Shortcut: Getting a Mac to behave during presentations and conference calls

One of the best things about leaving the world of enterprise software for a small startup a few years ago was getting to use a Mac as my primary work machine. The interface is refreshingly modern, I can send and receive iMessages right on my desktop, and best of all, it’s still as fast as it was when I got it over a year and a half ago. Unlike the Windows PCs I had been using for the previous 15 years, my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro has not gotten progressively slower with each Microsoft OS patch, and having the entire hard drive encrypted is unnoticeable.

That’s not to say that I don’t have my pet peeves. The fact that Cmd-Tab on a Mac only allows you to switch between applications is a bit silly. Windows let me Alt-Tab through all the windows, and even worse, you can’t see how many windows are open by looking at the Dock. I can’t tell you how many emails I have forgotten to send because I “lost” the window.  I would start them, then I would get interrupted and the main Outlook window would pop over it, and then I would forget that I never finished sending it.

One thing I have had to work out is how to keep my Mac well behaved during presentations and conference calls. Just like a child in the 1800s, the computer should be seen and not heard when you are presenting. I don’t want fancy little notifications or energy saving features to be disrupting the presentation. Here are a few easy tips and add-ons I have found.


When you are projecting your screen, those really useful desktop notifications for iMessage can become embarrassing. You are walking people through pricing scenarios for a new project, and the list thing you want is a text message from your spouse to pop up, reminding you to pick up the milk. Similarly, you don’t want Skype messages from a coworker disrupting the flow either.

As it turns out, the designers at Apple have a beautiful solution to this.

Notifications can be temporarily disabled for half a day by option-clicking the notification icon

Notifications can be temporarily disabled for half a day by option-clicking the notification icon

If you option-click in the notification bar, you will see that the lines turn gray. Any notifications that come in will be suppressed. When your meeting is done, option-click again to turn them back on. Even better, if you forget to turn them back on, they will automatically re-enable themselves after half a day. So, you don’t need to worry about missing out on text messages for the next few days if you forget to turn them on.

The good news is that this works for all apps that use Apple’s notification system: iMessage, Skype, Mac Mail, GMail desktop notifications, and so forth.

The bad news is that Microsoft Outlook does not use Apple’s notification system.

Couldn't Microsoft have used the built-in notification system?

Couldn’t Microsoft have used the built-in notification system?

Yes, it’s true… while I have embraced my new Mac, I still use Outlook. Microsoft has hobbled it on OS X, but its automatic support for Exchange, calendar availability, and so on has kept it as my main email client.

Unfortunately, Microsoft insists on using their own notification system. I’m sure they have some good reasons for this, like the ability to flag or delete messages right from the notification that all of two people in the world are using…

Worse, Microsoft doesn’t have an easy way to temporarily suppress notifications like Apple provided.  The best way is to either quit Outlook before your meeting starts or turn off the desktop notifications altogether. To do this, go to the “Outlook” menu, click “Preferences”, then choose “Notifications & Sounds”.  From here, you can turn off the “Display alert on my desktop” checkbox.

Just don’t forget to restart Outlook or re-enable the alerts once your meeting is done.

Sleeping Displays

Mac’s love to be energy conscious. They want to preserve that battery, and if you don’t seem to be using the computer, they will shut off the display so that it doesn’t waste power. Hey, if you are using it, you can just wake it back up, right?

Conference calls make this battery saving feature go hyperactive. It is very common for you to be doing these meetings away from your desk in a conference room (or sitting on the couch if you are at a startup). Your computer is not plugged in, and the Mac shortens its display sleep cycle to just a few minutes.

This is bad if you are presenting. Sure, some of the time you are just going through the slides of a powerpoint presentation zip-zip-zip, one after the other, and the Mac knows you are using it. But the moment questions come up and people start discussing some specific point for a couple of minutes, you take your hands off the keyboard. The Mac thinks you are off doing something else and “helpfully” turns off the display.

This is disruptive. Many times people are pointing at diagrams or numbers on the screen, and it blanks out. You furiously try to wake the computer back up, only to be prompted to enter your password to unlock it. You get it wrong the first time and do it again. Finally, it’s back up, and the interrupted conversation continues, only to have the same sequence repeat itself a few minutes later.

And there is a worst case scenario for this. Ever have a long side-tangent conversation, and the person who is running the presentation steps out for a minute to run to the bathroom or take a phone call? The conversation keeps going because they weren’t really needed, but then the computer shuts off and no one can see the presentation any more. And no one can unlock it because they don’t know the password.

Sleeping screens are also a problem when you are watching someone else’s presentation through a WebEx or GoToMeeting. You are watching with rapt attention as they go from slide to slide or demo some app, but your Mac thinks you are ignoring it and suddenly shuts off the screen. You were paying attention to it, but you weren’t using the mouse.

So, how to fix?

I’ve found a great little free add on app called Caffeine.

The purpose of this app is to keep your computer awake, hence the name “Caffeine”.  It sits as a little coffee cup in the menu bar. When it’s empty, the Mac is in normal mode and will sleep the display as usual. If you click it, the cup fills and it goes into Caffeine mode. It will not shut off the display, even if you leave it unplugged and untouched.

Caffeine allows you to customize how long to actively prevent the display from going to sleep before going back to normal.

Caffeine allows you to customize how long to actively prevent the display from going to sleep before going back to normal.

The best part about it is that it automatically turns itself back off again. I usually set my caffeine to stay on for 30 minutes, but you can adjust the default to whatever you like and also temporarily override.

So, whenever I go into a conference call, I take 10 seconds to do three quick things:

  • Option-click the notification center to suppress pop-up notifications
  • Turn on caffeine for how long I think the meeting is going to run for
  • Quit Outlook

It keeps my calls professional and clean.


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3 Responses to Shortcut: Getting a Mac to behave during presentations and conference calls

  1. This is very helpful, thank you!

  2. Great tip! Any suggestions on muting sound notifications? I use my computer audio for meetings so can’t just mute but all of the dings can get distracting 🙂

  3. Mischa says:

    Thanks for your suggestions – I appreciated them. Maybe you could update – it seems Caffeine is either not available anymore or at least has not been updated for a while. Amphetamine seems to be an improved replacement.

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