20 January 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 1: You’re showing, not editing

A blog I’ve really been enjoying late – and the title has nothing to do with my enjoyment – is Presentation Zen. I’ve already found much of use, and such thoughtful writing is always a delight. In my business, I think a lot about presentations. I have to lecture somewhere between three to nine times a week, and I have to admit, being able to give a talk at a conference or at a seminar or someplace is one of the things that sometimes keeps me going.

The funny thing is, I’ve often said to students, “Giving a good talk is not one of life’s great mysteries.” There are certain traps that can be easily avoided, so I am always puzzled by why so many talks I’ve seen suck. Yet while I do believe giving a talk isn’t a mystery, mastery of presentation skills is much trickier.

One of the things you have to do as an academic is to figure out what you do not suck at. I’m reasonably certain I do not suck at giving talks. My recent experience at the SICB meeting is the sort of thing that makes me believe presenting is something I’m reasonably good at. I had quite a few conversations about presentations with fellow attendees at that meeting. I thought I would use this journal as a way to start putting some of these down as a resource. So thoughts on presentations will be a semi-regular feature for a while.

On to this entry’s tip. A real simple one (because I’m up late and should probably go to bed or something).

1. Take advantage of *.pps

Much has been written about the ubiquity of PowerPoint, and how badly people use it. Edward Tufte, for instance, published a little pamphlet on just that matter that’s already sold through once. Since PowerPoint isn’t going away, I do wish that people would take a little more time to learn how to use it.

When you save a PowerPoint file, there are actually several options. 99% of people that I’ve seen save the file with the default extension, *.ppt. But if you scroll down a few, you find a very useful option: PowerPoint Show (*.pps). You can open this file in PowerPoint and edit it just like a *.ppt file. But if you double click the file or shortcut directly, something wonderful happens.

The slide show starts.

That’s it. Simple. But I wish more people would take advantage of it.

If you double click on a *.ppt file, it opens PowerPoint, in some configuration of editing panes. You can typically see a whole bunch of slides on the sorter tray, menus, and more – which I as an audience member don't care about. Sometimes, as a presenter, I don't want someone to have the slightest clue about what my upcoming slides are until they see them – but opening up a *.ppt file often blows a surprise out of the water.

Then after you’ve opened up PowerPoint to start your *.ppt show, you then have to start the thing. Then I, as an audience member, have to wait through the boring process of watching someone trying to hit a little tiny icon in the lower left hand corner of the screen, or run around trying to find a menu option. (Very few people know you can just hit F5 to start.) It always seems like the operator is fumbling to get the thing started.

Finally, because you don’t have to fiddle around trying to start the show within PowerPoint, you’re saving a few precious seconds. That doesn’t sound like much, but in a conference situation where there are many speakers and time limits are enforced, those few seconds of efficiency should not be underestimated.

Credit where it’s due: I have to thank my colleague Bob Edwards for drawing my attention to this little trick.

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