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PPT Live - An Interview with Rick Altman

Interviewed By: Geetesh Bajaj

Date Created: July 1st 2005
Last Updated: March 4th 2009

Rick AltmanRick Altman is all set to host the third annual PowerPoint Live event this year in San Diego from September 25th to 28th. In this exclusive Indezine interview are all the questions you wanted to ask him - the interview turned out so good that Rick mirrored it on the PowerPoint Live site! Thank you, Rick.

Geetesh: When you started this in 2003, did you think that we would be here now talking about a third season?

Rick: I certainly hoped for that. You know, we have been hosting CorelWorld for almost 15 years now, so I know the potential for an event to gather grass-roots momentum and create its own legacy. And to be honest, PowerPoint has a wider following, so I knew that if we got it started, it could pick up speed.

Geetesh: So maybe reaching your third year is not enough of a milestone.

Rick: Yes, that's it — we're not ready to celebrate anything yet. Check back with me in five more years. Pretty good bet that PowerPoint will still be around; so we hope that PowerPoint Live will be, also.

Geetesh: What stands as your biggest challenge as you survey all of the demands of hosting a major conference?

Rick: Pretty basic, really: Getting people to the event. Let me ask a question back at you: How do you locate PowerPoint users?


How do you identify them, what job description, what type of industry?

Geetesh: There are no easy answers to those questions.

Rick: Precisely. Short of taking out an ad in the Wall Street Journal, which we cannot afford to do, there is no easy formula for reaching PowerPoint users. They are scattered so broadly across the professional spectrum, it is actually a challenge to create a publicity campaign that reaches them.

Geetesh: Once you do reach them, is it easy to sell them on the idea of attending a conference?

Rick: Yes and no. There is one group of users whom I'll refer to as the enlightened ones who know that they need all the help they can get. They are usually grateful to discover an event such as ours. They browse the schedule, check out what we're all about, and they're pretty much sold.

Geetesh: I have the feeling that there is a second group.

Rick: And to be diplomatic, I'll refer to them as the, um, the overly-confident group. They are the ones who think that PowerPoint is easy and so giving presentations must be easy, too. They learn how to make bullet slides after about 15 minutes, they declare themselves competent, and they head out to do battle with the world, armed with those 15 minutes of practice.

Geetesh: It doesn't sound pretty.

Rick: They are likely to be the ones who need our help the most, but they are also likely to be the ones least willing to recognize that fact.

Geetesh: If you can get that group, you might be set for life.

Rick: No doubt about it, it's our holy grail.

Geetesh: So how do you attract them?

Rick: You tell me! (Laughs)

Two things, really: patience and breadth. We fight our battles one PowerPoint user at a time. Not too many of our patrons leave unfilfilled, and if we continue to do right by them, they will spread the word. And that word will trickle down to the group of users who do not yet identify the need to improve their skills and understanding of the presentation business. One patron told me about how she returned back to her office and went up to one "clueless manager" — her words, not mine — grabbed him and shook him by the shoulders, and said "You must go to this conference next year so we're not the only ones telling you all the things you do wrong with your presentations."

Geetesh: That's pretty powerful. Did he come?

Rick: That was just last fall that this happened; I'll let you know if he signs up. The second thing we have to do is make the event compelling enough for that second group of users so that they might decide to come even if they still think they know all the answers. So we play up the angles of how the conference will build their base of contacts, allow them to network better with other presentation pros, get them more dialed in with their peers. And this isn't just hype — those things really do happen. We are very good at building community and there are dozens of patrons who return to the conference just for that. We've had people find jobs from conference connections, and others who formed businesses together.

Geetesh: I recall your telling me about some of the relationships that form at the conference that are not just business. Anything you care to share since 2003?

Rick: If you mean any more romances, last year's event did not result in any marriages, although that has happened at our past events. I am in touch with one couple who met last year in San Diego and dated a few times, but I'm not at liberty to discuss details at this time.

Geetesh: What happens at PowerPoint Live stays at PowerPoint Live.

Rick: (Laughs)

Geetesh: You mentioned the value of giving people a sense of community; if I asked you to rank the various components of the conference in terms of value, how would you do that?

Rick: One way or the other, learning is No. 1. And you have to put the seminars front and center. We get flat-out amazing talent to our ballrooms. I can't think of a better person than Jim Endicott to set the table for the event and to share such visionary thinking about the art of communication and the dynamics of message-shaping. Nancy Duarte and Julie Terberg are just drop-dead brilliant artists who use PowerPoint as their canvases. Todd Dunn is a wizard with hardware and an expert in the exploding world of digital video, and I don't think there are two people in the world who understand PowerPoint basics as much as Kathy Jacobs and Echo Swinford. It is not an exaggeration when we tell people that they will get a chance to learn all the phases of presenation creation and delivery from the very best instructors in the world.

Geetesh: Don't forget about the Help Center....

Rick: Now let's talk about your territory! [Geetesh volunteers his time to work there]

We are confident when we proclaim that the Help Center is the best one-stop source for technical support on the planet. With people like you, Steve Rindsberg, Tom Bunzel, and numerous others, there are rarely questions that go unanswered. And the Help Center practically never closes: from 8:00am until 11:00pm, there are always people in there and the big Now Open sign is always posted.

