In the days when we did presentations from physical media, such as slides, film, or videotape, we spent a lot of time helping clients or producers "fix" media onsite. We re-trayed slides that were in incorrect sequence or orientation (anybody remember getting a tray of slides trayed for "ceiling mount"?). While turning the slides right-side-up, we glass mounted them. We spliced broken 16mm film. We used markers to fix poorly duplicated overhead transparencies. We even used cuts-only systems to edit videotape onsite when it turned out that some portion had been produced with a mistake. We often were there until two or three in the morning. When the personal computer and digital formats were on the horizon, I couldn't wait until they changed our business and made it so we didn't have to be there until three A.M. any more.
They did that. Now we're there all night.
It started with editing PowerPoint on site. Clients would come in to a setup the night before a show and ask for help with something: a font choice, embedding a sound, changing the size of a picture, etc. We'd stop our work on the setup and "show them how," meaning make the changes for them.
Doing this was akin to the training mistake I made with my dog, Barco. Barco would steal my car keys and run around with them, and because I'm perennially late for work I'd trade him a cookie for the keys. In effect, I trained him to steal my keys if he wanted a cookie.
So, by continually fixing presentations at the last minute for clients, we've trained them to simply bring their presentation problems to the show.
But now they want more cookies.
Today's electronic presentations are more complex, and have more choices. Clients bring in electronic materials on a wide variety of materials: discs, CDs, DVDs, firewire or USB drives and other notebooks. Recently, I even had a client who had transferred his PowerPoint file to his PDA before leaving the office and couldn't remember how to get it back out. Not only that, but they bring video on a wide variety of tapes and discs. People have even handed us Compact Flash cards from their digital cameras. On large shows with multiple presenters, I've started packing a road case with every type of card reader and data cable I can think of, along with a small network switch and an Airport Express wireless router.
A case in point: at a recent show with multiple guest presenters, each presenter was told by the client to bring their presentation as a PowerPoint file on CD to be loaded on a single master computer for the show. Everything fine so far. But each presenter had made different font and color choices, making the combined show look like a ransom note. One had brought separate digital pictures she "just needed inserted." One had brought along both a VHS and a Mini-DV that had clips he wanted in his presentation. Two had forgotten to embed videos and sounds in the file, leaving them, of course, screaming at the technician that "it played just fine on my computer back at the office"! When they get in this state, it's difficult to explain to them tactfully that they actually left part of their presentation at home.
So the question becomes: when do we stop with the cookies?
All of these things are traditionally the province of the producer. However, the flexibility of on site tools like computers and digital video players has left us in the position of being able to do many more editing and production chores on site. Once, editing systems for various types of media were different than the playback systems used on site. Now, the tools used to create presentations are the ones used to play them.
In previous columns, I've worked fairly hard to delineate the differences between the producer and the stager. We're different people with different skill sets. And on-site presentation editing can get to be something that, while you're trying to do a "favor" for your client, you miss things in the setup that could lead to a show that didn't run smoothly. This could (and sometimes does) lead to that favor being the thing that the client forgets about in favor of remembering the things that were missed.
So what's the point? It's this: every staging company must identify their skill set and draw a line on services that allows them to best serve their clients. I've done a couple of things that I think work, at least for me.
- Develop a one-sheet set of instructions to send out to presenters, informing them of what can be done on site and what can't.
- On shows with multiple presenters (and no producer) be prepared to provide an employee who is good with the clients and the software to "run interference' for the staging crew. This is something we charge for.
- If this happens to you on a show that does have a producer, you're doing their work. Consider whether working with this producer is worth the risks to your professional reputation for running a good show.
On-site work on presentations will not stop, but we must learn to control it if we're going to have good shows, and keep our hair.
Other than that, get yourself a super-sized bag of cookies.