Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

Summary: The art and technology of presentations has evolved considerably in the last 20 years. The importance of serious communication skills to go along with those presentations gets more important every day.


I've been spending a lot of time in PowerPoint lately. One of my clients is working on some strategic planning and nothing begs for slide decks like a strategic plan. I'm not being entirely tongue-in-cheek. Slide shows, whether created in PowerPoint, OpenOffice, Google Apps, Zoho, SlideRocket, or any other tool can have incredible value as communication aids, long- and short-term documentation, discussion guides, you name it. But as I hammered away at a couple of presentations, it occurred to me that most of us in education are doing a miserable job of teaching the art of presentation.

I happened to work with a real PowerPoint guru today. While I can wordsmith until the cows come home, perfect messaging, and even toss together some helpful graphics (SmartArt is my friend), this woman could singlehandedly wipe out the scourge of death by PowerPoint. Of course, she's a graphic designer. It's her job to make things look pretty. But the presentations she created weren't just pretty. They were effective. The boiled a lot of information down into graphics and text that could support one heck of an extemporaneous speech or group discussion.

That 5x5 rule I mentioned above? My dad taught me that rule. 25 years ago. A business teacher mentioned the same rule to me a year ago. Where our students are hopefully going after they graduate (you know, higher education, good jobs, that sort of thing), the 5x5 rule no longer applies. Bullets hardly even apply anymore. Communication, with slides as one of many important media, is the single most important skill we can give our students. Teaching PowerPoint 101? That doesn't count.

Teaching public speaking with an emphasis on the effective use of visual media with time spent in a computer lab learning time-saving design features in the tool of your choice? That's how to teach communication.

PowerPoint, no matter how you feel about Microsoft, is perhaps a more important industry standard than even Word or Excel. Don't get me wrong: I like Google Presentations and use it for interactive presentations and shared documentation all the time. However, it (and OpenOffice Presentations, for that matter) simply can't compare to the rich and easy tools in PowerPoint 2007 and 2010. SlideRocket gives you a different, but almost as compelling toolset, but PowerPoint remains the gold standard for good reason. It deserves a place in students' and teachers' toolkits.

However, it's just that: a tool. It's no substitute for creativity, writing skills, and public speaking skills. It's a backdrop that can guide a speaker and an audience and remind them later of key ideas, but without fail, the flashiest, best-designed PowerPoint deck won't keep an audience engaged without a strong speaker presenting it.

The 5x5 rule and the bullets for which it cries out are dead. Presentations are alive and well, even if they are part of a webcast or online meeting. Regardless of the industry, strong presentation skills, combined with a reasonable sense of graphical design, can go a very long ways towards making a career.

For those of you who left PowerPoint 101 behind, share what you've done to make sure that students walk away with both the soft presentation skills and the hard multimedia skills to succeed.

Further reading: "Thoughts about presentations" over on the Virtually Speaking blog

Topics: Collaboration, Microsoft, Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

    I suggest the following books to add-on to this article

    - Beyond Bullet Points
    - The presentation secrets of Steve Jobs
    Rahul Mulchandani
    • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

      @Rahul Mulchandani
      ... and Hitler :P
      Roque Mocan
    • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

      @Rahul Mulchandani
      Ah, and with the presentation secrets of Steve Jobs: use the words "magical", "today we re-invent - or invent"...
      Roque Mocan
  • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

    nice article, but, from the title, I thought it would be about tips for improving PowerPoint presentations. that said, I agree - the snazziest presentations would fail woefully without the right communication skills. Now, how about that title?
    • Here is the tip that helped Microsoft...


      Use Keynote instead of Powerpoint... (There is a reason there is a Mac behind the stage at every Microsoft public event).
      • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

        I think he was saying that any tool wouldn't help without communication skills (Yes, not even Keynote)

        btw, Powerpoint (especially 2010) blows Keynote out. It has very useful templates, displays perfectly on external screens, and is overall more powerful. Keynote seemed a bit too casual for me. (this is a side note and personal preference ... please reply to the main comment)
  • Ummm....how about an example?

    Bullets are dead? Okay, but how about an example from your guru that shows the current thinking on slide design?
    • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

      @alsw Like most power point presentations, this blog makes a few unsubstantiated and un-illustrated assertations in an authoritative fashion, in which you the listener have no immediate way of questioning the material. By the end of the presentation, you have forgotten the questions you wanted to ask because the points made were, in fact, bland, cliche, jargon-y nonsense, or already obvious....not even worthy of debate even if such a thing were truly welcome. And lack of debate and rigor is what the .pptx STYLE of presentation is all about. Hence it will remain king.
  • Kill the FX

    You know those movies that have lots of special effects, but very little plot? Yeah, there are lots of them. Don't let a presentation become like one of them. Forget the whiz-bang transitions, the twirls, the zooms. They're distractions. They should be dead--like bullets. "Starkly simple" is a good guideline.
    • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

      I agree completely. Just because the effects are there, does not mean you should use them. They distract and they waste time.

