Saturday, September 1, 2012

PowerPoint Flaws and Failures: Rules Commonly Broken

Sometimes you can find an excellent recent magazine article that’s been completely ignored (so far) by all the bloggers posting at Alltop Speaking. A few days ago when I looked under PowerPoint at PubMed Central I saw the full text to a 22-page article titled PowerPoint® Presentation Flaws and Failures: A Psychological Analysis that had appeared in July in Frontiers in Educational Psychology. That article was written by Stephen M. Kosslyn, Rogier A. Kievet, Alexandra G. Russell, and Jennifer M. Shephard.

 It’s of considerable interest because Stephen M. Kosslyn also has previously written a pair of books titled Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations (2007), and Better PowerPoint: Quick Fixes Based on How Your Audience Thinks (2010).

 The article discusses three different studies. In this post I will discuss the first one, which examined 140 presentations to see if they violated any of a set of 137 rules covering the following communication principles:

Appropriate knowledge (7 rules) 
Compatibility (19) 
Discriminability (25) 
Informative Changes (8) 
Limited Capacity (15) 
Perceptual Organization (17) 
Relevance (19) 
Salience (12) 
“Over-Determined” (17) 

Table 1 of the article lists of all the rules, and the proportion (or percentage) of presentations that violated each one. Ten of these rules were broken by over 50% of the presentations. The top ten (and their percentages) were:

1. Bulleted items are not presented individually, growing the list from the top to the bottom. (95.7%)

2. More than two lines are used per bulleted sentence. (91.4%) 

3. More than four bulleted items appear in a single list. (91.4%) 

4. Hierarchical organization of lists is not used, with no more than four items at each level. (85.7%) 

5. All uppercase, all italics, or all bold typefaces are used. (80.7%) 

6. Visual or auditory characteristics change even when they do not signal a change in information. (72.1%) 

7. Words are not large enough (i.e., greater than 20 point) to be easily read. (66.4%) 

8. There is no crisp ending to signal that the presentation, or a given part, is over. (64.3%) 

9. Deep, heavily saturated blue is used for text or graphics. (55.0%) 

10. Entries in a table are too small to be read easily. (51.4%) 

Another ten rules were broken by about a third of the presentations. These are:

11. Bullets do not introduce topic sentences/phrases or specific cases. (47.1%) 

12. Underlining is used. (46.4%) 

13. Colors shimmer. (42.1%) 

14. Photos and clipart become too grainy when inserted into the slide. (41.4%) 

15. Either more or less detail than required for the point is presented. (37.9%) 

16. Serif and sans serif are mixed arbitrarily. (37.1%) 

17. Red and blue are used in adjacent regions. (35.7%) 

18. Non-standard or unfamiliar display formats are used. (34.3%) 

19. Different colors are not being used for emphasis or to specify. (32.9%) 

20. The most important content element is not the most salient. (32.1%) 

A pair of bar charts shown above list the 34 rules (by category) that were broken by 15% or more (roughly one-sixth) of the presentations. (Click on a chart to see a larger, clearer version). That’s 25 percent, the commonly broken rules, so you can apply the Pareto Principle to fix what you’ve been doing.

Table 2 of the article lists what proportion (or percentage) of those communication principles were broken by presentations in five categories: Business, Research, Government, Education, and Miscellaneous. For all categories, 100% of the presentations violated principles of both Disciminability and Limited Capacity.

Results from this study provide an excellent guide for improving your presentations. If you’d like to read even more how and why, then go to Amazon and buy the Kindle editions of both of Stephen Kosslyn’s books.

UPDATE September 30, 2012

It took a while, but Gavin McMahon, whose Make a Powerful Point blog is linked to at Alltop Speaking, also discussed the article in a series of three posts titled This is Your Brain on PowerPoint:

Part 1, September 24th

Part 2, September 25th

Part 3, September 26th

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