Replace bullet points with images

You’ve read Presentation Zen, and you hate bullet points more than Pauly Shore movies or people who club baby seals. Depending on your content, you may be able to convert each bullet point into a separate image on one slide or over several slides. This approach isn’t always feasible, but it is far more visually appealing than yet another slide filled with bullet points.

The trick becomes finding just the right image

The trick becomes finding just the right image(s)

Follow these steps to reduce and simplify your text-heavy bullet points — your audience will thank you. Live long and prosper.

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21 Responses to “How to Reduce and Simplify Bullet Points in PowerPoint”

  1. Jan Schultink says:

    I would stop at 4a and avoid the additional decorations, but edit the bullets further (leave just 1 image as you did). I am not a fan of “image tiles” (subject for a future blog post :-))

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  2. pptninja says:

    I’m curious to learn more about your distaste for “image tiles”. I’m indifferent to them. They can be effective at times.

    Depending on the situation, I’d probably lean towards introducing the individual images separately using a content staging technique. I look forward to your image-tile-bash post. :)

  3. Stephen Lead says:

    Excellent post! I agree with all your points, including 4b.

    However I’d go a step further and remove the logo from the bottom of the slide. I believe the logo should go on the first slide only, not on every slide.

    I hate slide decks which use corporate templates as they waste so much valuable space.


  4. pptninja says:

    Here’s what I’ve said about branding in corporate templates in another post:

    Some presentation experts have debated the necessity of having the corporate logo on each slide – feeling that just having it on the first and last slides is sufficient.

    I’m okay with having the corporate identity on each slide – as long as it doesn’t significantly limit the amount of space available for actual content. Like it or not branding is expected for corporate templates, and executives will question where the company logo is if it’s only on the title layout slides. A little unobtrusive branding on each slide is harmless, and you don’t lose any points with upper management.

    If you’re independent or work for a small business, you can bend the branding rules. Most of us who work at mid-to-large companies will have the branding dogs unleashed on us. As long as it’s not obtrusive, it’s probably not a fight worth picking.

  5. Kevin Jacobson says:

    Thank you! I try to incorporate these types of ideas into my own slides. I’ve sat through too many presentations where the presenter is literally reading his slides. I hope many people see this and follow your suggestions.

    I have to agree with the comment above–I don’t really like the images only method. If I’m looking at this later or outside the presentation, I’ll probably have no idea what the presenter intended. Otherwise, great advice. Thanks.

  6. pptninja says:

    Options 4a and 4b are interesting. I think people are split over which is the “right” approach. I believe their usage depends on the type of presentation you’re building. I’ll cover this topic more in an upcoming post.

  7. Buck says:

    I really enjoyed this post. This problem is ubiquitous. It’s no wonder bullet points are named after an object that takes away life. They might as well be called “razor blades in the apple,” “poison darts,” or “cyanide-laced goblets.” Good points Brent.

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  9. Stephen Lead says:

    Kevin wrote “If I’m looking at this later, I’ll probably have no idea what the presenter intended.”

    I think that’s one of the reasons why most slides are so complicated – the presenters are designing them to be read afterwards rather than presented as slides.

    They include every piece of information in hundreds of bullet points.

    One solution is to design some great slides, and an accompanying Word document which explains it. Or you could export the presenter’s notes along with the visual-only slides.

  10. Ted S says:

    I’m a believer in integrating media other than text (i.e. image bullets) when you plan to be talking a deck. However one also has to consider the way in which their deck will be used — having only images or small bullet points works if your deck is talked to every time but not if it’s printed and used in a review. For example, if you were presenting to a client on accomplishments and listed a series of stats without context it would be a good conversation deck but not useful 3 months later for review unless you were present to talk through it again.

    Using presenters notes is a good option to get around being too short.

  11. MARQ Etting says:

    Slides are there to reinforce the presentation, not repeat it. Good post.

  12. rjleaman says:

    I have to agree with Ted S – what with all the options for wider sharing online, slideshows are no longer simply an illustration or reinforcement of a spoken presentation, but ideally should be able to stand alone for after-talk use. Granted, this isn’t always possible; and it absolutely shouldn’t be done at the cost of boring or alienating your live audience. So, short bullet points: yes. Substituting images: in moderation. And providing a transcription of the talk (or at the very least, text notes on the slides) would be a real bonus.

  13. pptninja says:

    I agree that slides sometimes need to stand on their own, and when they do they may require more detail in order to do so.

    In another blog post, I presented four alternatives for balancing simplicity with detail: handouts, notes, appendix slides, and text boxes. Consider these options when you’re preparing a presentation that needs to stand on its own.

  14. Aaron Goldman says:

    Amen! If I never see another text-laden PPT again it will be too soon.

    I’m a big believer in 4b when it makes sense. For example, panels at conferences are great venues to tell a story thru images. Here’s one I just did at the MediaPost Search Insider Summit…

    That said, there are times when text is required — eg, business presentations that include recaps of current programs, forecasts, projections, etc. But in these cases, your rule #3 goes a long way — trim it down to just the essentials!

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  16. Presentation Skills says:

    I have heard no more than 6 words to 6 bullets on a slide and then, no more than 3 words to 3 bullets on a slide. The less you say, the more your audience thinks. The viewer also needs to focus on you and not be overly distracted by your PowerPoint VISUAL AID. So it may be a good idea to use even less than 3 large complicated images.

  17. pptninja says:

    I’m not really a fan of rigid rules for presentations. If 6-and-6 or 3-and-3 formats help you, that’s great. Presenters just need to remember they’re guidelines and not applicable in all situations.

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  19. Alexlui says:

    Great.I work in Chinese context, but the method also works.Another kind of visualizing the points is:
    1.get the key words
    2.understand their relationship
    3.use chart or images to illustrate the key words.

  20. Santo Cuollo says:

    The intent here is right on point. I am now leaning towards images with brief text titles… Mayer’s “Multi-Media Learning” (as best I can decipher his academic text) supports better learning and retention when words are combined with images.

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