      And whatever you do, don't come into a meeting after spending 5 hours on a PowerPoint, when a simple set of bullets in a word document that you whip together in 10 minutes can be more effective. If you are making a presentation for a customer, then make it professional. If you are making a presentation for 3 of your colleagues, then spend as little effort as possible to get to the point. Don't try to impress me with wasted time!
      • The Bullets are Dead. Long live the Bullets...

        @zingozax <br><br>@zingozax <br><br>I agree as well. After seven years of presentations in post-secondary, short and to the point with a few handouts is what I had concluded. At first, I would make dazzling slides with pretty pictures and hyperlinks and all that jazz, but I believe that I resorted to this technique in lue of the inevitable questions and the answers that would have to follow - tried to eat time up as well - gave that up because I love lectures and all the questions. I think I 'got confident' when I said to myself that I quite, I know my crap - "BRING IT ON!`<br>I firmly believe that most (99% most) do not like the whole `public speaking thing`, and that is a shame because when I listen to someone speaking, a slide hardly comunicates what the presenter is trying to convey with the gestures and body language (smiles, frowns, raised puzzling eyebrow, etc).<br>Although, I have to say that eboards are really coming into their own if you are going into a meeting. Cheers all...
  • Powerpoint has turned us into morons

    It's true. Nobody in America can give a presentation without fifty dry, redundand, overly-complex PowerPoint slides running behind them. <br><br>We all sit there in the dark, pretending to be interested, when all we really want is someone interesting to talke to us and follow-up with an executive summary.
  • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

    The trouble with bullets is that only one relationship is implied by the list - ordered, maybe with hierarchy (lower levels). Maybe what you want to say is "do A, B and C and you get D," or "A, B and C are part of D." Maybe you're describing a cyclic process. Or something more complicated.
    Thinking about the relationships will sometimes suggest a more interesting and informative way to present the points. SmartArt helps here by suggesting possibilities. Or use physical or other analogies (your cup is half full, etc.).
  • A presentation about Jobs' secrets

    Tony T3
  • Some recommend

    This article should have mentioned "Beyond Bullet Points" (see <a href="http://www.beyondbulletpoints.com/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://www.beyondbulletpoints.com/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.beyondbulletpoints.com/</a></a>), which advocates a storytelling approach versus bullets. It argues that developing a presentation using bullets is a good way to organize your thinking but an inferior way of presenting your intended message. It argues that nothing is more natural or easy to understand for humans than stories. To be honest, I have read both the older and newer versions of the BBP book, tried to apply the storytelling concept for business presentations and found it to be quite difficult to do. Feedback from my audiences has been mixed so far, probably because they are accustomed to bullet-based slides, and I'm not so good at the storytelling approach yet. Still, I recommend you give BBP a look.
  • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

    Only when I read 'Brilliant Presentation' by Richard Hall did I realise how bad I was at presenting, and thus why despite having some key messages, my audience always fell asleep.

    I am better now at 'telling the story' but although my Powerpoint skills have not improved, my slides and overall presentation has, resulting in getting more decisions going my way, from board approvals to sales. And I still use bullet points, just fewer of them and they mostly contain pictures, not text.
    • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

      exactly! ... These past years I have drifted to using simple slides with graphs and pictures with minimum text. That way the audience uses the powerpoint as what it was meant to be ... a reference not an outline.
  • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

    For me the issue has always been that PPTs tend to lead to listing issues, events, and resources as if that was enough. The idea is to PRESENT something, not just inventory it. It's not that bullets are the problem, it's the thinking behind their use. One SHOULD think about what you want people to DO after seeing (and hearing) your presentation. Evaluate each slide for how it moves your audience towards the action you desire. Make the imperative clear from your slide (don't bury the message, consider putting it in the title). But I also consider how I'd deliver the same message without using any slides and I highly recommend that - have an "elevator" version, and a "greaseboard" approach, and a "dinner conversion" approach.

    Personally, I find most communication classes do a fair job of this whether you use triangle-thinking, OBQA, or some other organizational method, one shouldn't confuse the tool with the dialog. Too many people think that learning a presentation tool automatically means they can communicate effectively because they can master the technology. And, reflexively, they believe that it is the responsibility of those teaching them the tool to teach them communication. But if you took typing in school you know that they didn't teach you to be a writer - they just taught you to type.

    Effective communication is a skill that more people should develop. But to think that they will do so because of a certain technology is more than a little naive. And to suggest that they just need to use a different widget (more graphics, less bullets) is really only adding to the real problem.
    • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint


      • RE: Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

        @Monday_Galileo Opportunity(ies)/ Barriers/ Questions/ Answers - it's a methodology for organizing problem solving. What is our opportunity? What are the barriers to achieving said opportunity? What questions will we need to answer in order to remove or obviate the barriers? And, of course, the answers. There's a lot of technique to using it, but that's the 15 second version.