The Debate Continues
Over “On Click”

A workshop or seminar rarely passes in which I do not have occasion to engage in a favorite controversy: Whether or not to display a list of ideas or bullet points one by one or all at once.

One reason that this issue rubs me wrong is because so many content creators do not give any thought to it at all: They apply animation to their text and they accept PowerPoint’s default setting, which is to have bullets appear one by one (On Click).

Their entire reason for choosing a presentation strategy is because of the program’s default setting.

I would feel much better, and one’s argument would carry more weight with me, if there was some forethought given to this decision. Choosing a path because software suggests it is rarely a recipe for success. Let me hear “I thought about the differences and have decided that this is the better way to go.”

Because she has done exactly that, I will take respectful issue with my friend, colleague, and she whom I describe as the rock star of presentations Nancy Duarte. In her outstanding book on presentation design slide:ology, Nancy writes this on page 145:

I prefer to have text build sequentially as I’m not sure why anyone would want the audience to jump ahead. Remember, if the audience can see your bullets, they know the points you’re going to make. They’ll get bored or agitated waiting for you to catch up with them.

Let’s start with common ground: If you have designed a slide with 15 bullet points on it, then yes, you had better bring those points in gradually. I think Nancy and I would also agree that if you have created a slide with 15 bullets, the least of your troubles is how you choose to display them.

But with a properly-proportioned list of ideas—with a slide that has four or five tersely-worded bullets on it—I believe more good than harm comes from displaying them all at once. You allow the audience to see the forest from the trees and you make it easier on yourself by eliminating altogether the risk that you might forget how many bullets are left and run past the last one.

If I am a capable presenter, I should not be concerned in the least of my audience running ahead. How far can they go?? It’s my job to keep them on point. It’s my responsibility to keep them engaged, and if I can’t do my job, I shouldn’t blame my PowerPoint plumbing for that.

Most of the time, I want them to know where I am going with a story or an argument. I want them to have that context.

My position on this has become only more adament over the past 12 months when I heard from users who are put off—actually insulted—by the practice of revealing bullets one at a time. I don’t blame them—why shouldn’t they have the context for the discussion that I have? What am I trying to hide? Why am I trying to be coy? Do I think my audience can’t keep up? Do I think that they are not smart enough?

These are legitimate questions that are raised by an over-reliance of the On Click in PowerPoint animation.

Now I draw stark contrast to the treatment of dense, chunky data, like an involved chart or a big table. That is an entirely different situation, in which Nancy and just about everyone else who has spoken at PowerPoint Live would agree: Elements like these absolutely need to be sequenced and spoon-fed to an audience.

But when it comes to bullets, my position on this is unconflicted: Life is just too short to worry about them. They're not worth the trouble. Everyone’s life is made easier when you display simple lists of ideas all at once.

I'd love to hear what you have to say about it…

3 Responses

  1. Rick, I don’t use bullet points at all. I find them distracting and they add nothing to the slide. Depending on what the text is on the slide will determine whether I reveal it line by line or all at once. I never use the default settings and more often than not, start each slide as a blank. There is definitely too much “sameness” still out there and we really have to work hard to get that changed. As you say, one presentation at a time…

  2. I agree with Stephanie. I rarely use bullet points – and there better be a good reason when I do. But about the “on click” debate… I think we can learn much from studying motion graphics in movies, videos and even Flash files on websites (Hillman Curtis is a personal hero – check out his work if you haven’t already). We must first ask: what is the purpose of this PPT? Is it to keep the speaker on topic? If so, I’m sorry, because that presentation will suck. Or is the purpose of the PPT to assist the presenter in engaging, informing, connecting and moving his audience? That is the only correct reason for using slides anyway. If you’re doing that… then you’ll know whether to bring all the points up at once or one at a time. Your purpose dictates the answer to this age-old dilemma.
    So the final answer is: “it depends”.

  3. I have to say that Rusty also has good points. He basically says the same: “it depends”. When you know the purpose for your PPT, then you can create it accordingly. My personal preference is to avoid bullet points as much as possible …but there are still times when they are useful tools – so I use them. That’s the point – they’re tools and I know how/when to use them. They are not used simply because they are “default”.

Now that you have made it most of the way through this article, might you like to join our mailing list? We only send it out about once a month, it’s usually thought-provoking articles (occasionally thoughtless, so say our critics), and it’s never spammy.