“Can you make it pretty?”
Microsoft MVP and presentation consultant and designer Sandra Johnson gets a lot of “interesting” requests from her clients, but this one might the most frequent. (Another common one: “Can you train me to present like Steve Jobs?”)
These types of professional challenges keep the affable Midwesterner on her toes, even after several decades of working in her field. Johnson, who got her start in Advertising in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, has enjoyed a front-row seat as digital technology has transformed the world of business communications.
“When I started out, companies would ask me to do weird things, like convert an eight-track video to a .wmv to use in a PowerPoint presentation,” she remembered. “We also couldn’t embed videos in early version of PowerPoint, so there were a lot of workarounds and sending media in zip files, even sending files on disk through overnight mail to clients. It was crazy.”
Sandra is also a founding director and former president of the Presentation Guild—a nonprofit organization dedicated to elevating the presentation industry and legitimizing it as a career path. Over the last three decades, she’s seen PowerPoint evolve to become the powerful software tool it is today — a program used by millions worldwide for work, school, or just for fun.
“PowerPoint’s reputation as a presentation tool in the last five years has just exploded,” said Sandra, who continues to evangelize for the app and stay on top of the latest developments in the presentation field as one of the co-hosts of the Presentation Podcast. “I’ve always been proud to be a PowerPoint MVP, but even more so now. With so many innovative and cutting-edge features, it’s left other presentation programs in its dust.”
This month, as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the release of PowerPoint, it seemed like the perfect time to talk to Sandra about all the changes she’s witnessed in the field, why she loves being an Office Insider, and which Star Trek character inspired one of her favorite business mantras.
Your college degree was in nursing. How did you go from that field to a PowerPoint presentation design expert?
Sandra: It was accidental—I literally fell into PowerPoint. I moved to Minnesota, and while I was waiting for my nursing license to transfer, I started working in marketing in the medical field. It turned out I had a head for business, and eventually I went into advertising, where I was exposed to great creative work. And that’s when I started getting good at this crazy software tool called PowerPoint.
Then, when I left advertising, I went to a local agency and asked them to find me a contract account executive job. Because I included the skill “PowerPoint wiz” on my resume, they sent me to American Express Financial Advisors, who became my first client. After two years, I had so much presentation work that I was able to focus solely on PowerPoint, and that’s the bulk of my consulting business today.
What was your pathway to becoming a Microsoft MVP?
I wanted to learn everything I could, so I started going on the old PowerPoint newsgroups. I met a lot of experts that way, like Steve Rindsberg, Echo Swinford, and John Wilson. I started asking questions and before I knew it, I was able to answer people’s questions. And I kept answering and answering, and one day (in 2008), I got nominated for PowerPoint MVP. Today, I’m known as an Office 365 MVP in the PowerPoint category.
What’s the biggest benefit you’ve found to being an Office Insider?
The really big thing is the early access we get to the new features. I remember a time where you didn’t want early access, at least on your production computer, because it could really mess things up. But it’s much more stable now, and I love serving as a beta tester and trying out the latest stuff. I’m even on the Insider Beta Channel, where you get a build just about every week. I have absolutely no fear.
And even though there can sometimes be glitches with those Beta Channel releases, as an Office Insider I can provide Microsoft with immediate feedback. This allows the product teams to make corrections before the larger world even knows there was a bug. Sometimes we’ve found bugs that have been fixed within days! Think about that: When I was first becoming an MVP, we’d only get new Office builds every two years. The pace of change is unbelievable.
What are some of the PowerPoint tools that you’ve enjoyed most over the years?
I was an early user of Merge Shapes. It wasn’t even on the ribbon—another MVP found it in the backstage. I think it was called Combined Shapes at first. So, there I was, building my own vector graphics in PowerPoint very early on. I have always been a PowerPoint-first designer. To be able to give my clients low-file-size, high-quality graphics built in PowerPoint was just amazing.
I also really like the Dictate feature; I think that’s an underutilized tool. I dictate my PowerPoint presentations all the time. An example would be when someone provides a slide that uses a picture of three paragraphs of copy. I use the Dictate tool to move that copy to the notes, and it saves me lots of time.
And then, there’s the Draw tab. I started using it right away. When the screen recording capability came out for Draw, I was able to create some really cool graphics. There’s a bee that I drew, just for fun, which I shared on social media. I know it created a buzz (sorry) with the PowerPoint product team. I love those kinds of creative tools that PowerPoint offers.
Recently, there’s been some excitement about the cameo feature. Have you checked that out?
Definitely! I think cameo is going to change the presenting world. As a PowerPoint-first designer, to be able to stay in PowerPoint, click a button, and have my cameo appear there… I think it’s the first step to remote-presenting greatness for PowerPoint. There are so many cool things you can do with cameo—your camera feed can become the background of the slide, and then you can put text or graphics over it. I absolutely love it.
Who are some other PowerPoint designers that you look to for inspiration?
I love the work that Julie Terberg does. Her SlideADay Project is incredible. Julie’s slides aren’t based on someone’s corporate template, which is what a lot of us do—we design templates that fit within certain restrictions. I’m a big fan of Impressionist art, and I get the same kind of feeling of greatness when I look at her slides. It’s just beautiful, beautiful work.
One of your business philosophies is to help your clients “PowerPoint responsibly.” What does that mean to you?
It means that it’s easy to write bullet points. It’s easy to learn what all the cool PowerPoint sounds and animations are. But that’s not responsible—that’s taking the easy route, and it limits their results. When I help people PowerPoint responsibly, it means that I make sure that their slides support their expertise, not take away from it. My goal is to position them as the content expert, not the slides. To PowerPoint responsibly means focusing on all of it together: the presentation content and story, the slide design, and the delivery of the presentation.
Which superhero or other fictional character are you a fan of?
I think the PowerPoint MVPs are superheroes! [laughs] Actually, I’m a big fan of Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek, because he’s purposeful, conscientious, and dutiful in his career, as reflected in his mantra: “Make it so.” That’s what I pride myself on when I help my clients with their presentation needs: I make it so!
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