PG's Super Practical Guide to Delivering Live Laptop Presentations

I summarize practical tips for making sure your laptop works when you're presenting in front of a live audience.

This article is a spiritual successor to PG's Super Practical Guide to Running User Studies (and Giving Live Demos).

I've given hundreds of presentations and attended thousands of them (counting both class lectures and formal research talks), so I've seen all sorts of technical problems come up. Why? Because ...

Laptops are notoriously unreliable when hooked up to projectors or external displays, since every hardware connection is subtly different in invisible ways and those code paths in your apps aren't well-tested.

Here are some things you can do to maximize the chances that your laptop works when presenting live. I'm assuming you're using PowerPoint or a similar desktop app like Keynote.

Level 1: everyone should do this!

  • Test your setup right before your presentation! Insist on getting to the room 15 minutes earlier so you can connect and configure your laptop. Always try to do this if possible.
  • Projectors/displays have terrible contrast and colors compared to your beautiful laptop screen. Thus, avoid using low-contrast styles in your slides such as light gray on white, or dark gray on black, since they will be unreadable when you're presenting.
  • Playing videos in PowerPoint slides can cause mysterious crashes, especially when plugged into projectors/displays. These are impossible to debug since they don't come up when you're rehearsing without an external display. Always have the original video files handy so you can switch out of PowerPoint and play them in a standalone video player.
  • You can't rely on the audio in the presentation room working. If you're using videos, have them be silent and narrate them live. If you must have audio, bring a set of loud portable speakers.

  • Put backup copies of your PowerPoint file, a rendered PDF version of your presentation, and original copies of all embedded audio/video files on a USB drive. (This photo shows how I carry around two tiny USB drives in my wallet.) That way, in case your laptop fails on stage, you can grab someone else's computer and load your files on it without needing Wi-Fi.
    • Bonus points if you also store the PowerPoint app installer and an extra license key on your USB drive. Double bonus points if you have one for both Mac and Windows. That way, if your laptop fails, you can grab anyone else's, install PowerPoint on it, and load up your presentation.
  • Speaking of Wi-Fi, you can't rely on the internet being available, especially in large lecture halls or conference venues with hundreds of audience members jamming the Wi-Fi. Thus, disable the Wi-Fi when you practice to make sure everything works without Wi-Fi. If you absolutely need internet for your presentation, then you can tether on your cell phone.
  • (Google Slides can be great since if your laptop fails, you can grab anyone else's laptop and get your exact same presentation loaded up without installing any software. But this won't work if Wi-Fi isn't available! So it's a tradeoff.)

Level 2: Cautious

  • Don't update your operating system or PowerPoint app in the week before your presentation. Updates can cause mysterious crashes at the worst times, even if it's updating software that seems completely unrelated to PowerPoint. Trust me!
  • Beyond backing up your files on a USB drive, also back them up in cloud storage and email the link to someone in the audience.
  • Before presenting, clear your computer desktop of all icons except for your PowerPoint file, your checklist text file (see below), and a folder containing your original audio/video files. That way you won't waste time navigating through folders and potentially revealing their embarrassing contents to everyone.
  • Create a checklist text file on your desktop. Open it up before you present and run through it one step at a time. You'll likely be nervous before your talk, so this is a great way to make sure you don't forget anything. Here's an example checklist:

  1. connect monitor cord to the projector/display
  2. set your display resolution to something reasonable like 1080p or 1920x1080 (any higher might stress your graphics card too much and lead to crashes)
  3. connect USB presentation clicker if you have one
  4. close all running apps (including PowerPoint)
  5. close all dock/taskbar widgets or at least turn off notifications
  6. turn the Wi-Fi off. This will prevent embarrassing notifications from popping up due to incoming emails or chat messages; but if you have some apps still running, they may pop up error messages if your Wi-Fi is off. More importantly, this will also prevent a surprise software update box from suddenly popping up during your talk and you accidentally clicking on it, which will embarrassingly initiate a long-running update and laptop reboot while you're on stage!!!
  7. open PowerPoint
  8. open your presentation file
  9. go to a complex slide, such as one with audio/video
  10. go into presenter mode and quickly test that complex slide when connected to the display to make sure it doesn't crash
  11. switch back to your first slide
  12. go into presenter mode
  13. breathe! you're ready to go :)

Level 3: Super Cautious

  • Learn how to put your PowerPoint in Mirror Show mode (see below) where the projector/display mirrors your laptop screen's contents. It's not as convenient as Presenter View but can be more reliable since your graphics card doesn't need to render two simultaneous video feeds. I prefer Presenter View normally, but if it crashes on stage I can restart and switch to Mirror Show to see if that works better.
  • Practice with your laptop hooked to an external display to more accurately emulate what you'll experience during your actual presentation. Try hooking up to your TV at home or in your hotel room. When you practice like this, you may find that certain parts of the PowerPoint UI look unusable, such as not being able to click the Play button on embedded videos while in Presenter View if they're positioned too far on the edge of slides. You can't test these conditions alone on your laptop.
  • Once your PowerPoint file is finalized, make it read-only so you don't accidentally modify it and introduce new bugs.
  • Create a brand-new user account on your laptop just for presentations. You should have nothing except PowerPoint installed on that account and no dock/taskbar widgets running. A clean account minimizes the chances of software crashes.
  • Finally, if you can afford it, bring two redundant copies of everything with you. I usually have an older laptop that I use for backup purposes like this ... note how I also have duplicates of monitor connectors and presentation clickers:

  • And for the encore, bring your own projector :) That's the only way to defend against the projector/display at the venue being broken, which has happened before. (My projector is too big to be portable, but you can now buy powerful tiny projectors.)

Created: 2019-10-08
Last modified: 2019-10-08