It was ten years ago, in issue 41 of PC Pro, that I last wrote about how to create and deliver presentations. But technology has moved on so far, it’s high time I looked again at how much of my advice stood the test of time and what needs revising. The technology may have changed, but the two fundamentals remain: it’s all about an audience and a message. What do you want to say, and to whom do you want to say it? Consider the mood you want to create, is it upbeat, excited, calm, sombre or reassuring? How big is your prospective audience – 5, 10, 50, 500 or 5,000? Think about where that audience will be situated – in their homes, at their desks, a meeting room or a conference hall?
All these variables should influence the technology, colour, sound, animation, words and pictures that you choose to deploy. If you’re designing a self-paced training presentation to be delivered to one person at a time at their desk, you probably won’t want music or sound effects, and very little animation. You might add a recorded narration, but make sure the visuals stand on their own to make the presentation accessible for people who are deaf, who don’t have headphones or who don’t want to inconvenience their neighbours. When launching a new product to 5,000 excited people in a conference hall, on the other hand, you might be far more flash, with sound, animation and graphics all helping to deliver a punchy, upbeat message.
First let’s look at the technology. Ten years ago, portable video projectors cost several thousand pounds and were mostly noisy, dim and with poor image quality. Now they start from £200 and can weigh less than 2kg, but you still need to check their resolution, brightness and contrast. If they’re to be permanently mounted in the ceiling, long cable runs can be expensive and unsightly. Some projectors will connect wirelessly to the computer, but check carefully for compatibility with your existing hardware and software, and keep any driver disc handy for visitors who want to present using their own computers. Perhaps copy the whole driver installation pack onto a USB key and tie it to the table on a long string…
Plasma screens were so expensive back in 1998 that you needed to sell your soul to afford one. Today, large plasma screens are becoming common in boardrooms because of their superior brightness and clarity compared with projectors, but they still have limited resolution. A maximum resolution of around 1,280 x 768 is very common, which is much less than most people are used to on their desktops nowadays. The longer viewing distance compensates, but don’t expect to be able to read normal desktop-sized buttons and text from the back of the room. You have to use a big font size and big pictures to get your message across.
The use of 35mm slides or overhead projector transparency film has virtually died out, even though 35mm slides still give the best image clarity. The lack of any kind of animation or effects makes them look very old-fashioned – the best you could do with 35mm slides was to keep odd and even numbered slides in different carousels, use twin projectors and fade between them to cover up the clunky slide change. Not exactly state-of-the-art any more.
Microsoft’s PowerPoint is still the market leader, with Lotus Freelance, Corel Presentations and OpenOffice Impress trailing way behind. Online office document packages such as Google Docs are starting to include presentation support, but as yet they don’t have the power or sophistication of even the simplest traditional, offline application.