As a founding member of the Presentation Guild, Sandra Johnson has trailblazed her way through the presentation industry. I recently had the opportunity to chat with her all about how she’s built a career from being a PowerPoint MVP, how she co-founded the Guild, and what she would like to see in the world of presentations.
Q: So I could be totally wrong about this but I have to think that you didn’t set off to college thinking ‘okay one day I’m going to become an all-star PowerPoint MVP.’ What were your original career goals?
A: You’re absolutely correct, as a matter of fact my degree is in nursing. I joke that I left that industry because they wouldn’t promote me to doctor. I got my degree in North Dakota and when I moved back to Minnesota I had to wait for my license to transfer. I started working at a high-tech manufacturing company, Hutchinson Technology. They were looking for someone in marketing, who understood healthcare. I got into marketing communications, which eventually led me into advertising, and I got to a point where I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to keep doing it. So I reached out to an organization called the Creative Group, an organization that farms out creatives. I had a lot of experience in new business presentations, so I went to this group and I said ‘Golly, I am an account executive, there’s got to be people out there who need freelance account executives’. And they said, ‘Well we see that you wrote down here that you’re a PowerPoint wizard, American Express is looking for a PowerPoint expert’. The next day I went to American Express and they were my first client. I’ve been working exclusively on PowerPoint presentations since then. It has been quite a journey, from nurse, to ad executive, to presentation expert.
Q: So how did you morph from ad executive into PowerPoint Guru?
A: I started following PowerPoint newsgroups so I could learn more about PowerPoint. If I had a problem I would go there to find the answer, kind of like the forums on the Presentation Guild. Soon I found that I was answering these questions, and the more questions you answer the higher up the ladder you get, receiving status awards from Microsoft. Eventually I was nominated for a PowerPoint MVP because my knowledge base had grown sufficiently.
Having worked with ad agencies I was exposed to great creatives, I worked on the team that launched the Porsche Cayenne, I worked with Harley Davidson, so I knew what great creative was. But I was also smart enough to know that doesn’t necessarily translate into presentations, so I was able to add value.
Q: How do you think your previous education and work experience enabled you to get where you are now as the founder of this awesome community?
A: In the beginning when there weren’t a lot of us (2001), I had an edge; I understood the scientific world because my degree is in nursing. For example, 3M wanted someone who understood wound care. Medtronic wanted someone who understood medical implants, and I knew anatomy. Since that time, I think clients have become more aware of what makes a great presentation. Today, while my education is a bonus, clients are looking for strong PowerPoint design expertise.
Q: Can you recall a moment when you decided to flip the switch from PowerPoint being a skill, to building a career around it?
A: When I got those first jobs with American Express I was also a part time director of marketing for the Minnesota Nurses Association. So I was allowed to do both, but my presentation business just grew to the point that after 2 years I had to leave the MNA and focus on my career exclusively. It really didn’t take long to build my business, and it was always grown by word of mouth. It was never advertising or PR, we didn’t even have social media in those days.
Q: Since you’ve been working with PowerPoint, how do you think presentations have changed? Whether it’s due to technology that’s available or the way people view them.
A: I think my clients are getting smarter, not the ones I’ve been with the whole time, but the new ones come to me and say ‘I don’t want my presentation to look like a PowerPoint. I want my presentation to adhere to presentation best practices, I want to adhere to my corporate colors’. I think we’re getting a more sophisticated client who understands corporate branding better, personal branding better, and presentations as part of the marketing/communications mix.
As a part of my education process I let them know that my approach is a less-is-more design. I ask questions like, ‘are you comfortable with me removing content from your slides, making notes for you, and creating something that is for the audience, so they can take away key information?’
Q: Do you feel like you have to fight negative connotations of PowerPoint? If so, how do you combat that? What are your suggestions for advocates of PowerPoint when they are met with resistance towards it?
A: It happens fairly often, someone writes a headline bashing PowerPoint and all the news sources pick it up. As a matter of fact, I used to be more aggressive in fighting the good fight by tracking negative articles and writing the author to set them straight about PowerPoint, you know, ‘it’s the user, not the tool that’s the problem’.
