Tech tips for conference presenters and organizers

30.11.2010 | Author: Eric Reiss
I attend a fair number of conferences each year. I speak at a number of these. I also help organize a conference, EuroIA. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Perhaps they will make your life easier and your presentations smoother. As an audience member, there’s nothing worse than watching novices fiddle about on stage.

Note: this is not so much about HOW to present, but how to handle the technical and practical aspects of public speaking. Presenters: I’m assuming you know that eye contact is a good thing. Organizers: I assume you understand the importance of keeping a conference running smoothly and providing free WiFi.

Note #2: I will be incorporating reader suggestions in order to keep this article up-to-date. So if you have a great tip, please let me know.

Tips for presenters

1. Take the time to check your presentation ahead of time on a real VGA projector. Under all circumstances, you need to know how to get your presentation up on both the projector AND your laptop screen (two clicks on F4 or F10 for most PC users). You’ll find that orange and yellow will become greenish. And light grey lines in graphs and other graphics may disappear entirely. Some videos may become way too dark. Adjust your colours and other elements accordingly so your audience actually gets to see the things you want to present.

2. Check your timing. Audiences feel cheated if you have to rush through or skip large portions of your presentation. And you look pretty foolish, too. If you want to take questions afterwards, make sure to leave time for this. For this reason, I ALWAYS take a small, easy-to-read analogue clock with me that I put somewhere I can see it. It is easier to glance at a clock with big hands than at your wristwatch or presentation tool. If all else fails, I sometimes start the stopwatch on my phone and put the phone on the floor in front of where I will be standing. Whatever you do, NEVER run over your allotted time. If your organiser is going to provide time signals, make sure you understand them and VISIBLY ACKNOWLEDGE them when you see them during the final minutes of your presentation.

3. Check your equipment ahead of time. Use a break prior to your presentation to set up your computer and make sure everything works properly – particularly video and sound. You can then disconnect it, knowing that when it’s your turn to present, the changeover should be a simple matter of plug-and-play.

4. If you are presenting from someone else’s computer, make sure to check your animations. (Powerpoint does not convert one-to-one when moving from a Mac to a PC and vice versa.) Also, not all Powerpoint and Keynote functionality is backward compatible. If your presentation was created using the latest product release and relies on sophisticated features, check these thoroughly after you transfer your presentation to the host computer. Personally, I still use PowerPoint 2003 because it works with pretty much everything (except a Mac, of course).

5. If you are using a remote presentation tool (I love my Logitech 2.4 GHz cordless presenter), make sure to check that it has batteries and is in good working order. If you are using a smartphone and Bluetooth (Android, iPhone, etc.) to advance your slides, make sure it is also charged and ready for action (Warning to new presenters: because smartphones use touch-screen buttons, you’ll have to look at your phone each time you need to click, which can seriously hinder your presentation style. Far better to buy or borrow a dedicated clicker with physical buttons. And practice using it and the laser pointer!)

6. Always make sure your computer has a VGA port or an adaptor to this format. If you are presenting from a Mac, make sure to bring your own MiniDVI to VGA adaptor. As an audience member, it’s irritating to wait while a presenter asks the audience if anyone has an adaptor. Organizers have a schedule to keep; the time you waste is often your own. Note: the adapter for older Macs will not fit a newer machine and vice versa.

7. Bring with you all the proper power cables and outlet adaptors you will need. Simple electrical plug compatibility can be a real hassle sometimes, so make sure you can actually plug in your laptop. 120V and 220V conversion is rarely an issue; the problem is always with the physical plug connection. Remember to take your adaptor with you when you’re finished (most of the adaptors I own have been left behind by others in hotels and at conferences).

8. Fully charge your laptop or iPad before your presentation. If someone kicks out the plug, you don’t want your presentation to crash.

9. If you need sound (typically a 3.5mm jack to plug into your headphone output), tell the organizers well ahead of time. Don’t automatically assume that sound will be available.

10. Optimize your screen resolution. PC users seem to do best at 1024 x 768. That said, older projectors will sometimes insist on 800 x 600 resolution. Mac users should probably start with 800 x 600 and work their way up to something higher. The wide-screen projectors now coming into use will probably require you to fiddle with your settings for optimum results. I have no rule of thumb at this point.

11. Older Mac operating systems require a restart to properly connect to the projector. Remember this if the computer is not connecting properly.

12. If your laptop is connected properly, but the projector gives you a “No Signal” message, try switching the source input on the projector (for example from PC 1 to PC 2).

