Last week, Seth Maddox, a recent high school graduate from Geraldine, Alabama (population: 900), won the Microsoft PowerPoint World Championship.
The competition was straightforward: Students were tasked with quickly recreating a printed-out presentation. (Separate tests were held for Excel, Word, and an older version of PowerPoint.) Maddox was the only American to win an event at the championships, beating 850,000 students from 119 countries over the course of the state, national, and world rounds. He emerged with $10,000 in prize money, a laptop, a trophy, and a very niche kind of bragging rights.
Slate spoke to Maddox about what makes a good presentation, how he got involved with PowerPoint competitions, and how he’s celebrating the win. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you get into this competition?
I was in class, and [my teacher] was doing certifications for showing that you are proficient and know how to use the various Microsoft Office products. And so I took the Microsoft PowerPoint 2016 certification test. I didn’t even know this competition existed.
Well, thank the Lord, I made a [high score] for the state of Alabama, which meant that I won the state. So then from there, there’s a national competition in Orlando. I won first in the United States. Now fast forward all the way to the world competition. And, praise God, I won first as well.
So you really didn’t know about this competition until after you took the test?
Yeah, that’s right. I received an email probably six, seven days later saying that I was the Alabama champion. And I was like, “What?”
What did you think when you found out?
I was kind of ecstatic. I was like, “Wow, this is cool.” And I thought, this opportunity has so beautifully opened up in front of me, why not go for it? Why not try?
How did you prepare for the world competition?
I would just create a PowerPoint, and I would start typing stuff into it, and then just kind of start clicking buttons to try to find stuff I never found before. In total since I started preparing for the national championship, it’s probably close to 24 to 30 hours [of practice].
Did you meet the contestants from other countries?
Yes. There was this one group in New Zealand that I really enjoyed speaking to, and they had apparently flown over 26 hours to get there. There was one person from the Isle of Man, which is this small island over somewhere around the United Kingdom, and he gave me a pin of his country’s flag. So that’s kind of cool.
Your parents and brother went with you to the world championship in New York. What did they think of the whole thing?
I think they were probably more excited about it than I was, to be honest. They were extremely happy. But they also really enjoyed being in New York City. Because, you know, I’m from Northeast Alabama. Nobody in my family has ever been to New York City, or even really not much of anything that’s close to New York City. So it was just a wonderful experience for them to be able to see it and take it all in. The massive buildings, and just the beautiful city streets.
What happened when you won?
Wednesday was the award ceremony. They say your name and you come up and you get a novelty check and a medal, and it’s neat. Thank the Lord, my mother brought some garbage bags [to cover the novelty check], so that way when I came to the airport it wouldn’t be, “Hey, look at me, I just won a bunch of money.” I’ll probably eventually mount it on a wall, but for now, since I’m going to college in two weeks, I don’t have time for that kind of stuff.
How did your friends react after you won the world competition?
My church last night had a party, and they had my face on a cake, like a picture of me. That was really cool. And the town I’m from—I heard they want to throw some kind of celebration.
Why do you think you were so good at it in the first place?
[I took] a multimedia design class, so we did a lot of work with PowerPoint. And for a little bit, I had been creating lyrics for my church for their Wednesday night worship service, so we used it for that. I’m also the kind of guy who plays with stuff and tries to learn how to use it.
So do you really, genuinely, enjoy making PowerPoint presentations?
It can definitely be frustrating. In a way, it is kind of difficult, because I really like things to look really good, but I find I’m not [always] extremely good at making them look good.
What skills do you need to make a good PowerPoint?
The skills are just knowing what’s possible. The problem is that the majority of PowerPoint users don’t know what’s possible. And that’s simply because they’ve never had a reason to [learn]. Unless there’s something that really challenges them to learn more about it, and to learn all the different animations, transitions, and whatnot that really push it over the edge, then they won’t learn it. And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that.
What are the biggest mistakes people make?
Probably the greatest mistake is putting too much text into a small font. PowerPoint is a visual medium. It’s designed to grab your attention and to reinforce key ideas. Or you could give the key ideas yourself and have more information on the PowerPoint. But what you don’t want to do is try to mix them and speak a lot and also have a lot of words on the slides—then you’re going to lose people’s attention.
Do you ever see someone doing a bad one and want to intervene?
I definitely cringe. Especially if they directly read off the slides, every single word.
You’re going off to Auburn University soon. Are you worried that any time you’re in a group presentation, you’re always going to be the PowerPoint guy?
I wasn’t, but now I probably will.