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)

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.

Come to the third of these five principles, and that’s size. Before we go into that, I want to make you aware of something, and that is the following. Every time that you open your eyes for the rest of your life, you will focus on four things: moving objects, signalling colors, like red, orange, and yellow, contrast-rich objects, and big objects for the rest of your life. Give you a practical example of that. Imagine yourself being home with a friend, a really good friend. Now, the television is on, but the sound is off. You’re having a great conversation, but do you find it easy to not look at the television? No. Why not? Because it’s got moving objects, it’s got signalling colors, it’s high in contrast, and they’re usually very big these times. So, why not use this to our benefit?

If you look at this, where is your attention drawn to, without you even having a chance of controlling it? It’s going to the big three all the time. Have a look at the practical situation, have a look at this. Where is your eyes drawn to? I can see that they’re drawn constantly to the headline.

Now, how often is the headline the most important part in the PowerPoint? It’s very rare. Even so, even PowerPoint template is built like this, where the headline is the biggest object, and the content is the smallest. Going absolute opposite to our biological reactions. So what does this look like if we just show you an example?

Now, I’ve reduced the title, and it looks like this. Do you see how your eyes now fall down into the content? Now they’re sucked into the headline, and now they’re falling down into the content. So I can control exactly where you are, but why do people build PowerPoints where people will be spending 70% of the time on the headline when it’s not the most important part? So what I want you to take with you from this is the most important part of your PowerPoint should also be the biggest, nothing else.

Moving on, to number four, contrast. Contrast controls your focus. So what does that look like? For instance, if I show you a list like this, your eyes are over the place because you don’t really know what to focus on. So I’ll use a built-in functionality into PowerPoint which goes like this. I’ll show you the first subject, I’ll take it away with contrast, and I’ll show you the second one, and I’ll do it again and again, and again, and again. You’re now following exactly the white spot. If I do this, nun-dun-dun-dun-dun, I can see your eyes just wobbling around, and you’re a bit like a kitten going after a little laser pointer on the wall, going like: where is it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it. Because you’re following where the white spot is and not the rest.

Now, this is a beautiful example, please do use this. Use it because you can show amazing big tables like this if you use the effect of contrast, the principle of contrast. Look at this, your eyes are all over the place, you don’t know what to focus on, but I just apply the principle of contrast, and it looks like that, and suddenly, you know exactly what to focus on. Here, they’re all over the place, and here, they’re exactly where I want them.

Now, there’s a big, the major drawback with PowerPoints, and that is that the majority of companies on this earth today, they persist in having white backgrounds in PowerPoint. Look at that. Oh, it’s bright, it’s shiny, could you tell me who has the highest contrast, me or the screen? Well, the screen. Who’s usually the biggest, me or the screen? Well, the screen. So the only option I have is dress myself up in signalling colors and jump around on stage in order to balance that problem out, and that is obviously not a good corporate strategy in the long term, would it be?

I think the long-term strategy is to just switch it around. PowerPoint is not supposed to have white backgrounds. If I do this, your eyes relax. You focus on me. I’m the biggest object. I’m the most contrast-rich object. I got your focus. Why is that important? It’s important because I am, I always have been, and I always will be the presentation. That is my visual aid.

Moving into the last principle, and that is objects. This one of the most severe principles, and it goes like this. How many objects do I have here? If you count them quickly, you’ll see that I’ve got 16. You see this little beauty at the end as well which goes page 12 of 95? What is that? Why do we do that? We’d only create anxiety if anything, you are. Oh my god, I can’t take 83 more of those. But, it can also create hope because imagine, imagine when it’s 90 out of 95. Oh, I can see the light, I can see the end of the tunnel. Kidding aside, don’t do that.

