The Presenter's Toolkit

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Flip charts are so yesterday. But if you're a frequent presenter, you already know that. Today, presentation tools are all about technology, and they continue to get better, faster and lighter, seemingly by the minute. Years ago, a killer presenter was somebody with fantastic speaking skills. Still is, but today, great presenters need to be technology-savvy as well.

Whether you're an in-house presenter giving regular presentations in your conference room, a road warrior who takes presentations to clients by car or plane, or a manager feverishly gearing up for your first keynote address at your company's annual conference, knowledge about the latest and greatest presentation tools is a must.

With presentation technology, as with any type of technology these days, it's all about speed, portability and convenience.

If you're a road warrior, you know that the lighter the hardware, the better. The term "portable" doesn't necessarily mean "lightweight." One presenter defined "portable" as whatever he could lug in one trip from his car into his presentation venue. Lightweight, he says, is something else indeed. Even a five-pound laptop gets heavy when you're trying to tote it, a projector and your luggage through the airport.

What kinds of equipment should you have in your toolkit? What are the new trends? For most presentations, there are some basic pieces of equipment you shouldn't be without, namely, a notebook computer and a projector. And to create those presentations, good presentation software is a must. For presentations in your company's conference room, a good electronic whiteboard works wonders, especially if you're collaborating with clients or colleagues and need to take notes.

But defining the type of technology you need isn't nearly as difficult as choosing which one to buy from sometimes dozens of competing products. How do you know which is right for you?

Notebook Computers
Call it a laptop, call it a notebook, whatever the term, these computers are so necessary to today's presentations they might as well be surgically attached to the presenter.

When you're talking about notebooks, it's a wide playing field. Your decision to buy should be based on your needs. A rule of thumb when shopping for notebooks is this: The more powerful the processor and the bigger the display screen, the more expensive the machine. If it's bigger and faster, you'll pay more.

For presentations, you'll need to think about the size of the display screen, not just the machine's portability. It doesn't much matter if you can skip through the airport unencumbered by a heavy computer if your clients can't see your presentation because the screen is too small. Here, the bigger the screen, the better. Most presentation-quality notebooks offer active-matrix screens, which means they're clearer, brighter and all around better than passive-matrix models.

What kind of presenter are you? A road warrior, traveling with notebook in hand every day? For those who value portability above all else, there's good news. The hot trend is toward skinny and slight. But, in exchange for less weight and girth, you may pay the price of less power. You'll likely find a less powerful processor than in a desktop replacement notebook. Some of the newest models (see below) are solving that problem, however.

Do you need to deliver graphically-rich multimedia presentations or will you prefer to have all of the power of a desktop computer at your fingertips? Many presentation-quality laptops exist that, while weighing more than the ultralights, provide more bang.

Sony's line of VAIO notebooks has an offering to fit each of those needs. One of its new models, in fact, the VAIO Z505 SuperSlim Pro, combines the best elements of an ultralight and a presentation-quality notebook in one.

Like the VAIO SuperSlim notebook, which is 0.9 inches thin and 3.1 pounds, the new SuperSlim Pro is tiny. It weighs 3.75 pounds and measures just 1 inch. But unlike many ultralight models, the SuperSlim Pro was designed to deliver business-class performance. It includes Microsoft Windows 2000 professionally installed, an Intel Pentium III 500-megahertz processor, a 12.1-inch XGA full-color active matrix LCD display screen, an integrated Ethernet for network connectivity, and other editing and graphics features not typically found on a notebook of this size. It even has a Firewire connection for transmitting digital images.

Toshiba's Portege line of notebooks, specifically the 7200CT, packs a lot of power into a little machine. It includes an Intel Mobile Pentium 600-megahertz processor, optional CD/DVD ROM, an integrated modem and a 13.3-inch XGA TFT active matrix color display. It weighs in at 4.4 pounds.

