Choosing a Presentation Tool

If your New Year’s resolution is to start presenting at user groups and conferences, congratulations! You’re about to embark on a fulfilling journey that will enrich the lives of thousands of people. It’s a blast. Now let’s put some thought into the tool you’re going to use.

You’re going to be working on these same sessions for years – growing them, expanding them, building them into all-day training. Don’t pick a flash-in-the-pan presentation technology that might not be here in a couple of years. Pick the most reliable technology you can find.

If you’re lucky, you can turn your presentations into an entire company. When that happens, you want your employees to be able to give your presentations to clients when possible. Don’t use a hard-to-understand technology – use the simplest, most straightforward way to get your point across.

If you’re unlucky, your laptop will fail right before you walk onstage. Save all your presentations on a USB drive (mine’s on my keychain) so that when disaster strikes, you can turn to the nearest attendee and say, “Mind if I borrow your laptop to present? You’ve got (technology x) on it, right?” Attendees love to say yes, but you’re not going to have the time or bandwidth to download & install new software, and you shouldn’t be installing anything on a stranger’s laptop anyway. I present about Microsoft technologies, so my audience usually has PowerPoint installed. I’ve presented from attendee laptops more than once.

My presentation gear at work. Photo by Michael Kappel.

Use a technology that allows you to move around the stage while advancing slides. When you just get started presenting, you’ll probably stand behind the podium, gripping it tightly, fearing that you’ll fall over if you let go. After a few sessions, you’ll gain the confidence to move around the stage and use positioning just like actors do. You’ll want a technology that lets you use a remote control. I use the $60 Logitech R800 because it’s also got a built-in countdown timer. I can glance down to see how much time I’ve got left, and it vibrates when I start running out of time.

Use a technology that allows for easily exportable, not-easily-editable content. I export my sessions to PDF and give ’em away to attendees. If you give away the native format, some attendees will take your session, edit out your name, and re-present it as their own. Of course, if you’re okay with that (and I am for some of my sessions), then take the other tack – use a technology that your attendees will all have, and will be able to quickly edit and re-present.

The export needs to stand on its own, including in a printed version. If your technology relies on animations to get the point across, and the export doesn’t include the animations, it won’t work. Personally, I do all my animations by having a separate slide for each step. That way even if you’re reading along in a printed handout, you can follow what I’m doing. At all-day training sessions, I’m amazed at how many attendees love following along in a printed copy and writing notes on it. Many attendees don’t have laptops/tablets that can last all day on battery for note-taking, and many conferences don’t have power outlets for every attendee during all-day training sessions.

A couple/few years into your journey, you’re going to be so proud of your chosen technology. You’ll have polished that knife to a sharp edge. At that point, it’s time to step back and pick up a new knife. Try a new tool, and start sharpening that too. The more knives you have, the better chef you’ll be, because different knives work better for different foods.

Every knife technology will fail on you. The slides, the demo code, the services, the remote, the laptop, the projector, the microphone, all of it. If you’ve polished multiple knives, you’ll be completely comfortable when one tool fails. I’ll never forget the time when I was presenting slides via projector about disaster recovery for databases, and midway through my session, the entire conference center’s power went out. I grabbed the whiteboard markers, eager to sketch out the concepts for the rest of the session. Those moments make your reputation as a presenter.

Having said all that, here’s the tools I use:

Text editor – I storyboard my sessions in a text editor first, using one line per slide. I write down the things I need to teach during the presentation, then I start adding and arranging, turning it into a story. When I’m done arranging the story, then I decide which portions need demos, diagrams, pictures, etc. If there’s an overwhelming theme, I try to pick just that one method of delivery. For example, if your session is 80% demos, dump the slides and just put comments in the code. Zoom in onscreen to show those comments in large text. If I can get the entire session delivered in just one tool, it makes the session easier for attendees to digest. If I do have to use two tools (like slides & demos, or slides & whiteboard) then I want to minimize the number of transitions back & forth.

