09 June 2014

Last week, one of my lab’s collaborators came to give a presentation about her work. She started out by explaining her role in the project:

My role in the project

This slide came right after the cover slide. If I hadn’t already known that the topic she was going to talk about was really interesting, it probably wouldn’t have convinced me to pay attention. What’s the problem with this slide?

A lot of people criticize bullet points, but I’m here to tell you that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. A bullet point is the smallest functional unit of an outline, and an outline is an amazingly useful tool for exploring complex ideas, grouping isolated thoughts, and prioritizing narrative flows. The problem with bullet points is that they are incapable of explaining things in a way that captures the imagination. Showering our slides with bullet points makes the information we are trying to convey seem fragmented and uninteresting.

Next time you feel the urge to press the bullet point button, try one of these techniques.

1. Delete the entire slide and just talk

We don’t give presentations to tell people what we did, we give them because we want others to understand and remember what we did. Anything that doesn’t align with that goal should be thrown out the window. If you have a list of items that describe your contributions to a project, develop them into a story and tell it to your audience.

Hi, my name is Collaborator X and I’m responsible for optimizing the protocol that we use to coat the chips with antibodies. My job is to make sure that each chip has as few foreign particles as possible, and that each antibody has a high affinity for the virus we are trying to detect. After incubating the chips, I scan them and analyze the data. Then I try to come up with ways to reduce the variability and increase the sensitivity of the next experiment.

Your audience doesn’t need any text to follow along with your story as long as you make sure that all the important details and connections are there. King didn’t need slides or a laser pointer to turn I Have a Dream into a memorable story, and neither do you.

2. Replace bullet points with images

Stories are easier to understand when we know what the individual parts are. This is especially true for multi-step stories like pipelines and processes. Here is an example that Collaborator X used to explain an experimental protocol:

protocol before

The protocol has two major steps: spotting and incubation. Beyond this point, it’s up to the presenter to decide what details should be included, and which ones should be left out. The decision will depend on the familiarity of the audience with the topic, the goal of the story that is being presented, and the amount of time that the presenter has to prepare and deliver the talk.

Building a graphic takes longer than simply writing down bullet points, but it also makes it easier for your audience to understand what you tell them. When you’re ready to start building, don’t fire up PowerPoint—grab a piece of paper instead.

protocol paper

You don’t have to draw anything fancy, it’s enough to spend some time thinking visually. When I finished drawing this I realized that the two major parts of the protocol were actually made up of two smaller parts that paralleled each other, so I decided to show them in a 2 x 2 arrangement.

protocol after

Illustrate the major points, and save the details for the spoken track (there are different types of antibodies, the brightness of the LED decreases every time it encounters the beam splitter, every circle in the post-incubation picture represents an individual virion, etc.).

3. Shorten sentences and show them sequentially

If some else tries to speak to you right now, you’ll have to choose between giving them your full attention or ignoring them until you finish reading this sentence.

You can read shorter sentences instantly.

Sometimes we have to convey multiple isolated ideas that are hard to illustrate, so we show text instead. To avoid interfering with the spoken track, make your sentences short (but not so short that they turn into fragments). Here’s an example from Collaborator X:

future work before

I try to limit text-only slides to three major points. If you have more, none of them will be remembered. The text in each point shows the essential, the details go in the spoken track. Showing less text means that you can use a bigger font, which is a useful constraint to ensure that everyone in your audience is able to read it.

future work after

Show the first point, and talk about it. Then, show the second point and talk about it. If you show all three points at the same time, you’re telling your audience that it’s okay to ignore what you’re saying until they’re finished reading. If you’re talking about one thing, don’t show another.

This is the least satisfying anti-bullet point strategy, but sometimes it’s the only thing you can do to avoid bullet points. Other times you might get lucky and realize that you can present them in a visually interesting way.

bullet points circles

When I was preparing a presentation about the barriers in communication, I started out with an outline that looked like the one on the left, but at some point, I realized that the items were different stages along a funnel. I played with multiple ideas and eventually decided on the nested circles. The difference between both images is that one is an initial outline that can be developed into a story, and the other is an illustration that can be used to enhance a story.

More next Sunday.

Go out and build awesome presentations!


PS: A big thank you to Collaborator X, who was brave enough to let me use her slides to illustrate my ramblings.