The Portege 7020CT includes many of the same features as its more expensive cousin--large hard drive and memory, the 13.3-inch active matrix display, integrated modem, optional CD/DVD ROM--but it has a smaller processor, the Intel Mobile Pentium II, 366-megahertz processor, and weighs 4.1 pounds.

This is where it's useful to know exactly what you need from the machine. Do you really need a 600-megahertz processor for your presentations, or will a 366 megahertz do the job just as well? A bit of research on your part--trying your typical presentations on both machines, for example--could pay off to the tune of $600 that you'd save by choosing the 7020 over the 7200.

If you're planning to research every projector on the market before you select one to buy, you're going to be hunched over your computer downloading information from Web sites until the cows come home. More than 30 manufacturers are after your projector dollar. That's the bad news. The good news? With all of those options, finding the projector created just for your specific needs is assured.

More good news--the new LCD and DLP projectors are light years ahead of those fuzzy old models from the past. Everything's about high resolution, image clarity, and, like notebooks, light weight.

Not so long ago, a projector was considered portable if it wasn't bolted into place in your conference room. Traveling presenters would tote 10-pound projectors to their client sites, along with a notebook, a briefcase and who knows what else. It wasn't pretty.

Now, projectors are coming down--in weight and in price. Today, you can find a relatively inexpensive projector that is as light as a notebook. Good news for your aching back, but not so good for brightness and quality--as a rule. When you've dealt with the weight issue, brightness is the next feature you should consider. Brighter is better, of course, and it's measured in lumens. If you're working with a projector with a rating of 1,000 lumens, you can carry it into a variety of presentation settings and not worry about the light level in the room affecting the quality of your projected image. It will show up bright and clear, no matter how light it is in the room. Get below 500 lumens, though, and you may have a problem. Again, it's useful to know exactly what kinds of conditions you'll be experiencing in your presentations. If you'll use the projector only in your darkened conference room, you can safely choose a model that's less bright. But, if you're carrying it to client sites or other meeting rooms, you'll likely want a brighter projector.

Some of the new projectors on the market were designed specifically with traveling presenters' needs in mind.

In February, ViewSonic introduced a new lightweight projector, the PJL1005 Litebird. This little projector, weighing in at 5.5 pounds, was specifically designed for traveling business executives who need to make presentations. The Litebird is a DLP-XGA projector (digital), which means the images it projects will be more crisp than those of an LCD. It's designed to work with video and PowerPoint presentations, creating a large, bright image in small spaces. Some of the features include 900 ANSI lumens, support for 16.7 million colors, a remote control that permits onscreen, instant drawing, the ability to black out the screen, freeze, mute, magnify, standby, select PC or video input and perform mouse functions.

One new LCD projector from InFocus, the LP755, provides 900 lumens, accepts most video sources up to SXGA, has a three-panel dichroic cube system with optical integrator and manual zoom and focus-projection lenses.

Polaroid's new line of ultra-portable LCD projectors consists of the plug-&-play-featured XGA 350, XGA 338 and SVGA 238. Each projector weighs seven pounds and has a natural-color matrix and built-in line doubler for video, picture image and graphics. The XGA 350 and XGA 338 offer 1024 by 78 resolution while the SVGA offers 800 by 600 resolution.

Like other technologies, projectors are going digital. DLP (digital light processing) means chips, and just like a digital camera, the image you get from a DLP projector will be clearer and sharper than with an LCD. Will DLP dominate the market the way VHS squeezed out Beta? It's too early to tell. But many LCD manufacturers also offer DLP models, and some offer projectors that provide both technologies.

InFocus, for example, recently rolled out its first DVI-enabled projectors. The InFocus digital connectivity platform, DigitalConnect, will ship standard on all InFocus projectors this year. DigitalConnect allows users to connect InFocus data/video projectors to their PCs with either a digital or analog signal through a single connector, providing easier set up and enhanced image quality. The projectors receive a digital signal from the PC via the digital visual interface (DVI) standards. Using DigitalConnect, presenters can bypass analog video signals completely, and provide an all-digital image. The benefit? Anytime you're talking digital, you're talking clean, clear and crisp.