13. If you are going to upload your presentation to Slideshare, do so ahead of time, but mark it as “Private”. The morning of the conference, you can easily switch this restriction to “Public” from a smartphone or some other low-bandwidth device so your presentation immediately becomes available.

14. If you want to read more about generic presentation tips, check out this excellent 2007 article from Lifehack:

Or this one from BZ Media:

Or this great advice from Donna Spencer:

And if you will be speaking through an interpreter, check out this excellent advice from AZ World:

Tips for conference organizers

1. Make sure you have a range of suitable electrical adaptors, plus both of the Mac VGA adaptors in your emergency kit. Ensure that there are unused power outlets available at the speaker’s podium – at least two.

2. Arrange hand-signals with your speakers so they know how long they have left before their time runs out. I generally stand at the back of the room and hold up two hands with fingers outstretched to signal “10-minute warning”. A single hand is the “5-minute warning” Making a “T” using both hands means “Time up”. Put a clock on stage if one is not already hanging at the back of the room. And don’t be afraid to drop a Q&A session or simply break off a presentation if the speaker is unable to finish at the proper time.

3. If a session starts late (but not because the presenter is unprepared), don’t cut the presenter off early just to make up time. You owe them the chance to deliver their session properly. Better to incorporate longer breaks and to shave some time off of these to get back on schedule.

4. Don’t force your guests to use a standard presentation design template. This cramps their visual style. Even a simple header/footer will invariably take up valuable on-screen space. It’s better to do without.

5. Although you may need contributions for your printed proceedings well in advance of the conference, give your speakers as long as possible to edit and improve their presentations - preferably up until the night before the conference (when their own creativity and adrenalin levels are at their highest). Insisting on a “final” presentation weeks ahead of time will invariably lead to poorer performance levels during the conference itself. Note: the best presenters practice and fine-tune their stuff up until the very last minute – not because they are unprepared, but because they are gearing up for the performance they will be giving.

6. If you want your conference logo or Twitter details on the opening screen of the presentation, let your presenters know in good time. Do them the favour of sending them an optimized logo that is easy to paste into their presentation (eps, jpg, gif). Don’t assume presenters are going to bother to download something from your conference website and then Photoshop it to the right format – or that they even have the skills needed to do this.

7. Although tempting, avoid uploading presentations to your on-stage conference computer. This can easily screw up videos and animations. If swap time is critical (e.g. moving from one presentation to the next), arrange to have a VGA switch available so you can move from one computer to the other at the flick of a button.

8. If you have a cover slide to open your conference, or even a simple presentation of sponsors etc. to kick off the proceedings, consider giving this to your keynote speaker so he or she can incorporate it at the beginning of his or her own slide deck. This avoids the first presentation hand-off and starts the conference in a smoother manner. If you have a standard title slide you want to use as a transition to other presentations, give this to your presenters ahead of time.

9. If you plan on starting your conference by thanking all your volunteers, consider putting together a PowerPoint that runs automatically and loops endlessly while people are finding their seats. Seth Godin has a good article about how to do this. As opposed to a simple cover presentation, you’ll probably need to keep this on your conference laptop and not give it to your opening keynote speaker.

10. If you absolutely need a presentation delivered to you on a USB stick (to coordinate with a video recording, for example), make sure to let the presenter know exactly what is needed and how it will be used in advance of the conference.

11. If you have a screen behind the speaker, beware of using big plasma displays (LCD). These will not appear properly in photographs taken at the event. The colours always change and the effect can be very disconcerting.

12. Keep in mind that projections on a wall will be dimmer than projections on a real movie screen. Back projections will not be as bright or photograph as well as front projections.

13. Make sure projector and sound cables (VGA and 3.5mm jack) are available at the same physical location (the podium for example). Curiously, many technicians have VGA at the podium and sound somewhere else entirely. Conversely, make sure the cables can be separated; many laptops have VGA and jack inputs on opposite sides so bundled cables can create problems.

14. If you need to give your presenters a microphone, make sure they are cordless. Handheld is OK, but lavalieres are much, much better. Be sure you know how they work and where the mute button is located – don’t rely on a local technician. Ensure that the batteries are fresh in the morning – and swap them during the lunch hour. That said, if you can afford it, keep your technicians in the room at all times.

15. If you expect questions from the audience, make sure a hand-held cordless mike is available, plus a runner who can bring the mike to audience members. If you have two aisles, two mikes/runners are better than one.

16. If you want to read more about how to run a conference, check out this article: