Why I want to shoot down public speaker’s bullet points

  • Life before?
  • Uses?
  • Bullet points or sentences?

Was there life before bullet points?

How long have bullet points been around? Feel like forever? Actually I’d say they came into regular and common usage in the last 20 years or so. Bullets were invented as a way to make notes, as a quick way for someone to note the progress of their thoughts.

What use are they to a public speaker?

They can be very useful to the speaker or writer as they are a short-cut, a shorthand to remind them about their train of thought. (We think faster than we can write.) The way they are laid out on the page also ensures that they can be quick to read. The narrative or through line is implicit, for the speaker, because they are representing a complexity of thought reduced to a shorthand.

What about from the audience’s point of view?

The easiest way to help an audience understand and follow what you tell them is to weave your information into a story, or usually more accurately, a narrative. We don’t tell stories as bullets, do we?

  • Bears x 3
  • Porridge
  • Diff sizes
  • Goldilocks
  • Too hot/cold/right
  • Chairs and beds

Children (and adults) tend to prefer:    Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks. One day she went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked on the door and, when no one answered, she walked in…..

A Bullet Point is Not a Sentence

“Too many times a presenter puts an entire sentence as a bullet point. This defeats the entire purpose of the bullet point, which is to convey the key point only.”  Says Dave Paradi at

What is a ‘key point’ without a context?  Why do audience members want to be spoken to in sentences?  Because the bullet on its own doesn’t mean anything to the audience, it’s an aid memoir to the presenter.   How easy is it to listen, I mean really listen and take in the information, when it’s delivered by the presenter as bullet points? 

Being an aid memoir for the speaker is NOT a good enough reason to employ them, on a screen, in front of an audience

Would you put your notes or mind map up on a screen and show them to your audience?  So why put your shorthand/bullets up there? 

As Edward Tufte puts it “By leaving out the narrative between the points, the bullet outline ignores and conceals the causal assumptions and analytic struture of the reasoning.”

People talk about bullets on slides as ‘visual aids’.    But I firmly believe that written bullet points on a slide are not visual, they are just bigger writing.

They don’t connect with the parts of the brain that light up and crackle at a visual image.  They don’t harness our expertise at recognising shapes and sizes and colours and relative dimensions.  They are often dumbed-down thoughts, expressed in often rather meaningless jargon.

I am NOT saying don’t use visuals.  Just make sure they are visual. 

Goldilocks by hbgordon


    • I honestly believe that it’s an excellent idea to have notes of some kind, even if they are only a ‘safety net’. Some people use Mind Maps (as I do), others have headings or even bullet points (!) on a card, others use a full script. Whatever works best for you as a speaker is the ‘right’ answer. My point here is that it is not necessarily appropriate to show your aid to your audience.
      You’ve given me food for thought Heather, thank you. I’ll write a post about this!

  1. Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; tell ’em what you told ’em.
    Do you agree with this, Dilly?
    Outstandingly clear site; it exemplifies what you’re seeking to put across.

    • I do, I do! The ‘tell ’em’ structure is tried and tested and works really well. I am putting together some more posts on building presentations which will follow shortly. Many thanks indeed for the kind words about the site, Ivor.

  2. Hi Dilly

    This entry caught my eye after your tweet about the “good manners” blog this morning. I didn’t expect to be both chuckling and having lightbulbs above my head so early on a Tuesday morning!

    The use of the Goldilocks story to explain why a bullet approach is wrong is wonderful, simply wonderful. I’m going to be translating great stories into crummy bullet points in my head all day now, purely for ,my own amusement!

    Thanks, yet again! Simon.

    • Thank you very much for your comments Simon. You can make any wonderful story sound dull, if you really try! Similarly, you can make difficult subject matter come alive by the use of narrative.

  3. Great post, reminded me of the many times I’ve experienced death by PowerPoint. It also reminded me of what it was about truly great presentations that made them work;

    – The presenter told a story (often in a similar way to news articles (headline, most important information, next most important, etc.), sometimes layers of stories that connect into a bigger narrative

    – Any slides that were used contained striking images (not clipart) and very few words. The images emphasised the point well.

    I’ve found inspiration from the books Presentation Zen and Made to Stick, and received great engagement from audiences when I apply the principles they discuss.

Leave a Reply