How many bullets should I put on a slide?

People often ask, “How many bullets should I put on a slide?”

How many bullets should I put on a slide?

"How many bullets should I put on a slide?"

First I’ll tell you what others are saying. Then I’ll give you my answer.

“6 lines or less per slide, 6-8 words per line”

“6 words per line, 6 lines per slide”

“Limit the number of bullets per slide to five or fewer.”

You get the picture.

I think that rules like this are nonsensical.

It’s not that they’re totally wrong. It’s true that you shouldn’t have too much text on a slide. Why? When you display the slide, people start reading it. They can’t read the slide and listen to you at the same time. You might as well stand silently for 2 minutes while they read, because they aren’t listening to you.

But bullets have other problems: (Caution: Here come a couple of bullets!)

  • People associate them (from long experience) with boring presentations
  • They represent an outline or list format
  • They’re a text-based, non-visual method of communicating

Bullets are boring

The truth is, people have had bad experience with presentations that have too much text and too many bullets. So you start out on the wrong foot when you use slides of bulleted text. People immediately tune out.

Bullets are for outlines or lists

What’s wrong with outlines? When you present, you should be developing your message logically. For example, you might state the premise that most people waste a huge amount of money paying interest to the bank for their mortgage. Then, you need to back up that premise with fact, figures, examples, anecdotes, and so on. Your presentation shouldn’t be an outline. It should be a full development of ideas.

Of course, that full development should be expressed in what you’re saying. But bullets give the impression that what you’re saying is just an outline, rather than a well-developed presentation.

Bullets are text based, non-visual

The purpose of PowerPoint slides is to add a visual aid to your speaking. So, let it be visual! Remember that your talking is the presentation; the PowerPoint slides are not the presentation.

A great deal of research shows that people will remember effective grasphics more clearly and longer than text. And you do want people to understand and remember what you’re saying, don’t you?

However, the images need to be related to what you’re saying. They should either add to the understanding or create a relevant emotional impact. Irrelevant images actually hinder remembering, according to research.

What do I use instead of bullets?

If you have a lot to say, how do you avoid bullets? An easy way is to put one concept on a slide. Just break up those 6 bullets into 6 slides. And add relevant, powerful photographs, charts or diagrams. If you want to tie up the ideas into a conclusion, then you can put them all on the 7th slide. At that point, your audience will be familiar with the concepts and can integrate them more easily.

Time for some visuals!

For example, you could take this slide…

… and expand it to these three slides.

Then, if you want to review the three ways to help audiences understand, use the bulleted slide as the 4th slide. By then, they’ll understand the 3 items and the slide will have more meaning.

When are bullets OK?

Besides summarizing, is there ever another good time to use bullets? Bullets are lists, and sometimes you want a list. For example, an agenda slide is a good place for bullets.

agenda slide

agenda slide

There’s nothing wrong with this slide. No images are necessary. It’s meant to be a list. You’re not developing any ideas. There are no concepts to wrap one’s brain around. On the other hand, you could use SmartArt in PowerPoint 2007 or 2010 to make the list more graphic. Or even turn the agenda into a visual timeline.

Garr Reynolds in his blog, Presentation Zen, says the following:

“People often ask me how many bullet points is enough for their presentation. My answer is always the same: as few as possible…how about zero? In general, the more bullets your PowerPoint has, the less effective your presentation will likely be.”

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