About a year ago, Fast Company had an article, where they featured 5 graphic designers, not presentation design experts, mind you, to give their opinions on great presentation design. While they made a lot of good points, the first sentence in the article read, “PowerPoints are awful.” The Presentation Guild actually created a whole campaign in response to it. PowerPoint is just a tool, and once you learn to leverage that tool you can create really, really awesome presentations. You don’t have to use expensive Adobe products.
I also find myself educating agencies who hire me to create presentations for their clients. It seems that their corporate clients know more about PowerPoint than the agency. Corporations will spend millions of dollars on branding and they forget to address branding at the ground level. You know, providing tools to people who are sending emails, slapping together slides and presenting. It’s a multimillion dollar opportunity that traditional agencies are overlooking.
Q: Are there any features you would like to see added into PowerPoint? Or any current features you would like to improve?
A: You know, Microsoft is doing such as awesome job by adding new features to PowerPoint regularly, but there are a couple of things I wish they could fix; like the bug in footers, chart templates and themes in notes pages.
Q: I’ve read on the Presentation Guild website that the whole purpose of setting up the Presentation Guild was to develop a space for those in the presentation industry to have a community, and to set up certifications. Can you talk a little bit about how this idea came to life? Maybe where it started and how you got set-up?
A: Several of us in the presentation industry had been talking about this for a long time, so 3 or 4 years ago Echo Swinford recruited a group of us to start to make the Guild a reality. We set out to create a place where users could gain access to presentation experts and build a forum from which we could elevate the industry and give presentation professionals more clout in the design world. We officially launched a year ago at the Presentation Summit.
Q: Who did you originally envision joining the Guild and has that changed much since you launched about a year ago? Are you getting the kinds of members that you didn’t expect?
A: Our vision has not changed, our goal is still to elevate the industry and support anyone in the presentation industry whether they design and create, coach other presenters, or even present themselves. Our membership is currently composed more of industry experts. We also want to attract those folks that maybe aren’t experts, so they can develop in their careers both from a design and technical capability. We’d love to get more of those individuals in large companies, because they will have a big impact on presentations in the corporate setting. Surprisingly we have a larger than expected international contingency and we’re very, very pleased with that.
Q: How is the value of membership different for professionals who are working in presentation design agencies verses the solo act—so people who are working on their own maybe as freelancers or the only presentation designer in a company?
A: For example, an admin person at an organization doesn’t have a lot of clout when it comes to presentations, even ad agencies don’t have a lot of clout when it comes to presentations. We want to be able to support those people so that they understand best practices and can position themselves as the in-house expert. We can give them the information they need to have a stronger voice within their corporation or ad agency.
We just published a list of 375 standards for the presentation industry. Those standards will eventually become part of our certification program, where people can earn up to 3 levels of certification. Imagine the clout it will carry if you have a master certification within PowerPoint. This could be a selling point within any company, or as a selling point to get a new job. We as an industry will feel better about who is working on presentations.
Q: How do you think the Presentation Guild might change how presentations and presentation design are seen in the future? What do you hope to see change?
A: Have you noticed that when you complete a survey and you are asked to indicate your job title, the role of presentation professional is never an option? The Guild is striving to legitimize the role of the presentation professional, We formed the Presentation Guild for those who create, design and support presentations. We seek to strengthen their support networks, to stoke their creative passion, and to cultivate skills which can further their careers. I see a future where, someday the title, ‘Presentation Professional,’ will be a part of job lists across the globe.
Don’t forget to check out the Presentation Guild, and find out how you can become a member.
We at BrightCarbon are a big fan and supporter of the Presentation Guild – so much so that we sponsor the folks over there. It’s a really important community for industry professionals to get behind.
If you want to get on track to becoming a PowerPoint Master but don’t know where to start, try these five hacks to improve your PowerPoint productivity and start ticking off some of those tricks on the list!
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