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My Tech Stack for Public Talks

A young boy giving a public talk at a microphoneWhether you like it or not, public speaking is a big part of what we do in academe. There is of course the teaching that makes up a large part of many of our jobs. But then there are the more formal speaking requirements of the job: conference presentations, job talks, and — hopefully — invited keynotes. Whether you’re an introvert or not — and Bill Pannapacker is correct that academia is a place that perversely attracts and then screens out the introverts — you inevitably want to do your best. This goes double if you’re fortunate to be receiving a speaking fee, and probably triple if you’re giving a job talk.

Clearly, the best way to do well on a public presentation is to be well prepared. In both that preparation and the delivery, I’ve found that I rely on a particular collection of tools. Having this tech stack already planned means that I know how I’ll be giving the talk, which lets me focus on what it is I’m going to say. Here, then, is my tech stack for public talks:

  • Google Docs / Word: Someday I’ll get around to playing around with Scrivener, which so many ProfHackers love. But until then, I tend to write my talks in Google Docs or Word. I could do it in a text editor except for the last step of the process. After I’ve got the words more or less down, I go through the talk and figure out where the slides need to be. I then use the highlight feature to mark in yellow the word that I want to have the slide-change happen on. If there will be multiple parts of a slide, I highlight multiple words. The highlight function turns my text into a script.
  • Keynote: As I’m writing the talk and then highlighting words, I always have Keynote open. Although you might think of it simply as Apple’s version of PowerPoint, I’ve found that Keynote helps me design better slides, hans down. While many of the themes are gaudy, skeuomorphic nightmares, the basic themes (black, white, and gradient) are good in almost any situation. The software makes it easy to align images and text in relation to one another, which is something I’ve never been able to get PowerPoint to do. If I don’t have an image ready for the slide, as I go along in the talk, I’ll create a blank slide and drop a title on it to remind me of what image I need to go looking for.
  • Flickr: At the moment, my preference in designing those slides is to use single, full screen images. (You can see an example here.) And I tend to go to Flickr to find those images because it’s so easy to find ones that have been Creative-Commons licensed. While I don’t need to use CC licensed images for a public talk (Fair Use FTW!), I need that license so I can re-publish the image as part of my talk later. Jason has written about how to use Flickr to make better slides, and I described how to create custom Flickr searches with the Mycroft Project. These custom searches make it simple to search Flickr from the search bar. It sometimes takes me a while to find the right image, but I end up having a lot of fun in the hunt.
  • iPad: In the three years that I’ve been lucky enough to have an iPad as part of my job, I’ve found that I use it less and less. But there’s one place that it’s indispensable: when I’m giving talks. After I’ve got the talk down and the highlighting in place, I’ll export the document as a PDF, pass it through Dropbox, and open the file in iAnnotate PDF. I can then hold the iPad in my hand and move around as I speak and not lose track of where I am in my script.
  • Slide Clicker: With my script in hand, I can tell at a glance when I need to advance the slides. To do this, I use a Logitech R400. It’s a simple, wireless slide clicker that allows me to move slides forward, backward, and to shoot a red laser at things that I want to emphasize. I felt a little silly purchasing this a few years back when I had some credit at Staples, but I’ve used it countless times since. Pairing a clicker with the iPad means that I really can move wherever I would like to in a room. And having that freedom to move certainly helps me feel more comfortable.
  • My laptop: Since I’m not tied to the podium, I don’t actually interact with my laptop all that much during a talk. But it makes me feel so much better to present from my own device than from the stock computer in a given room. While I’m sure the computer provided by the locals is just as serviceable as mine, not knowing the former’s ins and outs is just another point of potential discomfort that’s worth eliminating.
  • VGA Adapter: Being a Mac user for the last several years, I know that one of the downsides of the Apple ecosystem is that the laptops don’t have VGA ports, which just about every projector in the world uses. If I want to use my laptop, that means that I also have to take the responsibility to have my own Apple VGA adapter in my bag, no matter where I go. Expecting my host or the conference to have one on hand is a certain recipe for stress.
  • Water bottle: I like to have a water bottle on hand whenever I’m giving a talk that’s longer than 10 minutes. It’s a useful prop in the theatrical performance that is public speaking. I’m partial to my almost indestructible Thermos Intak.

I’m guessing that there’s nothing particularly unexpected in this tech stack, but perhaps there’s an idea here for how you might make yourself more comfortable the next time you’re giving a public presentation.

What tools are essential for you to do your best in giving a public presentation? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: 2012 Green Heart Schools public speaking competition / CC BY 2.0

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