Monday, December 7, 2009

Continuing the Psychology of PowerPoint

One of the points made by Kosslyn (1) is that designing a PowerPoint presentation is similar to designing an agenda for a meeting. That is, it needs to be organized in a way that leads your audience into its flow, and it should lead to a logical and concise ending. However, unlike meetings, the presentation should have a single overall theme and mission, which is supported by its parts. This theme should be explicit from the outset and it helps provide the organization for what then follows. In terms of designing your presentation, you need to keep in mind that it is a presentation; it is not a written report, so it will not have the detail and precision of a written report. What it should, or will, do is engage your audience; that is its goal.

Kosslyn suggests 8 guidelines for the overall structure of a presentation.

1. Prepare to speak to a particular audience. You should tailor your presentation to their knowledge, goals and beliefs; thus, you should keep mindful of what information is important to them and what level of presentation is important to them. Typically, for us in education, answering a question about our audience is easy; they are our students, and we know what level of knowledge they have. Were this for an outside audience, we would need to account for this.

2. Show and tell. By doing so we help reinforce memory of our presentation, since we invoke different areas of the brain in the processing of the information we present. Practically, this means combining graphics and text. Provide variety as well (i.e., use video clips, etc.).

3. Plan in advance how you will direct the audience’s attention. This means more than just knowing your content. It means looking at your slides and ensuring they help reinforce learning. Keep the text minimal, and highlight in some fashion the important message on a slide (for example, by using a different font color).

4. Don’t lose your basic message by providing either too much or too little information. Again, keep in mind the information you are trying to present. Put up only the information necessary to achieve that goal. We typically want to give more information than we have to, so don’t. You want the audience to process information, not search for it in too much text.

5. Prepare your slides to function as your notes; don’t rely on your memory. This is hard; we know our content and the slides allow us a chance to show it. But we can forget material. You need to build in prompts in your slides to remind you, the speaker, about the content you are covering. Kosslyn does not recommend using the built-in PowerPoint note set as a reminder, since it is hard to read and people will see you scanning your notes as you present them.

6. Use the full range of communication options. Some topics don’t lend themselves to bullet lists or graphics. PowerPoint is meant to add to other forms of communication; don’t forget you have readings and assignments for your students as well, and your slides should not be the only tool in your box.

7. Build in breaks that allow the audience to “come up for air.” Use breaks in your presentation, such as a slide of a cartoon or joke, to give people some time to process and catch their breath. Stop continual force feeding of content.

8. Prepare for questions. Getting them is a sure indication that you have engaged them. So, master your material and be prepared for questions; anticipate the thorny ones that might arrive. Be ready to seed the audience with a question to get them started.

This is just a quick overview of how you should look toward developing your next presentation. When you do, don’t focus on the content; that part is the part you know. Focus on the medium and the technology and harness it in favor of reinforcing learning.


1. Kosslyn SM. Clear and to the point: 8 psychological principles for compelling PowerPoint presentations. New York, NY; Oxford University Press, 2007

1 comment:

John Pammer,Jr. said...

This was interesting and very helpful to me,as I wonder sometimes if the viewers are learning anything from my presentation. Your post helps to arrange my work in a more orderly fashion,THANKS