In this review, I am examining the book Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint® Presentations by Stephen M. Kosslyn.
This book takes a different approach to creating effective slide decks. It focuses on the psychological principles, backed by neuroscience research, that a presenter can use to engage the audience.
What distinguishes Stephen Kosslyn from other authors is that he takes the time to explain the how the brain processes information and how these processes contribute to either an engaged or disengaged audience.
For those of you who may think this is a dry and dense scientific text, that is not the case. The book is well organized and easy to follow with many examples of how to effectively display information on a slide.
It should be noted that while the author focuses on PowerPoint, the principles in the book can be applied to all presentation software and in many cases, other forms of visual communication. Additionally, this book holds the test of time as it isn’t focused on how to use the software and then is immediately out of date when a newer version is released.
As the author states, most people presenting don’t realize how they are visually presenting information is confusing and in turn creates audience disengagement. Frankly, if this was common knowledge, we wouldn’t have so many books on how to create better slide decks and we wouldn’t have that phrase “death by PowerPoint.”
In the introductory chapter, Kosslyn provides the three goals of the book and what a presenter will achieve if they apply the principles:
- Goal 1: Connect with your audience.
- Goal 2: Direct and hold attention.
- Goal 3: Promote understanding and memory.
For every presenter I’ve talked with, and what I want as well when I present, these three goals are what they hope to have achieved. This book takes the hope and guess work out of creating engaging presentations and allows the presenter the confidence that they are in fact achieving them.
The principles covered in this book are:
- The Principle of Relevance: Communication is most effective when neither too much nor too little information is presented.
- The Principle of Appropriate Knowledge: Communication requires prior knowledge of relevant concepts, jargon, and symbols.
- The Principle of Salience: Attention is drawn to large perceptible differences.
- The Principle of Discriminability: Two properties must differ by a large enough proportion or they will not be distinguished.
- The Principle of Perceptual Organization: People automatically group elements into units, which they then attend to and remember.
- The Principle of Compatibility: A message is easiest to understand if its form is compatible with its meaning.
- The Principle of Informative Changes: People expect changes in properties to carry information.
- The Principle of Capacity Limitations: People have a limited capacity to retain and to process information, and so will not understand a message if too much information must be retained or processed.
Even if you are not familiar with the fields of psychology and neuroscience, at first glance several of these principles are somewhat self-explanatory. The strength of this book is that the author explains how these principles apply to various strategies of effective visual design.
A nice feature of the book is at the end of every chapter, Kosslyn breaks down how the eight principles apply to the content of the chapter. The appendix provides a detailed summary of each principle.
In Chapter 2, The Big Picture, the focus is on how to organize a presentation from introduction to delivery. Kosslyn provides eight guidelines that help you achieve the three goals. Then breaking down a presentation in its four major parts, introduction, body, ending/conclusion, and delivery, the author gives specific strategies for a presenter to use. For instance, in the introduction a presenter should “start with a bang” to grab the audience’s attention immediately. Throughout the chapter are examples of the how to use the strategies.
Legible Text is covered in Chapter 3. Similar to other presentation design books, Kosslyn, with examples, show what sizes and fonts are the best to use. While many presentation gurus, state outright to never use bulleted lists, the author provides good techniques on how to use them effectively. Also, in the chapter, he provides excellent examples for making tables, charts, and graphs easy to read.
Chapter 4 focuses on visual and auditory elements of a presentation by discussing Color, Texture, Animation, and Sound. Kosslyn notes that when used correctly, these elements can accentuate and enrich your overall message or a specific aspect of it. And, inaccurate use leads to a missed message and disengaged audience. Throughout the chapter, the author demonstrates how use each element to “highlight material, convey information, and organize the display effectively.” Specifically, with color, Kosslyn also discusses color relationships and the emotions they can evoke.
Even though the author discusses graphs in a previous chapter, in Chapter 5, Communicating Quantitative Information: Graphs, he goes into more detail about how to use graphs as pictures that display quantities of numbers. This chapter is packed with examples and guidelines on when to use a graph and how to choose the best one for what you are trying to communicate. There are also examples on how to construct a graph to make it as visually appealing as possible.
While many of the same guidelines apply to the use of other visual elements like charts and images, in Chapter 6, Communicating Qualitative Information: Charts, Diagrams, Maps, Photographs, and Clipart, Kosslyn discusses the benefit and purpose for each of these elements. He then provides specific strategies on how to use them. For instance, a presenter needing to show how to get to from Point A to Point B can effectively use a map “when more than one route is possible.”
Finally, Chapter 7, The Good, the Bad, and the Incomprehensible, analyzes a real-world example with the eight principles. The author then discusses specific default features of PowerPoint that contribute to bad presentations. While some visual communication experts maintain that presentation software should never be used, Kosslyn argues that the software is only partially to blame for poorly designed presentations and that those of us presenting need to take the responsibility of learning the basics of effective visual communication.