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Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 24 June 2009

Last-minute preparations for a presentation

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Posted in Getting published, Presentations quality, Speaking in public, Tips

In an ideal world scientists prepare their conference talk way ahead of time. In a realistic world they prepare their talk one or two days before they get on the plane. Or they do it on the plane. In earlier days,  when a presentation was done with the help of overhead projectors, transparencies that were very clearly made while being in the air were referred to as “air-plane transparencies”. These slides showed all the signs of shaky fingers. In this post I will tell you something about my last-minute preparations for my latest presentation.

Laptop with a screen crash
I used to present my talks using a Dell laptop. Reliable, sturdy and so heavy that additional physical exercises were not necessary. About two  weeks before my conference in Crete would start the unexpected happened: my laptop had a crash, that is to say the screen stopped working and even hooking up an additional monitor did not save me. I only lost about a few hours of work. I always backup my data regularly so this little damage was a reward for my consistent backup procedure.

New laptop
I hate to use the laptop conference organizers provide so I needed desperately a new laptop.  After consulting colleagues I opted for a Hewlett Packard 2530P. Expensive, but lightweight and a really long-lasting battery. It took me a full day of Internet searching to find a company that could deliver within a few days. Although my appetite for the Windows operating system has long been gone, a one-day crash-course in a new laptop with Linux was the last I desired. So I had to deal with Windows Vista. I feared for the worst, but the operating system is by no means as bad as people claim it is.

Software needed for preparing presentation
I am the kind of person that at the very last minute, that is to say at the conference site, wants to include a or edit a figure. This versatility means that I need a lot of software installed. Certainly a few graphics editing programs. So I installed a few days before the conference  besides Microsoft Office 2003 and Office 2007, a Corel suite, the newest Adobe suite (including PhotoShop, Illustrator, Acrobat Pro) and a number of viewers (including Ghostgum’s postscript viewer) and for mathematical formulas Scientific Word, MathType and an – old version of – TexPoint. For a number of reasons I need PowerPoint 2003 (explained in my book). Installing all these programs took another day (that I could not use to prepare my talk). My friends often ask me why don’t I have other people do the installation. People who ask this type of question clearly know nothing about computers.

Living in the wonderful world of Windows I know how to deal with idiosyncrasies like the ever popping up erroneous error:

Failure with wmf pictures
I already had started preparing my talk on a desktop computer. When exporting a formula or a graph into a bitmap format one usually has a number of possibilities, like jpg, bmp, tiff, gif, png, wmf. I used the default which turned out to be the wmf format. I was extremely lucky that I had to give a presentation for our group meeting, exactly one day before I had to leave for the conference. This talk gave me the opportunity to test my new laptop. It turned out to be disaster. Pictures of the wmf format do not convert fonts in bitmaps. And indeed a major part of my formula’s, displaying beautifully on my desktop, did not show up at my laptop PowerPoint presentation, although I had saved the presentation with the option of embedding fonts checked. So the night before my plane left I had to redo all formula’s. I had chosen for a cheap charter flight which meant that I had to get up at four in the Saturday morning.

Early in the morning and the pdf disaster
I had to give my talk at Monday morning. I still had not finished my talk. To complete the presentation and to rehearse somewhat I got up at five in the morning. The hotel had a horrible slow internet connection. So I could not use anything from the internet. I needed to introduce some graphs in my talk.  Copies of all theses and all papers as source code and as pdf were on my laptop. What I usually do is to view the pdf version of the paper that contains this figure. Find the figure. Blow it up as large as possible, for acceptable resolution. Put a rectangle around it and copy it to the clipboard and paste it to the presentation. The following disaster occurred: the newest Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat Pro have lots of problems (mind you this is a laptop with all updates installed). In my case it took longer than a minute to open up any pdf file. Everything was slow. So no time left for rehearsing. The problems with Adobe are known, but this professional company does not seem to bother to repair their products. When I told this later to one of my students he told me that all scientists should use Foxit. It is a superb, fast free pdf viewer. This is what I use since then.

Early in the morning and the PowerPoint disaster
I always use progress slides, slides that tell the audience where I am in my presentation. These slides use bullets. They are shiny balls as gif/jpg files. With PowerPoint I can easily insert them, but only as fast as the inbuilt underlying Visual Basic macros allow, and that is very slow. I noticed an hour before I had to give my presentation (I had already decided to skip breakfast) that I had not yet changed the bullets of the subjects I already had presented at that point in the presentation into “checked” symbols. I do have the “checked symbols as file. So I begun changing them and by doing so  PowerPoint crashed. Happily Autorecovery is better these days and in addition I save regularly. The crash turned to be consistent. Saving and reopening and trying to introduce the “checked” symbol again, let again to a crash. So I abandoned it. And hoped that the file was not so corrupt that it would fail during my invited plenary presentation with a few hundred people in the audience.

