The Title and Content slide in PowerPoint—one of the software's most popular layouts—provides a natural hierarchy to the content. Learn about when it is appropriate to use this layout in your design, and what this layout really communicates.
- [Narrator] Bullet points, or rather this title and content layout that has been so popular in professional and academic settings, has a natural hierarchy because of the way most of us read. We read from left to right, top to bottom. At least on paper, that's how most of us work. But that is not how we work in the real world. At our computers, this is how we work. We spread out at our desks, often across multiple monitors. I know I do. And we compare the content on one screen to the content at another, switching back and forth between the windows.
It's not very up and down, or linear. We jump back and forth to make leaps and connections as needed. In a presentation, in our title and contents slide, when we shove our content into this layout, what that means for our bullet points, unfortunately, is that they will always be read and seen in a linear and hierarchical order. An observation which some critics of PowerPoint and slideware, like Edward Tufte, argue "corrupt and weaken verbal and spatial thinking." People rarely go back and forth in this layout to compare.
They read and then they zone out. Visually, this ready-made layout is damaging to your message, if your message doesn't fit into the structure. This structure communicates something very specific about your content through the position and size. It says that this is the most important piece of information and this is the least important piece of information and these bullets are equal in importance and meaning. Now sometimes that is the case.
But a lot of times, when I see content placed in these bullets on the slides, that is not how the speaker intends the meaning and the visual does not match the meaning of the content in terms of its hierarchy. Another problem with bullets is that the bullet points are more akin to speaker notes, the outline that presenters create to help jog their memory about their talking points. All too often, presenters put their own speaker notes on the slides and use PowerPoint as their own personal teleprompters, forgetting that PowerPoint is a visual aid for their audience, not for the speaker.
Remember the three design pillars. Audience is the first one, so design for your audience, not for you. So if you find that you are slapping a bunch of bullet points on a slide so you won't forget what you need to say during a meeting or a lecture, you are doing your audience a disservice. Now I want to be careful here. I don't want to demonize bullet points like some presentation designers out there have. There are times when bullet points are desirable and necessary.
In fact, I've dedicated an entire movie to this topic, it is that important. There are situations where your content will be cognitively and spatially appropriate for a bulleted list. It's just that not all content fits into this structure and unfortunately, most of PowerPoint's early formative years saw only this structure. On another note, bullet points, like any other design element, like color or type, can be overused.
Like that recipe and the instruction season to taste, there is not a hard, fast rule, like the 1-6-6 Rule. See there's this idea that there should only be one idea per slide, no more than six bullet points per slide, and no more than six words per bullet point. It's totally complete nonsense and not based on anything scientific or proven. It's a made-up rule. But it's a very popular rule. What is based on scientific research though, anytime you overuse one layout or one element, over and over again, like this, people will eventually stop paying attention to what you are showing them.
This is not a new phenomenon and one that is not specific to PowerPoint. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as habituation, a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. In web design, this phenomenon is known as banner blindness. When users become accustomed to the website after seeing the banner ads over and over again in the same space, even if the content is different. And this happens either consciously or subconsciously, meaning people may not know that they are not seeing the content.
So bottom line, for PowerPoint templates, whether you are using a stock Microsoft built or company provided template, if you lean on one layout too much or too heavily, presentation after presentation, you run the risk of habituating your audience. But, more importantly, you should be choosing layouts and visual structures that complement and support your content.
- Designing as non-designers
- Key design components
- The need for hierarchy
- Hierarchy in bulleted slides
- When bullets are cognitively necessary
- Using space effectively
- Creating similarity and contrast strategically