Ah, technical presentations. For some, an opportunity to share. For others, nature’s cruelest mistake.1 And much like a total eclipse, technical presentations that are both well-prepared and well-executed are, sadly, a rare sight to behold. But, fear not! For those finding yourself in the latter camp, it doesn’t have to be this way. By applying some of these simple tricks, you can feel confident as a presenter, both leading up to and during your presentation.
Your Pre-Flight Checklist
- While I can appreciate that 2560x1600 resolution rocks on your 30” LCD monitor, most projectors can’t display anything nearly that high. Always assume an on-screen resolution of 1024x768. This is the most common resolution I’ve come across the hundreds of presentations that I’ve delivered. Bottom-line? Test your demos at this resolution!
- For conferences like TechDays, make sure to confirm the aspect ratio with the conference organizers. Some events are now going with a widescreen projection, which can have a significant impact of your slides in terms of its on-screen rendering. Don’t always assume 4:3!
- A day or two before you deliver your presentation, write a blog post that captures EVERYTHING in your presentation and provide a shortened URL (see below) to your blog post on your title slide and in your “Resources” slide. I’ve dub this: “the one URL to rule them all”. Note: A nice side affect of doing this beforehand is a more receptive audience; they will appreciate your efforts to make their lives easier (by not having to write every URL down) and thus, will likely give you a higher evaluation score as a result.
- Before your presentation, copy your slides and demos on a USB stick and bring it with you. This will allow you to transfer it to another machine if necessary.
- You should consider clearing your browser’s history before getting on-stage if you plan to leverage the Internet as part of your presentation. Once you start typing in the address bar and your browser’s history is displayed for everyone to see, there’s no turning back. Best to have no surprises for the audience.
- Considering bringing two machines if you’re presenting to a significantly large audience (e.g. 1000 people or more) or if your demos have significant requirements. You can never have enough back-ups. Believe me. I share this having experienced hardcore, the-machine-is-nearly-on-fire kind of demo failures on-stage… and on more than one occasion!
- Wear comfortable shoes on-stage, especially for “walkers”.2 For conferences where you’re on your feet for most of the day, it’s best to have dress shoes with a thick insole.
- Have a countdown timer that’s easy to see so you can keep track of your time. If possible, give yourself a time warning (e.g. 15 minutes to go) so that you’ll have enough time to wrap-up your presentaton.
- Check to see that have a good amount of bottled water on-stage, especially for presentations that exceed 45 minutes. Try to avoid the pitcher-of-water-that’s-dangerously-close-to-your-electrical-hardware kind of setup. Bottled water is best because you can always screw the cap back on after you take a sip.
- If necessary for your demo/presentation, verify that an Internet connection is available on-stage and – more importantly – that' it’s working correctly. Also, PLEASE give yourself enough time to test the connection (e.g. port access) so that if you encounter a problem, you’ll have enough time to work with the on-site staff to work through it. Here’s a tip: Invest in a mobile, high-speed Internet solution (e.g. Rocket Stick from Rogers). This will reduce your dependency for on-stage Internet connectivity.
- Sync with the A/V person in your room. Introduce yourself and know his/her name (because when things go south, he/she will be the first person you’ll call upon for help). Do a sound check well before your presentation begins. Also, assert your preference of microphone (e.g. lavalier versus headworn) – go with the one that suits your presentation style on-stage.
Prior to Take-Off: To-Do’s Before You Start
- Display your title slide and walk to the back of the room. Sit down in one of the chairs and stare at your slide for a few seconds. Can you read it well? Is the font big enough? Is the contrast appropriately as to not burn a permanent image in the back of people’s retina?
- Repeat step #1 (above) with a code file open in Visual Studio. How does it look? The audience member you’re wanting to target is the person sitting in the back, not the person sitting in the front. Cater to that individual from both an audio aspect and a visual aspect and you’ll be fine.
The Presentation: Your Slides and Desktop
- Use a readible font in your slides. Two of my favourites are Calibri and Segoe UI.
- Use URL shortening service (e.g. bit.ly) for resources / sites.
- Clean up your “virtual stage”. Get rid of all your icons on the desktop. A cluttered desktop screams “unorganized" and “unprofessional”. Do yourself a favour and hide that shortcut icon to I Can Has Cheezburger.
- Change your desktop background to a stock OS background (e.g. Windows 7 logo background). Yes, it may be boring to you, but for your audience, it’s less distracting. While rotating photos of your cat are great, the audience is there to see the presentation, not your cat. The less distractions, the better.
- Two words: Presenter View. It’s an awesome capability of PowerPoint that few folks know about. Learn it, use it, love it. It’s a great way to remember where you are in your presentation as well as where you’re going.
- Utilize a style like WekeRoad Ink from studiostyles for any demos performed in Visual Studio. Other suitable styles include Twilight and Mustang. I find that light text on a dark background really “pops” on-screen and is much easier on the eyes. Also, it’s easier to read text from the back of a room (from the perspective of the audience).
The “Show Me” Moments: Your Demos and Demo Environment
- If you’re delivering a code-heavy presentation, try showing a demo in the first five minutes of your presentation (e.g. “Hello World”). Not only does this set the expectations of your audience (e.g. “Yes, we’re showing code here.”) but it will get you into a technical groove early, which is what people want to see; technology.
- Use a screen magnifier like ZoomIt to draw the attention of your audience to parts of the screen. For ZoomIt, learn its annotation capabilities. It’s great for on-the-fly notes! As an alternative, Windows 7 (and Mac OS X, for that matter) include built-in magnifier tools (e.g. %windir%\system32\magnify.exe).
- Use a readable style that really “pops” on-screen when showing code in Visual Studio. For example, I’m a fan of the WekeRoad Ink from studiostyles. Other suitable styles include Twilight and Mustang.
Some Related and Must-Read Resources
- From Scott Hanselman (AKA, “Mr. Demo” because this guy brings it and rocks it on-stage):
- Technical Presentations: Be Prepared for Absolute Chaos
- 11 Top Tips for a Successful Technical Presentation
- Scott Hanselman’s Tips for a Successful MSFT Presentation
- 9 Tips How to Give a Technical Presentation by Andreas Zwinkau
- Tips for a Successful Technical Presentation by Kirk Evans
- Eric's Advice For First-Time Technical Presenters by Eric Lippert
 A reference to Homer Simpson, dubbed “Bottomless Pete” by Captain Horatio McCallister, in an episode of The Simpsons entitled, “New Kid on the Block”. From Wikipedia: After seeing a television advertisement about "The Frying Dutchman"'s all you can eat offer, Homer insists that Marge come dine with him, so he arranges for Laura to babysit Bart and Lisa in his and Marge's absence. After being served by the Sea Captain, Homer eats an excessive amount of food and is thrown out. He sues the restaurant for false advertising. Lionel Hutz is employed by him to represent him in court, and the Sea Captain and Homer eventually agree that Homer shall be displayed in the restaurant as "Bottomless Pete: Nature's Cruelest Mistake.”
 “Walkers” are presenters who tend to travel great distances on-stage, whether shuffling back-and-forth in one area or rocking side-to-side. These folks tend to move a lot on-stage because of a variety of reasons (e.g. nerves).