For many of us, a “PowerPoint” presentation is an important element of everyday activities. Just this morning, I have been working on one presentation that I am going to use next week and editing another one that a direct report of mine is planning to use in an upcoming customer meeting. I freely admit that I probably use or interact with “PowerPoint” more often than any other program on my computer. It’s a helpful, and at times powerful, communication tool. The important thing that I want all of us to remember is the word “tool”. The presentation is too often thought about as the destination or the work-product for a meeting. In my experience, this is not only far from the truth; it can also be a dangerous mindset. To illustrate my point, I want to share a story from early in my career well before “PowerPoint” was created.
The situation was back in the mid-nineties, when I was Director of Marketing and involved in what seemed like a life of death “save the business” pitch. My boss at the time and I had been working on the “presentation of presentations” to wow the customers, tell our story, and ultimately convince the CEO of this customer to sign a new multi-year contract. During those days well before “PowerPoint”, we built our presentations and ultimately turned them into slides, which went into a round Kodak slide carousel. There was always a core fear that the “locking ring” would somehow become dislodged, so I got into the habit of hand numbering the slides once we had the presentation finalized. Even then I was a bit of a nut about presentations!
Well the presentation came together, the slides were finalized and numbered, the carousel was loaded and locked, and we headed west for the meeting in Denver. There were four of us attending from our side, my boss and I, our Division’s President, and the local National Account Executive in Denver. From our customer’s side the CEO and his entire executive team planning on attending. Four of us and about ten or eleven of them … perfect odds!
The day of the big pitch came and we all gathered in Denver. The local National Account Executive had two key roles that day: 1) to handle the logistics to and from the airport and, 2) to insure that there was a working slide projector for the meeting. We arrived on time and headed to the customer’s office, nervous but ready with the slide carousel in-hand. Upon arriving at the offices, were shown to a large conference room, with s slide projector, a screen and a few flip charts. We were all set to go!
A few minutes later the room was filled the customer’s executive team and in came the CEO. After introductions were made, we all sat down and I turned on the slide projector to begin the presentation. As the first slide clicked into place there was an audible “POP” and the slide projector went out. The bulb had blown!!! Our local National Account Executive was visibly shaken and asked sheepishly “you all do have a spare bulb, don’t you?” Everyone looked around and it was clear that there was no spare bulb to be had. We had a slide tray filled with eighty or so slides and no bulb in sight; what were we going to do? My boss and the Division President both turned beet red, embarrassed and unsure of what we were going to do nest and the CEO started to look at his watch. It was time for some quick thinking!
I got up and pulled the flip charts out of the corners and said to my boss, “Jeff, we know this story so well, we really don’t need the slides. Let’s just use the flip charts.” Thankfully he followed my lead and what followed was one of those memorable business moments. We did go back and forth, telling our story by sketching the key ideas out on the flip charts and by the end of the meeting the conference room was covered with charts full of our notes, diagrams, graphs, pictures, and any imagery that could help tell the story. Somewhat amazingly, the ad hoc approach actually facilitated conversation and by the end, the customer team was all engaged and the CEO was directing follow-up actions and asking certain folks from his team to take certain sets of flip charts and work on them independently. In the end, it was one of the most successful presentations of my career, certainly the most successful of any that started with blown bulb!
The message of this story, now fifteen or so years old, is to remember that regardless of the technology, the concepts, questions, ideas and proposals that might be captured in a presentation are all actually part of a story, your story! Regardless of the situation, regardless of the technology, regardless of a thousand variables that all might go wrong, remember that you are the presentation. You need to always be prepared to tell “your story”, regardless of whether you have a perfect conference room setting or whether the bulb has just blown!