I’ve probably given more than one hundred presentations, talks, and conference papers over the last five years. On at least half of those occasions, there’s been either a technical hitch or a complete IT disaster. In one case, there was no technology at all for my seminar on social media: only a blackboard. Consequently, I’ve developed a range of contingencies, tricks, and workarounds. In this post, I’ll share a few of my favourites with you.
Do you need technology?
Firstly, it’s important to consider whether you actually need to use technology at all. It’s definitely best avoided if this is your first conference paper: your stress levels are probably high enough already, without having to worry about something else that might thwart you.
If you do decide to create a presentation, think about how you’d cope if you couldn’t actually display it; would your talk still work? Or will you just be staring mournfully at a blank screen?
Possible contingencies include providing handouts with images and quotes you’ll be discussing, or preparing an alternative script that simply omits them.
Why won’t it just work?
That’s what I can often be hear muttering (minus the expletive) when a conference PC stubbornly refuses to co-operate. The problem I encounter most frequently these days is PowerPoint either crashing repeatedly or not even opening. If you have the necessary permissions on the computer, you can download and install the PowerPoint viewer.
Assuming your PowerPoint presentation is simple – so, no flying images or dissolving text – it’s definitely worth saving it as a PDF. You can then open it in Acrobat Reader and, using the full screen mode, navigate through the pages as you would with a slideshow.
Sound, animation, and other snazziness
I can’t remember having seen any presentations where multimedia worked really well, but can (inevitably) recall in detail those events where it all went horribly wrong. Not all computers will have soundcards and speakers, and some don’t even have a graphics card capable of displaying decent quality video. If you do want to show a film, for example, it’s a good idea to talk to the organisers and establish that they have the capabilities. Even if you get a positive response, don’t assume it’ll work on the day. There could be a last-minute room change or a sudden malfunction. Yes, I’m a pessimist.
Many people are very fond of Prezi these days, mainly because it isn’t PowerPoint. I confess to loathing it. The first time I saw a presentation with Prezi, I was suffering from an inner-ear infection; all the whirling and spinning nearly made me fall off my chair. I certainly turned a nasty shade of green. Not everyone’s reaction will be quite as extreme, though. If you do use Prezi, make sure the computer on which you’ll be running it is compatible, as sometimes it requires plugins to be installed. You’ll also need to rehearse a lot more. Unlike PowerPoint, Prezi isn’t linear.
What the hell’s happened to my memory stick?
Every autumn term, I frighten new researchers by telling them all the ways in which they could lose their valuable data. Each time, I also gather a few more horror stories for the next group. Memory sticks are near the top of my list of modern menaces. They’re ridiculously easy to lose, and also tend not to have particularly good memories: most fail after a year or two. In short, please don’t rely on them. By all means use one as the primary means of transporting your presentation, but also store is elsewhere in case your memory stick dematerialises.
I always upload my slides to Dropbox, as that’s accessible from virtually anywhere. I can also grab any of my files online through Crashplan, the tool I use for backing up. If I’m really not having a good week, I might also copy everything to a CD, just in case.
On the day
If at all possible, I’d recommend checking out the venue in advance so you can spot any potential problems. If that’s not feasible, at least get there early so you can upload your presentation and reassure yourself that everything is working. Then you have time to invoke plans B, C, or D, or to just run around shrieking.
One of the best gizmos I’ve bought is a clicker. With one of these clutched in my hand, it doesn’t matter if the screen is several leagues away from the computer. I don’t have to keep scampering across the room to change the slides, and the laser pointer is very useful for drawing attention to small details (and also good for entertaining cats). A clicker should work with the PDFs in full-screen mode, too. Many venues have their own clickers, but I often find that the battery is flat.
Oh, and I frequently see people fumbling around, unsure how to start a PowerPoint presentation. The easiest way is to press F5. If you want it to start on the selected slide, rather than at the beginning, use Shift+F5 instead.
With technology, there’s always more focus on innovation than on reliability. Don’t assume it’s going to work! To summarise, here are my top tips:
- Think about whether you really need to use technology in your presentation.
- If you do, keep it simple.
- Also save your slides as a PDF.
- Check the facilities before designing anything too snazzy.
- Don’t use Prezi unless you know what you’re doing with it (and I’m not in the audience).
- Save your presentation in multiple places (not just on a memory stick).
- Invest in a clicker.
Best of luck with your presentation.