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By Brian Kelly - January 2001
You are about to give a presentation about your project at a prestigious international conference. You have prepared the material. You are an experienced speaker. Surely nothing can go wrong. Or can it? Brian Kelly provides advice on the technical aspects of giving presentations.
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We've probably all attended conferences when something has gone wrong. The PC crashes, the projection system fails to work, the Netscape display is too small, etc. This can be embarrassing to watch; but the experience can be much worse if you are the speaker.
This article provides advice on how to avoid disasters happening. The article concentrates on the technical aspects of speaking at conferences - dealing with stage fright, heckling, etc. are, I am afraid, out of scope of this article.
Microsoft PowerPoint is the de facto desktop presentation tool used at conferences. It is simple to use, widely available and, since so many people use it, there should always be a ready supply of advice available if things go wrong.
On the other hand, there is the danger that conference delegates may be becoming bored with endless PowerPoint presentations: not only with poorly designed presentations which make use of cliched clip art, overuse visual and sounds effects, etc. but also with the slick presentations produced by many marketing departments.
The following advice is not meant to suggest that PowerPoint must be used - rather it provides guidelines on using PowerPoint effectively if you do decide to use it.
The secret to avoiding things going wrong when giving your PowerPoint presentation is in the planning. To ensure that your slides can be read to everyone in the audience you should ensure that your slides contain legible text for the headings and body text and that the background is not distracting. You may have a template which is used within your organisation or for your project which defines the look-and-feel of the slides. A properly designed template should help to avoid mistakes which many first time presenters make (such as overuse of visual effects and clip art). A skilled graphic designer should also be able to advise on colour schemes which do not cause problems for viewers suffering from colour blindness.
An example of the template used by UKOLN is illustrated in Figure 1.
|Figure 1: Example of a PowerPoint Template|
This template has a simple appearance, which includes UKOLN's logo. The slide headings are displayed in UKOLN's house colour, which provides additional branding. Text is displayed in an Arial (Helvetica) font - this sans-serif font is well-suited for displays (although not for sustained reading). We use 44 point for the slide title and 24 point for body text (the size of the body text can decrease slightly, but should not go below 20 point).
The template also contains a slide number, which is displayed in a small font. This can be useful in enabling the speaker to go directly to a slide instead of having to work through slides in sequence.
Another author's aid which can be used is the unobtrusive circle at the top right of slides. This can be used as an aide memoire for the speaker - a grey circle act as a reminder that the end of a theme has been reached ("we've now concluded our discussion on X, and if there are no questions we can move on to Y"). Additional reminders can be included: for example a D in the circle is sometimes used to indicate that a demonstration can be given. If you want, you could include a smiley face :-) to remind you to tell a joke!
The UKOLN template is accompanied by a brief set of guidelines . This gives further information on how the template should be used, on capturing graphics, etc.
Inserting a blank page at the end of a presentation can help to avoid your presentation suddenly leaving the PowerPoint viewer and returning to PowerPoint if you try to move past the final slide. This can be done using the Tools, Options, View, End with black slide option.
Many PowerPoint presentations will contain graphics, such as screen dumps of Web sites. When capturing screen dumps of Web browsers you should:
|Figure 2: Configuring The Netscape Browser|
Speakers will probably find it useful to print out the thumbnail images of the slides. This can be a useful aide memoire while speaking. If the slides contain a slide number, it can also help when wishing to display a particular slide.
You've prepared your PowerPoint presentation and arrived at the conference venue in plenty of time, clutching your floppy disk. What could possible go wrong? Unfortunately things can go wrong even before your file is installed on the PC. For example:
These things can happen - my floppy disk was corrupted at one event I spoke at (which I discovered 15 minutes before speaking) and I attended a workshop in which a floppy disk had been inserted upside-down.
Again, advance planning can help. I always make a copy of my slides available on the Web, so that if there are problems with the floppy disk drive I can download the file from a networked PC. It also helps to bring along a spare floppy disk containing the presentation (I normally carry the floppy disk in separate bags in case one is lost or stolen).
The problems with versions of PowerPoint (although this is not as much of a problem as it was when PowerPoint 97 was released, with its changed file format) can be overcome by provided a HTML version of the PowerPoint slides as a backup. Some people may even prefer to use the HTML version as it provides onscreen navigational aids, as illustrated below.
|Figure 3: Using The HTML Version Of A PowerPoint Slide|
When installing your file on the conference PC you should be aware of potential name clashes with other speakers - for a conference in Athens, do not be surprised if you aren't the only speaker to call your file "athens-slides.ppt"!
