A presentation lesson from two airport departure boards

This afternoon, I fly to Barcelona for a speaking event. I am packed and ready to go well in advance. In fact, I have enough time that I can sit down and write this post. (The reason for my silence in the blogosphere over the past month or so is that my recent move into public speaking and presentation skills training full time has kept me extremely busy—in a good way—but it is time to get back to regular blogging.)

2015-02-01 10.10.22

The view from Brussels

My impending trip got me thinking about a difference that I have noticed between the departure boards in European airports and departure boards at airports in Canada. (I am speaking, of course, about airports where I have traveled; there may be exceptions.) 

In Europe, departures are arranged chronologically. The flights about to part are at the top of the screen whereas later flights are at the bottom. As flights take off, they are removed from the board and the other flights all shift up.

For example, to the right is a photo that I took at the international airport in Brussels when I spoke at a conference there in January.

When I traveled to Canada last summer, I flew from, or to, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. At each airport, I noticed that the departure boards were organized differently from those in Europe. For example, the next photo is one that I took at Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport. Do you notice the difference?

The view from Montreal

In Canada, the departure boards are organized alphabetically by destination. This board also provides the logo of the airline company instead of just the call letters as in the photo above.

Between the two, I prefer the Canadian one—and no, not because I am Canadian. It is because I can find my flights a bit faster when I am in Canada

If you were to randomly stop 100 people in an airport and ask them what time their flight was departing, I am sure that a substantial number of those people would have to check their tickets to be sure of the precise time. But if you asked those same 100 people where they were flying, I would be willing to bet that all 100 could tell you immediately.

At the Canadian airports, I find it a bit easier to locate my flights. Even when there are multiple flights to the same destination, as is the case with London/Heathrow in the photo above, I can quickly narrow the field and then zoom in on my flight. In photo above, I am pretty sure that the three flights to London/Heathrow at 22:25 were actually the same flight as American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia are all members of the One World Alliance. It is very helpful to have all three posted because different people purchase tickets for the same flight but through different companies. (What is a bit odd—and not so helpful—is that the 20:05 Air Canada flight to London/Healthrow is inserted in the middle of those other flights and out of order chronologically.)

In a completely unscientific study, I watched passengers in both airports to gauge how quickly they could find their flights. The amount of information was about the same in both locations. The screen in Brussels above is bigger than the one in Montreal, but there were more screens in Montreal. Now, I could be wrong, but it appeared to me that people spent less time searching in Montreal than in Brussels.

The lesson in all of this, when it comes to presenting, and particularly slide presentations,  is that you want to make your ideas as easy to understand as possible. Have one main idea for each slide; don’t use too much text; eliminate distracting visuals and colours; bring bullet points in one at a time; give concrete examples; highlight the relevant data in a chart or graph; don’t flip through the slides too quickly.

Every time you present, you take your audience on a journey. Make sure they reach their destination!


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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22 Responses to A presentation lesson from two airport departure boards

  1. Mariyana says:

    Good to know 🙂 I wish I’ve read that post a week ago before my work trip to the US. I would’ve certainly saved a few seconds to decipher this difference in the US screens (which is the same as in Canada) versus those in Europe. As I travel more often in Europe, I searched my flight by time, not by alphabetical order. So at first glance , the US screens appeared quite chaotic before I realized it myself. And now reading your post, I was like: “Ahhh, that’s true!” 🙂

    All in all, it depends what one is used to, in order to switch quicker from one way of doing something to another.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Smh says:

    Unfortunately, it seems like Toronto has joined the Europeans and started doing this the silly way. I’m with you, I usually only have a vague idea of what time my flight is leaving, but I always know where I’m going. Frustrates me to no end at Pearson now.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the update. I’ll be flying in and out of Pearson in August. It’s such an easy fix and a quick win for everyone, I don’t understand why they don’t do it.

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  5. Volkmar says:

    Well observed. I like these “little” differences between countries. What I find remarkable when flying is the tradition that announcements of flights always start with the flight number. And I ask myself: how many flight customers actually know their flight number? I guess it is less than 1%. So, why don’t they just skip this part?
    Interesting how long traditions stick, even when not useful for anybody….

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Volkmar. It would also help (in some airports) if they raised the volume or got a new sound system so that the messages were clear! For the announcement itself, I have sometimes heard “Passengers flying to [DESTINATION] on [AIRLINE NAME] Flight No. [12345] are kindly requested to …”. That’s not bad. At least if people here their destination city first, they will listen closely and not miss the rest of the message.



    • haha I always use the flight number, maybe I’m the 1% but I doubt it! Flight times change all the time due to delays. Especially in busy airports with multiple flights going to your destination. It’s so much easier just to remember your flight number.

  6. Interesting post. i noticed the same goes for USA airports.
    I see that you prefer the alphabetical order for the cities, but then switch to chronological order for the 2nd ranking ;-), however, (you) fellow anglosaxons use both alphabetical order for the cities and then for the Airline (IATA (based in Montreal, btw, as you surely know) code which with the number make up the flight number appearing in the ticket): AA, AC, BA, IB…


    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the additional information, Javier. Having worked in the UN system for many years, I have been to several offices but never the IATA office in Montreal.



      • (professional deformation) a clarification: ICAO (OACI in French/Spanish), also based in Montreal, is the agency belonging to UN that takes care of harmonizing aerospace regulation and promote air transport; on the other hand IATA is a trade association (thus, not linked to UN) of a number of airlines. [btw, IATA also has an office in Geneva ;-)]


        • John Zimmer says:

          Of course. As I was writing my response, I was thinking ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) but as you had put IATA in your message, and I was looking at it, that is what came out. Ah, the brain. And yes, in Geneva we do not live far from the IATA office.

          Glad we got that sorted out!



  7. Velan says:

    Great comparison and lessons from simple things. Thanks John

  8. Great list of tips at the end, John. I strongly agree about bringing in elements one at a time, so they support what you’re saying and they don’t let people get ahead. (Although there’s a possible exception if you “show cues before content”.)

    You mentioned not flipping through slides too fast. That’s a bugbear of mine. It’s so frustrating when presenters do that!

    (By the way, with the photos in your post, I really struggled to read them, and I imagine many other people might too. If a bigger copy appeared when they were clicked, that’d make them much easier to see.)

    Anyway, it’s clear you’ve spent a lot of time in airports recently! So I’m very glad your venture’s really taking off. (No pun intended!)

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the good wishes. Craig. I don’t see the “cues before content” as an exception. Rather, if the cues are brought in properly, they will have the audience following along until the point is revealed — like an audience does in an intriguing murder mystery movie until they discover the killer at the end. A bit of intrigue is good if it is done properly.

      Thanks also for the head’s up about the photos. I thought I had linked them to the original media file, but it seems that WordPress has made some changes to the blogging platform. I have located the proper link button and rectified the situation. You should be able to see the photos fine now.



  9. Julia says:

    I loved this comparison – enjoyable read, thank you

  10. Dean says:

    Might be good to devote a bit more time to your posts to avoid word mistakes and typos as they reflect poorly on your preparation.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the helpful, if curt, comment, Dean. I appreciate your taking the time. I went back over the post and picked out four typos. Not good but now corrected.


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