Olivia Mitchell over at Speaking About Presenting asked me to contribute to a group writing project on what’s going to happen (or more likely what we’d all like to happen and what should happen) with PowerPoint usage in the coming year. She’s had some great contributions thus far and I’m delighted to throw my $0.02 into the jar. My thought is not on design per se, but rather on using PowerPoint in such a way that makes your life as a presenter easier and more effective when you are up on your feet.

I still regularly encounter lots of presenters who don’t know about, or have never tried, the Presenter Tools which have been available in PowerPoint since the 2003 version. Admittedly, the Presenter View screen is fairly clunky in Office 2003, but it’s still a whole lot more useful than not using it. In my opinion, if you’re on a PC, the sole reason that it might be worth upgrading to Office 2007 is the improved version of PowerPoint. The Presenter Tools in particular are much improved, with customisation of the various elements now available.

On a Mac, Office 2004 has a good, and customisable, Presenter View and the 2008 version is even better. You also have the option of using Keynote on a Mac, which is quite simply a joy. I’ve witnessed a number of client companies buying a MacBook Pro and iWork just to make their lives as presenters easier. If you present a lot, it is well worth thinking about.

So, just in case you’ve never seen it before and have no idea what I am talking about – here is what you (the presenter) see when you use Presenter Tools:

This is not what the audience sees – Presenter View does show you what’s up on the screen behind you, but it shows you some much more useful stuff than that. Here’s a close-up of the screen from the slide above:

[Right click to enlarge in a new window or tab]

Reading from the left then, we have:

  • A stopwatch showing you for how long you have been speaking.
  • The green arrow brings you back one step in the slideshow.
  • Below that, vertically, are thumbnails of the slides in your presentation, with the current slide highlighted.
  • Top and centre is the slide that is currently being displayed by the data projector – your view of that slide changes in Presenter View to reflect animations and builds exactly as your audience sees it.
  • The little slide to the right of that is the ‘Up Next’ slide [you can turn this on or off as you wish and it will be replaced with small text on a white background under the main slide]

  • The green arrow on the right advances you to the next step in the slideshow.
  • The big chunk of white space with the text on it contains your speaker notes. I have mine enlarged to 200% here, so they’re nice and visible from a good distance off.

Even a poorly-prepared presenter has a big advantage when they are using Presenter Tools like this. As long as you have time for even a quick run-through, you can probably make a fair effort using someone else’s presentation. The biggest plus, from an audience perspective, is that while the presenter may still be doing some reading, there’s no need to put all the text up on the screen to serve as a road map for the presenter. So, as the presenter, you can move to a less text-dependent style of slides, but still have the security blanket of having your detailed speakers notes clearly visible. Barack Obama is a stunningly articulate man, but you can be sure he will have at least 3 AutoCues in line of sight when he delivers his Inaugural Address later this month. And backups! You have an AutoCue built into your presentation software – please use it.

This still involves more work on your part than the usual Headline / Bullet / Bullet / Bullet approach to PowerPoint, but the benefits are immense. First for your audience, who will be far more likely to engage with a presenter who is not reading at them and second for you, because your reputation as a presenter will very quickly improve. Just one simple tool, one click, that very very few presenters use and yet it can make all the difference in the world.

That’s my hope for 2009.

CODICIL: Anticipating the “Yeah, but …” emails and comments, let me further add:

  • Cheapie or older laptops frequently will not have sufficiently muscular graphics cards to run two monitors like this. This is tooth-grindlingly annoying, but there’s nothing you can do about it. If your computer is powerful enough to run dual monitors, it is imperative that you use your own kit to present on. This can be awkward if you are one of a number of presenters at a conference, but you must exert your control on this and insist on having access to Presenter Tools on a nearby monitor before you agree to speak.
  • Conference room setups in corporate environments frequently aren’t geared up for this either. How bizarre! Who’s in charge here, the IT Department or the management team who make presentations all the time? Wheedle, whine, beg, bribe [always a good idea with propellerheads!] influence the Gods, do whatever you have to, but get the board room or conference room set up so that you can use this approach. It’s vital, it’s transformative and it should be a minimum requirement.
  • Ad hoc setups in hotels or client premises sometimes make using this approach very difficult. I arrived at one talk I was giving to a Rotary meeting to discover that the projector was set up in the middle of a busy banqueting room full of dinner tables and that there was no way I was going to be able to see my Presenter Tools monitor – my laptop was going to be about 25-30 feet away from where I was standing up by the screen. I reached into my presentation bag and pulled out my super-long VGA cable and a roll of Gaffer tape and … problem solved.
  • Being able to consistently use this approach with your slideware is a matter of control and assertiveness. Have the Gaffer tape, the long extension leads, and so forth, to hand – you can control that and that’s easy. The assertiveness part can be a bit more tricky; you don’t want to appear to be some kind of demanding, insecure diva. Anticipation is the name of the game. Getting into the presentation room and familiarising yourself with it is the name of the game. Establishing rapport with the AV or Conference staff in advance is the name of the game. Once again, all of this is a bit more work, but it quickly becomes second nature and it is soooo worth it.