Microsoft PowerPoint – I’m not a big fan of it, but it’s the de facto standard in the MS database world. Many MS conferences require me to use a PowerPoint template, plus I have to upload my slides to them for approval, and they’ll make edits and send it back. This just comes down to knowing your audience and picking a tool all the attendees will have. At our company, we’ve started breaking up our slides into mini-decks that our employees can reuse and present to clients. For example, I might have a 1-hour session on tuning databases, and then rip out two 15-minute sections of that to turn into mini-decks. When a client has a question and there’s a minideck to answer it, the employee can whip it out and give the client the best answer possible.

Demo code – think of this as a standalone presentation tool. If you can do a whole session in here (including the title, about-me slide, and resource slide), do it.

Whiteboard – I’ve always casually used this knife to handle attendee Q&A live, but I’m starting to polish it. I’m picking between iPad teaching tools to find one that lets me zoom in & out, record the session, write with a keyboard, etc. I want to get to the point where I can deliver a 1-hour session entirely via iPad whiteboard projected onscreen, and get good feedback from the attendees that it was the best way to learn a particular concept.

Want more tips like this? Check out our past presenting posts.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Funny aside: At my last presentation I went to the the whiteboard to answer a particular question in the Q&A. Found out that the whiteboard markers didn’t write OR erase properly and the board quickly became a mess. I was further reduced to hand gestures. Luckily, the question wasn’t too complex and I got some very complimentary feedback on it. As you said, *every* technology fails at some point. 🙂

  • I’ve been using SlideShark on my iPad. I like that I can easily show my slide deck on the projector while seeing my full notes on the iPad. It lets you use an iPhone as a remote and transmit the presentation over the web to remote attendees.

  • Very good advice Brent,

    DISCLAIMER (I work for a vendor that sells, what Brent refers to as, Presentation Devices).

    I’ve been very happy with my convertible Windows 8 tablet/laptop as a presentation device. Several times over the past few months, I’ve used a stylus with the touch screen to turn a standard projector into a “White Board”. As a previous the reply mentions, conference room white boards are frequently dirty, facing the wrong direction, too small, or without marker, so having a “virtual” whiteboard that you can use in parallel with the slides is hugely powerful. I actually used MSPaint a few times to draw architecture diagrams. Who knew MSPaint would still have legs!!! One piece of software that would be very powerful (not sure if it exists), would allow you to “draw” or “annotate” over the onscreen displayed content. I believe ZoomIT allows you to do this, but haven’t tried it on Windows 8.

  • This is one of the reasons I got the Duo. A traditional Tablet PC ironically never worked for me. Going on 6 months, it’s been a fantastic travel laptop with great pluses for speaking. Not as powerful as I’ve had in the past, but I’m getting used to working with (only) 8GB of memory again. Unlike you, though, I work exclusively in PPT when writing presos. I find it an easier workflow. However, what I do find to be a pain in general is switching between PPT and live demo without weird things like the resolution flicker, etc. That’s one place where Windows has always been a bit of a letdown.

  • I like ZoomIt for a fresh interactive flow during the presentation. Instead of just looking at slides or demo pages, we doodle on them, zoom it, and highlight key concepts.

    Sort of like SnagIt, but in real-time using the monitor as a whiteboard surface. Great for online desktop sharing too (WebEx, Lync, etc.)

  • I like the idea of doing the entire presentation in the demos. I will have to give that one a shot. Thanks for a great post.

  • Great advice and you sold me on the Logitech R800, I hope you got some commission 😉

    • Michael, there are also other great remote controls out there! I am personally using one made by A4Tech(yes, I know it’s not Logitech quality), but still – I am having it for more than 3 years already, I do present quite frequently and I had no problems with it what so ever. I have chosen it instead of the Logitech’s solution, because all of their remote controls are quite big (or at least that is my opinion). The A4Tech one looks something like this ->

  • Thank you for the above list of presentation tools. Another option is either deploying on premise online presentation RHUB appliances or using hosted services such as WebEx, gomeetnow, gotomeeting etc. for conducting online meetings, online presentations, web meetings, web conferences etc.


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