Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 12;   March 18, 2020:

Bullet Point Madness: I


Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think.
Examples of nonlinear relationships among concepts

Examples of nonlinear relationships among concepts. Bulleted lists cannot serve to present all kinds of relationships. Sometimes we need alternatives.

In many contexts in organizations, decision makers seek briefings from subject matter experts who are often subordinates or external consultants. These experts then present elements of a "business case" (for or against) some position relative to the issue at hand. And the preferred format for these cases is a series of bullet points. Often, it's a series of series, called a "presentation" or "slide deck." No matter how complex the argument of the business case, bullet points are the preferred form. This fixation on a single form for all arguments is bullet point madness, because it creates a risk of making poor decisions.

In support of this assertion, consider two possible risks. First, the bullet point form might be inherently limited with respect to the kinds of arguments it can represent with clarity. And second, the authors of bullet points might exploit any of the many available tools that can distort the audience's ability to assess the validity of the arguments presented. I'll address this second risk next time. For now, let's consider the inherent limitations of the bullet point format for making complex logical arguments.

The best any presentation can do is to convey an impression that's a simplified but serviceable representation of reality. Presenters and audience alike hope that the simplified forms correspond well enough to reality to ensure the workability of any decisions based on that representation. But the requirement that we must distill all arguments into bullet points, or a series of series of bullet points, limits the set of realities that we can represent accurately enough and completely enough. That leads to trouble, because the bullet point form isn't capable of presenting faithful representations of every reality or every logical argument. And the root of the problem lies in the nature of the bullet point itself.

Experts tell The requirement that we must
distill all arguments into bullet
points, or a series of series of
bullet points, limits the set
of realities that we can
represent accurately enough
and completely enough
us that each bullet point must be concise, crisp, and restricted to a single salient idea. When we write our bullet points, we necessarily trim them down to conform to this ideal. Then, when we actually make the presentation, we restore the connections and supporting ideas that coalesce the bullet points into a coherent whole. When we do that, we try to convey the thought process that the bullet points represent. And therein lies the risk. We have difficulty tying together the bullet points because of a cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency.

The illusion of transparency is the human tendency to attribute to others greater awareness of our own mental or emotional state than those others actually possess. Common examples of this effect relate to our emotions or our feelings about our own performance. For example, if we feel unsure about our public speaking skills, we tend to believe that the inadequacy we feel is more evident to others than it actually is.

But the illusion of transparency is more powerful than that. It can also affect our assessment of the level of understanding others have of what we're trying to communicate to them. We tend to overestimate how well aligned is the audience's understanding to the message we're trying to convey. And so, when we explain our bullet points — an activity necessitated by our having trimmed them down to their ideal level of crisp conciseness — we tend to overestimate the firmness of the audience's grasp of our complete message.

This overestimate of the audience's understanding arises from our inability to know what audience members are thinking about what we're presenting. We cannot know everything about their background or experience. We cannot know what meaning they're making of our bullet points or our words. We cannot even know how closely they're paying attention, unless something really unusual happens.

A second area of difficulty for the bullet point format is its inherently linear structure. The bullet points in each cluster of bullet points are arranged in some order. When people read them, or listen to them as they're presented, they take them in order, as if one leads logically to the next, or as if one depends logically on its predecessor. In many actual situations, there is no ordering among the bullet points. In other situations, there is an ordering, but the ordering isn't linear. Or there might be a linear ordering for some of the bullets, but the remaining bullets might affect each other mutually, in a loop, or even a web.

Makers of presentation software have provided templates for some of these situations. These templates, some of which are illustrated above, do help when the bullets in question are "near" each other in the thread of the logical argument, and near each other in their physical placement in documents. But some arguments truly do require sprawling webs of relationships among concepts.

Consider, for example, moving an entire information management system from on-premises configurations to the cloud. Hard work is involved, for both presenter and audience. A linear series of bullet points probably wouldn't be able to fairly present the business case for such a complex decision. Most likely, a sound decision would depend on an examination of the issues involved based on something more complex than a series (or series of series) of bullet points.

The bullet point format does have its place — for simple decisions, or for smaller, self-contained sectors of the knowledge space supporting more complex decisions. But that role is limited. For complex decisions, we actually do need to think.

Next time we'll examine some of the tools advocates can use to make the bullet point format appear to provide a stronger foundation for complex decisions than it actually can provide.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Bullet Point Madness: II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:

The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerHistorical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.
An unfinished building, known as SzkieletorThe Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse.
Boeing 737 MAX grounded aircraft near Boeing Field, April 2019On Standing Aside
Occasionally we're asked to participate in deliberations about issues relating to our work responsibilities. Usually we respond in good faith. And sometimes we — or those around us — can't be certain that we're responding in good faith. In those situations, we must stand aside.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A home officeComing January 20: Anticipating Absence: Quarantine and Isolation
When the pandemic compels some knowledge workers to quarantine or isolate, we tend to treat them as if they were totally unavailable. But if they're willing and able to work, even part-time, they might be able to continue to contribute. To make this happen, work out conditions in advance. Available here and by RSS on January 20.
stacks of gold coinsAnd on January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhZLYrRMtUnyjppRsner@ChacotqZAFalhYTBMgJWoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.