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Important Technology Tips for Presenters

We both love using our computers for our talks, and we're both particular about what we use. We're both rabid Apple fans and use our MacBooks for everything. Despite what our friend Hazel said about presentation software, we both love Keynote and the fact that it is stable and not prone to crashing. However, we recognize that PowerPoint is widely used and is easier to transfer a slide deck to someone else's computer. (Keynote can also export slide decks to the PowerPoint format.)

Both systems have their pros and cons, but regardless of who is right, there are several technology tips every presenter needs to know before you start giving your talks in front of people.

  • Make sure your computer is ready—Shut down every program, hide all files on your desktop in another folder, and clear out your browser history and disk cache. While you don't surf Internet porn on your work computer, your friend probably does, and this is something your friend should know. So loan him this book (better yet, buy him his own copy), and make sure he reads this section.

    We've all heard stories about presenters who clicked the wrong button on their computer and had some rather embarrassing photos pop up on the screen for everyone to see. While the safest bet is to never look at those kinds of things to begin with, at least make sure they're not easily accessible or accidentally switched on. So clear your history and cache, hide any personal photos and documents in a safe place, and make sure all programs except your presentation software are off. You should even turn off your Wi-Fi unless you need it for your presentation.

  • Use big photos and (almost) no text—PowerPoint and Keynote can be used effectively if they're used correctly. When we do slide decks, we get Creative Commons photos for slide images and put 2–4 words on a slide. Remember, as the speaker, that you are the focus of the room, not the slides. The slides are there for visual support, and perhaps a little comedy. They should not contain the important information; you should.

    If you do use text, make the point size at least 144 (2 inches) so people in the back of the room can see it. If they're straining to see from the back, your projector isn't big enough. Hopefully you scoped out the room ahead of time, saw how huge it is, and noticed that the projector was about as effective as holding up slides and a flashlight.

    But if you don't get that chance, always assume the worst when it comes to available technology. If you stick with photos and huge text, you'll be fine. If you only use photos to support your points, not make them, you're not lost if the projector fails or is too small, or your presentation software crashes. You can still speak without these props.

  • Use your computer for presentations—A lot of well-meaning people will offer you the chance to use their computers for your presentations, but that is sometimes more trouble than it's worth. They may have an older version of PowerPoint, Keynote won't run on a PC, or they may not have a remote or the right monitor cable for their laptop. You will have tweaked your computer to perform the way you want it to, and it's hard to try to learn someone else's setup or operating system, especially if you're setting up your presentation 5 minutes after the last speaker finished and 5 minutes before you start.

    If you use someone else's system, you're at their mercy. It's also more than a little maddening to know more than the technical support guy who's supposed to "help" you but doesn't quite know how everything works. Rather than putting yourself in a situation in which your entire presentation hinges on the quality of someone else's system, insist that you use your own computer. If you can't, be gracious about it, find a way to make it work, and hope it goes well. (If it doesn't, don't apologize for not having a slide deck. There's no point in embarrassing the organizers; that will only get you blackballed from speaking at future events. Instead, use your computer as cue cards, and speak without a deck. That's why the point about using big photos and almost no text is so important.)

  • Get a separate presentation computer, preferably a MacBook—If you want to make a living giving presentations, you need a computer that's not prone to virus attacks, crashes, and glitches that will pop up in the middle of a presentation. For stability, ease of use, and graphics capability, you can't go wrong with a MacBook. And yes, there's Windows 7, which is much easier to use and more stable than all the other versions that came before it, and yes, Macs aren't immune to viruses. But a Mac is less likely to suffer these things and is less likely to crash in the middle of a presentation. And if you follow the first points steps as well, you'll have smooth sailing with a Mac.

    And if you've got the budget, get a decent LCD projector. Don't cheap out and get the smallest, least expensive one you can find. Get a good one that can brightly fill up a screen from 25 feet away.

  • Upload your slide deck to SlideShare.net before you give your presentation—We've been in rooms before where everything was hard-wired and bolted in place, including the computer, and we were forced to use their system instead of our own. (See the bullet "Use your computer for presentations.") Although it's possible to export a Keynote deck to a PowerPoint version, this really screws up the formatting and fonts, and it looks bad. There's nothing worse than seeing weird fonts and screwed-up slides as you're giving your talk and having no possible way to fix it.

    Instead, upload your deck to SlideShare the day before your presentation (see Figure 10.1). Then, before your talk, log on to SlideShare and pull up the deck in full presentation mode. It may mean you have to stand next to the keyboard to change the slides instead of using a remote (which is wicked cool and makes you feel like a big shot). However, at least you don't have to mess around with putting your presentation on a thumb drive and hoping your presentation software isn't newer than theirs, or exporting your deck to their software and hoping the formatting isn't messed up.

    Figure 10.1

    Figure 10.1 One of Erik's presentations available on SlideShare.net. Note the clever use of a numbered list in the presentation title. And you can get a Simpsons version of yourself at SimpsonsMovie.com.

    Finally, by having the SlideShare uniform resource locator (URL), you can give people the URL to your deck rather than wasting paper on printing 50 copies of handouts and giving them out to the 20 people who showed up. It wastes paper to have to bring home 30 copies of handouts that can't be used again because you created a custom deck and handouts for that particular presentation.

    You can also shorten the URL at a shortening service like bit.ly (www.bit.ly). A bit.ly-shortened URL is 20 characters, so it's easier for audience members to write it down. You can also ask people to email you so you can send them the URL. This helps you add to your list of contacts as well, so you can communicate with them in the future (like when you're speaking again or have a book for sale).

  • Always carry a monitor cord and extension cord with you—Most places already have a projector available, but they don't always have a monitor cord. Carry a monitor cord (and a Mac-to-RGB adapter if you took our earlier advice and got a Macbook) to be safe. Also, get a 12-foot 3-to-1 extension cord. Then you can plug in a laptop and the projector and reach the plug across the room. Be sure to tape down the cord so attendees don't trip on it as they're filling the room. So you'll want to bring duct tape as well.

    You may even find it helpful to carry a presenter's bag. Keep the cords, colored markers, notepads, index cards, duct tape, and any props you may use in your talks. Leave it in the trunk of your car when you're not using it so you don't forget it if you drive to your presentations.

  • Create screen shots of websites you want to use—It's nice to be able to pull up a live website and show it off to a room full of people. But too often, you don't have access to the conference's Wi-Fi, or it's the public Wi-Fi and everyone is on it, so it's slower than a turtle with a limp. Don't depend on having Wi-Fi access. Create screen shots of every website you need, and keep them handy. Better yet, incorporate the screen shots into your slide deck, so you don't have to jump around between applications.

    If you do have Wi-Fi access, open all the websites you're going to need ahead of time. Consider using a browser like Firefox or Google Chrome for additional stability and speed. And again, don't forget to clear your disk cache and history before you start. (See the first bullet, "Make sure your computer is ready," if you need a reminder.)

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