‘Carthage must be destroyed’

You’ve read the advice from inveterate PowerPoint apologists – and from the unhinged opposite end of the spectrum, Tufte. (His advice is to public speaking as Marx was to capitalism.) Now here’s some of my practical advice for presenters, based on 18 years’ experience.

What is the mantra you must repeat to yourself? It happens. Nearly every calamity listed below has occurred to me or to a presenter I have watched.

A note on my presentation style

I might be a graphic-design critic, but I’m no graphic designer. I find PowerPoint-style presentations actively repugnant. These facts have caused my particular style to evolve as it has – just a few slides, mostly with typeset headlines that serve as chapter markers of a sort, accompanied by a rehearsed spoken presentation. For the latter, I have printed notes, which are a memory aid and not a script.

My style is unusual and goes over well most of the time. Non-native speakers of English tend not to get my humour. Visual designers sitting way back in an audience may not enjoy the lack of attractive slides, and they may find it taxing to listen continuously. I am somewhat sensitive to criticisms of my style. It’s not that my feelings are hurt, really; it’s just that I am disappointed my presentation methods do not work for some people. I put what I consider to be immense effort into them, and it bothers me that it does not always pay off.

I am, moreover, still very stung, a year or more later, by an anonymous blog comment about the role of public speaking in my career. I think I pay attention to more details than most presenters and, while you have the right to criticize, you know there are many presenters in action who are much worse than I am. Lousy presenters are the norm. You cannot make a plausible case that I am one of them.

Despite all that, I am giving you the benefit of my experience. Pick on somebody else, please.

Advice

  • Do not go over your allotted time. I did this exactly once – last week at @media London, by three minutes, because I ad-libbed too much. There is no more important advice.

    Never exceed your time limit. You must be adequately prepared to avoid running overtime no matter what your presentation style is. As such, any plans you may have had to completely wing it are now kaput. That is simply off the table. You must plan and rehearse in some manner that guarantees you will finish on time or slightly earlier (perhaps significantly earlier if there is extensive Q&A).

  • Do at least two run-throughs. Always rehearse, and always rehearse twice. You’re too green with your own material the first time, and you’re doing so much real-time editing that it interferes with learning your material. After the second run-through, you at least know what you’re saying. I have always gotten slightly better after three rehearsals, but never any better after three (exception: Icelandic-language benediction, which took five).

  • Bring every adapter. Two of my machines have died in the last year and I’ve had to rejigger what adapter feeds what monitor at home. But, historically, I’m the one who shows up with a badly worn Ziploc bag full of every adapter there is. (I don’t go in for expensive kit bags of this sort. I am aware that the jet set will not leave the house without everything loaded into specified all-black Muji or Porter sacs. I carry my computer and adapters in a backpack; let’s not put on airs.)

    I bring every video adapter save for S-Video – a contraption of which everyone has many useless copies, sort of like receiving a too-short telephone cable with every modem you’ve ever owned.

    I have everything that can convert to and from DVI and VGA, and within those formats, too. Not only have I needed these adapters, so have other presenters.

    (Advice to organizers: Provide every adapter. Advice to audiovisual contractors: Have every adapter on hand. And do not lecture the presenter that he or she should have taken one along.)

  • Get to know the AV person. “The AV person” is always really just “the sound guy.” Always say hello, tell them when you’re going on, and tell them what you need. Sometimes they’ll let you borrow their own computers’ adapters. On unusual occasion, they’re total wankers who spend the entire time of every presentation, save for the first and last 30 seconds, reading a book.

  • If a sound check is possible, do one. This is not a guarantee of success; the centre of the room at Web Directions this year could not hear me after we adjusted levels twice beforehand. (And no one put up a hand to complain!) But the pros do it. You’ll have to utter a few sentences at your presentation volume. Resist the temptation to utter sentences from your presentation; people are listening.
  • Learn how to put on a lavalier mike. A lav mike has a transmitter pack and a small clip-on microphone on a cord. Unplug the cord from the transmitter even if the sound guy gives you a dirty look. Thread the plug end through your shirt between buttonholes or behind the collar. Let it fall straight down.

