26 October 2013

How to prepare a presentation - practical tips

There are many resources on how to give a good talk, but the information is not always well structured. In this post I summarize some practical points; I'll write about style and content in future posts.

Technical issues

The safest way of avoiding technical problems is to use your own computer for the presentation, but sometimes this is not an option. Below are some points to consider, for each situation:

Your own computer
  • Bring along your power supply (with appropriate adapter if abroad) and (for Mac users) a VGA adapter.
  • Avoid disruptions by muting the speakers and by turning off all notifications, WiFi, screensaver, hybernation settings etc. Switch off your cell phone.
  • Make sure you know how to activate the dual display configuration, in clone (both displays show the same content) or extended mode (each display can show a different image, e.g. the slide on the beamer and your notes on the laptop screen; see the Software section below).
A different computer (this will probably be a Windows PC, with recent versions of PowerPoint and Adobe Reader)
  • The interface will not necessarily be in a language you understand, so the shortcuts for fullscreen mode (F5 for PowerPoint and Ctrl-L for Acrobat) might come in handy.
  • Embed all fonts in .pdf documents.
  • Have an alternative way of showing media files (such as a standalone application) in case those included in your presentation refuse to run.
In any case, be sure to have a backup copy (or several copies) of the files. Some would even recommend having a printout ready, in case the projector fails, but I do not think I could give an understandable scientific presentation without visual support.


    Document preparation
    Personally, I prepare my presentations in PDF using LaTeX (with the beamer class). I prefer it to PowerPoint because I can recycle figures and equations from my publications, but I can see why some of my colleagues find PowerPoint easier to use. With LaTeX, fonts are usually embedded in the final document, but make sure they are also embedded for all included figures.

    Document presentation
    • If you created the file with PowerPoint, chances are you will use the same application for presenting it (unless you choose to export it to PDF, e.g. for better portability.) PowerPoint has a presenter mode, where the slides are shown on the main screen while the secondary screen also shows notes, thumbnails for other slides and a timer.
    • PDF files can be displayed using Adobe Acrobat (or Adobe Reader), which unfortunately lacks a presenter mode. The beamer class of LaTeX does have a way of simulating it, via the show notes on second screen option, but it seems rather clunky and incomplete (resolution constraints, no timer, etc.)
    • Keynote (Mac only) does have the presenter mode, as do PDF Presenter (no timer; the interface is a bit confusing) and PDF Presenter Console (Linux only, no notes.) Impressive has some interesting features (highlighting, spotlight, customization via Python scripts) but no multi-monitor support. See here for a more in-depth discussion of various alternatives.
    • The best solution I have found so far for PDF presentations is open-pdf-presenter, a free and open-source application (binaries are available for Windows and major Linux distributions.) When using it, the secondary (or "console") screen displays the current and the upcoming slides, as well as notes, a timer (with countdown function) and progress bar. The only shortcoming is that the notes must be entered in an XML schema, and special characters are not allowed (or at least I could not find a way to make them work.)

    Before you start

    • Make sure the hardware (computer, laser pointer, microphone) is set up at least ten minutes before the presentation is due.
    • Check the points in the first section above and go through your slides, looking for rendering errors (more frequent with special characters, especially in embedded figures) and for problems with the animation and with the media files.
    • Have a glass of water ready.
    [UPDATE 26/10/2013] 
    Details on embedding the fonts in a PDF file (using Adobe Acrobat, Ghostscript, or Apache OpenOffice).
    Apparently, there is also a way of embedding the fonts in PowerPoint files.
    Make sure the fonts are available for embedding !

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