Features – This Will Make Your Presentation Week

Michael Dahn is the computer services reference librarian at the Stetson University College of Law, Charles A. Dana Law Library. He is also the Webmaster for the College of Law. He regularly teaches Continuing Legal Education courses for Stetson on “Using the Internet in the Practice of Law” and has made presentations about the Internet to the NLRB and the FBI. He is also on webmaster teams for both the Southeastern Association of Law Libraries (SEAALL) and the Academic Law Libraries Special Interest Section of AALL (ALL-SIS).

There’s one sure way to make your presentation weak. I had the ill fortune of experiencing such weakening a couple years ago. Perhaps you can learn from my mistakes…

The year was 1997. I was still a novice presenter, and I was to make a 90-minute presentation to the NLRB about using the Internet. There would be about 100 people attending. I was nervous.

I prepared for many hours, and when the day arrived, I was more-than-ready… or so I thought. Aside from the normal anxieties of speaking before a large group, my primary concern was the possibility of technical difficulties. I was away at a resort hotel — far from the wealth of tech support and back-up plans available to me when making presentations “at home.”

My anxieties, for the most part, were unfounded. My hardware and software worked as advertised, the audience was lively and interested, I was able to answer most of the questions asked of me, and though I ran well over my allotted time, the audience seemed to appreciate my long-windedness.

Afterward, many members of the audience approached me with questions and comments. The comments were mostly praise, which made me feel just great. Ahh, I thought, this was a good presentation — and better yet, it was now behind me.

But I was in a delusional state. A sobering comment from an audience member quickly brought me out of it.

“Mike, I really enjoyed your presentation. I just wanted to let you know, though — and I’m sure not too many people caught it — but you have a misspelling on one of your slides…”

I didn’t hear too much after that — at least not too clearly. It was one of those moments where time seems to stand still — where objects in your periphery become fuzzy, the volume of your reality lowers to near zero, and you grope to make sense of an apparently incomprehensible situation.

During this “non-time” I had a brief conversation with myself, which consisted entirely of mental stuttering. Eventually, I snapped back to reality, where everything was painfully clear, and the gentleman before me was finishing up his sentence, “…so thanks again, and be sure to run that presentation through your spell-checker.”

At that point, I did what I think any sensible person would do in such a situation. I did a big mental scream: AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then I put on an embarrassed smile (very easy) and thanked him for pointing out the error to me.

How could this have happened, you wonder? Don’t most presentation software packages come with a spell-checker?

Of course they do. I foolishly (yet purposefully) did not run the presentation through a spell-checker because it was so chock-full of URLs and Internet terms that I thought it would take forever to run a spell-check on it. PowerPoint 97, unlike Word 97, does not allow you to set the spell-checker to ignore URLs. (PPT 2000 will ignore URLs if you make them hyperlinks instead of just plain text.)

Mad as hell at myself, the first thing I did when I returned to my office was fix the one mistake that was pointed out to me. Of course, I also sat down and carefully read through the presentation slide by slide to make sure there were no other abominations in it… since I had a presentation coming up for the FBI a few weeks later. What I did not do, however, was run the spell-checker. That would just take too much time…

You can see where this is heading…

The FBI talk was for a group of similar size and importance. Again, everything went smoothly, and when I finished, there was a lot of applause and some formal expressions of gratitude. I was feeling fine. This, I thought, was definitely a good presentation.

As usual, members of the audience approached me afterward with comments that went like:

“Wow, great job! I really enjoyed your presentation, especially the part about…”

“Mike, that was fascinating. You know, I never knew that…”

“Hey, that was a fantastic presentation, though you may want to fix the misspelling on the slide where…”


As you may have guessed, that was no mental scream. In fact, if you were anywhere east of the Mississippi on December 5th, 1997, you probably heard it pretty clearly.

When they released me from the asylum weeks later, you can bet that the first thing I did was spell-check that presentation! Yes, I finally sat down and went through the onerous process of having the spell-checker hang up on every part of every URL, on every too-new Internet term, and, of course, on every misspelled word (of which there was only one — the one pointed out to me by the FBI attorney — really!). I did not care how long it would take.

And how long did this take me?

Eight minutes.

I’m not kidding. I clocked it. Eight minutes.

This, of course, sent me back to the asylum. But I’m out now — no longer a threat to myself or others — and enough time has elapsed for me to be able to tell you about it calmly. I’d like to think that something good has come of these two minor tragedies (it’s the only way I can maintain my sanity). The primary benefit is that I am now a spell-checking maniac. I can’t even scrawl out a quick grocery list now without running to a dictionary. And while hanging out at the other end of the spectrum might not be all that healthy (at least that’s what my therapist says), I figure it’s got to be better than where I was previously — loserville.

And I’m hoping that even more good will come of these mishaps — that perhaps some of you will learn from my mistake. So, if any of you have a paper or presentation that is loaded with uncommon terms (Internet or otherwise), and you are completely lacking in good sense, please take note: USE A SPELL-CHECKER!

You won’t regret it, and it probably won’t take as much time as you might have guessed. Even if it takes an hour, it will be an hour very well spent. Trust me.

You can be certain that, before submitting this piece to LLRX for publication, I spell-checked it more than once. You can’t be too careful. One of my mentors told me that I should also be sure to proofread it, but I was on a tight deadline and had a lot of things going on at work — I didn’t think that it was really worth my thyme.

Posted in: Features, Presentation Skills