    Clip on the microphone slightly below where your chin would be if you tilted your head all the way forward. If you’re wearing a jacket, clip it to your lapel. If you’re wearing a shirt, clip it between buttons. (Some sound guys ask that you do up your shirt one more button for “stability.”) If you’re wearing a high sweater, first of all, don’t, but if you must, thread some cable slack around and over the collar so the mike is in the right position.

    Plug the cable back in (match the red dots on plug and jack), and clip the transmitter to your belt behind you. (Use your skirt waistband if that’s what you’re wearing. You will find it uncomfortable. I do not know what to do if one is wearing a dress with no belt.) If you’re to be sitting down while wearing the mike pack, wear it to the side, not the back.

    If you’re in a wheelchair (it happens), always clip the mike pack onto something; they can and will fall out. (You will probably not have to thread the cord under your shirt.)

    And if your shirt is intentionally outside your trousers or you’re wearing a suit jacket, make sure the transmitter is covered. Do not allow your clothing to be bunched up between you and the transmitter. Your audience has all the time in the world to stare at it.

    If your voice is not being amplified but an interpreter’s is, or if the interpreter may speak later, set up lav mikes for them, too. Do not expect an interpreter of any kind to use a hand-held mike. They have too much to concentrate on, and sign-language interpreters can’t do it at all. (If you’re all seated at a table with pedestal mikes, it’s not a problem. If the panel consists of n signers with one interpreter each, all seated in the front row, it also isn’t a problem; they can and do use hand-held mikes. Yes, all of those things happen.)

    Why must you learn to do put on your own mike? Because the alternative is sound guys pawing your shirt and your chest. Use your imagination as to what that entails. It happens.

  • Don’t allow the sound guy to leave it up to you to turn on your mike pack. Keep the mike on and make him do five seconds’ extra work by muting you remotely until it’s your time to speak. Otherwise you will forget and the sound guy will have to run down and turn it on for you (Web Essentials 2005). (You can’t see behind your back. You will find yourself unable to remove the mike pack and put it back on while everybody’s watching.)

  • Take off your badge. We already know you’re an attendee at the conference. Remove your badge. Above all remove it if you’re wearing a lav mike, since the neck strap (“lanyard”) may rub against the mike even if you aren’t speaking at that moment. (It happens.) If you wear your badge at hip level, you might leave it on (I have).

  • Check your battery settings. If you absolutely have to run a presentation off a battery and you’re on Mac, then open Energy Saver and make sure nothing ever goes to sleep. (There used to be a Presentations setting for this purpose.)

    Here is what happened at my second-worst presentation: The screen kept “saving” itself, winking out the projector in the process and requiring a keypress to restore things. Do not allow this to happen.

  • Buy international power plugs. The Apple world traveller kit is overpriced and doesn’t do what you want, since it divides your power-cord length in half (the plugs fit only on the transformer). Buy the cheapest plug adapters you can find – I get mine for $2.50 max at House of 220, but I’ve seen them at Heathrow for £2.99. Don’t buy one that will not permit the insertion of a grounded Canada/U.S. plug, which includes some Japanese adapters. (At present, I have adapters for the U.K., Scandinavia, and Australia. I am hoping I never need to use the South African one, a power brick from East Germany masquerading as a plug.)

  • Carry your computer and your adapters on your person. If this involves buying an unfashionably large bag, do it. Do not place your either of them in checked luggage.

  • Bring a mouse. Well, I sometimes need this onstage. Having a mouse with you makes using your laptop in your hotel room a more efficient experience.

  • Back up your presentation. I used to upload everything to a specific memorable folder on my Web server (you want to be able to dictate the URL to somebody under battle conditions). But after one too many conferences with no net connection in the conference hall itself, now I have to upgrade my advice to carrying your presentation on a key drive, too. If you don’t have one, burn a CD. This way you can always use somebody else’s computer. (It happens.)

  • Print out your notes. If you’re someone who can speak extemporaneously, you don’t have notes, which means if you also don’t have visuals (it happens!), your presentation is fucked. If you do need notes (I write and rehearse mine), keep them on you as a clipped-together printout. (Don’t staple them. Stapling causes audible rustling.) Take the clip off just before showtime.

