This is your Brain on PowerPoint part #1

You have (I assume) a brain. And you use it when you build a PowerPoint slide. Lets make another assumption. Your audience is using theirs. In this scenario we have a conflict: What your brain is telling you about your slides – they’re amazing – doesn’t line up to what your audience is thinking  – #whhaat?!^. In fact, there might be a serious disconnect between your neurons and theirs.

Stephen M. Kosslyn – He even looks like a Brain Scientist

A recent paper by Stephen M. Kosslyn – professor of behavioral sciences at Stanford University – and his colleagues outlines eight psychological principles that every presenter should follow to create effective slides.

Not surprisingly, most slides are excellent at breaking nearly every principle. Although you feel like you can intuitively recognize a good slide from a bad one, this research says otherwise: not only do presenters regularly design poor slides, audiences noticed them too. As Kosslyn and his team put it, “These results show that presentations not only have much room for improvement… but also that audience members are sensitive to the general sorts of problems that plague presentations.”

Let’s look at the first four principles.

1) The Principle of Discriminability -or- Make it stand out.

Discriminability is academic-speak for does it stand out? Obviously you don’t want your text and visuals to blend in with your background color. You want your slides to stand out so it’s easy for your audience to distinguish one thing from another. If you have different ideas, make them (significantly) different visually: typefaces large enough; the color of the text sharply in contrast with the background color; and no two typefaces too similar.

Lesson: If you are conveying different (but connected) ideas on one slide, make them look different.


2) The Principle of Perceptual Organization -or- Intentionally cluster and organize.

Humans are natural categorizers. It’s a helpful memory technique, a cognitive strategy that helps us make sense of a complex world. It’s why we cluster stars in the sky to make constellations, and an affinity for comedies over horror movies. Your audience will do the same thing with your slides. If two different elements share the same visual features or are near to each other your will assume that you are implying a category. Make sure separate-but-related components are explicitly grouped and you don’t accidentally group unrelated components.

Lesson: Group wisely: Construct your slides use color, shape, typeface, etc., to show distinction and similarity.


3) The Principle of Salience States -or- Make it a big difference, only if there is a big difference.

People notice big perceptual differences. The only splash of color on a slide. A movement or particularly flashy animation; even somewhat distinct fonts will stand out. The researchers cite a study that a part of our brain (the superior colliculus) is dedicated to automatically drawing our attention to large differences. In slide speak, this means you go wrong by making the less important piece of information stand out – with color, movement or distinct font, while the important piece of information disappears into the background. This isn’t just confusing, it’s annoying and distracting for the audience.On the other hand, if you want something to standout use the principle of salience to your advantage!

Lesson: Beware the visually backward slides. Often times, this isn’t obvious because after hours of preparation you’ve become too familiar with your presentation.


4) The Principle of Limited Capacity -or- You know too much and they don’t care.

Your working memory is a fairly limited brain system. Try holding this number in your head: 2095824713. Not easy, right? The principle of limited capacity captures this problem. We can consciously process only a few pieces of information at a time. With too much data at once, the mind will overload and miss everything. I will repeat this in case of your limited capacity: people will drown if given too much info at once! This means that most corporate cause information overload and make us tune-out. The corporate compulsion to fill every piece of white space on a slide with an extra little piece of information causes mass daydreaming. Better to move from one idea to the next, and patiently work through the details of each idea.

Lesson: The more information you dish out and the smarter you try to sound the worse off you’ll be.  You want simple and essential, not over-dressed and over-loaded.


Further Reading:

Read the Kossyln Study: PowerPoint® presentation flaws and failures: a psychological analysis.
Stephen M. Kosslyn1*, Rogier A. Kievit2, Alexandra G. Russell, 3 and Jennifer M. Shephard4

  1. Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA USA
  2. Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  3. Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
  4. Division of Social Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Lauren Hug (@LaurenHug) | September 24, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    All of these are excellent points. It’s nice to know that research backs up the common sense techniques I’ve been teaching clients for years! Thanks, Gavin!

    • Gavin | September 24, 2012 at 8:13 pm

      It’s nice to think science is on your side, it’s better to know it :-)

  2. randyngguorong | September 25, 2012 at 3:36 am

    Reblogged this on 蓝绵绵的独角兽! and commented:

  3. Carl Kwan (@carlkwan) | September 25, 2012 at 9:39 am

    This is AWESOME! Thanks for sharing it and adding your thoughts :)

  4. connorsingerline | March 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Your points are very interesting. By implementing these into PowerPoint presentations productivity will rise.

    Connor Singerline

  5. connorsingerline | March 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    These points are very interesting. Productivity will be greatly increased if these key skills are perfected.

    Connor Singerline

  6. Susan Doherty | March 24, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I agree 100% as I was a Visual Communications Professor at one time !

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