People bring questions on paper, on media, in their head. They often come to try out the techniques they just learned in a session, to get a script written, to try to understand a concept they don't get...and some just want to sit down and play. It is the ultimate hands-on learning experience.

Geetesh: Some come just to hang out with us.

Rick: That's fine, too. We're big on hanging out.

Geetesh: And I want to talk about that, but first tell me about Tuesday's keynote.

Rick: Tuesday's keynote address begins at 8:30am, just after breakfast...

Geetesh: You know what I mean.

Rick: What? We always have a keynote address on Tuesday.

Geetesh: Albert Einstein?

Rick: That's right, Albert Einstein will deliver Tuesday's keynote address.

Geetesh: What will he talk about?

Rick: He will talk about how to think creatively and how to approach challenges from perspectives that you might not consider. You know, typical Albert Einstein out-of-the-box type stuff.

Geetesh: You're not being very cooperative...

Rick: What, Albert Einstein speaks on Tuesday — what more do you want me to tell you?

Geetesh: You know, he died in 1955.

Rick: All I can tell you is that he speaks on Tuesday. You'll just have to come to the conference to find out more.

Geetesh: Okay, I think it's time to change subjects. You refer to a lot of "hanging out," and that leads into a general question about how you retain the attentive and personal nature of the event. To many, that is its strongest selling point.

Rick: That's simple: we limit enrollment. If you are the 251st person to register for PowerPoint Live, the best we can do is put you on a waiting list and notify you if anyone cancels. With a group that stays under that number, we can create atmosphere and provide an unusually high degree of personalized attention. A big trade show doesn't need that; neither does a developer conference. But Live is all about end-users, and they need to feel as if we are catering to them 24 by 7.

Geetesh: I think it helps that the host's mother is usually the first person they see.

Rick: My mother Beverly has been running Registration at our conferences for as long as we have been having them. If someone accuses us of being a Ma and Pa organization, they have no idea just how accurate that is.

Geetesh: But there is also your energy and enthusiasm — that's a big part.

Rick: All I can say is that I'm not a full-time meeting planner who puts on a dozen events a year and has to crank them out. I do only two. I am involved from the very beginning through to completion and I get to put my heart and soul into it. If that makes it to the surface, that's not a bad thing.

Geetesh: Last year, many of the patrons referred to it as Camp Rick.

Rick: I wonder if that's a selling point or one of those things to keep from the bosses who approve the expense...

Geetesh: I've heard you wonder before if the social events help or hurt your marketing efforts.

Rick: Only in jest, but it did happen once that someone's employer called us after seeing a photo on the website of someone toasting with a very large cocktail glass. I had to assure him that it was an after-hours event and that the conference had more to do with learning than with socializing.

But having said that, we are famous for allowing our patrons to let their hair down. Again, that's all part of creating an event that places a high value on interpersonal relationships. And our third-party partners understand that; they line up like they're buying concert tickets to get in on that. Sunday's opening reception is sponsored by Neuxpower, Monday's annual Trivia Contest is hosted by Right Seat Software, and Tuesday evening after the Expo, TechSmith is taking us all to Old Town for a private margarita party.

Geetesh: So there's a lot more than just sitting in seminar rooms.

Rick: Way more. I love showing people the photo from last year of Jackie at the beach taking a photo. That was an ad hoc field trip that several patrons took to learn more about digital photography.

And with the beach just 10 minutes away, it's really easy to talk yourself into spending an extra day or two down there. In September, San Diego will have overnight lows in the 60s, afternoon highs around 80, and the water temperature will be about 70. It doesn't get any better than that.

Geetesh: How many of the attendees at PowerPoint Live are return visitors?

Rick: Right now, we're running almost 50-50. Half of those registered are first-timers, and of the half that are returning patrons, two thirds of them are making their second trip to the conference, and one third of them will have attended all three.

Geetesh: As we close, tell us an anecdote or share some trivia about something that has not been known about PowerPoint Live before.

Rick: Hmm, maybe I can tell you about Pete Card's blind date.

Geetesh: Can you keep it clean?

Rick: Yes, but I'm not sure he'll want to speak to me after this. Pete Card was one of the four Microsoft reps to attend the conference last year, and he'll be the first to tell you how invaluable it is for the product planners and developers to have a group of 200 in one location for three days. One of our photographers took what I think is a flattering photo of him in a very relaxed pose. It was late in the day and he was sitting in one of our comfortable sofa chairs, preparing for a focus group he was to lead the following day. He was in shorts and sandals...very San Diego.

Anyway, we put that photo in our online photo album, where it lives in relative obscurity. Or so we thought.

Geetesh: Nothing is obscure on the Internet today.

Rick: Exactly, and blind dates are a little different today than when I was out there. His blind date wanted to check him out, and when she went to Google Images and entered "Pete Card Microsoft," guess what she found?

Geetesh: Pete Card in shorts and sandals?

Rick: With a notebook computer on his lap. All I know is that they went out more than once, so another instance of PowerPoint Live participating in one's social life.

Geetesh: Are you sure you want to end on that note?

Rick: Let's end by saying that the conference attracts people from all over the world, not just from the United States, including such exotic locations as Secunderabad, India [residence of the interviewer].

Geetesh: It's not so exotic.

Rick: If you come to PowerPoint Live and you're from India, that's exotic.

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