People frequently ask me for good books to help them learn to how to do PowerPoint presentations. As I posted here, I always recommend two books, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Jerry Weissman’s Presenting to Win. Interestingly, neither is really about PowerPoint.
Last year, I started to add Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullets blog to my list. Nearly every post to this blog contained great ideas and tips about presentations, using PowerPoint and telling your stories.
One day, Cliff announced that he had gotten a book deal and would be putting his blog on hiatus until he finished the book. Here’s how big a fan I was of the blog – I never removed the subscription to his feed from FeedDemon. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t miss the day when Cliff returned to blogging.
His return came recently and I received an email from Cliff asking if I’d like to get a review copy of the book. Would I!!!
I got an autographed copy of the book, called Beyond Bullet Points, yesterday and stayed up a little bit too late, literally reading it from cover to cover in one sitting.
My conclusion is a simple one. If you give any presentations, you have to read this book. If you want to have happy audiences, you want to implement the lessons of this book.
Last summer, I completely overhauled my approach to making presentations. I decided to move aggressively to a “rule of threes” approach and simplify my slides and approach. I also spent a lot of time thinking about a book called American Jeremiad by Sacvan Berkovitch that I read in college. Berkovitch’s book analyzed the classic form of American sermon, known as the “jeremiad.”
It’s a familiar form that goes something like this:
1. There is a shining city on the hill to which we aspire.
2. We, to one degree or another, are sinners in the valley.
3. Here’s what we can do to get ourselves back on the path to the shining city.
I decided to adopt this approach with, believe it or not, a presentation on knowledge management for lawyers.
I used the same set of slides for both a 90 minute and a 30 minute version of the same presentation.
And, it worked better for my audience and for me than I had imagined possible.
However, and this will bring us back to Atkinson’s book, the jeremiad form did not fit some of the other topics I tried it with, although the “rule of threes” (three main points, three subpoints for each point, and three sub-subpoints for each subpoint) is an approach I’ve really grown to appreciate.
Beyond Bullet Points emphasizes some of the most important things I’ve learned while presenting over the years (take your audience from point A to point B, understand what your audience wants to learn, keep the focus on your message, not your slides, and the like), but it also sets out a disciplined system that makes it highly likely that you will achieve these goals.
And it gives you practical lessons and tools, including a heavy emphasis on the “rule of threes” to turn your presentations and your slides into a coherent whole that works for both you and your audience.
The organizing thread of the book is a real-world challenge – can you create a great PowerPoint presentation without using all the boring bullet points? Atkinson’s efforts show that the answer is a resounding “YES!!!”
In fact, he shows you several ways to do so. For me, the most impressive is a set of slides that have two words on each slide. Astonishing!
Here’s what I like. Cliff takes the ideas I was finally just beginning to intuit and develops a systematic approach that will put the best presentation techniques at your disposal through a set of structured steps and templates.
In the course of the book, however, he also demonstrates that telling a story, especially telling the story that makes sense for your audience, is the necessary foundation. Technique helps you tell a great story, but technique won’t save a poor story.
The key lesson, then, is to look beyond the great techniques and work on your story.
There are so many great lessons in this book that is difficult to highlight just a few. I know that I’ll be making a greater commitment to storyboarding and scripting. Cliff offers an approach to creating handouts that seems like a sure winner. It’s almost impossible for me not to dispense with bullet points for my next presentations – I have to try that approach.
Where the biggest value from the book comes for me, however, is in adopting a “screenplay” acts and scenes approach to a presentation. This approach pulls together so many elements of a great presentation and gives any presentation an excellent and versatile structure.
It also focuses on the notion of “story.” Atkinson sets out twelve classic story lines that we have grown to expect. If you organize your presentation along one of these story lines, your odds of bringing your audience with you will increase dramatically.
In the case of my “jeremiad” approach, I had hit on one of the classic story lines. It didn’t work in all cases, but now I have at least eleven other story lines to chose for my next presentations, one of which will be suitable to my story and my audience. In fact, I saw that my next two presentations fit well into two different classic story lines.
It’s amazing stuff. Lots of distilled wisdom. Structured approaches. Step-by-step instructions in using PowerPoint. Downloadable templates from his resource-laden website.
Thank you Cliff for writing this classic on the subject. It’s the perfect answer to the “PowerPoint is destroying the culture” crowd. PowerPoint is a tool and I love see a great craftsperson use a tool well.
I’ll be reading this Beyond Bullet Points again and again. You will see its impact in my presentations for years to come.
Ease on over McCloud and Weissman, make a little room on the shelf for Atkinson. I’ll be recommending three books to everyone now. And, don’t forget about the Beyond Bullets blog (better yet, subscribe to the feed) for ongoing pearls of wisdom.
[Disclosure: I’d be this much of a raving fan of this book even if Cliff hadn’t sent me an autographed copy. I was already planning to buy it on the day it was first released.]
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (]