Slide Master Nuance: Bullet 1 vs. Bullet 3

Communicating with humans is hard. Life distracts them. The spoken word is really hard to follow and absorb. To succeed in spite of this, business people, and especially product marketers, often use the visual support of slides to help tell the story.

But once we start down the path of a slide as a visual aid, we are faced with how to best place concepts on the page to be most effective. Most people are lousy readers (more on this in another post), but you’re likely to have SOME text on the page — so you’ll almost always have the challenge of “what words do I use, in what order” to be effective.

Example 1:

A Plan for Adapting to Rising Sea Levels

  • We need to prioritize coastlines that will see the most sea level rise
  • We can build a sea level rise plan for each of those areas
  • We will communicate the priorities & plans for those areas

Before we tackle the specifics of this, there are three things you need to know about the audience’s brains when they see any set of bullets: 

  • First impression rules, so your audience is most likely to engage in the moment with the headline and first bullet… and fade from there.
  • Human memory is an average of the beginning and the end (see Kahneman). Your first and third bullets are what they are most likely to remember after the fact.
  • The flow from headline to bullet to bullet is easier to follow when each item explicitly relates to the one before it.
  • It seems like human brains simply switch off when given more than three bullets. What did having to read this fourth bullet just do to your excitement? 🙂

Specifically to Example 1:

  • The first bullet establishes tension “We need”. It also triggers the audiences’ brains to turn on their curiosity motors (How will we prioritize? Which coastlines will see the most rise? How much sea level rise will happen where I live?)
  • The second bullet releases some of that tension with “We can…”, and propels the audience toward an action (“build a plan”) to resolve that tension.
  • The third bullet accelerates the second bullet’s momentum toward taking action with “We will…” and even lets the audience know how we’ll take action and affect reality with the plan we’ve just built in bullet two.

Here’s a second way you could sequence your bullets:

Example 2

A Plan for Adapting to Rising Sea Levels

  • We need to communicate a plan
  • Each coastline will see different amounts of sea level rise
  • We’ll start with those impacted most

Notice that this second sequencing has all the same ingredients. But it makes the audience work a lot harder, and is likely to confuse them and leave them less inspired to act

  • The first bullet refers to a boring execution task, with no trigger to engage curiosity. And maybe a groan of how difficult it sounds.
  • The second bullet abruptly switches the topic, confusing the audience.
  • The third bullet refers to starting, but what are we starting: The plan? The communication? The coastline? Confusing again.

Editing Exercise: Bullet 1 vs. Bullet 3

As we’ve seen above, some points are impactful as bullet 3, but lousy candidates for bullet 1. Properly sequencing your communication makes a huge difference in the effect on your audience. 

A poorly chosen bullet 1 can undermine your impact. A compelling, triggering point placed as bullet 3 does less work on your audience than it would as bullet 1. A fairly tactical/execution point placed in bullet 3 “punches above its weight” because of sequence. 

Go pull up a recent slide you’ve written. See how you can make it better by playing with the sequence. You might be delighted by what you work out.

Moss Beach

Side Tip: Every word you put on a slide should be everyday English. Choose words with the fewest syllables possible. Your phrases or sentences should be short. Don’t use compound sentences.

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