by Adam Noar
Not to sound like a broken record, but like all professional presentation designers, we are not a fan of bullet points. There are so many different ways to take a boring bullet point and make it look nice! And by making it look nice, we mean making it not look like a bullet point.
But we understand that sometimes they’re unavoidable:
Some people simply don’t know better (if you’ve been following our blog for a while, hopefully that’s not you! If you are new here, get ready to learn some things!). Even people who try to avoid them just cannot get away from them sometimes – if you are on an extreme time crunch, for example, or that is the style you just have to go with, for one reason or another.
Whatever your excuse may be, if you have to include them, you might as well make them look good, right?
There is nothing worse than bullet points that don’t even look presentable. Just because you have to use them is no reason to give up on style, clarity, and all the other super important stuff that goes into a great PowerPoint presentation.
So welcome to PowerPoint Bullet Etiquette 101! .. Our guide to writing bullets that will hopefully inspire you to make them look better.
Dress Your Bullets Up
Bullet Point Design Inspiration by Startup X PowerPoint Template
Were not going to show you what the typical boring slide with bullet points looks like. You’ve seen it a million times and quite frankly we don’t want ugly slides filling up our blog posts.
Here’s the thing:
Bullet points don’t always have to look like …. well …. bullet points.
By adding some visuals and getting creative with your layout you can take a boring list of bullets and bring it to life for maximum impact.
Communicate the benefits
Our eyes naturally jump to bullet points. They contain an inherent promise that they will be a simple, clear, and quick summary of some of the main points. So make sure you are clear on what the benefit is to the reader!
Bullet points can be a really useful tool to keep the scanning reader on track with your main message, clear about what promises you’re making to them, and encourage them to go forward with your call to action.
You can also use them to hook the reader back in, if you are worried about them losing interest. Reminding them about that end benefit can reignite their interest in your message, and reengage them in your writing.
Keep your bullets short
Bullet Point Design Inspiration by Influencer PowerPoint Template
This is one of those cardinal sins that may seem obvious to avoid, but is committed by a surprising amount of people.
Think back to the worst, absolute worst presentation you have ever had to sit through. One of the most common reasons cited that made it awful was that the presenter wrote down exactly what they were going to say, and then just separated the sentences into bullet points and filled each slide up.
Please, we are begging you, do not do that.
Bullets, like headlines, are not necessarily sentences. In fact, they usually shouldn’t be sentences! If you are building a presentation, they should be very short summaries of each point you are going to make – something to keep the audience on track and clear on what your main point is, but won’t distract them with reading the minutia of what you’re already saying out loud anyway. They should enhance what you are saying and add clarity, not confusion.
If you are writing a blog post, the bullets should be to break up bigger chunks of text to help keep your reader interested and make it easier to skim. They can summarize what you have already said, or they can be a quick synopsis of what is to come in the rest of your article.
If you have to use complete sentences for whatever reason, just steer clear of the bullets. Either write out a paragraph, or stick to a numbered list.
Aim for Symmetry
Readability is one of the tenets of bullet points, and symmetry is one of the best ways to keep it readable. You don’t want one bullet that is three sentences long and another that is only two words – keep them all about the same length.
You will also want to extend this to style. It doesn’t really matter which style you choose, but make sure you stay consistent. This is one of those things that is glaringly obvious when you don’t do it, and fades into the background when you do.
The main things you’ll want to worry about with stylistic consistency are making sure the points all have the same punctuation (periods or no periods), capitalization, font style, and font size. This all makes it easier to read, and easier for your audience to follow.
Clear the clutter by avoiding the sub-bullet rabbit hole
Bullets are supposed to add clarity, so the last thing you want to do is make it more confusing. There is no reason to clutter up your slide with some jumble of subtitles, bullets, and sub-bullets that only make sense to you. You may think you are giving your audience a clear roadmap of how your ideas all fit together, but you are probably just making them a bit dizzy.
If you are giving a presentation, bullets and sub-bullets are just way too distracting to have on a slide while you’re talking. If you are writing a blog post, your audience will spend all their time trying to decipher your layout and lose your message in the process – or just give up. Both are scenarios you (obviously) want to avoid.
If you find yourself falling into the trap of sub-bullets, break out the bullets into new headlines or slides, and the sub-bullets into main bullets. It is a much easier format to follow, and won’t distract your reader with a convoluted mess of related ideas.
Keep it parallel
Similar salient subjects support your setup!
Okay not quite like that. The important things to consider when keeping your bullet points “parallel” are the theme and grammar. Keep all the bullets in the same area that have the same theme, and try to keep each bullet grammatically consistent. Make sure each one is in the same tense, begins with the same part of speech, and keeps the same format.
