Ric Bretschneider is a technologist, troublemaker, and problem solver. Professionally, he helps people raise the quality of their business communications, mainly presenting. At Microsoft, Ric spent 17 years working on PowerPoint, designing and molding the program that became a juggernaut in business communication. Shortly after leaving Microsoft, Ric was awarded PowerPoint MVP status, a recognition held by only a dozen or so people in the US. In his spare time, Ric runs the San Jose California branch of the Pecha Kucha presentation event, writes, blogs and podcasts. He’s also a huge geek; his obsessions are hidden away on his site.
In this conversation, Ric discusses his sessions at the upcoming Presentation Summit 2016 series.
Geetesh: Your sessions at this year’s Presentation Summit are the ones associated with you and identified with your personal brand. Can you tell us more about The Late-Night Guru and The Wonders of Pecha Kucha sessions? Also, what do you believe the attendee will take away from these sessions?
Ric: Wow, I guess you’re right. They’re also two of the longest-running Presentation Summit regular sessions I guess. Maybe Julie Terberg’s Slide Makeovers has been around longer. Hadn’t ever given that any thought before, I just enjoy doing them and always get a lot of good feedback from participants and audience members.
Certainly, there’s a high amount of fun in the Late Night Guru Session. The first time we did it, it was the second year of the conference, and it was a spontaneous thing – nothing planned about it at all. I was still working for Microsoft, attending the convention as an official representative of the PowerPoint team. About a dozen of us were walking back from a late dinner and looking for a place to hang out. We found a conference room that was open, with a projector, and luckily one of us was dragging around a laptop. So we spent the rest of the evening and into the morning just hanging out and talking about the weird and wonderful things we could do with PowerPoint. It was a part tutorial, a part love fest, and no small part group therapy session.
The next morning it was kind of legendary. Everyone who was there was telling those who missed it how much they’d missed! Word got around and there was this impression that that Microsoft guy has spilled a bunch of secrets but that wasn’t really the case. The next year I told Rick Altman we should make it official, he agreed, and we’ve done it every year since.
It was Rick who named it The Guru Session first attaching that label to me. It stuck, but I try to make everyone understand that we’re all the gurus, everyone has something to share, and that you can’t predict where the next revelation will come from. At its weakest, it was about Microsoft touting new stuff, and now they’ve got their own session for that this year to do just that. The strength of the session comes from everyone who comes to the party, everyone with a problem, a solution, or just something that makes us all laugh and become a stronger community.
Pecha Kucha is another thing entirely.
I met Nancy Duarte at one of the first Presentation Summits, called PowerPoint Live in the early days. I watched her session and was so impressed that afterward, I had to go up to gush a bit. So funny too when we discovered that her team’s office was literally minutes from mine. We’ve been friends ever since. One evening in 2007, Nancy and I and a couple of Duarte folks went to San Francisco to see what this Pecha Kucha presentation style was all about. I’d heard about these short presentations that were given in bars to packed houses, but wasn’t actually prepared for how mind-blowing it was to be part of the audience. The subjects were all over the board, from the art of cartography to transit solutions to a dozen other amazing little presentations.
You see the gist of the Pecha Kucha style is that presenters prepare 20 slides or images that will be projected for them as they speak. Each slide automatically advances after 20 seconds. So the presentation moves along at a good clip and is over in 6 minutes and 40 seconds. It’s kind of a blend of standard presentations, iron man competitions, and performance art. You really have to know your stuff to make it work in front of a live audience (of course, they’ve usually been drinking so they’re a happy bunch.)
There was so much enthusiasm in the car on the drive back. Everyone knew they’d seen something new and special. When I got home I decided that San Francisco was too far to go to attend these things on a regular basis, so I contacted the Pecha Kucha organization in Japan and founded the branch in the Silicon Valley, San Jose being the hub. After a couple of years of running local shows, it seemed natural to do a Pecha Kucha event for Presentation Summit.
Now, a couple of months before the conference, I work with a number of Presentation Summit attendees who will be part of the session. I explain the format and history, and we put on a mini PK show. Both the presenters and audience get a solid introduction to how accepting the constraints of the format forces you into a mode where clarity and focus benefit your message. Again, fun, accessible, and informative; the best way to learn.
Geetesh: Ric, is The Late-Night Guru session completely open? What rules are there about the questions asked?
Ric: Hah! Yes, entirely open. Any question can be asked, with no rules whatsoever. Of course, that doesn’t mean all questions will be answered!
Seriously though, as I think we’ve done about a dozen of these over the more than a decade of Presentation Summits, I really can’t think of a question that was totally out of bounds. The concerns are much more about the value of what we talk about, and where conversations go. I moderate the session with the mind that everyone should be heard, but no one should monopolize the conversation. And some questions just can’t be answered because they’re formed wrong, based on misconceptions.
A favorite example of that is “What are the most slides you should have in a presentation?” Typically this comes from a management edict – some executive trying to manage an event without understanding how communication works. It’s a favorite topic of lazy presentation pundits, especially if they can rhyme it. “No more than ten.” “Twenty is the max.” Ridiculous. You need exactly as many slides as you need to support your message. No more, no less. And you should keep working on that message to keep your slides to a minimum, your argument focused, and your audience attentive. But that’s a purely situational thing. Your slides should move along briskly, nimbly, each exactingly supporting your arguments as you lay them out. One definite answer is that if you’re going to read every word on your slide to the audience, maybe you should keep your presentation to one slide. And you should send it out in an e-mail and stop wasting people’s time.
But “the correct number of slides” is an example of something we’d still take on and in just that manner. Without breaking any confidences, I can say that there’s no Microsoft secret number of slides to use. Heck, I wish there had been because frankly, I sat through some pretty horrendous presentations at Microsoft. And so the secrets we expose in the Late Night Guru Session are just that; wisdom we all have but need the courage to apply. Because you need the courage to fight back against the mistakes and misconceptions about presentations in your organization. And that courage can find its foundation in a community, a community like you find at The Presentation Summit, and at The Late-Night Guru Session.
Wow, I’m really looking forward to this year! Thanks for asking Geetesh.
What is the Presentation Summit?
For many years now, Rick Altman has been hosting the Presentation Summit, a highly popular event that is geared towards users of PowerPoint and other presentation platforms.
Date: October 23 to 26, 2016
Location: Green Valley Ranch, Las Vegas, United States
The views and opinions expressed in this blog post or content are those of the authors or the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer, or company.