Saturday, June 05, 2010

Trying to Kick the Bullet

I know the title looks like a malapropism, but it isn't. What I'm trying to do is wean myself away from bulleted lists in PowerPoint.

I have a complex relationship with PowerPoint, as with the other tools in Microsoft Office. Each has real value but has also been seriously junked up by the wizards of Redmond. Far too much time is spent investing the tool with features that are rarely or never of value.

Edward Tufte, whom I admire greatly, takes a far more negative view of PowerPoint. I'm a fan of Tufte's; not an acolyte. PowerPoint can be very useful, if you use it carefully. But, I'm always open to considering how I might improve how I use it. After looking through some of Tufte's specific criticisms of bulleted lists, I realize here is an opportunity to make a change.

Now, I am a heavy user of bulleted lists. I often think in hierarchies & outlines, which fits them well. I also find it challenging to draw complex diagrams in a manner which is both presentable & useful, at least in reasonable time. So I often write many slides of bulleted lists & then try to go back and decorate them with relevant & informative diagrams I can lift from various other sources (or from previous slides). I do spend some time designing a few careful diagrams using the tools in PowerPoint.

So what is wrong with bulleted lists? As Tufte points out, the standard Microsoft scheme uses four or more different attributes to display levels of hierarchy. First, inferior levels are more indented than their parents. Second, the type size is changed. Third, the type face is changed to a different family or italicized (or both). Fourth, the character used for the bullet is changed. On top of Tufte's sharp criticism, there is the pointed satire as found in The Gettysburg PowerPoint Address.

Now, I find some of this useful, but it is a good wakeup that some of it I have just been accepting. After all, do I really need the actual bullets? Rarely are they actually showing anything useful -- the one exception being when I change them around in one list to show a useful attribute (such as checks vs. X's ). Another variant is using a numbered list to emphasize a critical order of points, such as in a series of steps which must be executed in order. But, most bullets are just consuming valuable slide real estate without adding value.

I also find the indents useful to show hierarchy. And having a smaller typeface is useful since the upper levels are more on the order of headlines and the lower levels often details -- so a smaller face allows me to pack more in.

But the change in font family or italicization? Those aren't very useful either. I'd much rather save italics for emphasis.

The challenge is actually putting this into practice. I have started going through active slide decks and converting them to the reduced list scheme. I don't see myself giving up hierarchical lists, but I'll try to do better within that structure.


Aaron J. Mackey said...

The problem with bullet points (as I see it) is that you actively reflect the hierarchy of your own thought processes, which may or may not resonate with particular viewers. I greatly prefer Mind Maps for more "free flowing" concept organization, which can (with practice) be used in a performance/presentation setting.

Of course, this is all premised by acknowledging the common practice of typing wildly into an empty PowerPoint presentation to download/organize ones thoughts for an upcoming presentation, and then just using that "flowchart" as the basis of the presentation, which I think is another "sin" of ineffective slides presentations.

Keith Robison said...

Fair criticism. Maybe I'll try installing FreeMind (open source) and see if that's a better approach to trying to make my brain dumps coherent to others