The conference was great by the way. But how can I ever escape from this hectic practice? It is not good for my health. I hope you do better

Related posts:

Example presentation: Surviving science

Example of excellent presentation: Femius Koenderink

Types of presentations

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  1. Unregistered

    24 Jun 2009 17:47, Witek

    Hello! I am sorry to hear about your problems with the presentation software. I did not experience any problems with the PP but I can imagine that this software can be a pain. Unfortunately, Open Office presentation software is not much better.

  2. Mirjam

    25 Jun 2009 2:13, Mirjam

    I am a postdoc and haven’t experienced the crazy schedules of permanent faculty for myself yet, so the following probably is quite naive: exactly the possibility of an unforeseen computer crash means that you should try to find some time and prepare a talk in advance, so that you have a working version on an external memory device before you head to the conference. In my case, I frequently find that it is not a matter of not having the time to do it earlier, but not wanting to do it earlier, because there is something else you prefer to spend your time on…

  3. Unregistered

    25 Jun 2009 7:01, Klaas Wynne

    Poor you! However, I feel the key here is your statement about Vista “the operating system is by no means as bad as people claim it is”. Sounds to me that all your problems with fonts, WMF, acrobat, PP, are all to do with the operating system.

    @Mirjam: It’s not always quite that easy. Sometimes people really are very busy (say, around exam time or close to a proposal deadline). Sometimes you postpone because you’re waiting for some nice bit of data to be finished, a paper to be published, etc.

  4. Mirjam

    25 Jun 2009 12:52, Mirjam

    I would tend to agree with Ad that Vista is not as bad as people claim it is. In two years I have had very little trouble with it (I actually don’t recognize any of the problems described above, except that the wmf format has always seemed a bit funny to me). But maybe I am one of the lucky few then. This leads me to the question what the best operating system would be? Maybe Mac OS is good, but I have seen a lot of problems with software for the Mac too. And then the fact that you need that silly separate connector for the video output… have they changed that yet?
    Anyway, to come back to the real discussion: it is true that you do not always have full control over your working schedule, but usually deadlines and invited talks don’t come out of the blue. Therefore it should still be possible to manage things to some extent (see any basic stress management book for advice). Generally, I’d say one should try to have the major part of the talk ready well in advance and then only insert a new bit of data or so later (usually research projects also don’t come out of the blue, so the red line of the talk should be clear already). Finally, in case of a real last minute disaster: I have seen people give excellent blackboard talks when the projector turned out to be broken. A skill that should be admired!

  5. Ad Lagendijk

    26 Jun 2009 15:36, Ad Lagendijk

    @Witek
    Thanks. It is quite comforting to hear that OpenOffice is not much better
    @Mirjam
    Thanks for your comment. Blackboard is fine, but this is only applicable if the conference is held at a university building and one with blackboards.

    @General
    My post was not meant as a complaint about operating systems. It just shows that life of a scientist is hectic. In this particular case a crash of a laptop was the real problem.

    Something Positive
    At the same conference in Crete a world-famous scientist from Harvard was going to deliver an official evening talk. He copied my trick with the black rectangle on the bottom of each slide. As a result all information on all his slides was visible to the whole audience. His talk was excellent. Later he thanked me for the tip. In addition the audience and the organizers were happy I brought my bright green laser pointer.

  6. Jacopo Bertolotti

    30 Jun 2009 14:51, Jacopo Bertolotti

    A few points around:
    * Vista actually WAS as bad as it is depicted. After the first service pack many things changed and now it is a decent (albeit not great) operating system.
    * Obviously the best software to do something is the one you are the most used to but I still have some doubt seeing the list of programs you “need” to install just for one talk. Actually OpenOffice became a lot better than it used to be; unless you are a fan of very complicated features or you have an impending need to link your presentation to an Excel spreadsheet, Impress is just as good as PowerPoint (9 times in 10 it also manage to open .ppt files without problems). The Corel and the Adobe suites are great but also extremely expensive. Photoshop + Illustrator alone can cost you a couple thousand Euro. The open-source equivalent are almost as good as the original (assuming you don’t need anything on the professional level), work in a very similar way and cost you nothing.
    * Unless you hate LaTeX I found that a very nice way to get my formulas in my presentations is http://www.codecogs.com/components/equationeditor/equationeditor.php?lang=en-en . Mac user has a stand-alone equivalent called LaTeXiT that can work without an internet connection.
    * Sorry but wmf is a terrible choice for saving your images. As a rule of thumb graphs go as .png (if your OS support transparent backgrounds even better) and pictures as .jpg .

    As a concluding remark: the holy war between supporters of one or another OS is neverending but Linux systems (especially Ubuntu&Co.) are a lot easier to use than people think. What it matters more they rarely fails when it comes to attach the computer to a projector.

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