Five Conference Gremlins and How to Avoid Them

In the three days of the actual conference, there were a lot of examples of both what to do and what not to do. Here are five really important things to watch for if you’re presenting a conference. I’ll give you five more next month!

1. Independent Video and Audio Files

Most directors or technicians at a conference run PowerPoint or Keynote in “Presenter” mode. This configures the program for two screens – the computer display and the stage screen. What you see on each one is different. The stage screen carries only the full frame slide. The computer display (at the back table where the “techies” are, shows the stage screen, two or three other screens, notes, a timer, etc.

PowerPoint Presenter View

PowerPoint Presenter View. Main screen left, computer display right.

Keynote Presenter View

Keynote Presenter View. Main screen left, computer screen right.

Trying to play a video on its own is only going to play on the computer display screen and not on the stage screen. Unless you were to physically drag it from one screen to the other. So, your video and audio files needs to be “in” PowerPoint or Keynote to play properly. Show up with them sitting alone on a memory stick and you’ll see the ugly side of the technicians who really do want to love you (but this makes it a bit more difficult).

That’s because what they have to do is check your presentation, load on the right computer and set it up to run in the right order … but organizing your presentation? That’s not their job. But, then again, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that anything could go wrong – because they have so much technical information about the entire show on their mind, focusing on putting your presentation together is not a first priority. You’re in there somewhere … but not first on the list.

So, come with everything put together. And the smartest thing to do is to get the presentation into the a/v team’s hands well before the show. Not hours before, days before. That way they can check it out and make sure everything works. Remember to provide a script, or at the very least, a print-out of the screens. More about this later.

2. Video, Compression, and Format

Two computers at convention tech table

Two computers allow us to switch presentations. The next one is always set up and ready.

Why compress video? Doesn’t it make the picture grainy?

Well, no … unless you compress it too much. Uncompressed video files can be humongous – gigabytes big. They take longer to load to the screen and can actually cause the computer to “choke,” slowing it down, or making playback choppy. It can even crash the program or the system. PowerPoint is notorious for not handling video well.

If you’re working with Quicktime (.mov files), the best advice I can give it to upgrade to Quicktime 7 Pro (about $30.00) and export the movie as an H.264 version. This gives a small file size with very high quality. Keynote and newer versions of PowerPoint (2007 and later) will love it.

If you’re in Windows and using PowerPoint 2007 or earlier, for example, you can use Windows Media Encoder to compress your video to an appropriate size.

Both PowerPoint and Keynote let you reduce the file size of pictures within the program. This compresses the visual by removing any unneeded information.

Uncompressed pictures (or video, for that matter) makes the file size larger but doesn’t add any more visual information to the picture on the screen. Compressing video makes your overall file size smaller and the presentation is easy to transport to other drives, or computers.

3. Watch the Edges of Your Frame

Sales Convention with Presentations

A typical sales convention set-up.

As a general rule, never put anything important close to the edges of the slide. I personally mentally mark the area that is 10% in from the edges (on all four sides) as the real slide perimeter. That’s because when technicians program the image for the projection screen in a big convention hall, they’ll overshoot the screen just a bit – to make sure you can’t see the edges of the projected image. They don’t want any white edges to show.

As a result, anything near the edge could get clipped, or simply run off the edge of the screen onto the black skirting that is there for that reason.

We had one presentation that had visuals placed so close to the edge of the frame that they were actually up agains the skirting. It just looked unprofessional.


4. Don’t Let PowerPoint (or Video) “Become” Your Presentation

I’ve seen spectacular-looking presentations with lots of video, dozens and dozens of slides, and yet at the end, you’re left with the feeling that you’ve watched a hour-long documentary that really wasn’t that good. Ever had that feeling?

At this particular conference, the impression I got was that there was some one-upsmanship going on. If you didn’t have video in your presentation, you weren’t progressive enough, simply not “cool.” As far as I’m concerned, that attitude misses the mark entirely.

Presentations should be about imparting information in a creative and compelling manner. The presenter should be the center of attention.

And yet, too often, the first thing that corporate presenters do is try to “impress” – presenters often try to figure out how to “wow” the crowd with what to put on the screen – try to outdo Fred in marketing.

Two years ago at a similar convention, the marketing department showed an animated presentation that was visually “out of this world.” However, the presenter was a young assistant who read the entire speech out loud and was quite visibly uncomfortable. She missed a few obvious humorous lines (timing wasn’t there) and “ran right over the laughs” in other spots. As a result, it was a forgettable presentation.

If you spend most of your time working on the message and delivery of your presentation, you will leave the stage to more accolades, more people “getting” your message, and more points from senior management than you will ever get from showing a fabulous video. When you don’t do that, the video or PowerPoint presentation becomes the main event. You become the messenger, not the presenter. PowerPoint is a tool. Use it sparingly … and when it makes sense. Don’t use it because everybody else does.

5. Ad Libbing and Scripts

If you have control of your presentation on-stage with a remote control, then you can ad-lib ’til the cows come home (well, maybe not that long …). However, if it’s a complicated presentation, perhaps with multiple presenters, then ad-libbing is still possible, but should be limited and “planned.” What do I mean by that? How can you have a planned ad-lib?

Convention audio visual tech table

Typical “tech table” with director, technician

Actually, most professional presenters plan many of their ad-libs. In other words, they make them sound like ad-libs, but they’re part of their script. That’s not what I’m talking about here, though.

The opening presentation of this conference featured about eight people, each set of two handling a segment of it, one at each lecturn (there were two lecterns on stage). This was complicated enough that the slide changes had to be clicked at the “tech table” at the back of the room. There was no rehearsal beforehand. A script was provided with a dot (or cue) at the ends of the appropriate lines.

About half-way through, one of the presenters went off script – enough that we missed the cue at the back table. Four slides later, as we’re madly searching for where they were in the script, they stopped the presentation and allowed us to catch up. That was a bit embarrassing for all.

The first problem was that there was no rehearsal. We had never seen the presentation. We were just relying on the words on the page.

The second problem was not the ad-lib – it was that the cue line (the line right before the cue dot) was missed, dropped, or not made obvious. As technicians, or directors who follow along with the script, the cue lines are absolutely critical. You can go off the script in the middle of a paragraph, but if you miss a clue line, look out – trouble’s a brewin’.