The Beyond Bullet Points guide to presentations

To ease myself into my goal of doing more stuff, I’ve read my first book for a little while – Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

Overview

cover for Beyond Bullet Points, written by Cliff Atkinson and published by MicrosoftThe book’s tagline is Using PowerPoint to Create Presentations that Inform, Motivate, & Inspire. Given that the book’s publisher in Microsoft, it is partly a guide to structuring a presentation and part PowerPoint manual. The book almost explicitly delineates itself into those two sections. Of the two, the latter half is pretty weak – even beginners don’t need a half-dozen pages on the virtues of Clip Art.

Nevertheless, I did pick up some useful PowerPoint tips. Aside from relatively minor things (for instance, I didn’t know that you could hold shift when resizing an image to retain the proportions), the main thing I took was that I should make more of the three separate views in PowerPoint. I normally stick to the normal view, but it is true that the note layout can be used to convert the document to a handout, and the slide sorter layout can equally function as an executive summary.

To be fair, the book was worth me reading for that realisation alone. Furthermore, the first three chapters – on structuring a story – were also very interesting. Atkinson is a big proponent of the rule of three, and thus it is apt that his style has three primary influences.

Influence 1 – Hollywood

The Hollywood influence is that an output requires a process. In this instance the three key milestones all correspond to the three key PowerPoint views..

  1. The script – the script of the piece is written out in long-hand, including stage directions. A presentation is slightly different in that detailed notes aren’t as important as headings. These summarise and navigate the content. The remaining components of a presentation (the flow, notes and graphics) stem from the heading
  2. The storyboard – the scenes are stitched together. Headlines are sorted and resorted to give the optimal flow. A presentation should have consistent pacing – multiple slides rather than builds should be used in order to manage the pace and keep notes distinct.
  3. The production – Only when the individual components are planned, can the production fully commence in its execution. Likewise, the slides and visuals should be the last aspect of a presentation that is completed. Within this, there are three further points to bear in mind
  • If revealing or teasing the answer in the introduction (which Atkinson advocates), then always start with the most important point as cascading conclusions require strong justification
  • Constantly remind the audience of the purpose of the presentation, and use  active and personal language to assist in persuasion
  • Use consistency and repetition throughout the presentation, including variations on a theme

Influence 2 – Aristotle

As part of the power of three, Atkinson obviously refers to Aristotle’s three act structure. He has embellished this slightly, and in fact has created a quite useful template that you can download from his website.

  1. Act 1 is an appeal to emotion whereby the story – the setting, protagonist, imbalance, balance and resolution – are set up
  2. Act 2 turns to reason, and justification for the solution. Within this, there should be three key points of descending importance. The depth and detail of each point depends on the length of the presentation. This section is a dynamic interplay between the questions of “how” and “why”, with one answering the other and vice versa.
  3. Act 3 ties the previous two acts together, framing the reasoning for the reiteration of the crisis, the solution, the climax and resolution

Influence 3 – Mayer

Richard E. Mayer has written extensively on multimedia learning theory, and ten of his principles are outlined in the book to justify why slides should be visuals and headlines, with the spoken details in the notes pages:

  1. Multimedia principle – people learn better with words and pictures than words alone
  2. Redundancy principle – people understand better when words are presented as verbal narration alone, instead of both spoken and on screen
  3. Segmentation principle – people learn better in bite-sized chunks
  4. Signalling principle – people learn better when information is presented using clear outlines and headings
  5. Personalisation principle – people learn better when conversational rather than formal
  6. Spatial contiguity principle – people learn better when words are near pictures
  7. Coherence principle – people learn better when extraneous information is removed
  8. Modality principle – people learn better from animation and voiceover than animation and text
  9. Temporal contiguity principle – people learn better when animation and narration are simultaneous rather than successive
  10. Individual differences principle – people learn better when prior knowledge, visual literacy and spatial aptitude are taken into account
Conclusion

I’d recommend this book with a caveat – understand what it is (and who published it) before deciding whether you want to read it. Around 60% of the book is pretty basic PowerPoint advice, and the style of presentation is much more American than European (I don’t think the sailing motif would work so well in London). However, I found the explanation of Atkinson’s structure to be very clear and useful and the chapters on storytelling are certainly worth reading.

sk

FYI I haven’t applied the principle to this blog post, since this is evidently a different medium.
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