Article Category: Book Reviews, Visual Aids

PowerPoint Book Review – Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations

Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations

Stephen Kosslyn has written a wonderful book for all presenters: Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations.

The subtitle for the book promises to illuminate the psychology of PowerPoint. Does it deliver?

In a way, yes. The 8 principles, dozens of examples, and hundreds of tips reveal much that would improve your PowerPoint skills.

However, this book delivers so much more. The 8 psychological principles can be applied to many aspects of public speaking beyond PowerPoint design.

Slide Design Series

For example, consider Principle 7 (The Principle of Information Changes: People expect changes in properties to carry information). A wise presenter might apply this to variations in voice. A shift from a strong, quick voice to a softer and slower voice should mirror a change in the content. Indeed, such a transition must mirror a change in content. Otherwise, your audience will be confused.

8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations

This book revolves around 8 psychological principles which are introduced early in the book, and then explained in greater detail in the Appendix. (The Appendix explanations are not required reading, but I do recommend it.)

  1. The Principle of Relevance
    Communication is most effective when neither too much nor too little information is presented.
  2. The Principle of Appropriate Knowledge
    Communication requires prior knowledge of pertinent concepts, jargon, and symbols.
  3. The Principle of Salience
    Attention is drawn to large perceptible differences.
  4. The Principle of Discriminability
    Two properties must differ by a large enough proportion or they will not be distinguished.
  5. The Principle of Perceptual Organization
    People automatically group elements into units, which they then attend to and remember.
  6. The Principle of Compatibility
    A message is easiest to understand if its form is compatible with its meaning.
  7. The Principle of Information Changes
    People expect changes in properties to carry information.
  8. 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.

Practical Application of the 8 Principles

The majority of book is devoted to 4 chapters, each of which:

  • Addresses a topical area of slide design,
  • Includes dozens of tips which describe how the 8 principles can be applied to maximize the effectiveness of the slides, and
  • Conclude with a summary of tips organized by the matching principle.

The format is easy to read from start to finish, or as reference material.

1. Legible Text

This chapter covers font selection, formatting choices, the use of bullet points, labels, titles, tables, and legends.

An excerpt which illustrates the Principle of Information Changes:

Use the same terminology in labels, as well as in the surrounding text and spoken words. Using different terms in a display, in text, and in what you say aloud may lead the audience to wonder if you mean different things. Attempting to distinguish these differences will definitely tax the cognitive capacities of your audience.

2. Color, Texture, Animation, and Sound

Here’s an excerpt illustrating the Principle of Perceptual Organization:

Use color to group elements. Regions of the same color will be seen as a group. Use the same color for all titles and another color for all text entries, which will clearly group the material into these two categories. And use color to pair corresponding elements.

3. Quantitative Information: Graphs

This chapter covers pie graphs, visual tables, line graphs, bar graphs, step graphs, and scatterplots.

Here’s an excerpt illustrating the Principle of Salience:

Construct an exploded pie graph by displacing the important slice or slices, as if a wedge of pizza had been pulled out from the pie. […] If you decide to use an exploded pie, you must decide which part or parts to emphasize. If too many wedges are exploded, the viewers won’t know where to look.

4. Qualitative Information: Charts, Diagrams, Maps, Photographs, and Clipart

Here’s an excerpt illustrating the Principle of Capacity Limitations:

Use photos and clipart to give the audience time to “come up for air.” […] useful as a break in the steady flow of information, allowing the audience a moment to reflect and digest. This is especially the case if the photo or clipart is humorous.

Three Primary Goals for Every Presentation

As stated above, the advice in Clear and to the Point applies to more than just PowerPoint design — it applies to presentations as a whole. This broad context is established early in the book, and referenced throughout.

The 8 principles are mapped to three primary goals of any presentation, even those which do not utilize PowerPoint at all.

Goal 1: Connect with your audience.
Your message should connect with the goals and interests of your audience. [Principles 1, 2]

Goal 2: Direct and hold attention.
You should lead the audience to pay attention to what’s important. [Principles 3, 4, 5]

Goal 3: Promote understanding and memory.
Your presentation should be easy to follow, digest, and remember. [Principles 6, 7, 8]

In Summary

Clear and to the Point is a very welcome addition to my public speaking bookshelf. I highly recommend that you read it too.

About the Author: Stephen M. Kosslyn

Stephen Kosslyn is Chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He is a leading authority on the nature of visual mental imagery and visual communication.

Update: Isn’t This Just “Common Sense”?

Upon reading this review, Michael Hyatt (President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers) commented:

Much of this looks like common sense; nevertheless, I am a sucker for books on making better presentations. It’s a HUGE part of what I do.

Michael’s comment struck a chord with me. I felt the same way as I browsed through and then read the book. None of the individual guidelines was earth-shattering, and most of them were not even new to me. While I was already designing slides in agreement with Kosslyn’s advice, Clear and to the Point helped me understand why I was doing things that way and it underlines the benefits for the audience.

Further, as I asked myself whether this was just common sense, my eventual conclusion was simply: “If it was common sense, why do we still suffer through so many poorly-designed presentations?

Like Michael, I am a sucker for books on making better presentations. I hope you are too.

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Clear and to The Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations by Stephen Kosslyn Andrew Dlugan 4 July 14, 2008 Well-written book full of practical tips and techniques that can be applied immediately to design your slides more effectively.

This article is one of a series of public speaking book reviews featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon2 Comments

  1. Simon says:

    It may (or may not!) be common sense (which isn’t all that common, in my experience!) but like so many books and articles of this type, the devil is in the details….. 🙂

    The things the reader needs to know are not just the principles but also how to apply them. It may be “obvious” to you, but it’s not obvious to other people. And sadly, my experience is that the kind of people to whom this kind of thing isn’t obvious are also the kinds of people who need a lot of help seeing how to apply it when they ARE shown the priniples….. if you see what I mean.

    In other words – just cos it should be obvious, doesn’t mean it is! 🙂


  2. You’re right, Andrew. Much of the things we suffer are stuff we could easily solve with a little common sense. But then you asked a good question: “if it was common sense, then why do we still suffer through so many poorly-designed presentations?” I think I have an answer for you:

    “. . .because common sense is NOT common!”

    (Jonas E. from Lagos, Nigeria)

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