    Don’t put notes in checked baggage. Know where the computer file is in case you have to print them out. (You can send them via faxmodem to your hotel fax if you really have to.) Keynote makes it so very much easier to have notes on one machine but a different displayed slide. However, I don’t use Keynote.

    A disadvantage here is that your notes plus computer will be wider than any podium you will ever use. You may end up covering up your keyboard.

    Additionally, if you have notes, publish them, and set up the URL beforehand (with at least a placeholder page – it must not 404). I find that noteless presenters’ uploaded hundred-megabyte PDFs are of very little use whatsoever no matter how pretty they are. Prose is what people want.

  • Under no circumstances simply read from your notes. Without exception, you must learn your presentation well enough that your notes are mere reminders. Quotations, code samples, and so on can and should be read verbatim. But do not stand there clutching the edges of, and staring at, your pages. I shouldn’t have to tell you how badly that works out for the audience. (The kind of person who thinks that setup is just fine shouldn’t be presenting.)

  • If you think there may be interpreters at work, ask. You will have extra responsibilities which, in my experience, only I pay attention to. Chief among them is providing a script beforehand – often days beforehand. Or if you can’t do that, a vocabulary list. (I did that in April and was the only speaker in a full day’s roster to do so.)

    If you can swing it, visit the interpreter desk and get to know whoever is handling you. (It may be several people – they tend to work only 20 minutes at a stretch.) If they think you care, they do a better job. If they’re stuck with the usual worst-case scenario of no preparation whatsoever and a too-fast speaker, well, your foreign-language listeners will be stuck with a worst-case scenario of their own.

  • Don’t let anybody attempt to charge for a podcast. I’m one step away from insisting your event be recorded. Even today, not all are. However, if there is a recording, do not allow the organizer to attempt to charge for the recording. If memory serves, one of my sessions was supposed to go up on a Web site for $99. I scotched that idea.

  • Plan for errors. Do not plan for disaster; that probably won’t happen. But some little thing will go wrong at least some of the time.

    Something usually goes wrong for me and I have been doing this forever. But because of my specific presentation style, which co-evolved from my unwillingness and inability to create conventional slides and my inability to talk extemporaneously for an hour, I have backups for every case save for the very worst one. I can function:

    1. without any specific slide
    2. if my slides die halfway through
    3. if I have no net connection
    4. if I have to use somebody else’s machine
    5. if the only resolution the projector will accept is 800 × 600
    6. if I’m deliberately sabotaged by being the only presenter whose slides were not loaded onto the sole presentation laptop

    Not only can I function, everything listed above has happened to me and I have functioned.

    I can function if everything fails and all I’m left with is my own set of printouts and my unamplified voice. Can you?

    Everybody came to see you. Nobody came to see your slides. Understand what’s expendable and plan for it.

  • When things go wrong, cop to it, try to fix it momentarily, maybe ask for help, and keep on going. Don’t stop the presentation because your slides are dead. Try for a reasonable moment to fix them, and if they stay dead, keep on going. If you forget how to do something on your computer, ask the audience. (If your slides are working only at an unplanned-for 800 × 600, and you can’t resize your document window, and the Dock is in the way and you forget the keystroke to hide the Dock, ask.)

  • Quit out of your instant-messenger and E-mail programs. I actually have been pinged on messenger while onstage. Fortunately, no one saw it. Some of your “friends” will deliberately do it, carefully calculating the time zones to strike at the right moment. You are probably terrible at E-mail even if you think you aren’t, and you probably have some kind of notification set up for the receipt of new messages, which your software checks for automatically. This is gonna come up: You’ll hear a ping (which will throw you off, and which you may even remark on to the audience, and which the audience may hear through your mike), or your icon will bounce, or the number of unread messages in the icon or taskbar will visibly change.

  • You’ll skip ahead by mistake and it’s no big deal. You will move forward two slides instead of one by mistake. Or your transition will take 10 seconds to cue up. Do not let this faze you. And, preferably, do not even mention it, although that is at odds with human nature.

    At the end of your presentation, if you have to go back to a certain slide during Q&A, try very hard to go straight to it without displaying intervening slides. Keynote and PowerPoint let you do that.

  • Set up browsers beforehand. Load any sites you intend to display in browser tabs ahead of time. Really check them (especially for missing images), because there may be no way to reload them while onstage. If one of your big flourishes is typing in a new address and loading it on the spot, delete your browser history or turn off autocomplete; it can’t be much of a surprise if the browser tells us you’ve already been there.

