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Death by Bullet Point: The Antidote

Picture of man snoozing/sleeping whilst standing upImagine the scene. It’s 5pm on a Friday. It’s mid-summer and the air is humming with heat – but you’re stuck in a hot, stuffy conference room with no air. You’ve been up since 5:45am, and are only surviving because you’ve downed 17 cups of coffee and 3 energy drinks throughout the day. It’s been a long day and you hope it’ll be over soon. You’re sitting in an uncomfortable chair watching a visitor give a presentation. You’re trying to stay focussed, but your attention is wandering… your eye is drawn out of the window to a colleague getting into their car and heading home for the weekend. “Lucky”, you think to yourself. You start to think about what you’re going to have for dinner. You start to think about the traffic on the drive home—“I wonder if those road-works have finished?” Your mind is wandering. You make a mental effort to focus.


Your attention is drawn back to the presentation—the presenter is speaking in a monotonic voice that can only be described as ‘dull’. They are uncovering bullet point after bullet point after bullet point—and really they are just reading their slides. They move to the next slide and an undecipherable and unreadable diagram is displayed. They look at the diagram, and turn back to the audience:


 “I know you won’t be able to read this diagram as it’s too small—but let me talk it through it”


They proceed to do so. Your eyes drift in and out of focus—you are trying to stay awake. You notice a number in the corner of the slide “25 of 118”. It’s going to be a long evening…you take a final swig of coffee.


Recognise this situation?


I bet we’ve all been in that conference room. We’ve all experienced that mind-numbing and spirit crushing pattern of death by bullet point. I suspect that many people reading this will have experienced it many times. And, if we’re truly honest, probably most of us have been on both sides of the podium. We’ve probably all given presentations that have lost the audience’s attention as well as endured them…


Communication is crucial

If you read any business blog, magazine or attend any kind of leadership course the topic of communication will come up time and time again. In staff surveys ‘communication’ is often cited as the biggest and most important issue. If you are a vendor or managed service provider (MSP), you almost certainly have to communicate complex information to your clients in sales presentations. If you’re a business analyst or project manager, you may need to present to inform and drive decisions (amongst many other things).


It’s important that we communicate well and avoid communication clashes. Every time we have the opportunity to present to our peers, to a customer or to others in our organisation we have the opportunity not merely to impart facts—but also to impress, persuade, communicate and entertain. We can inspire commitment and action. We can make an impression, enhance our reputation and build rapport by presenting well.


Yet so often we don’t.  So often we take the easy way out. We uncover bullet point after bullet point, and find we’re back in that stuffy conference room at 5pm on a Friday. But all of this can be avoided!


The antidote 

There is no silver bullet, but spending time planning the presentation can help. The following steps can prove useful.


1. Start with “Why”: Purpose: Before even thinking about designing a presentation, be clear on the purpose. What two or three key messages do you want the audience to take away? What do you want the audience to feel, act or do differently after they have seen the presentation? What decisions do you need them to make?

2. Think of the audience: Having thought about what you are aiming to achieve or impart by running the presentation, now place yourselves in the audience’s shoes. What are they wanting to get out of it? Is that different from your objective? If so, how can we ensure that they get what they need too? How can you tailor the content so it will be punchy, concise, and meet their needs? What are the audiences communication preferences (do they prefer diagrams, or data)?

3. Design the ‘flow’: Before going anywhere near a piece of presentation software, consider the ‘flow’ of the presentation. What points will you make in which order? What is your ‘storyline’ through the presentation? What will your introduction, middle and end look like?

4. Visual aids: Once the presentation has a clear ‘flow’, consider whether you need slides. Often, in a business context, slides will be expected. Remember that slides are a visual aid they aren’t the totality of the presentation. Use text sparingly, and if further details is needed consider using handouts. You might also choose to use other visual aids (flipcharts/other ‘props’).

5. Rehearse: For complex and ‘high-stakes’ presentations, rehearsal is crucial. Time spent rehearsing is time invested wisely. Getting feedback from peers and ‘tweaking’ the presentation will make it better too.

6. Vocal variety: It is also worth considering how you will deliver the presentation. Often the temptation is to race through the presentation, at 1,000 miles an hour. Consider pitch, tone, volume – and add variety to highlight points. Use brief pauses in the presentation to give people the opportunity to digest complex information or conclusions.

7. Eye contact: Consider body language and eye contact. Maintaining good eye contact with the audience will help to draw them in—it will also ensure you can take a regular ‘temperature check’. If you see their eyes look heavy and sleepy, you may need to inject energy or inject some interaction!


There are many other aspects too—but the seven suggestions listed above certainly help.


So – let’s stop ‘death by bullet point’ today. Are you with me?


Do you have any suggestions or thoughts related to presentations? I’d love to hear from you – please add a comment below!

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This post was brought to you by IBM for MSPs and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s PivotPoint. Dedicated to providing valuable insight from industry thought leaders, PivotPoint offers expertise to help you develop, differentiate and scale your business

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