Using Videos in Presentations

“Seeing is believing.”
“Is it? What about touching?”
Little Red Riding Hoods Father and Little Red Riding Hood, about the paw of a wolf that turned into a human hand, in “The Company of Wolves”

A while ago I watched a presentation by professor working within the domain of educational technology. She was the head of a department developing video tools. Her presentation included a couple of videos. Or should have. There were technical difficulties. A website with an embedded video that stopped in mid-play. She knocked down the speakers. Then she knocked down something else.

It was not pretty.

Perhaps it’s because she works with videos that I would have expected more … competence. I don’t mind people researching what they do not know, but I think that when they are doing a presentation, they should have mastered it at least a little. Especially given that this is just the craft of presentation, nothing more.

I think the only thing that really impressed me in her presentation was with how much confidence she reacted to these “mishaps”. That was impressive. But still, I wonder why — in 2014 — videos in presentations are still such an issue.

In part I think it’s due to the confusing number of video formats, and audio and video codecs. Videos can have different file endings (e.g.: .avi, .mp4, .mpg, .m4v, .flv), using different codecs for the video image (e.g., H.264) and for the audio (e.g., MPEG 4 audio, Apple Lossless). If your computer cannot understand this video or audio codec or does not recognize the file ending, you’ve got a problem.

So, if you use videos in your presentations, here are a couple of tips:

  • Convert the videos in a widely supported format. Personally, I usually use .mp4 with H.264 and AAC codecs. MPEG Streamclip handles the video conversion for me (Mac and Windows program).
  • If in any way possible, use your own computer for the presentation. Given that the computer you are using might miss some codecs, use your own computer. If you have tested it and it worked, it will likely work during the actual presentation as well.
  • No updates prior to the presentation. Sometimes updates can break things. Apple I am talking to you about your Keynote update! So, avoid doing updates prior to the presentation. I really hate Mavericks for its update dialogue. It does not show you what will be updated and only gives you the choices between “do it now” or “try later”. If it’s shortly before a presentation, always chose later. Then kill the network access.
  • Don’t trust PowerPoint — close, reopen and check it again. Last week, I was forced to use PowerPoint and found out that a compatibility mode converted my videos into images (saved the presentation as .ppt compatible to 97). PowerPoint did not even inform me about it. Well, I think it was an important information. But I was dumb too. The file size should have been a dead giveaway, but I missed it. The problem was solved when I used the .pptx file format.
  • Don’t rely on the videos in your presentation. Some programs behave rather strangely (see above). You also might be using another computer which cannot play that particular kind of video. Use the notes field of the slides to write down the keywords for a short recap of the video. During the presentation you might not remember the content well enough, or the crucial parts of it.
  • Embed the videos, but keep a version without the videos. You can usually embed the videos (= copy them into the file). This makes it easier to transfer the presentation to another computer — everything is included and you do not need to be careful about file links. However, sometimes there are issues with videos when you move to another computer. Worst case, the file cannot be opened. If this happens with keynote, see this posting. So keep a file without the embedded videos.
  • Keep the videos separately available. If the embedded video does not start, open the video in an external player. You usually have more control this way.
  • Rehearse with these videos. You should rehearse your presentation in any case. If you have an external display, that’s usually the easiest way to go. If not, there is usually a “Rehearse slideshow” option (in Keynote, look under “Play”).
  • Never depend upon videos in websites. You can control a lot during a presentation, but Internet access is usually outside your control. And while you could use cellular data for individual websites, downloading a video via a cellphone connection is tedious at best. If you need to show them the website with the video, create a video of you using that website and show this video. Quicktime can do screen recordings (albeit without sound). You can then play the video and explain what happens unencumbered by having to show it as well. If that video is on YouTube, use a DownloadHelper to download that video. Sometimes you might have to convert that video from .flv to another file format.
  • Do the presentation offline. If you do a presentation, go offline or use a dedicated presentation account with no active internet access. As you want to show a video, you likely have speakers connected to your notebook, or the sound is on maximum. This means that every eMail “bing” sound, or any other message, will be very noticeable.
  • If there is an audio feedback, connect the audio only during the videos. Some audio installations produce a feedback signal that is rather loud and unpleasant. This seems to happen frequently with Apple notebooks. Whereas there are ways to cancel that noise, not all venues have these measures installed. So be prepared to disconnect and connect the audio cable during the videos. And don’t fiddle with the audio cable. One push into the audio jack.
  • Have external speakers available as backup. Notebook speakers reach their limits quickly. If possible and the sound is important, bring active speakers as backup. If they do not come with their own power cord, they usually lack … uhm, power.
  • Test the Setup. Test the presentation if in any way possible. At the very least, make sure you have found the right level for the volume. You might want to play a suiting song prior to the presentation (for a course on self-directed learning, the intro-song was “Another brick in the wall”). That gives you an opportunity to adjust the volume and maybe attract a few more participants.

And above all, stay calm. Mistakes also happen because presenters get nervous and don’t give the computer the time it needs.


P.S.: It had a certain irony that on the day this posting went online, I did a presentation using videos. Well, there should have been videos. Switched from Mac to PC and I got the information that the videos did not play on the device a short time before the presentation. Like written, prepare to be able to do the presentation without the videos. In my case, I gave out the actual devices instead of showing videos about them. Worked as well. Next time, I should have just used my Mac.

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