You should install your file on the PC's hard disk, rather than using a slow and potentially unreliable floppy disk drive. Files are often installed on the PC's desktop, which should make them easy to find.
If you have the time, you may wish to load your file into PowerPoint before your talk begins. This can help you avoid wasting precious time in using Windows Explorer to find your file, launch PowerPoint , etc.
When delivering a PowerPoint presentation it is probably best to avoid using timed displays. Maurice Crockard illustrates this point well: "We had an entertaining presentation from our Deputy V-C where he tried to use [a timed PowerPoint presentation]. It's just impossible to reproduce normal talking speeds under pressure and with interruptions, audience coughing etc. (especially once they realise what's going on and seek to cause extra embarrassment!)
When you are giving a PowerPoint presentation there are a number of simple PowerPoint features which can help in delivering the presentation. It is surprising the number of people who do not seem to realise that the space bar can be used to advance to the next slide. This is much easier to use than using a mouse button or cursor control key. Indeed since many conferences will provide a laptop rather than a desktop PC, the laptop may not have a mouse: being forced to use a mouse replacement can be a nerve-racking experience in front of a large audience.
There are a number of other useful keyboard options to be aware of:
Move forward by one slide. Similar to the space bar, the left mouse button and the cursor up key.
Move to the previous slide. Similar to the cursor down key.
Replaces the screen display with a black screen. Useful for switching off the display, if, say, you are responding to a question and wish to remove the distraction of the screen display. Easier to use than fiddling with the display projector controls (which are likely to be different from projector to projector).
Replaces the screen display with a white screen. Probably not as useful as the B key.
Pressing a number followed by the <Enter> key will take you to the numbered slide. For example, press 20 followed by <Enter> to go to slide number 20. Much more useful than having to go through slides one-by-one - especially if you include the slide number on the slides and you've brought along the thumbnails of your presentation.
Note that the right mouse button also provides access to a number of useful functions. As well as providing access to the options listed above (although with the disadvantage of allowing delegates to see what you are doing) it also allows you to use a pen to scribble on the screen display, as illustrated below.
|Figure 4: PowerPoint Display Options|
You should ensure that screensavers (and, especially for laptops running Windows 98, powersavers) are disabled. As Dr Simon Raybould of University of Newcastle describes the consequences of not doing this can be very embarrassing:
"I once did a presentation and then took questions. The questions lasted 10 minutes. I then left for a hospital appointment and the next speaker (a friend of mine) started to talk. After 13 minutes, my PC decided to cut in my screensaver...... Consequently the assorted assembly of Deans and HoDs were treated to a display of a cartoon T Rex stomping across the screen (projected on to the wall 6 feet high) and 'tearing' the screen.."
If you are using operating systems which provide power management options, such as Windows 98 (widely used on laptops) and Windows 2000, you should also reconfigure the power options.
|Figure 5: Remember to Change The Screensaver and Power Options|
A live demonstration of a Web site can make a presentation more interesting - but not if the demonstration goes wrong. How many hours have been wasted by delegates watching speakers reconfigure browsers, reconnecting network connections, re-entering URLs, etc.
If the presentation is to be given in a location which has good network connections, you may be confident that a live demonstration will work. There are a number of browser configuration options you should be aware of which should improve the usability of the presentation.
Ensure your browser is configured to access a proxy cache (if any)
Many Universities are protected by a firewall. Web browsers must be configured with the address of a proxy server in order to access off-campus resources.
Suppress unneeded toolbars
Switch off the display of toolbars which are superfluous and would add to the screen clutter. If you are using Internet Explorer you may wish to switch to full screen mode (using the <F11> key).
Configure the font display so text is
You may wish to display text in Arial, and at a large font size than you would use for viewing on-screen.
Configure the display of hyperlinks
You may wish to remove the underlining of hyperlinks to enhance readability of the text.
If you are uncertain of the reliability of the network connection, you should think about alternatives to live demonstrations. Options available include:
Use images of the Web site in your PowerPoint presentation
The simplest option is to include screen images in your PowerPoint presentation. This may provide a useful backup option - if the network works, you can give a live demonstration, but if it doesn't you can use PowerPoint. This option can also mean that any handouts of PowerPoint presentations included in the delegates pack will include the screen displays.
