October 28, 2007

PowerPoint & CogSci

Interesting book called Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations by Stephen Kosslyn, chair of the psychology department at Harvard. Kosslyn is a cognitive neuroscientist who has written quite a bit about both cognitive psychology and Graph Design for the Eye and Mind (Oxford, c2006). This book talks about PowerPoint design in general with a focus on graph / chart design.

Kosslyn takes issue with Edward Tufte's essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint in which he says Tufte "claims that the PowerPoint program is inherently flawed. He has found the problems with this tool so pervasive and destructive that he challenges the very idea of using it to communicate." Instead, Kosslyn says, after he began "... keeping a lot of the problems in PowerPoint presentations ... [he] ... realized that virtually all of them occur because the presentations failed to respect fundamental characteristics of how we humans perceive, remember, and comprehend information." (both quotes p. 2)

His goals, therefore are simple:
  1. Connect with your audience
  2. Direct and hold attention
  3. Promote understanding and memory
And the book gives some concrete suggestions for how to do this with PowerPoint. One of my favorite cog sci tricks, the Stroop Effect, is mentioned several times -- in suggestions of what NOT to do (unless you're teaching about perception). Kosslyn reviews the problems with many charts, graphs, and other visual designs, including a discussion about "pointers" on this FEMA chart created after Hurricane Katrina.

In the Cog Sci realm, Kosslyn lists a few "capacity limitations" which affect how people process PowerPoint presentations. Most interesting to me are the memory limitations such as "privileges of the first & last," where you more easily remember the first 1-2 things in a list and the last 2-3, but not the middle several; and "multiple memories" where "retention is vastly improved if people ... store information in more than one type of memory." For this, Kosslyn urges presenters to "show ... a picture of an object and name that picture" to enhance memory.

If you're new to teaching or creating PowerPoint presentations, this is a good book. I found it a bit basic, but I have been working on my PowerPoint designs from a cognitive / teaching perspective (as a lay person) for some time. I was heartened to see that many of my techniques are cognitively sound, and I was inspired to change a few things here & there.

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