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Ellen Finkelstein:

Okay, so you’re a PowerPoint Guru. You’ve been using it so long, you remember when everyone still thought it was a pretty nifty piece of programming. You remember a time when it wasn’t being blamed for all of the ills currently plaguing our civilization.  Every year you score major points with the new interns by showing them how to create custom toolbars. Everyone comes to you when they can’t remember that trick for jumping right to a slide when you’re in show mode. You’re either very happy to be at PowerPoint Live 2008 right now or you’re seriously bummed to be sitting at home missing it.



Unfortunately, as this story from PowerPoint expert and author Ellen Finkelstein reminds us, having guru-level knowledge of a particular piece of software doesn’t always help with an uncooperative piece of hardware.

A professor at the local university asked me to give a session to 37 MBA/Accounting students on presenting data clearly. I created the presentation. As I usually do, I created a web page on my site for the students and wrote up a handout for them, so they could download it after the class. I do this so people don’t have to take notes while I present and can focus on listening.

I took home the projector and tested it on my laptop. It didn’t work, and I assumed it was my laptop, because I’ve had problems before using this laptop with a projector. So I borrowed someone else’s computer, borrowed the key to the classroom and came 15 minutes early to test everything out. I set up the projector and it worked fine. As the class came in, I had the first slide up on the screen in Slide Show view. The projector was on a table in front of one of the student desks.

I have to explain that my talk was based around showing the students techniques for making data and concepts clear and visual. So, I was going to spend most of my time in Normal view and let them see how I added an image, formatted a chart, and so on. For this purpose, a handout was useless; they needed to look at the screen to see which tabs I used, and which buttons I clicked. The handout was just so that they could later follow the steps on their own.

The first issue was that the borrowed computer had PowerPoint 2007 while I had written my notes for PowerPoint 2003. Luckily, I know both well enough that I was able to adjust as I went along. I asked how many students had 2007 and how many 2003, and 75% had 2007 (they were new students and had just bought computers) and 25% 2003. So, I adjusted my steps to 2007 as I went along.

I made a short introduction and went into Normal view. At about slide 3, the student sitting nearest the projector decided that the image on the screen was a little askew. He was right. So he moved the projector a little. The image disappeared. He fiddled. He fiddled some more. No image.

I improvised and started talking about general principles. I couldn’t use the whiteboard because the screen was covering it, so I just talked.

The student fiddled some more. Other students came over and tried to help. After about 5 minutes, I didn’t have any more principles and there was still no image on the screen, so I told him to give up. What I did was I held up the laptop and showed it to the students the way a kindergarten teacher reads a page in a picture book and then turns it around to the children to show them the picture. I put the laptop down and did a few operations, explaining what I was doing, and then showed them the result. I expect most of them couldn’t see anything, but they were polite and listened. By the end of the session, which was 2 hours long, my arms were aching from holding up the laptop!

At the end, I promised them that I’d add the actual presentation to my web page so they could download it and asked them to give me a couple of hours after class to get that done. I told them that the combination of listening to me, reading the handout, and using the presentation would give them the information they needed, and I think that was true. But it certainly wasn’t the best option!

Later, we discovered that the projector cable had a bent pin and that was the cause for the problem.

Ellen did all the things you should do when you’re trying to prevent Murphy’s Law from messing up a presentation. She tested the equipment in advance of the meeting. She had backup equipment and it appeared to be doing what backup equipment was supposed to do. She was also great at thinking on her feet and finding ways to work around the obstacles that were presented to her in this particular situation. Being prepared to do that can sometimes be as important as any other precaution you can take. And sometimes it’s all you can do.

Your Turn

Were you ever in a bad presentation situation that was rectified more by your ability to improvise than by any preparation you you did or precautions that you took? Please take a moment to share you experiences in the a comment.

3 comments to Ellen Finkelstein: “The image disappeared…”

  • Sure have! I spoke at a State conference recently where the time to set up equipment was severly limited. They had to break up the main ballroom into separate session rooms which severely limited the set up time. Plenty went wrong along the way after that, so I said “skip it” and we worked straight from handouts. I try to structure my handouts so they can be used as the main visual aid in the event technology fails. That way, either way, I'm covered and we don't lose precious time monkeying with technology. I discovered afterwards that attendees were relieved and didn't have to sit through “ANOTHER powerpoint program”.

  • Hi Laura. Great idea, just be careful spreading it around or you'll put the entire AV industry out of business.

  • thisoneh

    Thanks for sharing
    pic host