Always Ready

Cliff's Notes. Gee, remember when solutions, uh, I mean, help, was simple? In business today as well as in the classroom, solutions to many goals are just a choice away, and if you choose your tools carefully, a well-presented and easily understood presentation is at hand, albeit without the little yellow "shortcut" book.

Whether we are sitting in a classroom at the U.S. Army's War College with 300 other students studying engineering principles, a proper, well thought out and executed presentation is key. Hopefully, I am not stating anything new to anyone reading this, unless, of course, you really have never done this before. Aside from the content of your presentations and proposals, the tools available to make even a Cliff's Notes lover proud are varied, readily available, easy to use and can make even the rook amateur look polished and professional. Content, well, that is another story.

The first item should be your software, which, depending on your needs, can be as simple as a program called Microsoft Works, which is an all-purpose suite of tools for editing, data collection and word processing and in a basic form, presentation. Most of us should be familiar with PowerPoint by Microsoft as well, which can allow for the simplest of presentations or, if used to its maximum power, can make even the sleepiest student wake from his or her dream. Adding special sound effects, flashing images, music and flown-in effects will enliven any dull presentation. Adding database or spreadsheet info as well as logos are simple and can really polish your image and, unfortunately as many have witnessed, allow for a "false" sense of intelligence of a presenter's skills. But that is for another discussion.

Apple makes a product called Keynote which, if you don't have the Mac-compatible version of MS Office Professional with PowerPoint already, makes for a nice alternative. Keynote includes pre-designed themes, typography options, image resizing and animated charts similar to PowerPoint but with the ease of use Apple is known for. Keynote also imports and exports PowerPoint, QuickTime and PDF files to make creating and sharing presentations between your superiors or subordinates quite seamless. If you really like to experiment on the cheap, try downloading a solution from Sun Systems called StarOffice, which some people might like better than PowerPoint.

A group of products bridging the gap between software, hardware, the presenter and the audience are digital whiteboards. If you are designing a room, upgrading an existing facility, or making a presentation to an audience in the field and need to work on the fly, add data and prove formulas to the audience, these devices are marvels of modern computing. If you are making a presentation and you need to handwrite data in a large format, or would like to have this ability on the road without having the expense and hassle of trying to rent one, then look no further than the new generation of interactive tablet screens which can be connected to a projector. These can be seen in various configurations and sizes from firms like SMART Technologies, Hitachi Software, Panasonic and many more.

Now to really get sophisticated and move into what should be a good ROI for your accounting department is the current crop of videoconferencing tools. If you generally fly to a meeting just for the sake of face-time and are concerned about this line item on your firm's P&L, then serious thought should be given to one form or another of videoconferencing.

Whether your peers are in another state, time zone or country, the telephone lines, networks and the cable lines offer options. Options range from a basic multi-mic base station with a computer-assisted camera, or an 800 phone line with passwords for participants and simple camera setups via the cable or phone system on up to advanced systems that allow the camera to "follow" the speaker. Systems can be purchased, leased or used for a monthly service fee.

Two of the major players in this field are Polycom and Tandberg, but Sony recently entered the mix with an interesting product called IVE. Latency, while still an issue, has been improved to the point that these live meetings allow for participation by all invited without the dreaded three-frames-behind effect.

Today, from document cameras to overhead projectors and visual presenters, almost anything can be displayed at any time, anywhere. Look at the current offerings from WolfVision, ELMO, Apollo, Dukane, AverMedia and Canon for total solutions or any number of circuit mounted card cameras for options. When considering a visual presenter, there are many factors you should pay attention to: design, ease of use, image quality and what features you really need. Remember-you won't be touching the projector that is hanging from the ceiling, nor will you touch the plasma screen where an image is displayed. But with visual presenters it's important to think about how the user will be interacting with the unit. Too many buttons and options to push can make it confusing for the presenter. The better the visual presenter, the more automated features.

Questions about setup are also important in a presentation environment. Is it a simple pop-up design, or do you have to unfold the camera arm and light arms (in the proper order) to set-up the unit? Where is the light coming from? If you have sidelights you have a more obstructed working surface and the sidelights create shadows when viewing 3-dimensional objects. Sidelights can also give a reflection when using glossy material. Sidelights can also blind the speaker, audience, or videoconferencing camera because of light being aimed off the working surface of the visual presenter. With a top light directed down to the working surface these problems are eliminated.

