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I get confused with some comments of JeffE on this question. Those are:

...avoid bullets entirely.

Powerpoint doesn't kill people. Bullets kill people.

The comments got a lot of upvotes, so there are many people agree with them. And I don't understand why.

I use block and itemize extensively, and I think they provide a clear structure to my presentation. The bullets are the key points that I want to present on that slide.

So why people think they are so bad?

I have to emphasize that the question above asked about teaching, while I only give presentations. Are there any differences?


UPDATE

Thank you for the excellent answers (I still want to hear from JeffE). I can kind of understand that using only bullets is not enough, but avoiding them entirely is a personal opinion, not a general rule.

By the way, the best presentation I've seen so far is the last lecture of Randy Pausch, in which he used a fair amount of bullets.

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    I would venture that some of the upvotes on that comment are from the cleverness of how it was said. I upvoted it, but don't necessarily agree 100% that bullets should be avoided entirely. – Eddie Sep 2 '15 at 19:24
  • I don't want to answer the question, but with 17 years in the profession I can firmly state that a bullet powerpoint is in now way a good teaching tool It is a crutch to the lecturer. – Captain Giraffe Sep 2 '15 at 22:08
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    @nocomprende: I think the squared-off ones are called "dumdums" aren't they, and they're banned by the Hague Convention? – Steve Jessop Sep 2 '15 at 23:53
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    Bullets don't kill a presentation; bad presenter do. – Lie Ryan Sep 3 '15 at 6:36
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    "What are some bad effects of bullets in presentations?" A: Shooting at people makes for a distracted audience, ducking for cover makes for a difficult presentation style. Try a large blunt instrument instead, it leaves a bigger impression on attendees. Also, your title may give people the wrong impression :p – Kaithar Sep 3 '15 at 13:45
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TL;DR: A bulleted list onlys show one kind of relationship (either sequence or membership in a set). If you want to show another kind of relationship, it's better to use something else. If you want to show sequence/membership AND something else, you can either use a different visual tool (not a list) or a list + additional dimensions.


Bullets are useful to help speakers remember what they wanted to talk about, but they're not a powerful way to visually convey ideas and relationships between ideas.

To quote Edward Tufte in The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint:

By leaving out the narrative between the points, the bullet outline ignores and conceals the causal assumptions and analytic structure of the reasoning.

He in turn quotes the Harvard Business Review:

Bullets leave critical relationships unspecified. Lists can communicate only three logical relationships: sequence (first to last in time); priority (least to most important or vice versa); or simple membership in a set (these items relate to one another in some way, but the nature of that relationship remains unstated). And a list can show only one of those relationships at a time.

Bullets may be OK when you want to convey sequence or membership in a set. But even then, lists often have more than one dimension, in which case there are almost certainly better ways to present this than just as a plain text list with bullets. For example, take this slide showing an outline of a talk by Tom Rondeau:

enter image description here

and compare it to the classic way to show an outline with a list:

enter image description here

The point of this example is to show that the "plain" list, which is a fairly standard way to show an outline, conveys one dimension. The list version conveys sequence, which bullets can do fairly well (the parenthesis attempt to add another dimension, but it's subtle). The graphical version shows the sequence of the talk and also adds a color dimension to show the content of each section and its classification.

You could of course add extra dimensions to the list, too. This image was contributed by Eddie:

But if you are just listing points and not trying to show order, priority, or membership, all the more reason to stay away from lists.

Also see Bullets versus sentences in posters (I hate bullets in posters).

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    An extended discussion of the specific example is moved to chat. – ff524 Sep 2 '15 at 19:48
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    I mentioned it in chat already, but I cannot refrain from mentioning the irony that the example slide pretty much looks like a pointless overview slide, though as ff524 mentioned, depending on the setting it may have a point to help people decide whether they want to see the talk at all. – Wrzlprmft Sep 2 '15 at 21:09
  • Altought I would say "avoid outline entirely" I voted up because you said that bullet list are there to remind the speaker but do not help the audience. So true! Think about audience not about yourself. – Emilie Sep 2 '15 at 22:16
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    I like Eddie's version a lot better. The arrow in the original version is (sorry) pointless eye candy. The horizontal and vertical placement do not encode any information, nor does the light blue/dark blue shading. Tufte argues you should minimize the ink-to-information ratio, which Eddie's version does a lot better. (Which is also why I personally do like bullet points.) – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Sep 3 '15 at 7:19
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Susan Weinschenk says it best:

You know what I call slides with a lot of text? Your notes.

If you give people a slide with a lot of text, people will start reading the text. When they read, they can't listen. The attention should be on the words you're saying, not the ones on the slides. In most cases, a blank slide is better than one with too much text.

Of course, bullets don't necessarily mean blocks of text, and if you have three bullet points with three words each, the bullet list may not be such a bad option. But a sentence per bullet is pushing it already. If you make your presentation by opening powerpoint and typing the things you're going to say into a list of bullets, you're writing your notes, and the audience don't need to see those.

