While I suspect that professional speakers have separate presentation laptops that they use only to give talks, I don't do this often enough to justify the hassle and cost of a separate machine. However, I do use a separate user account to present from.

It allows me to focus on my presentation and not stress out about running into configuration problems or exposing private information. But mostly, I think it's about removing anything that could be distracting for the audience.

The great thing of having a separate user for this is that you can do whatever you want in your normal account and still know that the other account is ready to go and configured for presenting on a big screen.

Basics

The user account I use when giving talks is called presenter and it has the same password as my main user account, just to keep things simple. However, it doesn't need to belong to any of the UNIX groups that my main user account belongs to.

In terms of configuration, it looks like this:

  • power management and screen saver are turned off
  • all sound effects are turned off
  • window manager set to the default one (as opposed to a weird tiling one)
  • desktop notifications are turned off

Of course, this user account only has the software I need while presenting. You won't find an instant messaging, IRC or Twitter client running on there.

The desktop only has the icons I need for the presentation: slides and backup videos (in case the network is down and/or prevents me from doing a live demo).

Web browsers

While I usually have my presentations in PDF format (for maximum compatibility, you never know when you'll have to borrow someone else's laptop), I use web browsers (different ones to show that my demos work with all of them) all the time for demos.

Each browser:

  • clears everything (cookies, history, cache, etc.) at the end of the session
  • has the site I want to demo as the homepage
  • only contains add-ons or extensions I need for the demos
  • has the minimal number of toolbars and doesn't have any bookmarks
  • has search suggestions turned off
  • never asks to remember passwords

Terminal and editors

Some of my demos may feature coding demos and running scripts, which is why I have my terminal and editor set to:

  • a large font size
  • a color scheme with lots of contrast

It's all about making sure that the audience can see everything and follow along easily.

Also, if you have the sl package installed system-wide, you'll probably want to put the following in your ~/.bashrc:

alias sl="ls"
alias LS="ls"

Rehearsal

It's very important to rehearse the whole presentation using this account to make sure that you have everything you need and that you are comfortable with the configuration (for example, the large font size).

If you have access to a projector or a digital TV, try connecting your laptop to it. This will ensure that you know how to change the resolution of the external monitor and to turn mirroring ON and OFF ahead of time (especially important if you never use the default window manager or desktop environment). I keep a shortcut to the display settings in the sidebar.

Localization

Another thing I like to do is to set my operating system and browser locales to the one where I am giving a talk, assuming that it is a western language I can understand to some extent.

It probably doesn't make a big difference, but I think it's a nice touch and a few people have commented on this in the past. My theory is that it might be less distracting to the audience if they are shown the browser UI and menus they see every day. I'd love to have other people's thoughts on this point though.

Also, pay attention to the timezone since it could be another source of distraction as audience members try to guess what timezone your computer is set to.

Anything else?

If you also use a separate account for your presentations, I'd be curious to know whether there are other things you've customised. If there's anything I missed, please leave a comment!

Check your disk free space
It's prudent to check your disk free space too - running out of disk space in the middle of a demo is embarrassing. Also, some desktops pop up distracting warnings when disk space is getting low.
Comment by Olly Betts
Automation?
Have you considered making some software/package to automate this setup? I would like to use these methods but I am too lazy to setup a new account manually.
Comment by Paul Wise
Re: Automation?
This setup is pretty much a one-off for me (until I reinstall my laptop of course), so I haven't yet felt the need to automate any of this.
Comment by fmarier
comment 4
I have been using a seperate X session for presentations, but having large fonts for terminal, editor and browser by default makes a convincing argument for a separate account.
Comment by Christian Neukirchen