Speaking Tips from the Big Leagues

by Rob Reilly

With thousands of people attending last week's Boston LinuxWorld
Conference, speakers were under the gun to give top notch
presentations. Because everyone has to give presentations at one point
or another, it's good to see how the big boys handle things, especially
in front of some of the most knowledgeable audiences in information
technology. You better know your subject if you're going to address a
Linux crowd.

Even at the LinuxWorld level, things sometimes go wrong during
presentations. While at last week's event, I recorded a few of the hiccups
that can happen during a talk. The speakers at LinuxWorld all performed
admirably, even in the face of occasional technical adversity. To help
others in the future, several presenters had practical suggestions to
pass along to readers. The conference A/V support project manager also
gave me the scoop on how to squash a few of those butterflies before a
speaker steps into the spotlight.

Scott Mewett, of Packable Systems, gave a talk on booting machines
with PXE Linux. Mewett ran his presentation under Fedora Core 5 on a
Sony VAIO laptop, and he used OpenOffice.org 2.0 Impress to show his
slides. At one point in the demo, he inadvertently put in a errant IP
address. After a couple of minutes, Mewett resolved the problem and
continued. As any speaker knows, this is a stressful moment, and the
audience, numbering about 40, patiently waited until it worked. Even
though LinuxWorld attendees can be tough customers, they still tend to
be courteous to session speakers.

Tip: Make sure to cover every contingency during planning, so you identify
areas that may cause problems. You also should know the material cold,
so you can pull a rabbit out of the hat if a demo goes south. Mewett
confidently handled the issue and didn't get spooked.

Rich Megginson of Red Hat naturally runs only Red Hat Linux and used a
Dell Latitude D600 for his presentation. His talk covered migrating from
legacy environments, such as NIS to LDAP. A weird problem cropped up
for Megginson when he plugged his laptop into the display connector. His
desktop switched over to a virtual display of 1280 x 1024, while his
actual display showed only 1024 x 768. That forced him to scroll around
a distracting virtual screen. He was able to tweak his desktop settings
so everything worked at 1024 x 768.

Tip: Know how to change video
display settings on your particular desktop in a flash. Wide-screen
and high-resolution laptop users definitely should test their machines
ahead of time, because older projectors cannot always display beyond
1024 x 768.

James Schweitzer of IBM Global Services gave a talk on enterprise
provisioning, management and monitoring. Although the presentation went
well, he initially couldn't get the display going under Linux. As a
last ditch effort, he booted into Windows and ran his presentation on

Tip: Test your machine with the projector
ahead of time. The rooms usually are open early in the morning, at lunch
and after the last speaker's talk each day. Tell the conference staff
person at the door that you will be speaking later and you need to
test the projector.

I happened to talk to Alan Boda from HP, who had given a presentation on
how administrators can gather crash data. His presentation was a part of
the Kernel and Driver Development track. Boda told me that his
standard-issue corporate laptop is an HP Evo running Windows, and so had
to run the presentation on PowerPoint. He offered some real gems for
would-be tech showmen, stressing the importance of rehearsal before a
performance. His technique is to rehearse the entire talk three times in front
of a group of his peers. He said that the practice helps him fine tune
his timing.

Boda also recommends speaking to people in one's target audience while
researching a presentation, which is something he himself does. This nails
down the technical content that truly interests conference attendees,
and it helps eliminate questionable, time-wasting topics.

Sometimes really serious things happen to a speaker during a
presentation. Such was the case for Dan Cox of HP, whose topic covered developing a
practical Linux integration stack. For various reasons, Cox didn't have
his laptop available when he was scheduled to speak. Linux speakers are
just as resourceful as their audience, though, and Cox immediately proceeded to
solicit a laptop from an attending colleague. Thinking fast, he popped
in a conference CD (furnished to attendees as part of their educational
package) and was up and running, without breaking stride. Although it was
a scary situation, Cox remained cool and came up with a quick solution.

Make sure you have a backup plan, in case the worst happens. Although the
conference organizers sometimes can provide emergency presentation
hardware, it may be loaned out already.

Speakers should meet with the conference organizers when they first
arrive at the event to double-check that everything is in place for
their talks. Also, speakers should swing by their meeting rooms and pre-check
the stage, lighting, video feeds, microphone operation and so on.

Dead microphone batteries were a common thing at LinuxWorld, simply due
to high usage. One speaker said he always is ready to step up his volume,
should he suddenly be faced with no audio during a session talk.

Manny Marquez of A/V Images is the audio/video technical project manager
for the US LinuxWorld and MacWorld shows. He travels to various venues,
supervises room set up and coordinates problem resolutions for the
speakers. He has nine years of experience in the field and works with
all equipment manufacturer's products.
Marquez and his technical support team are some of the unsung heroes
of these conferences. Although Cox resolved his own laptop issue, Marquez
had a machine in the room within a couple of minutes of the request. His
team is tied to the conference coordinators via two-way radios, and they
have a well-rehearsed operation.

By far, the biggest problem Marquez has seen is with oddball hardware,
such as Macs and tablet PCs. These machines frequently need a special
adapter to connect to the projector feed. Even though he carries his
own little private stock of adapters, speakers should bring their own
if they want to present using non-mainstream computers. And if you do
borrow one, be sure to return it.

Marquez said that some presenters try to use high resolutions and have
trouble with projectors as a result, which I talked about previously.
1024 x 768 is the most common resolution size, and if speakers keep that
in mind when crafting their slides, it will save extra work and
scrambling later on. Overall, though, Marquez commented that he has fewer
tech issues at LinuxWorld than at other conferences.

And that's how the big boys do it. Although it's best to do some research
and planning beforehand, weird things occasionally happen that threaten
to derail a talk. Take it all in stride, stay calm and have fun. Now
get out there and work on your next talk.

Rob Reilly is a technology consultant, writer and speaker. His
articles appear in various Linux media outlets. He also was track
chairman for the Managing Mixed Environments sessions at the
LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston.

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