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Is it time to put a bullet in bullet points?

Abigail Stuart
Global CEO of Health & OpenMind
Hall & Partners

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Abigail set up the Health division in 1999, under her leadership they have secured global preferred agency status for eight of the top ten biopharmaceutical companies.

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What’s the point of a presentation? Is it to turn the speaker into a star, armed with so many funky slides that they’re emboldened in front of a room-full of strangers by their own cleverness? Or is it to inspire thoughtfulness amongst an audience by piecing together certain facts to create a plausible argument?

The truth is that it’s both – that is if you’re a world-famous speaker at one of the much-vaunted TED talks. But not everyone can be so lucky. In fact, I’ve become convinced that TED conferences have seduced market research practitioners into thinking that PowerPoint is their route to stardom. And it’s killing our industry.

We’ve forgotten that clients come first, not our ability to create evermore elaborate slides. The speaker is not meant to dominate – insights are. Yet the more slides a researcher presents the more that researcher, rather than their insights, dominates the room. It’s the same with email – we send huge files that lose their impact because they’re overloaded with content and read too late (if at all).

And when did we start to think of bullet points as insights? They’ve become signposts that encourage agreement rather than spark insightful debate. And the more ubiquitous they are – they seem to pepper every slide these days – the less powerful they become.

Instead of elucidating, we as an industry are using these tools to fashion our own conclusions. The essential pictures that we paint – of customer behaviours, brand attributes, attitudinal changes and market predictions – need to be explained and talked about, not elaborately designed in 97 self-contained slides.

The key to this problem lies in that word – slides. PowerPoint is simply a modern version of the overhead projector, a device created by marketing organisations in the post-war years to enable more internal meetings to take place with greater regularity and, in theory, foster collaboration.

The trouble is because these presentations are and always have been exercises in affirmation, the audience tends to switch off. If it has already been shown to be so, then why bother listening? Our critical faculties – the very things our clients demand of us – remain untroubled. We are literally being ‘presented’ with something rather than being encouraged to engage with it.

If there was ever an age in which market research insights should truly inspire brand strategy, it’s today

A friend’s studious daughter has just returned from her first year at Edinburgh University with tales of tedious lectures and boring presentations. Except for one which has inspired her to pursue the subject (voting behaviour) in greater detail during her holidays. Why did it have such a powerful effect on her? “Because he spoke to us, looked at us, demanded our attention. And we listened. There wasn’t a single slide to distract us. His words seemed to mean something more.”

Of course, presentations will always be the lifeblood of our industry but unless we radically transform the way we speak to people – and stop hiding behind a mountain of statistics, percentages and pie charts – we will slide into irrelevancy.

Which would be a tragedy, because if there was ever an age in which market research insights should truly inspire brand strategy, it’s today. Tastes are changing with such rapidity, and messages are being sent through so many channels to so many different types of people, that our skills are more valuable than ever.

So what’s the answer? Less slides, of course, fewer presentations and a partial ban on bullet points. Personally, I can think of no better way of getting through to someone than telling them a great story. Think about it – stories are the thread that runs through our lives. As children at bedtime, in a darkened cinema on a first date, out with friends, sat in front of the TV with a glass of wine, on the beach with a paperback, on the train with a newspaper.

We consume stories, we tell them and we listen to them. And our job as strategists and market researchers is to find stories that mean something to our clients and their customers. Why do we think that bullet points reveal them any better than we could ourselves?

Let’s not forget that our value is in what we can tell our clients, not just in what we show them.


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