Random PR Thoughts

35mm Mayhem


If you started your first job in 2013, you have never known life without PowerPoint, the ubiquitous presentation software developed by Apple and later sold to Microsoft. Powerpoint can be an effective supplement to a discussion, but we have all experienced the microtype, over-stuffed slides that gave rise to the term, “Death By PowerPoint.”


Nevertheless, the PR business was quick to embrace PowerPoint because it solved a lot of problems that attended earlier technologies such as 35mm slides and overhead transparencies. One of them was the ability to edit the presentation on the fly. This was a double-edged sword as it often led to presentation teams making radical changes to “the deck” even as the prospective client was settling in at the conference table. While one could fix a potentially devastating typo – misspelled client names, for example, or the ever-pernicious “Pubic Relations” — before it appeared in six inch letters on the screen, sometimes the changes were more extensive. This meant that there was no chance to rehearse the modifications, often leading to desperate “Is-this-your-slide-or-mine?” telepathy attempts across the darkened room.

Speaking of rehearsing, the ability to edit or completely re-write a presentation the night before the pitch often meant staying up into the wee hours to make changes, rehearse them, make more changes, re-rehearse them…it’s no wonder so many pitch teams looked glassy-eyed and jet-lagged.

Not that 35mm slides were a treat. If you discovered an error in a slide at the last minute, you had two choices: discard the slide and hope to remember and present the main point it was making, or leave the slide in, rocket through it and hope nobody noticed.

(I once saw a quick-thinking account staffer who, noticing a juicy typo in a slide as it hit the screen, instantly raised her arm in an almost hortatory salute, her hand blocking the offending word until she could utter the life-saving words, “Next slide please!”)

The one good thing about 35mm slides was that you had to get them done a few days before the presentation so they could be dispatched to the photo lab for processing. That meant you had a few days to rehearse, so fewer post-midnight sessions.

But 35mm slides were not your friends.

I once was part of an agency team that flew out west to make a pitch to a large industrial firm. The company’s Vice President of PR suggested that we come out in time to run through the presentation with his team before showing it to the CEO in case they had any suggestions, and then we would have lunch. We were scheduled to present to the CEO at 2:00.

We met with the PR team and started going through the slides. The VP had a lot of suggestions. “You can lose the Asia stuff, this is a US campaign.” I started pulling slides out of the carousel. “Don’t need help in DC, we’ve got that covered already.” More slides pulled. Then, “Let’s move that section to the back.” By the time we were done, we had reduced and reorganized the presentation considerably. The VP then leapt from his chair and said, “Okay, let’s go to lunch.” He started out the door of the conference room.

I was scrambling to get the slides in the right slots in the carousel and when I thought I had them all set, ran after the group as they were sitting down in the executive dining room.

Lunch dragged on and before I knew it, it was ten minutes to two. The next thing I knew, we were back in the conference room as the CEO strode in with a couple of spear-carriers in tow.

The lights were dimmed, and we began. My boss had accompanied us for the pitch and he led off. Unfortunately, he had no use for rehearsing and had no clue about what he was supposed to say, so he read from our written proposal. Since it was somewhat dark in the room, his delivery was a little spotty. He stood with the proposal angled to try to catch some light from the projector and said, “Therefore, we are…uh…placed…no, pleased to… prevent…er, no that should be present…”

At long last, it was my turn. Maybe I could salvage this mess. Now, I was very proud of a series of “build” slides I had made. You know, the ones that start with a slide with one bullet point on it, the next with two bullet points and so on. As I got to my first build slide, to my horror it came up with five bullet points! The next slide had four! My beloved build slides were in reverse order.

My right leg began to move forward and back as if I were a Rockette on a kick line, as I valiantly tried (and failed) to move through the slides as if nothing were wrong. In the process, my leg became ensnarled in the cord that attached the remote control (aka The Pickle) to the projector. I willed my leg to go vertical and in doing so, yanked the projector so that it was now aimed right at my eyes.

Momentarily stunned by the blinding light, I started clearing my throat, although later, my colleagues told me I sounded like a cat coughing up a hairball. The final indignity: the CEO himself got up, left the room and returned with a glass of water for me. His gracious gesture was the last straw. I passed the pickle on to my associate and retreated, dazed and defeated, to a chair in the darkest corner of the room.

After the pitch, the VP escorted us to the door of the building and we set out for the airport, his parting words still ringing in our ears. “Thanks. I guess. We’ll call you.” And that was the last we heard from him.

Categories: Random PR Thoughts

4 replies »

  1. Chris –

    A large number of your readers may never have experienced the joys of 35 mm slides. In the end, they should be glad.

    PowerPoint is useful, but only if you use it as the presentation software it was intended to be. Unfortunately, far too often it’s used as a word processing program (we’ve all seen the slides with five levels of bullets, the last one being in 12 point type). It’s hard to be disciplined with something you can change so easily, but my BD guy always insisted that the final deadline for any presentation deck was two days before the actual presentation. The rehearsal time that gave us usually avoided the other horror of PowerPoint presentations – the dreaded “presenter reading the slide” phenomenon.

    PowerPoint “counselors” get absurd amounts of money to improve a company or agency’s use of PowerPoint, and in the end their advice is usually common sense for a presentation: as few words on a slide as possible (speak to concepts, not sentences); no more than two levels of bullets, no type smaller than 20 point, ten words or fewer in a bullet, etc.

    Still beats getting soured by the Pickle.


    Donald R. Hannaford
    Managing Principal
    Deca Communications, Inc.
    (ph) 703-981-7212
    (email) dhannaford@decacommunications.com

  2. Chris — nice post. I remember the time at Fleishman when a co-worker dropped the slide tray 5 minutes before the presentation, spilling the slides all over. Needless to say, a mad scramble to get them back in — in the right order.


  3. Hi Chris,

    Ah – I remember those days. For so long all I could remember was, “…upside down and backwards” – in terms of how to put the slides in so they would appear on the screen right-side-up (and hoping whoever put the dots on the slide had done it that way!).


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