Ubiquity of Bullet Copy

  • study in 2009 revealed that bullets appeared on more than ⅔ of the slides in engineering presentations.
  • As a copywriter, I can safely say that bullets appear on more than 90% of the business-to-business marketing materials I see, including ads and videos as well as the ubiquitous PowerPoint.
  • Presentation experts advise using no bullet points at all, based on scientific evidence indicating that bullet points make information harder to remember

Brief History of Bullet Points

  • The first mention of a bullet as a typographical mark was in 1950. They were used as decorative spacers, not for organizing information.
  •  The first use of bullet points as we know them came in a description of a software prototype called “Presenter” c. 1985. The software was later renamed “Microsoft PowerPoint”.
  • The concept of PowerPoint was to take presentation power away from designers and put it into the hands of content owners.
  • PowerPoint used bullets to force content to follow an outline organization.
    • It was almost impossible to use PowerPoint in any other way.
    • The use of bullets migrated into a forced format for communications of all sorts:
      • Lists
      • Copy blocks 
      • Ad and brochure copy
      • I have seen video scripts written entirely in bullets.

What Bullets Do (and What They Don’t)

  • Bullets are custom-made for making lists. However, they don’t weigh the lists in terms of what information belongs in what order. Readers must prioritize on their own. These may not be your priorities.
  • The following bullet should be the first bullet of this section.
  • Bullets eliminate a hierarchy of information, i.e., the construction of an argument with an opening statement, a progressive, systematic examination of the statement, and a conclusion.
  • Bullets are almost always incomplete thoughts. That is why they are often supported by speaker notes, which are almost never written in bulleted copy — and for good reason.
  • Bulleted copy is made up of blocks of text disconnected to a thesis, again weighing all copy as equal. 

Bullets Can Bury Critical Information

  • Bulleted presentations — especially 67-slide PowerPoints — may contain hundreds or thousands of equally weighted data points to assess.
  • Author Thomas E. Ricks in his book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005, reported that military briefings on Iraq war strategy were sent as bulleted PowerPoint slides, condensing key intelligence and orders into bulleted lists. He equated this to “a manager giving a sales brochure to a mechanic and telling him to fix the car.”

Case Study: Hamlet

  • Question: To be or not to be?
    • Key objective: Determine nobler option
      • Suffer outrageous fortune
      • Oppose and end struggles
    • Key metric: Evaluate “not to be” as sleep metaphor for death vs. literal death
      • Death as sleep 
        • Pro: Potential to end heartache and struggles
        • Con: Risk of dreams unknown
      • Literal death
        • Pro: End of struggle
        • Con: Insufficient data (“undiscovered country”)
          • Nobody returns: Lack of reliable documentation
          • Unknown aftereffects: Lack of reliable documentation
  • Conclusion:
    • Conscience weighs literal death as unnecessary risk (“cowardliness”)
    • Take no further action
    • Be

Bullets Eliminate Key Attributes of Human Communication

  • Bullets are placeholders for complete thoughts, ideas or complex information.
  • Bullets do not engage a reader with a train of thought.
  • Bullets are not written to be read, but usually get read — rendering a presenter essentially moot.
  • Bullets present but do not explain.
  • Bullets eliminate emotion, enthusiasm, persuasion, humor or other communication cues.

Can We Live Without Bulleted Copy?

  • We did — until 1985 (pre-PowerPoint).
  • Bullets are here to stay.
    • Severely reduce need for writing or marketing skills; truncated information automatically appears organized 
    • Have become default form of business communication  
    • Bullets are risk-free: as with jargon and clichés, they are expected.
    • Bullets emphasize that business professionals dislike reading or are too distracted to do so.
      • A 20-slide PowerPoint presentation has as many words as two pages of copy.
      • However, two pages of text is considered too long.
  • “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”