Effective Communication using PowerPoint

The starting point for this project was John Fletcher’s use of the book by Cliff Atkinson, Beyond Bullet Points1 to prepare a PowerPoint  presentation2  for a conference.  He ascribes the positive feedback he received to his use of the Atkinson model. Using this model to gauge the effectiveness of other presentations at the same conference, he concluded that many were failing.

The Atkinson approach sees presentation design as an analogue to the processes by which films are produced in Hollywood: scripting, story-boarding and structuring into three qualitatively different ‘acts’, each divided into four scenes. His approach is also informed by cognitive load theory (eg Sweller 19883) that has contributed more generally to improved instructional designs. Atkinson specifically ‘maps’ presentations to Mayer’s ‘9 Principles’4.  In this article, Mayer called for “ways to gauge (a) cognitive load experienced by learners, (b) the cognitive demands of instructional materials, and (c) the cognitive resources available to individual learners.” In a recent review5, the actual (rather than assumed) prior knowledge of the learner, the demand on her/his ‘working memory’ and the optimisation of “germane cognitive load” have been emphasised.

The purpose of this CLIPP project is two-fold:

  1. to test the application of the Atkinson model in the context of university teaching and learning, and
  2. to provide a course for university lecturers who use PowerPoint so that the effectiveness of their presentations might be enhanced in terms of ‘optimised cognitive load’.

 Whilst it is not possible to fully optimise the test conditions, it is likely to be the case that a viewer with the actual level of prior knowledge assumed by the presenter, will display better recall and knowledge transference with an ‘optimised’ PowerPoint presentation than with one using a ‘default’ Microsoft template. To test this, two versions of a short talk have been recorded, one using a standard PowerPoint presentation and one using an Atkinson PowerPoint presentation. These are delivered to volunteers online (individually) and face-to-face (groups). The ‘viewers’ of the versions have actual (self-declared) prior knowledge of vector algebra. Volunteers do not know in advance which version they are viewing. Pre-exposure questions will check what they already know about vector algebra and post-exposure questions will separately test auditory and visual recall (four questions each) and for transference of knowledge (1 question). Participants will also rate the presentation they viewed in terms of interest, difficulty, quality, usefulness etc.

The presentation will report initial reactions to the two recorded presentations and summarise how a course for staff on optimising the cognitive load in their PowerPoint presentations might ‘look like’.


1 Atkinson, C (2007), Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® 2007 to create presentations that inform, motivate, and inspire, Redmond, Microsoft Press (new edition)

2 Fletcher et al (2008) “The Teaching of Sustainable Development at Aston University”, J P Fletcher, J A Drahun, P A Davies and P Knowles, Aston University, at conference “Innovation, Good Practice and Research in Engineering Education EE2008”, Loughborough, July 2008

3 Sweller, J. (1988) Cognitive load during problem-solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257–285

4 Mayer, Richard E. and Moreno, Roxana (2003) Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning, Educational Psychologist, 38:1, 43 — 52

5 Ayres, P and van Gog, T (2009) State of the art research into Cognitive Load Theory, Computers in Human Behavior, 25:2, 253-257


Dr John P Fletcher
David Anderson

Presentation Date

17th September 2009