3 Teeny Presentation Tools that Make a Big Difference

A week and a half ago I gave a presentation in Las Vegas. I was at the Music Teachers National Association national meeting talking to musicians about how to better understand and articulate their core artistic identities. After the presentation, several people asked me for advice on how to give a presentation that is natural, engaging, and professional. I gave them the long answer: practice, prepare, rehearse, design.

But what I didn’t tell them was that the three tools below work behind the scenes whenever I give a talk. You can use the same tools in your own presentations to make them more professional, and avoid embarrassing presentation moments that haunt even seasoned presenters.

Small tools can make a big difference. (photo: unsplash.com)

Small tools can make a big difference. (photo: unsplash.com)

I spend a lot of time giving presentations. I give five to ten major presentations a year, at research or professional conferences, in front of music departments, or for residencies. In the classroom, I typically give five to ten presentations a week, which have varying levels of “presentation” in them, mixed in with discussion and activities.

But if I spend a significant portion of my time giving presentations, I spend more time preparing for them. I carefully choose my core objectives, select relevant examples, and craft a narrative arc. I spend far too much time agonizing about my slide design and which chorus slide to use.

That’s why it is so frustrating when a presentation goes wrong not because I’m unprepared, but because of in-the-moment hurdles that I’ve not foreseen:

  • My computer screen goes to sleep in the middle of a point.
  • The computer is in a corner of the room and I feel trapped there, advancing my slides by pushing the arrow key, disengaged from my audience.
  • And on top of all that, I mismanage my time so that I have to rush through the ending points. These are the bring-it-on-home, shout-chorus points, the ones that are the most important, the ones I spent so much time crafting. I end the presentation feeling frustrated, and my audience feels cheated.

Have you ever attended a presentation when these blunders happened? Have they ever happened to you while giving a presentation? I want to share with you three teeny tools I have found to make these embarrassing moments disappear. Each tool is small—either in size or in code—but each can make a big impact on the professionalism of your presentation.

Tool 1: Caffeine (Software, Mac, free).

Think of a time when you’ve been sitting in a presentation, and the slideshow screen suddenly goes blue. The presenter rushes back to the computer and clicks a key so that the slideshow returns. Then a couple minutes later the same routine is rehearsed, then again five minutes later. What has happened is that the presenter’s computer has gone to sleep, making the projector lose the visual feed. It is the presenter's version of the old Windows BSOD—the Blue Screen of Death.


Our current best practice for fighting this problem: remember to wiggle your finger on the track pad every so often to keep the computer from going to sleep. But this is silly, and worse, it doesn’t work. How are we supposed to manage all the aspects of presentation delivery and to wiggle our finger at fixed intervals? The solution: hire a personal assistant to travel with you and wiggle his finger on the trackpad at fixed intervals. Or, you can download Caffeine, a free app for Mac, and forget that this problem was ever a problem.

Caffeine has one purpose: to prevent your computer display from going to sleep with the push of a button. The beauty of the app is its simplicity. There is an icon that lives in my toolbar, and I can turn it on with a single click. No menus to scroll through. No confirmation click needed. Just click it and you know that your display won’t go to sleep during your presentation. I have mine set for 2 hours so that I can turn it on well before the presentation starts. Then after two hours, it automatically shuts off and my power-saving settings go back to normal. That’s it!

I’ll be honest: This single app was the inspiration point for this entire post. It has solved a nagging problem for me, and can do the same for you too.

Tool 2: Wireless Presenter Remote.

At the MTNA conference, the room where I presented was narrow but very deep. That meant that the podium was far away from about half of my audience. But because I have a wireless presenter remote, I was able to advance my slides just at the right time, while not being chained to the podium. (I also had a wireless lapel microphone.)

For my presentations, I use the Kensington Wireless Presenter, which is currently about $30 from Amazon. This model includes the remote, as well as a laser pointer. Some models also have storage capacity on the USB receiver stick, so you can carry all of your presentation files with you. But my favorite feature of these presenter remotes is the ability to blank the screen with the push of a button (“blanking” the screen turns the presentation black, so that it looks like the presentation has gone away). If I sense that the audience is focused too much on the slides, blanking the screen draws their attention to me, and back to my message. Then when I’m ready to go on, I can just pop the presentation back up with the push of a button.

The presenter remote is a small investment that will pay you back by giving you more control over your presentation pacing, and more ability to engage with your audience by getting out from behind the podium.

Tool 3: A Timer.

Have a timer visible at all times during a presentation, and use timed signposts. This tool might sound obvious, but too often I see presenters try to manage their time internally. Because we know that psychological time can move at varying speeds, this is a recipe for disaster. This leads to a presenter coming to the end of his or her time, but falling short of the talk’s big payoff. You’ve seen it: the presenter realizes how short time has become, signals panic to the audience (either conspicuously or inadvertently), then rushes through the talk’s final points. The presenter becomes frustrated, and the audience feels flabbergasted, leaving a poor impression for everyone of the talk. I have been the presenter in this situation more than I care to admit, and it is still one of the most difficult parts of delivering a strong talk for me.

I fight this by having a timer visible at all times during my talk. I use the timer that is displayed on my computer screen in presentation mode (I use Apple’s Keynote software), in combination with my phone timer. Here’s why I use a phone timer too: First, I can set it somewhere out front, so that I am not trapped behind the podium during the talk. Second, I set the timer not for the length of the talk, but to tick down to zero at my conclusion signpost. By this I mean that when the timer ticks to zero, I need to begin my conclusion as soon as possible to have enough time to make a convincing end to my talk. Having this signpost will give you an external cue that you can count on, and will allow you to end well, so that you can avoid the embarrassing race to the end I described above.

The conclusion signpost represents an crucial point: just having a timer in front of you will not solve the problem. But if you use it intentionally, and build in signposts throughout your talk, it can make you more consistent, fulfilled, and effective as a presenter.

Small Tools, Big Impact

I hope you’ve seen how these three teeny tools might help you avoid some common presentation hurdles. You’ve spent the time to make your content valuable—these tools can help you get out of your own way so that your delivery shines. Each of the tools can be implemented immediately, and two of the three are free (assuming you own a phone with a timer).

These are my three go-to tools, but let’s make the list longer: what teeny presentation tools make a huge difference for you? Share them in the comments.

Posted on April 1, 2015 .