How To Submit Presentations To Conferences

With the VMworld 2010 call for papers out there I’ve been thinking about judging submissions to conferences. I’ve been fortunate enough to have helped judge papers for a couple of conferences, and it’s been pretty educational for me. I’ve seen a lot of good submissions, but also a lot of rough ones, too. I’ve kept some notes about what I’m thinking when I judge a presentation and I thought maybe it would be helpful to others.

1. If your presentation is just whipped together please say so, up front. Ideally you’d have spent some quality time with your presentation and submitted it in an excellent, finished state, but we all know how deadlines sneak up on us. It’s just that sometimes it’s really tough to figure out if a presenter thinks the slide deck is finished. A quick blurb about what you plan to do helps a lot, if only to reassure a judge that you know it needs polishing. You might also mention any graphics or demos you haven’t put in yet.

2. Submit your presentation in the form it will be presented, or in exactly the format asked for. Judges are being asked to figure out if the combination of you and your slide deck would be interesting to a bunch of people for 30 minutes. A ton of bullet points in Microsoft Word doesn’t tell them much about your ability to present your content to a room full of people, even if it looks like great stuff. Things like your font choices, slide layout, and general slide organization give judges clues about whether you’ll give a good presentation or not.

If the conference has rules about how to submit a presentation you should follow them precisely. Sometimes organizers want things in a specific format, to normalize the differences in presentation style or make it easier to distribute to judges. Don’t submit a PowerPoint presentation when they ask for only an outline in Microsoft Word 2007 format.

3. Skip the parts that are obvious to the audience. One of the biggest things I’ve looked for is whether the presenter has considered their audience at all. A great example of this is all the presentations at VMworld where the presenter spends 15 minutes telling the audience how great virtualization is. Well, duh! We know that, else we wouldn’t be at the conference. If your presentation is about how to optimize backup product X for virtual machines assume that everybody in the room wants to hear about how to optimize product X for virtual machines, and only that. Tell them things they don’t know on that topic only.

4. Don’t bring marketing presentations to a technical conference. Judges need about 3 brain cells to tell it was a marketing slide deck. How? Sometimes it’s because of the pros & cons slide that still lists how it lowers licensing sales as a con. That sounds like a pro to me, you sales droid scammer! Sometimes it’s because the presentation is about optimizing the performance of product X but the whole thing seems to be about why you should buy product X, or some add-on. Sometimes it’s just that there’s some sort of introduction by someone with “marketing” in their title.  Let’s just say that I ask myself if I’d want to sit through each presentation I judge. If the answer is no, I won’t willingly make any of my fellow techies do so, either.

5. Delete markup & change tracking data. Microsoft Office products allow you to track the changes you’ve made to a document or slide deck, which can be a great way for a team to work on a document together. Get rid of that before you send it in. Believe me, you don’t want people to see that stuff.

6. Spell check your presentation. Grammar is one thing, but I’ve always been floored by the number of people that say “I don’t care at all” by not spell-checking their presentation. If you’re having trouble finding it the button looks like:

Spelling Button

in the U.S.A. version of Microsoft PowerPoint 2007, and is usually near the top left of the window under “Review.” That is, if you’ve missed all the little red squiggles under the misspelled words and simultaneously forgot how to right-click. Or, maybe you’re a Mac user and don’t have a right mouse button… 🙂

7. Use less text. You’re giving a presentation, not writing a book, and the more text you put on a slide the less people will pay attention to you (and then leave to go download your slides). I’ve always been a fan of Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point font. I like 30 point fonts. You can see them in back and on videos of the presentation, and it shows that you care about the audience reading your slides. If you want to put a lot of text on a slide for reference put it at the end, or put it in the notes for the slides.

One reason to put a lot of text on a slide is if you’re showing commands in a console. You might ask yourself if you need the whole screenshot. Is it important to show the formatting? Could you crop & magnify the image to make it easier to see in the back, but not lose the message? Or, maybe your audience just needs the command you ran, and not all the output, too.

8. Use black & white for text colors. High-contrast colors are easily seen from anywhere in the room and by people with color blindness. If you have to use another color do it sparingly, and keep it to a bold color like red or blue against a white background. Never use red and green together, or blue and yellow, because those are the most common types of color blindness. In fact, never use yellow for anything in a presentation because it cannot be seen, from anywhere, by anyone.

You’re at a disadvantage when you submit a presentation to conference organizers, because nobody can hear you talking and get a feel for the whole package. It’s very important, then, that your materials convey how you respect your future audience, their time, their knowledge and interests, and what they’ve done to get into the room with you. Do that and you’re set. Good luck!

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