Home » How to Avoid Death By PowerPoint: David JP Phillips at TEDxStockholmSalon (Transcript)

How to Avoid Death By PowerPoint: David JP Phillips at TEDxStockholmSalon (Transcript)

David JP Phillips

Here is the full transcript of presentation expert David JP Phillips’ TEDx Talk on  How to Avoid Death By PowerPoint at TEDxStockholmSalon conference.


Okay, ladies and gentlemen, welcome. There is a question which has puzzled me for quite a while, and that is, why do our PowerPoints look the way they look? Or rather, how on earth, can we accept that they look the way they look? How can you do that?

And do you know what’s even more intellectually challenging for me to understand, is how can a person sit over here in this meeting room with ten others, observing this dismally bad PowerPoint filled with charts, graphical elements, page numbers, fading away five, seven minutes thinking of other things. You know the feeling, the boredom, the waste of time!? This person, after 40 minutes, he/she will stand up, a bit dazed, trotting off to his own office, coming to his own computer, flipping it up, going like: oh my god, I’ve got a presentation tomorrow, and I do have a PowerPoint to build. Now what is the chance that this person will build an equally bad PowerPoint as the one that he/she was by herself tortured by in the other conference room? Is that a big chance? Yeah.

Now, what is that, why do that, is that vengeance? Is that where you go, you did that to me, I’m going to do it to you, you got it coming, bro. Is that the case? I don’t think so. I don’t think that that’s got to do with vengeance; has got to do with intelligence. I think it’s got to do with something else.

Now my passion in life is the brain, and an even bigger passion than that is presentation skills. And I love combining these two. And about four years ago, I got so, so upset, I blew my top because the way that we do neural executions all over our boardrooms today is just, it’s not fair to our intelligence as being homo sapiens. So I thought, there’s got to be something we can do about this, so I searched the world, I looked for seminars, I looked for training programs, I looked for books that could solve this question for me, but there was none to be found.

So I thought, well, I’ll just do as Franz Kafka said, ‘If it isn’t written, write it yourself’. And four years later, I have the great honor to stand here in front of you. What am I talking about? What are the PowerPoints I’m referring to? Well, they can look like this. Now, this is one of the top three universities in the world advising their students and their teachers on how to build great PowerPoints. I received this from a customer, and you’ve got to be semi-blind in order to even have something like this in the company.

I love this one. This one was awarded the prize of being the worst PowerPoint to be delivered by a public CEO in 2010. It’s a nice prize to pick up, isn’t it? Oh yes, thank you. Well done, mate. And then you’re like, this is bad, can it get worse? Yes, it can.

Now, this is the UN, in Afghanistan, the US military describing the situation in the area. And there are no comments on that. But then we get this one. My god, David Phillips, this has got to be the thing! This has got limited amounts of text. It’s got a supporting image. It’s got a clear headline. This is the truth. Well, the thing is, if you recognize yourself in any of these, which I think you do, nodding away, I want to make you aware of the following that if you delivered a presentation with something like that behind you, 90% of what you said was gone within 30 seconds. And then you go, no, no, no way, Jose, that is way, I know it’s bad, but it can’t be that bad, can it now, really?

Well, just let me give you an example of really how bad your working memory is, and mine, for that case. I want you to imagine this situation. You’re at the train station, waiting for the train. You can see it coming on the horizon. You’re fiddling away, finally, find where you put your ticket. You take it out and you go, car five, seat 42, got it. Have you? You have absolutely no idea where you’re going to sit, do you? Feel like, is this seat me, or, I’ll check, five, 42, you put it down again. Have you got it? No, you haven’t got it, you’ll do this on an average of six times before you sit down. I’ve seen people in the train go: Five, 42, five, 42, yes, this is my seat, check.

Now the bad news in the situation is this, you do not have a separate working memory for PowerPoint and a separate working memory for train tickets. It’s the same dismally bad working memory for both activities. So I might be harsh when I say this, but there is one man on this earth who knows more about the brain than anybody else, one of the most leading neurologists, called John Medina, and he puts it like this… and it’s with his words that I welcome you to How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint.

Now my objective for this evening, for these 18 minutes, is to give you five design principles that will cognitively and psychologically optimize your PowerPoint slides. And if you haven’t used them before, they will make a tremendous difference to every PowerPoint you’ll be delivering from this day and on. So let’s start.

The first one of these five is one message. I received this from a customer, and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of issues in here, but let’s start with the first one’. You got two messages. Let’s move one of them out of the way, and just bring one message per slide. So, why should we only have one message per slide? Well, I’ll give you this beautiful example. You’re at this nice party, you got the music going boom-boom, you got this person you’re chatting away to, you’re having a good time, chat-chat-cha-cha-cha. And then you hear your name, you hear your name spoken somewhere, your entire attention is now diverted in that direction, and with this person you’re just nodding away, hoping that you’re nodding in the right instances, yeah? Yes, yes, yes.

After about a minute, this one stops talking about you, so you divert your attention straight again. Now, that person will then say, ‘Well, don’t you agree’? And don’t we just love that situation? We have got no clue what they’ve been talking about. The same thing goes for PowerPoint, if you’ve got more than one message, the chance is big that they will be focusing on this one and that one, or that one and not this one. Just make it simple for human beings. Have one message per slide. We are extremely limited to understanding more.

Let’s move on, go to working memory. I’ve already given you this bad vibe that your working memory is bad, and I’m afraid I’m not coming with better news. I’m coming with worse news, and it goes like this. This equation has the basis of John Sweller and Mayer, and they come to the conclusion that there is something in our brain called the redundancy effect, and it works like this. If you have text, sentences on your PowerPoint, and you persist with the annoying idea of speaking at the same time, what will be remembered by the audience is zero. Or very close to zero.

Now, why is that, how does that come about? Well, it can’t look like this, it’s just not practical. You can’t stand and have this and talk at the same time, so what are you supposed to do? Well, use PowerPoint for what it’s supposed to be used for, pick it like this, pull down your text into the documentation field and use the area up there for the presentation material, short, sweet bits of text and an image. That is what enhances your image. That is what enhances your message. So use PowerPoint as it’s supposed to be used.

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