Lamenting the passing of the Golden Age of presentation visuals

10 April 2019

Back in the early 90's I saw a well-known presenter prepare for a keynote at a software conference. At that time most of us were still using overhead projectors and transparencies, and she looked down on us for being stuck in the past. I confess I felt a little schadenfreude as she spent the first fifteen minutes of the talk trying to get things to work.

Of course she had the last laugh as overhead projectors swiftly died out, and we spent much of the next few years trying to get projectors to work with our laptops. Those with Macs had special problems, AV techs never seemed to know what to do with our lovely machines. However, some time in the late 2000s all the problems seemed to go away. I became confident that I could turn up anywhere, plug into a VGA cable, and things just worked. I was happy to think that I'd not be worrying about AV issues again for my talks. Learning from Neal, I put a lot of effort into designing a Visual Channel for my talks.

Sadly those golden days now seem to have gone. Increasingly I'm finding difficult to present from my own laptop, sitting there on stage with me. Conference organizers want a “smooth experience”, which means having to hand your slide decks over to run on someone else’s machine in the back of room. They do give you “confidence monitors” on the floor in front of you to show your slides, but most of the time they aren't set up to display the presentation software’s carefully designed presenter screen with your notes and timers. A lack of notes doesn't bother me much, but I find it extremely useful to see the next slide. Losing that information gets in the way of my flow.

Often these conference PCs are windows machines, and won't run Apple’s keynote, which I prefer to do my slides with. Even if they do, they often lack important fonts, which messes up the display. Sometimes they offer to plug my laptop in at the back, but doesn't help me see my presenter notes. Even if I can see them, I'd rather have my laptop on stage as that way I can access the full set of slideshow controls. I commonly put expansion joint slides into my talk that I know can skip over to control the timing of my talks. With my laptop I can manipulate the keys to jump over these, which requires more control than a simple forwards/backwards clicker. And rather than the simple laser clicker that most venues provide, I have a fancy pointer that hooks into the video output of my laptop, allowing me to point to multiple screens at once. As Neal puts it: “an experienced presenter is a little like a musician, the laptop being the instrument. Taking it away make a performance into lip syncing, and both the audience and presenter can tell.”

Another circle of AV hell are those that like to go wireless and expect you present via some video-conferencing software. This way the video signals travel the twenty feet to the screen via servers thousands of miles away. This introduces a lag into the controls, which can really mess things up when I'm synchronizing animations to my speech.

So now AV has returned to be yet another thing to worry about. I battle to set things up the way I prefer, but it's becoming more and more of a struggle. Increasingly I feel I need to give up on using visual-aids at all.