Ban Bullet Points!

The "Argument" For Banning Bullet Points

I read an interesting article today, where the author deduced that:

The boards of directors of every organization should immediately ban the use of bullet points on PowerPoint screens, if they accept these research findings:

"Adding text to a screen in a multimedia presentation that is identical to the narration harms the ability of the audience to understand the information. Removing the text increases retention, or the ability to remember the information, by 28%. Even more significantly, removing the text increases transfer, or the ability to apply the information, by 79%."

Now, I understand the desire to create sensational headlines, but if you are going to deduce meaning from someone's research you should at least apply a modicum of reasoning. The reaserch findings that were quoted assert that adding text to a slide that is identical to what is being narrated, will harm your presentation. This is very different from asserting that bullet points should be banned from PowerPoint presentations. However, the latter is a Sensational Headline That Compels Reading. Regardless of its lack of veracity. Who needs truth when you have a compelling headline? Before we head off in a tangential diatribe about the media in general, let's return to the topic at hand.

Should we ban bullet points? No. Should we moderate their use to appropriate levels? Absolutely.

The researcher quoted by the author of the questionable conclusion above also conducted this interview. He reveals some interesting findings that may help us create better presentations:

He makes an interesting assertion here, which I don't completely agree with:

It is worthwhile to distinguish between two possible goals in making a PowerPoint presentation — information presentation, in which the goal is to present information to the audience, and cognitive guidance, in which the goal is to guide the audience in their processing of the presented information. When your goal is information presentation, PowerPoint slides can be full of information that may be extremely hard to process by the audience. However, since your goal is simply information presentation, you are not concerned with whether or not the audience can process the presented information.

The bolding is mine. If I had given a presentation whose goal was merely to deliver information, I would think that I had failed, nevertheless, if my audience couldn't process that information. After all, the presentation of information does have an underlying purpose, and that does involve the audience understanding the material.

Some rather useful information is given later in the interview, that reinforces what we already suspected:

Research on multimedia learning is highly relevant to the design of PowerPoint presentations. For example, in Multimedia Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2001), I describe some researchbased principles for the design of multimedia instructional messages including the following: multimedia principle, in which people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone; coherence principle, in which people learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included; contiguity principle, in which people learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented at the same time or next to each other on the screen; modality principle, in which people learn better from animation with spoken text than animation with printed text; signaling principle, in which people learn better when the material is organized with clear outlines and headings; and personalization principle, in which people learn better from conversational style than formal style. For example, in designing a PowerPoint slide it is important to not present an overwhelming amount of information (i.e., coherence principle) and it is useful to have simple graphics to supplement words (i.e., multimedia principle). Finally, it is important to note that good design principles for inexperienced learners might not be the same as for experienced learners.