Friday, September 01, 2006

Beyond Bullet Points really works

I just returned from the Advisor Magazine Summit on SharePoint in Phoenix. It was a good conference all in all. Lots of sessions on both SharePoint 2003 and SharePoint 2007. The usual cast of SharePoint experts were on hand to make presentations.

One of the sessions that I was responsible for presenting was "Building Workflows with SharePoint 2007". It was all about the new workflow features in WSS v3 and MOSS 2007. (Sorry, I can't post the slides as they are now the property of Advisor Media).

As I began to prepare the presentation, I decided to try something different and followed the approach advocated by Cliff Atkinson in his book "Beyond Bullet Points" (MS Press). Atkinson offers a technique for designing a killer presentation with Powerpoint, totally void of bullet points. He points to some solid research that indicates that most presentations that rely heavily on bullet points are pretty ineffective. This also lines up with one of the leading voices of visual design and presentation theory, the famous Edward Tufte of Yale University.

In a nutshell, Atkinson's technique involves developing a classic three-act story. You develop the story line first using a Word template he gives you. Then, you transfer the story line into Powerpoint and review it in slide sorter view. This is very similar to the process used by Hollywood in creating movies using storyboards.

Since you can't use bullet points, you must follow a couple of unique design rules. First, the title of each slide must be a complete sentence and can be no longer than two lines. Second, you must write complete narrative that explains the title in the Notes section of the slide (this is the detail that the presenter will present orally). By following these rules, you end up with a series of slides that present a story. The gist of the story can be understood by quickly reading through the title on each slide. The details of the story can be understood by reading the narrative in the Notes section.

The final step is to select graphics for the slide itself. The idea is to select simple graphics that convey the message of each slide.

The research behind using this approach is very interesting and is presented in detail in the appendix of the book. If you boil it down, I think the basic reasons this approach works so well are:

  1. People can pretty easily read a complete sentence that is the title of a slide and can look at a picture that conveys the message. They can do this pretty quickly and then they can LISTEN to the presenter explain the message in more detail.
  2. People cannot easily read and digest a slide that has multiple bullet points with sentence fragments on it AND LISTEN to the presenter explain the message in more detail.
  3. People are used to hearing stories and can understand and relate to them well. By using the classic three-act story structure, you are automatically using a structure that for ages human beings have become used to and are comfortable with.

I do a lot of presentations every year. Some of them are at conferences, some in the training classes we conduct and some are for consulting clients. I plan to continue to follow this new approach and see if I continue to get the outstanding results I had at the Advisor conference.

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