Cognitive science vs. crappy PowerPoint slides

IO9's Annalee Newitz liveblogged the presentation of Stephen M. Kosslyn, author of Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston. Kosslyn presented on his findings from Cognitive Science research into the optimal way to present visual information -- like PowerPoint slides. Kosslyn's boiled it all down to a few simple points, and while I'm sure there's a lot of nuance and detail in the book, Annalee's piece on its own is damned good advice to circulate to the slideslingers in your life.
The Rudolph Rule refers to simple ways you can make information stand out and guide your audience to important details -- the way Rudolph the reindeer's red nose stood out from the other reindeers' and led them. If you're presenting a piece of relevant data in a list, why not make the data of interest a different color from the list? Or circle it in red? "The human brain is a difference detector," Kosslyn noted. The eye is immediately drawn to any object that looks different in an image, whether that's due to color, size, or separation from a group. He showed us a pizza with one piece pulled out slightly, noting that our eyes would immediately go to the piece that was pulled out (which was true). Even small differences guide your audience to what's important.
Link, Link to Clear and to the Point


  1. When they suggest circling important topics in red I remembered a problem I always have when using a used textbook- If someone has already gone through highlighting sentences, that is all I see. It is practically impossible for me to read the un-highlighted sentences. Too bad the new books are so expensive.

  2. Anyone planning to use PowerPoint should look at Edward Tufte’s analysis of the subject. Here’s an excerpt from his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within analyzing a presentation on the damage to the shuttle Columbia in 2003 that led to the fateful decision to let it land. Tufte considers PowerPoint to be not just useless but dangerous for serious engineering reports. It’s good for showing graphic images, but bullet points not only contribute too little, they can even mislead the audience.

    BTW, when Tufte presents his programs on Presenting Data and Information, he uses PowerPoint to display graphics that demonstrate the point he’s discussing. His understanding of how best to use design to convey information is comprehensive. If you really want to make effective presentations, invest in Tufte’s course — you get his books as part of the course — or read the books. Even if you’re just curious about it, as I was, the course is an excellent way to spend a day.

  3. There’s something oddly self-referential about a book proclaiming to boil how to communicate with PowerPoint to a few bullet points….


  4. By the time someone reads this book, they could have supported his or her presentation with better content.

    At times, psychology seems like it is the science for stupid people, and in turn, lowering the IQ of us all.

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