Beyond bullet points:
Using Microsoft Office Powerpoint 2007 to create presentations that inform, motivate, and inspire.
By Cliff Atkinson
Microsoft Press, 2008. 349 p.
“We don’t live our lives in bullet points,” Cliff Atkinson says, “we live in images and stories.”
Beyond Bullet Points is not a quick fix for your current approach to presenting with PowerPoint. Atkinson’s book challenges all us presenters to set aside our old habits and assumptions, especially if we have been using PowerPoint for years.
Time and again, reading this book reminded me of family slide shows. Dad set up his slide projector and a huge screen. In a darkened room he showed gorgeous color photos of our latest travel adventure. His narrative and the visuals produced a seamless entertainment.
Little did we know that years later, this approach would be endorsed by experts on how people learn. Without getting too technical, Atkinson artfully weaves cognitive science into the how-tos of using PowerPoint. Slides should complement the narrative, not try to duplicate it. Many presentations fail because the speaker’s slides are, well, too verbal.
Atkinson shares research realities that dispel the myths and break the habits that stand in the way of effective presentations.
Research reality #1: respect the limits of working memory. The limits of working memory have been acknowledged for decades, but our presentations often don’t honor those limits. People learn better when information is broken up into digestible pieces. Help your audience by “chunking” new information.
Research reality #2: address two channels: visual and verbal. People receive and process new visual and verbal information in two separate channels. PowerPoint presentations do not occur in a paper medium. They are like a movie, with a visual track and an audio track. The two streams of information don’t try to reproduce each other, rather, they complement each other.
Research reality #3. guide audience attention. Your slides should guide your audience’s working memory. When preparing your show, give each slide a headline, then write out your full narration in the off-screen text box in Notes Page view. Finally, add a graphic in Normal view.
Use a story structure
Dad’s vacation slides illustrated a story about traveling. But whatever your subject, you can use a ‘story’ approach to guide you as you plan and produce your show. Your presentation should have a beginning, middle, and end. This powerful structure ties everything together and keeps one idea flowing to the next. No idea—or slide—is without specific meaning, context, and sequence.
The main character in the story should be your audience. Not your company, not your research. Your presentation asks your audience to take some action, or to believe something. You create dramatic tension in your presentation by showing a gap between Point A (the status quo; your audience’s problem to be resolved) and Point B (problem solved, because your audience collaborated with your company).
Granted: On the surface, making a business presentation may seem to have little in common with narrating a slide show about a family vacation. You have lots of money at stake, or you must use lots of numbers. You’re trying to persuade an audience to do something, or to believe something.
But what better way to keep their attention, and guide their decision-making, than by structuring your presentation as a well-illustrated and narrated story?