John, a super smart client of mine, asks me to make him graphs and charts. He sends me the whole PowerPoint presentation for context, and I look through them. While I like John's industry (and have great respect for it) and think he's a fine fellow, I would dread to sit in on one of his presentations.

Joe works in a different, less exciting industry. Joe also asks for help with graphics, photo editing, or animation assistance. He too sends entire presentations to me. While Joe's industry bores me to tears, I wouldn't mind sitting in on one of his presentations.

Why do I feel uninspired by John's presentations and jazzed over Joe's when John's industry appeals to me more? It's the bullet points. To understand this more, I read the book Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

I like this book. Reading Atkinson's style is easy, and his anecdotes stick with me. He cites references throughout the book whenever he makes a broad and bold statement. References make me happy, especially when I want to know more about the premises the author holds and the assumptions the author makes. Atkinson presents a logical progression through the book, first providing you with the overall picture of why you should do things his way, and following this up with the nuts and bolts in an easy-to-follow sequence. Atkinson even includes a CD with the book that has templates, checklists, and worksheets. (If you don't have the CD, this material is available on his website.) His book is well worth the read.

About the only thing I don't like about the book is its length. It's too long. Much of the "extra" length in the book is devoted to telling you how to implement his suggestions in PowerPoint. Since I know PowerPoint better than the back of my hand, this is unnecessary. If you know PowerPoint well, you can skip those parts.

So, I liked the book and I wanted to learn more about the differences between soporific and stimulating presentations. What did I learn?

Atkinson read a bunch of journals and books, conducted a few studies, prepared different presentations on the same material and tested them out on different audiences. He studied how people learn and what people learned after different presentations. His discovery boils down to "less is more." We don't know the limits of our long-term learning and memory, and while there is infinite information out there, learning is stymied by a bottleneck. The trick is to present material to people in a way that is meaningful to them, doesn't overload them, and makes it into their long-term memory.

The next part of his book talks about how to work with the knowledge of human limitations to make presentations. Here are some of the "rules."

  • Put one complete sentence as a title on each slide. People retain information better if it is in complete sentences.
  • Put one relevant and explanatory picture on each slide. The picture drives the point across, but is simple enough that after ten seconds or so, the audience member digests it, stops looking at it, and listens to the speaker.
  • Use the notes section of PowerPoint and create the speech that goes with the slide.
  • Use a motif throughout your presentation. The motif should be something simple that the audience understands and doesn't need to be explained. Some common motifs are 1 + 2 = 3 or puzzle pieces form a puzzle. Refer to the motif throughout the presentation. This theme gives the audience a mental structure to hold the newly gathered information.
  • Grab the audiences' attention right away. Start your presentation with a poll, anecdote, story, simple chart, or something else meaningful to your particular audience.
  • After introducing yourself, identify the audience as someone with a situation or problem, spell out the problem or situation, show what an ideal situation is without the problem, and then show the audience how to get from the problem to the solution.

Beyond Bullet Points is loaded with specifics on how to implement and follow all of these rules. So, if presentations appeal to you, read the book for more explanations, tips, and tricks.

Did I learn anything? You tell me. I tried this approach for a group of children and a lesson on Halloween history. Here are links to the notes and the slides. Let me know what you think. (This article is due before my presentation, so I can't tell you how it went yet.)

This article was originally written for the November issue of IVAAcast.