On why people defend bulletpoints.

I was lucky enough to attend Garr Reynolds PresentationZen workshop in London last November and met some amazing people from all round the world. What struck me was that  powerpoint (type) presentations are ubiquitous, there isn’t even an Asiatic or Southern European twist to Death by Powerpoint. We all do the same the world over. It is as though a single virus has infected us all making us see that as the pinnacle of presentation skills.

Extending the analogy many of us have reacted against this, seeking better ways to present so much that we become physically affected on simply seeing the opening slide of a presentation recognising the gloom ahead. We have antibodies if you like. 

The question is why do some raise antibodies to bulletpoints and yet others see it as the perfect way to share information. How can it be both nectar and poison?

Speaking to converts it is clear that we have all sought better ways to communicate, seeing for ourselves the limitations of the bulletpoint approach. Most are seeking to be better communicators, better educators, better storytellers. Why then do our peers neither see the potential in new ways of presenting and more so, stick closely to and cherish their bulletpoint ways?

Academics frequently hide behind the mask of evidence quoting lack  of numbers to justify their position. it is clear however that modern thinking on education and communication has long left behind the concept of information written on the screen read out by  a tiny figure behind a lectern. There is science behind the problem of cognitive load, evidence of attention span limitations and simply feedback that not only do students hate information presented this way but faculty hate to be presented with it too. So why, as clever people, do we still put up with this?

Sadly, there is a lot to do with laziness. It doesn’t take that much effort to simply cut and paste text onto a slideset, even less to read it out and hey, that’s the handout too for no work. It will work for next year and for most folk who need it. This person doesn’t value learning and actually is not going to change because change takes effort. It involves valuing the audience more than currently. It involves dedicating more time to the preparation. It involves more effort during the presentation in interaction and thinking aloud, being challenged and sharing. 

More than this though I worry that accepting that bulletpoints don’t work is a huge admission that lectures don’t work (in their current format) and that ultimately virtually all of what passes or passed as my education in these formats didn’t work either. And that’s a difficult thing to handle. But think back to your studies. Where did you learn most of the facts you needed to know? In a classroom or in personal study? When presented with information now do you retain all of those bulletpoints or have to refer to printed data for the facts? It’s the latter.

Now if the presentations we had attended engaged us, challenged us, even threatened us as the lecturer would ask questions weren’t those more useful? Didn’t that encourage a different learning?

And so it is not just about “better powerpoint skills” but about the way in which we share information, inspire, enthuse and challenge. A better way of communicating.


  1. Andrew

    Nice post. I always get a sense of impending doom from the first slide. Occasionally a really good talk is accompanied by power point but more often than not its fois grois learning. . .. haiku deck and prezi are reasonable alternatives but don’t solve the fundamental problem with up front lectures. We have to find a way of valuing the learners more I totes agree…. The medical education world is aware of blended learning and classroom flipping but seems reluctant to ditch the lecture 60 min slot… why is this do you think?

    1. ffolliet (Post author)

      Partly because they simply don’t see the issue. Additionally I have had the horrible realisation that every single lecture or teaching session I have been to or given was the same. and thus likely to have been of poor quality.It is true that we learn our disciplines NOT in lecture theatres but in tutorials, discussion, real life and our study places. “lectures” were not those places.


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