When it comes to presenting, you just need a good Pal

It's a relatively common issue for people to dislike presentations, in fact, the fear of public speaking (Glossophobia) ranks at number 2 in the list of UK phobias. Even the most extrovert amongst us seem to hit a wall when the spotlight is turned on us and our knowledge and expertise is scrutinised in this way. For many, the prospect of having to give a presentation is enough to avoid studying a particular course, applying for a particular job, or pushing ourselves into a more public or visible role within the job we do.
Chris Hughes presenting with Hector Minto of Microsoft in front of a screen showing the XBox adaptive controllerThe ability to present with confidence requires a good in-depth knowledge of your subject and, more importantly, an absence of the all-too-familiar experience of going 'blank' under pressure, or walking out afterwards and realising you've forgotten to mention a major part of what you wanted to say. Reading verbatim from a script provides many people with some level of reassurance but is not considered particularly good practice and will often mean that presentations become dry and unengaging; no eye-contact and a presenter face-down in their notes.

For someone with dyslexia reading from a script only really serves to highlight the difficulties experienced; misread words tending to cause a ripple of laughter,  triggering further self-consciousness and anxiety. Strategies to help, tend to involve either flashcards; lists of bullet-pointed prompts deigned to be read quickly and without interrupting the flow of thought, a list you need to track as you go, again difficult for someone experiencing a problem with fluent reading. The one remaining option is to learn the presentation through persistent rehearsal; fine if you have one presentation to give and plenty of time available to rehearse, but multiple subjects, multiple deadlines multiple time-pressures made this an impractical solution.
For Chris Hughes, founder of Estendio and creator of Present Pal; presentations were his nemesis at university. Chris has dyslexia; a condition thought to effect around one in ten people in the UK, a condition in which the processes involved with reading; decoding letters into sounds and sounds into meanings is a significantly less fluent and more effortful process and, at its extreme, is estimated to take up to five times as much processing power as a fluent reader.

Assistive technology can help; in-the-box solutions such as Microsoft's Learning Tools offer adjustments to how a page is viewed; fewer words per line, more spacing between letters, page tinting and breaking words into syllables, to name a few. Text-to-speech will read things out, by-passing the need for reading, dictation software will address issues with spelling and the frustration of knowing what you want to say, but not being able to get your thoughts onto paper as quickly as you know you can. The issue was, when it came to presentations, there was little help available. 
Many universities offer some level of adjustment for students experiencing difficulties; they may allow students to present to smaller groups, just the course tutors for example. In Chris' case, his uni offered him the option to record himself and play it back whilst he stood in front of the class with the audio playing; to Chris this seemed like a mildly humiliating solution but he was also aware that this would not be the sort of adjustment that would be made available to him in the workplace, and he knew that his career would likely require him to present at some point.
Chris was lucky though; Chris had dyslexia…
…dyslexia is a neurodiverse condition; a normal variation in how a brain is wired and whilst it has a negative impact in terms of reading, a dyslexic brain is extremely well designed for problem-solving and creative thought; interestingly a significant number of entrepreneurs also have dyslexia, and Chris was about to add himself to this list as he created his solution to this problem; Present Pal.
Animated gif showing Present Pal bing used and a pop-up image of a dogPresent Pal runs on your smartphone or tablet and connects to your PowerPoint slideshow. It provides you, as a presenter, with a list of bullet-points for each slide. The list is scrollable, with the point you are on appearing larger and central in the screen; easy to glance down and identify where you are and what you want to say. When you reach the end of the list, scrolling on will not only move you to the next slide on the Present Pal screen, it will automatically advance the slide in your presentation, reducing the additional distraction of controlling the slideshow manually. If you tap on a bullet-point, it will open up a 'bubble'; an expanded page of notes; reassuring you that even if you draw a blank from the bullet-point; you can access what you want to say in greater detail. You can also embed images; something reassuring to calm you down (Chris has a photo of his dog for a bit of grounding and support). The screen can be tinted and font size and style selected to suit the reading comfort of the individual presenter.
The software is a great example of 100% user-led design; Chris himself and the issues he was facing. As a student with dyslexia, he knew these issues were shared by other students with dyslexia and by having a clear awareness of the issues he needed to address meant an end product that provided precisely the support needed. However, it quickly became apparent that the issues it addressed were issues shared by a huge range of people experiencing a diversity of conditions and difficulties;

"Our most common DSA recommendations are in fact for students with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. We've also received many student recommendations for autism and we are working with Project SEARCH (a global programme which helps young people with disabilities to get into employment) to help their autistic participants to prepare for recruitment processes such as interview techniques. Other recommendations we have seen are for individuals with ADHD, dysgraphia, dyspraxia and most recently for physical impairments."

Chris now speaks about his journey (with great confidence and fluency) at many events and Present Pal has won numerous awards including Microsoft's AI for Accessibility Grant.

Present Pal has also begun to gain more and more interest from businesses looking to make these sorts of tools available for everyone. Disability has led innovation and innovation has produced a tool that benefits everyone.

AbilityNet caught up with Chris at the Global Accessibility Awareness Day at the Microsoft campus;