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Bullet Points Kill (Effective Communication)

by Cliff Atkinson  |  
April 22, 2003

Guns don't kill communication. Bullet points kill communication. And when you use bullet points in a PowerPoint, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

Why do people use bullets? Bullet points do a great job of taking lots of text and turning it into less text. Given a choice between reading a 120-page business plan or a 12-page bullet point summary, most would choose the bullet points.

When it comes to presentations, the problem is that bullet points are the right answer to the wrong question. If the question is, “How do I condense 120 pages of text down to 12 pages of text?” then bullet points are the right answer. But in a visual presentation environment, that's the wrong question.

The right question is, “How can I distill my complex information into a visual form that will help me communicate more effectively?” You can begin asking the right question with a simple shift of orientation in your thinking.

Landscapes: the Best Formats for Portraits

In a Microsoft Word document you work in a portrait orientation, meaning your working space is vertical. It's the customary format for keeping text in easy-to-read columns of long vertical boxes.

But in PowerPoint you work in a landscape orientation, meaning your working space is turned on its end and is now horizontal. Not by coincidence, that's the same shape as television and movie screens.

The written communication of a portrait orientation happens in a 1-to-1 mode. When you gaze at a single written document, your goal is to absorb the information into your own individual mind.

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Cliff Atkinson is an author, speaker, and consultant who translates complex ideas into communications that get results at He is the author of the bestselling Beyond Bullet Points, published in four editions by Microsoft Press.

LinkedIn: Cliff Atkinson

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