Also make sure you pick one sentence structure and stick to it for the list – complete sentences, asking a question, short fragment, etc. – this is a huge part of keeping it consistent.
You can use alliteration, like we did above, for an extra punch of style. Don’t overdo it – it can veer into slimy sales territory really quickly – but if you have a group of points that can be made clearly and use the same letter for the first word, go for it! It’ll pique your audience’s interest and make it easier for them to remember those points.
Each bullet is a short and clear benefit, starts with a verb, and is roughly the same length as the others. We even managed to work some alliteration in there. And now you want to buy our product – because come on, who wouldn’t?
Treat your bullet points like headlines
Most people know how to write a headline. They know it is supposed to summarize the main point in a short, clear, and easy to read way. A headline also supposed to create interest and make the reader want to keep reading.
Treat bullet points the exact same way – write them like they’re the titles of your slides.
By viewing each bullet as a mini-headline, it will make it much easier to see what makes a good bullet point (and what doesn’t), and when you should just use a different format all together. It is not always easy, and sometimes it just can’t be done, but in most cases it just takes some creativity and practice.
Use them sparingly
Bullet Point Design Inspiration by Influencer PowerPoint Template
One of the reasons many designers say to avoid bullets are that they become a trap. Suddenly you look at your writing and you think, ‘this could be conveyed in bullets! And so could this part, and this other part’…and pretty soon your entire piece is just a giant list of bulleted points.
This is an especially easy trap to fall into when you are creating a presentation. Suddenly it just seems easier and more consistent to make every single slide bulleted and then your audience is bored.
The best thing you can learn is when to use bullets, and to use them very sparingly.
Bullet points are supposed to be used for conveying the most important stuff in the most concise and clear way. That punches up the points, breaks up the writing, adds emphasis, and can really grab the reader. So only use it for the most important stuff! The last thing you want to do is make a bulleted list with every single unimportant detail – it’s boring, and it’s lazy writing. You can do better!
Think about what the most important part of your writing is – or rather, what the purpose is. Are you trying to get the reader to buy something? A bulleted list would be great for why they should buy it. Are you presenting a quarterly report to your bosses? A list of bullet points might be good for the top three achievements of the quarter.
Present your bullets in threes and sixes
Bullet Point Design Inspiration by Portolia PowerPoint Template
We are going to go ahead and combine two tips into one here, because they both have to do with getting the right balance of numbers on your slide, or in your list.
First is the Power of Three, which is probably one of our favorite tips. It is super versatile and applies to just about everything. In this case, you want to use it for your bullet points. If possible, you really want to limit it to three bullets per list – it is the ideal for style, readability, and memorability for your audience.
This rule can also help you with the design of your slide, so check out the blog post we did about it for more tips in that area.
For bonus points you can even add a few images above each bullet (like the slide example above) to bring your bullet points to life.
The other guideline is the Six by Six rule. This one says that you should have no more than six bullet points, with no more than six words per point. This one is better as a guide than a rule, because it’s not always possible or recommended, so use your best judgement on this one. Is a seventh word going to hurt you that much? Probably not. Are seven bullets going to be that bad? Yeah, probably.
If you find yourself hitting the upper limits of the recommended number of bullet points, think about how you can break them apart. Do you have six points, some pros and some cons? This is a great example of one that you can break into two lists of threes.
If your points are getting too long, think about what you are trying to convey – are you cramming too many ideas into one point? Are you using fluffy language when you could be more concise? Play around with it using these rules as guidelines.
Because we have harped so much on how bullets should be used for readability, summary, and emphasis, we want to talk about when NOT to use them. If you are trying to make a connection with your reader, evoke some sort of emotion, or build a relationship, DO NOT use bullet points.
Bullets are for information only. They are not going to help your reader feel close to you – in fact, if you try to use them for that purpose, you are likely just going to end up alienating them.
Do all the emotional labor in the paragraph portions of the content, and save the bullets for summarizing the key information. This will help your reader stay on track, but not lose the interest and engagement they have with your content and your writing.
People tend to have pretty strong opinions about bullet points – usually, designers and audiences both claim to hate them. However, they shouldn’t be written off entirely. Sometimes they really come in handy!
When creating slides, a well-written list of bullet points can really drive home your main point to the audience. If you are writing an article or sales flyer, a bulleted list of some of the benefits your reader will get (for example, if they buy your product) can even push them towards your call to action.
We know it is still a contentious topic – so tell us what you think! Do you still avoid bullets at all costs? Is there a certain use you have for bullet points that you love? Let us know in the comments below!