Here’s What Really Happens In the Minds of Your Audience When You Use Bullet Points

Here’s What Really Happens In the Minds of Your Audience When You Use Bullet Points

Telling presenters that they shouldn’t use bullet points is, well, pointless. I think most people (except excessively lazy presenters) have got the message that bullets are engagement killers. But sometimes they are unavoidable.

So rather than issue an edict that says ‘thou shalt not use bullet points in your slides,’ I thought it might be more helpful to look at what bullet points do to the communication process. This might help you to use bullets more carefully and wisely.

I’m indebted to my friend Ian Brownlee for the psychological insights here. It certainly confirms what I’ve observed through experience over many years.

What’s the Point of the Bullet Point?

Most people believe that presentations are for sharing facts, figures and evidence to convince the audience of the strength of their argument. These are important considerations, but only up to a point. 

The problem is that people don’t make decisions based just on the facts. Neuroscientific evidence shows that if the rational and emotional parts of the brain become disconnected, even simple decisions become impossible to make. Recent research indicates that more than 90% or our decisions are based on emotions which then need to be justified by data. 

So when you are presenting, don't show them the data. Show them what it represents – the ‘what they get.’ Paint a picture of a brighter future.

Emotional Engagement

ALL decisions (even ‘hard-nosed’ business ones) are a mix of the rational and the emotional. Bullet points are not strong on emotional engagement. So, if that’s pretty much all your presentation has, you have a problem.

In the world of procurement a slightly better mark can be awarded to one potential bidder simply because “it felt better” to the assessors or “they seemed to understand us more.” Multiply this effect across a range of questions and even a marginal improvement in score can make a significant difference to the overall marks and result.  

Use words like ”Imagine the positive impact..!” Or “Consider how this will increase…!” This style of language initiates internal emotions - which is what you want.

Control the Narrative

Our role as presenters is to lead the audience through the ‘story’ we want to tell them. We need to focus on one piece of that ‘story’ at a time, until we choose to move on to the next stage. The best way to achieve this is to make sure we get our audience emotionally engaged in our narrative. There are techniques you can use to do this, which we’ll cover below.

Be aware too, of what happens if you ask anyone to read and listen simultaneously.  They start reading and stop listening. Project a screen full of text or bullet points and you’d might as well stop talking altogether.

How to Use Bullets and Stay Connected

So, if you get to a point in your presentation where you can’t tell the story with pictures and the spoken word, if bullets look like the only option, what should you do?

  1. Make sure you aren’t taking the easy way out. Is there really no more imaginative way to make the point?
  2. Pare the words down to the absolute minimum. Give yourself as much talking to do as possible.
  3. Limit yourself to five (ideally fewer) points per slide.
  4. Try to put words with emotional value into your bullet points (words that relate to trust, security, discovery, optimism, happiness, tranquility etc).
  5. Use relevant icons with each point to give a visual memory cue.
  6. Plan the ‘reveal.’ Never flash up all of your text in one go - people will just start to read and stop listening. Add context, meaning, anticipation and colour to each point with your spoken narrative. Give people enough time to absorb each point.
  7. Make the most important point stand out, either with larger text or an image.
  8. Fade the points you have dealt with to draw attention to the next point you want to make. Perhaps ask a leading question before you show each new point.

How Much Can We Remember?

Here’s the other thing to remember about bulleted lists: people are most likely to retain what they hear first (when their concentration is highest) and last (the most recent thing they hear). It’s a case of front-loading vs end loading in a double bind context.

In the double bind context the first point somebody hears is absorbed and ‘accepted as a given.’ The follow up point or option is then treated as more important and retained longer in the working memory. The working memory applies a “last in, first out” concept. This is especially true if the point is emotion-based and provides more benefits for the receiver.

So the presenter who lists bullets in descending order of importance may be helping their audience remember points that are less important at the expense of key information.

The order in which you present bullet points has more significance than many appreciate. You have considerable influence over what information your audience absorbs and retains - use it wisely!

The point of your presentation is to make an impact, induce positive feelings and be remembered for the right reasons. How you avoid or use bullet points can go a long way to achieving this.

Want to go deeper? Here are links to articles by Ian Brownlee related to this topic:

The Psychology and Use of Bullet Points in Presentations. 

Goodbye, Bullet points. Hello, Transmediation (and Effective & Memorable Communication) 

International Presentations:  Top-Down or Bottom-Up?   How to structure your message.

Published in the ASTD journal.