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 enoughus 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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: I
- Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows.
It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.
- Bullet Point Madness: II
- Decision-makers in many organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of a series of bullet points
or a series of series of bullet points. Briefers who combine this format with a variety of persuasion
techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 12: Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
- And on August 19: Motivated Reasoning: I
- When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that lead to the outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is known to threaten our safety and security. Available here and by RSS on August 19.
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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
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. 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.