Bullets are also the first type of slide that comes to mind, and the first option powerpoint shows you. They are a crutch that stops you from coming up with a better slide. Try drawing the slide you need for your story on paper, and then figuring out how to get get it drawn on the computer.

  • I agree with you. I'm sure you have heard about the 7x7 rule: no more than 7 lines on a slide and no more than 7 words per line. It's sometimes hard to do, but your slides will be succinct. Any other text could be speaker notes or in your head. – Edwin Torres D.Eng. Sep 3 '15 at 1:28
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    If you have three bullet points with three words each, the bullet list may not be such a bad option - Not necessarily. If you use a phrase instead of a complete sentence, then your notes that other people can read and understand may just become your notes that don't mean anything to anyone else. – ff524 Sep 3 '15 at 2:41
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    We had a different rule at my school: No words other than labels were allowed on slides. Oddly enough, once folks got accustomed to that the presentations I attended were riveting compared to nearly anything I have witnessed before or since. I apply this rule today whenever I am in charge and it still works to generate a special form of creativity and familiarity with the subject being presented. – zxq9 Sep 3 '15 at 6:21
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    @ff524 Well then you're not presenting hard enough. People don't understand you by reading your slides, they understand you by listening to you. You say the complete sentence. If your audience is just reading your ideas off the projector screen, you might as well just send them the slides and save everybody the effort of showing up. It's your presence, and your live voice that presents the added value of the presentation, not the slides. – Peter Sep 3 '15 at 11:35
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    @Peter All of that is true, but not my point. The point is, your slides should not be your speaker notes; your slides should be visual displays that add value when combined with the words you are saying. Showing a condensed version of your speaker notes (as in phrases rather than sentences) doesn't help, and is also kind of rude because your audience can't even read it if they want to! – ff524 Sep 3 '15 at 15:24
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I think it is important to balance bullet points (or other text) and visuals. While it is awful to have screens full of text, the key points should additionally be made with text on the slides.

(1) Massively helps people who can't hear you, who are working in a language that is difficult for them, or can't understand your accent. It is very important that there is text for them to read so they can follow the messages of the presentation. In academia, you should always assume there are some people in the audience who can't comprehend as quickly as you speak.

(2) Makes your slides useful later. If the key points are written on your slides, then you can hand out a copy of your slides. I don't write an additional paper when I present, the abstract and slides are sufficient. A presentation that is all images is much better to participate in, but hopeless for later remembering what the brilliant presentation was actually about.

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    (2) Is a trap that many people fall into. But the two uses are mutually exclusive: the better your slides are as study aids, the worse they are as slides. To make good slides useful as study aids, most programs allow you to put notes next to the slide, where you can summarize what you say with this slide. You can export the nodes alongside the slides to make your handouts. You can see this on many of the slides at MIT OpenCourseWare. – Peter Sep 3 '15 at 13:40
  • The problem with using the notes option is that it encourages you to write sentences etc (as well as not addressing (1) of course). It also encourages the presenter to read from the notes rather than discuss the slide they are presenting. Having the key points on the slide (as well as the visuals, not instead of the visuals) keeps the focus on the actual slide and the presenter then does things like point to the relevant image. – JenB Sep 3 '15 at 16:29
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    @scaaahu You are so right. This is something I deal with every day (lecturing in English to undergrads whose native language is not English). Without bullet points, it is so easy for them to misunderstand me (and take the wrong notes). – earthling Sep 4 '15 at 6:06
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Adding to the others, one more excellent resource: Patrick Winston's "How to Speak" lecture, which recursively self-demonstrates every heuristic point it makes.

The version I've linked to is from before the dominance of PowerPoint and is primarily a chalk-talk, but it has a section on overhead transparencies that hits the same key points. This talk provides a lot of good heuristics on communication that includes why you want to not use dense bullet points. Among other key ideas:

  • Mixing images and words gives two cognitive channels of communication, which greatly improves understanding.
  • You need to slow yourself down, so that people have time enough to digest what you're saying.
  • Having lots of words means people will be reading the slides rather than listening to you
  • from before the dominance of PowerPoint — No, he's just from MIT. – JeffE Sep 3 '15 at 22:58
  • @JeffE Is this a prejudice I don't know about? It doesn't seem to fit my experience. – jakebeal Sep 4 '15 at 0:30
  • A significant number of the computer science courses on MIT OpenCourseware have videos of instructors teaching at the blackboard instead of with PowerPoint/beamer/Keynote/whatever. That's significantly more common than in my department; I think I'm one of only two faculty using a blackboard this semester. – JeffE Sep 5 '15 at 0:24
  • While that's a great lecture, he does, in fact, use bullet points quite a lot (both in transparencies and in lists on the chalkboard). That's not to say he uses them to bad effect, but it doesn't really address the question about not using bullet points. The rest of this answer is about not using a lot of words, which is a valid concern but somewhat orthogonal to using bullet points. – ff524 Sep 6 '15 at 4:24

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