    Now, importantly, close all other browser windows and tabs. You don’t want your Gmail or your daily perusal of Craigslist personals momentarily displayed to the audience.

  • If your slides aren’t moving at all, try clicking in the window. Especially on Windows and especially if you don’t run Windows and have no choice but to do so for your presentation, your software may not be frontmost but you don’t know it. (It happens.) Click inside your window even if that might advance a slide. You will be too keyed up to find just the right icon for the application software; just click in the window.

  • Try not to swear, but if you do, live with it. I’m the kind of person who swears when things go wrong. Things sometimes go wrong onstage. If, after swearing, they don’t invite you back, fine. If they don’t hire you, fine. You will get along better with real clients, not Mormons or stuckups.

  • Do not use Safari if you don’t have to. It is too willing to freeze on you.

  • If you have Flash examples, don’t leave them running for a long time. It’ll slow down or hang the browser.

  • Just completely forget the idea of being nervous.
    By all means, be excited or keyed up. But you have no reason to be nervous. You’re the star.

    You will find this advice works perfectly even the first time you apply it and even if you’ve been a nervous wreck on every occasion before. I guarantee it. Tell yourself you have no reason to be nervous.

    Additionally, I have witnessed an extremely slow and deliberate presentation by someone who was nearly paralyzed with fear. But, because of the slow speed and deliberation, the presentation was extremely comprehensible and well-paced. It made him seem serious, formidable, not to be toyed with. Even being nervous isn’t always a liability.

My troubles with S5

S5 is Eric Meyer’s collection of stylesheets and JavaScript that enable you to use plain HTML as slides, with a good browser as presentation software. A creditable idea, but after years of trying to make it work, something always goes wrong for me.

  • S5 requires valid XHTML. With everything enclosed in div class="slide" inside other divs, you’re going to get lost. This is what we should really mean when we say “divitis.”
  • Your previously-functional, valid-XHTML slides may die halfway through. This has now happened to me twice. The current thinking is that S5, left to its own devices for a long time (like overnight or during the trip from your house to the convention centre on another continent), keeps running little bits of JavaScript or otherwise generates a memory leak.
  • There’s no fit-to-window command, unless you’re using Opera. That means your lines of type may suddenly zoom off the edge of your screen. (Your “screen” may now be 800 × 600 pixels.) But you won’t be using Opera, because…
  • Opera requires full-screen mode, since Opera overstrictly interprets the concepts of “screen” and “projection,” at least when used as CSS media types.
  • Almost nobody uses the notes class that lets you add as much text and graphics as you want for printing only (or, technically, for viewing in any mode other than slideshow). As such, most people use S5 for PowerPoint-like slides. You might as well just use PowerPoint. (Or export a huge PDF from Keynote.)
    • Slides like those have little or no actual use on the Web; Google will index everything anyway; there is no advantage to being able to just load the slides in a browser.
    • While the following represents a desecration of Web standards, all your friends have just the right software to look at your slides in their original form. So do all your clients. Other people? I say again: Google will index everything, and if you’re doing things PowerPoint-style, in all likelihood your slides suck.

I have no genuinely satisfactory alternative. My well-typeset slides are created in InDesign, exported to PDF, and displayed full-screen in Acrobat. I never seem to have just the right computer, with InDesign and the right fonts, on the road with me in case I need to change a slide. Hence I plan things out with extravagant care and never change a slide.

If I have to accommodate something unforeseen, I hack up an S5 and use two programs. (At @smedia San Francisco and London 2007, I used five programs to present with – Acrobat, Safari, GraphicConverter, Opera, and VoiceOver Utility. In theory I could have gotten that down to two.) If I really have to, I can type something out in nearly any software – even Microsoft Word – and make the fonts bigger.


I have lost count of how many presentations I’ve given since 1989. It’s in the dozens. I’ve presented to everyone from a roomful of deaf people (repeatedly) to members of parliament (repeatedly). I get better every time, but paying attention to details like these gives me a higher baseline to start from. They’ll work for you, too.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.06.13 16:50. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2007/06/13/ithappens/

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