Clear and to the Point (Stephen Kosslyn) book review

Clear and to the Point, by Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn, is one of the better books on how to use PowerPoint effectively. This is not water-cooler advice, or guidance on how to make pretty slides, but a smart book on what brain science says about how your audience’s mind works and what makes a slide effective.

Says Dr. Kosslyn, there are 8 principles to attend to when building PowerPoint slides:

1. Principle of Relevance. Slides should contain as much information as your audience needs, but not more.

2. Principle of Appropriate Knowledge. Speak to your audience’s level of knowledge, which means: avoid jargon, use the words your audience uses.

3. Principle of Salience. Attention goes toward the things with the greatest contrast. So big bold letters stand out well on a simple background, but less so on a background with distracting swirling lines.

4. Principle of Distinguishability. Items must have enough contrast, or they will not look different. So blue text next to greenish-blue text may not have enough contrast to stand apart from each other.

5. Principle of Perceptual Organization. This is a set of Gestalt principles which says the eye tries to “chunk” things into groups. For instance, four red circles in a straight line will be seen as one thing. If that’s not your goal, give each circle a different color.

6. Principle of Compatibility. We draw meaning from the form of things, so be careful you don’t choose images that convey the wrong meaning. For instance, don’t have text saying “Things are going great” in alarming red font color. Don’t use a 3-D pie chart because the slice tilted toward the audience will show the top as well as the side of the pie slice and look larger than the slices that only show the top.

7. Principle of Informative Changes. When we see something change, we expect it to mean something. So don’t use motion paths, animations or transitions just for novelty. It confused the audience.

8. Principle of Capacity Limitations. People have a limited capacity to search for and retain information. Complex slides that are poorly organized become such a chore that audiences simply give up trying to understand.

Although many of these principles appear straightforward, most PowerPoint slides could be improved if more people actually FOLLOWED these principles.

Clear and to the Point is not a breezy read; it’s definitely written for the serious student. For instance, some of these principles could have more playful names. But it’s wonderful foundational stuff and when you turn these principles into habits, your PowerPoints will be more effective.

Dr. Kosslyn’s book is one of the few that takes a scientific look at how to use PowerPoint effectively, rather than depending on rule-of-thumb advice or enthusiastic but baseless rhetoric. Other books that also look at PowerPoint with a scientific lens include my own (Speaking PowerPoint), Advanced Presentations by Design by Dr. Andrew Abela and (to a lesser extent) Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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