Now there are so many ideas out there on how many objects you’re supposed to have in PowerPoint, and once and for all, I just want to put my foot down and state to you that this is the perfect amount. In order to do that, I want you to just feel it yourself. How many objects are you supposed to have? We’re going to do that by showing you a couple of balls. I’ll throw up the balls. I want you to nod to me when you’ve counted them. Simple instruction, you with me? Cool, here we go. Boom. Alright, takes you about two seconds, good, well done. Next set of balls, count them and nod to me when you’ve counted them, here we go. Excellent, yeah, that took you about 1.2 seconds if you’re normal, which about 90% of you seem to be. We’ll have the third set of balls, the last one, look at this, nod to me when you’ve counted them. Oh, what was that? I just pressed a button, and you nodded simultaneously. That will, if you are normal, take you 0.2 seconds, two-tenths of a second. This will take you 1.2, this will take you two-tenths of a second.

And for anyone of you who, you’re good at math, you’ll find out that that number is approximately 500% difference. How is that even remotely possible? There are only two objects indifference. Well, might I suggest the following, this one you have to count, and this one you see. Could that be correct? So what you just experienced is the following: that the cognitive process of counting takes 500% longer time, requires 500% more energy resources to execute than just seeing. So, what I want you to keep in mind at all times, what I want you to keep in your head is this, which is the Swedish number for this. The magical number is six. It’s not five, it’s not seven, it’s six. And I want to make you aware of this.

When you go into a presentation in the future, and you’ve built this amazing PowerPoint, if you’ve got more than seven objects, or seven or more objects, you have to be aware that all the people in there, they have to use 500% more energy and cognitive resources to understand what’s in your PowerPoint. Now, how do you think their energy-saving brain by nature behaves? Will it go like ooh, I’ll easily invest 500% more cognitive resources to understand this weird slide, or, I won’t? I won’t. And you’ve just incurred death by PowerPoint.

Now what does this look like in real life? Well, have a look at this. 16 objects, can we agree that that’s too many? Yes, we can. So what does it look if we reduce it. Look at this. We go from this to this. And this is where your brain goes, ‘ahh’. And this is where your brain goes, ‘ugh’. Ahhh, ugh. And I assume that in the future when you deliver PowerPoints to your colleagues, to your fellow people, you want them to go, ‘ahhh’ when you show them your slides. You don’t want them to go ‘uggh’. Now there is … have you seen this movie, the Rain Man by Dustin Hoffman? Seen that? It’s a beauty, isn’t it? He comes into this cafeteria, and somebody drops the toothpicks, and he goes like, boom, 24/7. It’s amazing, isn’t it? His perceptive limit is here. Your perceptive limit is here.

Now what amazes me is that whichever country I go to, whichever company I see, it seems like they build PowerPoints in the hope that all their fellow colleagues are autistic or savants, which obviously is not the case. So, but then you go like this, but, David, my god! This means that I have to have more slides. Yes, that is entirely correct, you have understood me clearly. I want to make one thing clear here, and that is that the amount of slides in your PowerPoint has never been the problem. It is the amount of objects per slide which has been the problem. This stupid idea that corporate organizations all over the world have come up with limitations going like ooh, we’ve got this clever idea. You can’t use 40 slides, you can only use four. So what do people do? Well, they take the content of the rest 36, and they jam it in the first four. My god, is that counterproductive or what. And we call ourselves intelligent. No, no. Alright, so compared.

I started off with 95 of those. We ended up with a 135 of these. And yes, it gave an immediate result to the application that we were working for. So, to summarize this. Let’s have some fun and do a cross-examination because obviously I have to prove my point. Do you remember more than 90% of what I said? I’m not going to be that harsh. Let’s do a crossword instead. It’s going to go like this. Words are going to come up, I’m going to ask you to scream them out as loud as you can as we along. How many messages are you supposed to have per slide?

Audience: One.

One, very good. I think you were looking for a different word there. What can we use to steer our focus?

Audience: Contrast.

Yes, and another one?

Audience: Size.

Well done. What should we avoid using if speaking at the same time?

Audience: Sentences.

Beautiful. What should we strive, what kind of backgrounds should we have? We should have dark. And finally, now you can say it, how many objects per slide? Six, that is magnificent, thank you very much.

For Further Reading:

(Article): The 110 Techniques of Communication & Public Speaking: David JP Phillips (Transcript)



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