Avoid the presentation kill zones


Wikimedia – public domain 

During a  Fresh Air National Public Radio program, astronaut Christ Hadfield said that during their flight rehearsals at NASA, Astronauts go sequentially over the various problems that may result in rapid (and usually final) death if they do not deal with them right away (tip: search for the word “kill” in the interview transcripts). The lesson learned is that you also, have to prepare for these killing situations as a presenter. Let’s review some:

1) You require audio out because your presentation contains a video or an audio byte and the sound coming out of your computer speakers is not loud enough to he heard by everyone in the room.


a) The VGA cable that connects the computer to the projector does not have an audio cable – or the projector does not have embedded speakers.
b) The audio cable from the room audio system is not plugged into the audio out of the computer.
c) The audio cable is connected to the audio out of the computer but the volume is set to zero or the fader on the mixer in the equipment room is pulled all the way down.

2) You require video out because you have prepared a short video clip of your experiment. You have recorded the video in a specific file type (WMV, MOV, MP4,MPEG 2) and your video is linked to your presentation, not embedded.


a) The computer does not have the right CODEC to read the video format.
b) The video file is not found and the slide displays the poster frame of the video, but not the video.
c) the video plays but no audio comes out (see point 1).

3) You have a wireless microphone with a battery pack or a presentation remote with two AA or AAA batteries and you are presenting at the end of the day after twelve other presenters. The presenter before you just handed you the mike.


d) The 9V microphone battery dies during your talk.
e) The Laser dot from your presentation remote is pink instead of red and people cannot see it.
f) The presenter before you turned on the well-hidden mute button on the mike and your mike does not work.

4) You rehearsed with slide timing before the presentation.


g) Your slides have a life of their own and change to the next slide without you clicking any button on the remote.

5) You prepared your presentation on your PC and the computer used for conference presentations is a Mac – or vice versa – and you thought they would have allowed you to use your own computer – but they did not.


h) Most of your text is misaligned. Your slides look awful.
i) The computer only has Keynote (a Mac-Only App) installed, not PowerPoint.
j) The computer has PowerPoint installed, not Keynote.
k) The video adapter is specific to Mac (not the usual VGA female to VGA male adaptor PCs have), or to PC (not the usual Thunderbolt to VGA Macs have).

6)  You used the latest version of PowerPoint and the presentation computer runs XP and PowerPoint 2007.


l) Some of the features you enjoy in the latest version of your software are not available in earlier versions. Your great work now looks mediocre.
m) Your file cannot be read. You are a lateX geek, a die hard open office advocate, a Prezi guru, a Macros-rule-the-world Visual Basic aficionado.

These are just a small sample of what could potentially incapacitate you. Are you ready? Here are the precautions to take to avoid such situations.

1) Find the cable, find the person who knows where the cable is, find the person who knows the person who knows where the cable is and where it should be connected. Find the person who has access to the control room where the video/audio switcher is located, or  find the fader corresponding to the audio out of your computer on that audio mixer, or find the remote that controls the fader, or find the piece of paper that shows you how to control the equipment. Connect the cable. Move the fader to the zero db mark. Check that your audio out is set at full volume on your computer… But best of all, figure out what the problem is before you start your presentation by rehearsing in situ in vivo (not in vitro).

2) Compress your video using different codecs and come with at least a .mov, a .mp4, and a .wmv file. Have a converter program on your computer. Embed the video into your presentation. If you use a linked file, create  a folder that contains your presentation as well as all media used in your presentation. Link your files to your presentation from that folder. Transfer the folder to the presentation computer, not just the main presentation file.

3) Locate where the spare batteries are hidden (usually in the control room where all AV equipment is located). Ask the technician for a spare set of batteries (9V or AA, or AAA batteries) for mike and remote.  Figure out how to replace the batteries in the wireless mike battery pack or the presentation remote before your talk. Also find out how to locate the various activation buttons on the wireless battery pack, and find the LCD that shows the battery level (1 to 4 bars). Check that before you start using the mike. If the mike seems non-operational, find the mute switch and see it is turned on. If the mike dies while you are talking, don’t wait till the audience tells you. Move to another mike (the podium mike for example). Try the laser beam on the remote on a white background to see whether the dot is bright. But best of all, do not rely on the laser beam for pointing; highlight on the slide itself (circle things, point to them with arrows, layer the information, etc). Have a set of spare batteries ready … just in case. And familiarize yourself with the equipment (mike and remote) BEFORE your presentation during stage rehearsal.

4) find the button “use timings” in the slide show controls, and disable it  BEFORE your presentation starts.

5) Use fonts which are the same for Mac and PC such as Arial, Verdana. Prepare a pdf version of your slides, just in case. All computers have a Adobe acrobat player. Carry with you the video cable adaptor that comes with your computer. The newer computers have USB C or HDMI. Have a cable to connect them to the traditional VGA connector.

6) Avoid using the latest and greatest versions of software. Be conservative, forget about your pet visualization software, save your presentation in the three main formats (PowerPoint, Keynote, and PDF).

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities. Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre - a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.