The camera and the optics are the heart of a visual presenter. No amount of electronic processing can compensate for a poor image. High-quality cameras and lenses are essential to get a sharp and true color image in every size (smallest and widest zoom). Once you have a good image, advanced electronics and processing are used to enhance the image to bring out the finest details and give you the sharpest text.
With the abundance of widescreen display devices in today's presentation environment, another factor has been added to the visual presenter question. WolfVision recently released a firmware upgrade that provides widescreen support for its 30 fps models. Now, in addition to the Visualizer's native 4:3 format, HD/HDTV 720p, HD/HDTV 1080p (both at 50 and 60 Hz), WXGA and SXGA+ are supported.

Of course, if you are really advanced, sure of your skills, and have to do multiple presentations in countless cities and towns and have earned the moniker "road-warrior," then you may want to think of putting your presentation on a DVD. No need to carry the laptop and open it at every airport gate, have a DVD player waiting for you in a brand-new installed AV system complete with 5.1 channels of surround sound.

Presentation Checklist

On the hardware side of things, some basic items should be in your toolkit, whether used at sales meetings twice a year, or monthly in boardroom presentations. A projector, a screen, cables, storage devices (if large data files and, or video files are included in the presentation) and maybe a laser pointer are needed. While these seem like common-sense details, we've all worked with people who at one time or another seem to sometimes leave common sense at the door. Case in point: You get to a presentation, have a microphone and forgot batteries or forgot the mic stand or the adapter. Here are some tips which will hopefully allow you to make calculated decisions as to what to use and when to use it.

1.) Your presentation, obviously at the ready on the desktop of your laptop, is of course backed up. And you have the back-up with you on a disc or portable USB storage device.

2.) If you are away from your home base, are you using your computer or a rental? Is it compatible with your software? Is your software loaded correctly? If renting, will the device connect with your projector? It should, but you might have to adjust settings. Do you have administrative privilege to change settings? Don't laugh, or you might be crying when your hard work can only be seen by you. Can you add additional monitors if needed? These questions must be answered prior to your departure to a remote location and most definitely days ahead of any new type of program and/or hardware use.

3.) Monitors, overhead projectors, video projectors, plasma or LCD panels, and/or a possible combination of any of these-don't assume your current configuration can handle new devices without external adapters, extenders and/or splitters. Most important though is to verify your legacy ports, either on your machine or on one you will rent. USB2 is no guarantee of FireWire, nor is video out (composite) on your laptop an automatic mate to the input jack on a pro video screen.

Further, you could run into a more common scenario if you are adding 5.1 music along with a DVD presentation and find the projector only uses separate Y, G, B-component RGB throughput for video and your monitor feed from your computer's mini-jack is composite. Mini-jack converter anyone? The computer's composite outputs to the pre/pro, but the pre/pro will only give a monitor feed output, thereby leaving you with a nice blue screen. This is more common than people realize. (Some pre-pros require that video signals maintain format from source to destination, i.e. S-Video, component or composite). If you are upgrading for road use, is it more important to have a 5-pound projector or a 7-pound model that has more I/O ports or maybe a wireless card? From BenQ, Canon, Epson, JVC, Mitsubishi, Optoma, Panasonic and Sony, just to name a few, the options are wide and deep, so be prepared to do some homework.

4.) What about screens and the role they play? How about the literal difference between the proverbial "night and day." Along with your projector choice, this marriage decides whether graphics are clear and distinct and data is not just a collection of jagged edges. Of course, hopefully in the large boardroom, education center or field office, this has already been pre-installed by one of us pros and then this question is pre-answered. Besides the screen material and brightness factor, you must decide on the size, which, after a certain dimension, precipitates "assembling" a "portable" screen.

If this is the case, I highly advise at least one strong assistant. Stretching and snapping the screen in place over the aluminum rails is something akin to trying to put a tonneau cover on an MGB that hasn't been used in 20 years. "Not easy" is an understatement. Again, as with the projectors and displays, from manufacturers like Da-Lite, Draper, Stewart and Vutec, the options run the gamut.