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An Interview with Echo Swinford

In this interview, Echo discusses her book, the PowerPoint newsgroup, and provides some PowerPoint tips.


Echo Swinford Echo Swinford is a MicrosoftPowerPoint MVP (Most Valuable Professional). When she's not working on new media, she is answering almost all the questions on the PowerPoint newsgroup. Echo is also the author of Fixing PowerPoint Annoyances, published by O'Reilly.

Visit Echo's site Echo's Voice to find several PowerPoint usability tricks.

Geetesh: Tell us more about yourself and what got you started with PowerPoint.

Fixing PowerPoint Annoyances Echo: I was temping for a medical education communications company back in 1997. The owner of the company was planning to outsource slide work for a series of upcoming conferences. I convinced her that it would be better to let me do the slides, and when she agreed, I had to learn PowerPoint—in a hurry!

Luckily PowerPoint has a short learning curve—it's easy to start using it and producing something useable. And the more I worked with it, the more I learned.

Right now I'm doing freelance work and finishing my Master's in New Media at the Indiana University (IUPUI) School of Informatics.

Geetesh: Tell us more about your Fixing PowerPoint Annoyances book.

Echo: You know, Fixing PowerPoint Annoyances isn't the kind of book I'd recommend to help someone learn PowerPoint; people who have used PowerPoint a bit will get a lot more out of it. It's more the kind of book you want to have around when you run into snags. And it's got kind of a snarky tone, which made it a lot of fun to write! I have rather a love-hate relationship with PowerPoint, and I think that probably comes through a little bit.

Geetesh: You are a regular on the PowerPoint newsgroup—what role do you think it performs in the world of PowerPoint support.

Echo: Well, when I first started working with PowerPoint, I was working in a vacuum. I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of, to learn from and teach to. It was really hard. That's probably why I was so thrilled when I first found the microsoft.public.powerpoint newsgroup. Reading it every day taught me so much about what PowerPoint could do, and I had a built-in support system when I had questions. And the people in the group were helpful and funny—very real and down-to-earth—which made it an enjoyable place to spend time. I couldn't have asked for anything more perfect. And heck, the PPTLive! conference grew out of the PowerPoint newsgroup. Talk about growing a community from the ground up!

I think the group still performs that "colleague" role for some people as well as the more traditional "ask a specific question, get a free answer from someone who's been there before" role. And since so many web site forums just slurp their content from the microsoft.public.powerpoint group, I think many people are reading the group without even realizing it.

Geetesh: You've been known as the PowerPoint chart lady, and all charts start behaving themselves once you are in the neighborhood. How can ordinary PowerPoint users make their charts behave.

Echo: LOL! Developing medical presentations means I've created and cleaned up more than my fair share of charts over the years. But I'm not like the Excel gurus, creating charts through macros and code—almost all of my charting is done manually. I find that most PowerPoint users are the same way—they either have to create charts manually in PowerPoint, or they import them from Excel and clean them up to match the presentation.

Probably the two most useful things I've discovered over the years is to turn off Autoscale on the fonts in the charts and never resize the chart directly on the slide—activate it, then size it.

I've posted instructions for turning off autoscale at (#2). I think the other tips there are pretty useful, too.

Geetesh: What's the single, most important thing people could do to improve their presentations?

Echo: When presenting, don't read your slides to the audience! When developing a presentation, make sure it's readable. That means making sure there's enough contrast between the text and the background and also making sure the font is large enough.

Geetesh: Can you share any trivia about an unconventional use of PowerPoint, or just anything you would like to share with Indezine readers?

Echo: I think I've seen PowerPoint used for almost everything! What I think is really cool, though, is when people think a PowerPoint file is actually Flash because of the animation. I'm always amazed at what can be done with PowerPoint if you push it.

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