The best notebook and projector on the market aren't going to do you much good if you don't have an actual presentation to run on them. For this, you need presentation software. This market has been dominated, for eons, it seems, by Microsoft PowerPoint. Nearly every presenter has used PowerPoint at one time or another and everyone, presenter or not, has certainly seen a PowerPoint presentation. The software has changed the face of presenting, no doubt about it. It's easy to learn, easy to use, and in general, a great product. But what else is out there?

One David who dares to take on the Microsoft Goliath is LMSoft, a Montreal-based firm that released its own presentation software, Presenter, a few years back. It was highly touted, receiving the "Best of COMDEX" award in 1998, but many reviewers thought the program had too steep a learning curve. Recently, LMSoft rolled out its new version, Presenter 3.0 and Presenter Pro. It's much easier to use than its predecessor and can take presenters into realms that PowerPoint can't.

Presenter is a multimedia authoring tool that claims it allows ordinary people to take advantage of the multimedia capabilities of their computers to assemble sound, image, video and animation files. The program features an 18-button toolbar, a simple, point-and-click user interface, more than 100 templates (these are invaluable for the beginner) and more than 500 graphic, sound and video objects. The result is an easy-to-use program with which literally anyone can assemble video, animation, hypertext and digital images into a killer interactive presentation.

As recently as a few years ago, the idea of giving a presentation over the Internet wasn't really viable. Netpodium is looking to change that with Intervu Netpodium, an integrated Webcasting tool featuring streaming media for live and interactive Web events. It was designed specifically for product launches, sales training, customer seminars--any kind of presentation.

The software includes Netpodium Builder, which gives users a wizard that takes them through the necessary steps of choosing a broadcast environment and content (slides, Web-site visits, audience polls and other interactive feedback). The Netpodium Server runs as an NT service that is started automatically as soon as its installation is complete. Audience members don't need special plug-ins or software, just a 28.8 Kilobits-per-second modem or better and a Java-enabled browser. The company even provides live business event services, so users can take advantage of Intervu technology without having to worry about installing it and running it themselves.

Electronic Whiteboards
They've been around awhile, but electronic whiteboards still delight and amaze people more than most presentation technology on the market. As a group sits around your conference table, you can use the whiteboard to take electronic notes, save, access them through a word processor and even send them via e-mail. But that's not all. You can run applications via a projector and control them via the whiteboard with the touch of your finger.

If you're thinking of buying a whiteboard, you'll find a wide range of options. Again, as with any technology, your choice of a whiteboard should depend on your needs. If you only want to save your notes from a presentation or meeting, a standard electronic copyboard will fit the bill. A copyboard simply prints your notes via a printer that's hooked to the board. They tip the price scales at about $2,500. Computer-peripheral whiteboards, ranging from less than $1,000 to $3,000, save your notes as computer files.

Panasonic's line of Panaboards combine these two product categories. The Panaboards print what is written, taped or drawn on the screen. The line also offers PC connectivity, so a user can scan screens and download them to a PC, turning data into a TIFF or BMP file.

For the magic and fun of an electronic whiteboard, you want one from the category known as computer-interactive.

The SMART board, by Smart Technologies, is an interactive whiteboard that combines the look and feel of a regular whiteboard with the power of a computer. It allows you to save and print notes, collaborate on electronic documents, share information and run multimedia materials.

When combined with an LCD panel or projector, your SMART board becomes a touch-sensitive screen. You can control Windows or Macintosh applications simply by touching the board. Use your finger on the board just as you would use a mouse at your desktop, pick up a pen and write notes over your applications in electronic ink to focus your audience's attention, then save or print your notes to create handouts. You can show graphs, documents and slide shows and interact directly with the material on the screen. This kind of technology definitely lends the "wow" factor to presentations.

Whether you're an in-house or traveling presenter, you need to stay in tune with the latest and greatest advancements in presentation technology. After all, you don't want another salesperson to deliver a knockout presentation to your client with killer new tools while you're still using yesterday's technology.

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