Shoot down slideware bullet points

NASA's bad slide
No wonder no one could figure out what happened

As of this writing, it has been 24 years since 1988 (man, you don’t know how old that makes me feel). You would think that would be enough time for us to figure out that filling slides with text doesn’t work.

Why 1988? That’s the year John Sweller formulated Cognitive Load Theory, a theory about how we learn things. It’s related to the work of Princeton’s George A. Miller in 1956 that suggests we can only retain around seven discrete items in short-term memory. Though CLT has a number of implications for learning, we’re concerned here with the insight that when we are presented with both a written and an “out loud” version of the same information, we ignore one or the other. In other words, we can’t listen and read at the same time.

This is news, of course, to the millions of presenters who bombard us with bullet-pointed slide presentations in support of their talks.

Garr Reynolds effectively warns us against the slideument. Bullet points deserve much of the blame for the average slideument, though not all. Some of it comes simply from confusing the strengths of material designed to be read vs. material designed to be heard.

Seth Godin, in his ebook, Really Bad PowerPoint (and How to Avoid It), says this:

Microsoft has built wizards and templates right into PowerPoint. And those “helpful” tools are the main reason that we’ve got to live with page after page of bullets, with big headlines and awful backgrounds. Let’s not even get started on the built-in clip art.

In other words, it’s not really PowerPoint (or Keynote or Google Docs presentation tool or OpenOffice.org’s Impress or Prezi) that’s the problem. It’s the strong hint that we should build our presentations around text.

Resist.

A rule of thumb is that your slide show shouldn’t be able to stand on its own–that it will only make sense when it supports something you hear. If it can stand on its own, there’s no need to talk about it.

Your slide show should have very little text. That’s why they call it a slide show.

Godin says that you should have no more than six words to a slide. Ever. Here’s what I think: When you limit yourself to six or fewer words, the slide can be grasped as a whole without being “read.” It acts like a graphic. It fits the show.

But after 24 years, we still haven’t gotten it. Godin hoped his ebook would end the matter. It didn’t. Reynolds has been preaching against the slideument since at least 2006, and has become the undisputed leader of this movement. But at an academic conference last October I sat through a session in which the presenter read every single word of his 45-minute presentation off his slides. Teachers are some of the worst offenders. Even making fun of it doesn’t stop it.

Please. Make a difference in 2012. Take advantage of the many sources for legal images on the Internet, and kill the bullet point.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.