Install the HTML files on the local PC
You may wish to install HTML files on the local PC. You will have to remember to install accompanying images, style sheets files, etc. This technique will only work if you wish to display a simple static Web site.
Install a Web server on the PC
If you wish to display a more sophisticated Web site, perhaps one which uses CGI scripting, you may chose to install a Web server on the PC. This can work, but is likely to require technical support (and may not be possible if the PC is provided by the conference).
Use an offline browser
You could make use of an offline browser such as those listed in the Tucows mirror .
Use Lotus Screencam (or similar)
You could use Lotus Screencam or similar product for capturing and replaying a session .
If the PC does have a dial-up connection, you should check the settings for dropping the connection, as it can be very irritating to have a "Network connection not available" message being displayed every 5 minutes during a presentation.
If your demonstration requires use of browser plugin technologies you should ensure that they are available (and that they are up-to-date).
Nick Daisley, University of Oxford, encountered a problem recently:
"We had a [PowerPoint presentation] which incorporated a short MPEG clip - it ran fine on the desktop PC used to prepare the presentation, and on other desktops, but resolutely would not run on the laptop which would be used for projection, until we had upgraded the MS media player to the *same version* as was used on the original computer."
The <Alt/Tab> combination is the simplest way of moving between your PowerPoint presentation, your Web browser and any other applications which may be in use. As illustrated below, it enables you to select the application you wish to display.
|Figure 6: Using Alt-Tab|
Sadly, the projection display unit can be another source of difficulties. The PC used for presenting will have to be connected to the projection device (and hopefully the cables won't have gone missing). Once connected, the PC will have to be configured so that the image is displayed on the projector, and, ideally, on the PC screen as well. There is normally a keyboard sequence which is used to toggle between display on the PC, on the external device and on both devices. For many popular laptops, the key sequence is <FN F5> (i.e. press the <FN> key and then, while still keeping this key pressed, press the <F5> key). However you should bear in mind that the key sequences may vary on different devices.
You should familiarise yourself with the projector display controls, so that, for example, you can switch off the screen display (without powering off the projection device).
Another issue to be aware of is whether the conference organisers will provide a PC for the conference or if speakers are expected to provide their own PCs. If a PC is provided, the conference organisers should provide technical support to ensure that it is set up properly, has been optimised for use with the projection device (since PCs work on different frequencies, ideally the projector will be recalibrated every time a PC is connected).
On the other hand if you are asked to provide your own PC, or if you prefer to use your own PC (or Apple Macintosh!) you will need to be aware of the potential problems and delays in connecting your PC. In particular you should be aware of possible problems if your PC makes use of an unusual screen resolution, which the projector device cannot handle. This may be an issue if you have a modern, high-spec. laptop.
If you are using a laptops you should ensure that it is plugged into the mains - having a message displayed halfway through your talk saying that "You have only 5 minutes of power left" can be very frightening". I know from personal experience, as this happened to me once - the laptop was plugged into the main supply, but the mains was not switched on!
What if, despite following the advice given in this article, disaster strikes? Again I have personal experience of this happening - I trod on the mains cable to the PC, which became disconnected causing the PC to power off!
If something like this happens, in the words of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, "Don't Panic!". You should find that the audience is on your side and wants you to recover from the difficulty. If the PC has rebooted, a Web site is not working or the network has crashed, you may find it useful to ask the session chair or a technical support person to provide assistance. If you are feeling brave, regard the incident not as a problem but as an opportunity to engage in a more interactive form of presentation - why not ask the audience for their views on the presentation so far?
Many thanks to members of the web-support JISCmail list  for sharing their hints and tips, including Norman Alm, Ann Apps, Malcolm Clark, Maurice Crockard, Nick Daisley, Liz Kenny, Paul Kentish, Az Mohammed, Alan Newell, Andy Powell, Ellen Simms, Mark Stiles and Simon Raybould.
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UK Web Focus
University of Bath
Phone : +44 1225 323943
Brian Kelly is "UK Web Focus" - a post which is responsible for advising the UK Higher and Further Education communities on Web developments. Brian is also the project manager for the Cultivate Interactive Web magazine. Before joining UKOLN Brian was the Senior Trainer at the Netskills training organisation. As a regular speaker at conferences, and in his former role as a network trainer, he has had a great deal of experience of the pitfalls which can await speakers who make use of computer technologies and networks.
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For citation purposes:
Kelly, B. "What's Happened To My Slides: Giving Presentations at Conferences", Cultivate Interactive, issue 3, 29 January 2001
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