Book Review – Clear and to the Point

by Noel Atzmiller, Manager, Technical Publications, Baker Hughes

Clear and to the Point by Stephen M. Kosslyn

Oxford University Press 2007

Have you ever viewed a PowerPoint presentation that was difficult to understand? Was the information on the slides confusing or obscure? Did you struggle to determine the most important point displayed?

If you had these experiences, it might be helpful to understand WHY you were frustrated—at least to avoid producing PowerPoint presentations that frustrate your viewers.

This is where Clear and to the Point can help.

The author, Stephen Kosslyn, is a professor of psychology who has written several books about how humans process information. Over the years, he has kept a log of the problems he saw in PowerPoint presentations. His training and education helped him conclude that virtually all these problems occurred because the presentation failed to respect fundamental characteristics of how humans perceive, remember and comprehend information.

Kosslyn explains the relevant psychological principles of the human mind and shows how anyone can use these principles to make clear, compelling presentations. These principles describe how perception, memory, comprehension, cognition motivation and emotion operate.

His recommendations enable the creation and delivery of effective presentations, yet allow ample creativity. By designing the presentation according to his recommendations, the presenter plays to the strengths of the audience and avoids being misunderstood or ignored due to the weaknesses of human mental processes.

Kosslyn states that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with PowerPoint as a medium. Rather, the problem lies in how it is used. PowerPoint is a remarkably versatile tool, he contends. The problem, he says, is that some presenters become “gluttonous consumers of the options presented by the program”. Instead, he advocates that PowerPoint should be used to “give the meat of our ideas”.

Within the book there are clear instructions on how to make ideas clear and immediately comprehensible, and develop intuitions about using PowerPoint effectively. He begins by describing the three goals that define an effective presentation: Connect with your audience, direct and hold attention, and promote understanding and memory. To achieve these goals he advocates respecting eight psychological principles that he summarizes after each goal (and describes in detail in the Appendix). These principles then lead to very specific recommendations in the following chapters.

Following this, Kosslyn provides six guidelines for the overall presentation structure. He validates his tips, suggestions, and cautions with brief descriptions of the human psychological principles that make them effective. Some of these guidelines should be very familiar with technical communicators: Prepare to speak to your particular audience, and do not provide too much or too little information.

The author then provides details and examples of key presentation parts. He sections a presentation into an introduction, the body and the wrap-up. For each section he gives candid and achievable instructions that can result in a powerful and memorable presentation.

The final segment of Kosslyn’s book deals with delivering a presentation. Here he provides a five-step approach that can help even the most fearful presenter.

I always suspected there were reasons why many PowerPoint presentations were confusing, obscure or difficult to follow. After reading Clear and to the Point, I know why – and how to avoid making the same mistakes in my PowerPoint presentations.