In my last column, I discussed the best way to use PowerPoint to make a presentation, either in training or in some other venue. I discussed structuring your presentation, using videos and common presenter errors. This month I'll look at the necessary equipment in greater detail.
Effective use of PowerPoint or any other presentation software requires incorporating graphic images and video to support your text. Before you can start playing with graphics and video on your computer, you need to make sure your equipment is up to the task. Three items pose possible stumbling blocks: your computer, your projector and your screen.
The Right Computer
With prices plummeting, there's no excuse for a serious presenter to use outmoded, inappropriate equipment. You can buy very capable laptop computers for less than $1,000 from any number of manufacturers. Whether you're buying a new machine or just upgrading your old one, you'll need some essential components when you start using graphics and video.
Put all this in the "more horsepower" category. Your computer needs a lot of juice to manage a video stream or accurately and quickly display color photos. You want your presentation to look good and run smoothly, without that jerky video quality that reminds you of World War I movies, or painfully slow graphics as your screen slowly reveals the image.
First, make sure your computer is fast enough. Without getting into a lot of mumbo-jumbo about chip speeds, you won't be able to effectively use graphics and video unless you have a relatively fast processor. Any laptop purchased new within the last year or two will probably do the job in this department, unless it's of the very bargain-basement variety. If you're going to acquire a new machine, stick with a mid-range or higher central processing unit (CPU), and you'll be okay.
Memory, called random access memory or RAM, poses the next major hurdle. Windows XP requires at least 256 megabytes (MB) of RAM to run properly, and more is better. The new version of Windows, called Vista, needs at least 512MB. But these are basic numbers. In order to get the best performance for video, you should have at least one gigabyte (GB) of RAM. Memory is one of the cheapest upgrades you can perform, so don't skimp here.
Another key factor: hard-drive speed. Many laptop hard drives run at 4,200 rpm, which is sub-par for video. A drive running at 5,400 rpm is better, but 7,200 rpm is best. In fact, 7,200-rpm drives are sometimes referred to as audio-visual (AV) drives because they handle audio-visual needs so well. Of course, the faster the drive, the more it costs. Prices have come down a lot, however.
When selecting a hard drive, get the biggest one you can. Video and graphics eat up an incredible amount of drive space. A 15-minute video can easily take up 250 300MB. If you're going to use video, plan on at least an 80GB drive.
By the way, you'll notice laptop hard drives tend to get slower as they get larger unless you pay more. A 40GB drive, running at 5,400 or 7,200 rpm, is fairly inexpensive. Most 100GB or 120GB drives, on the other hand, run at 4,200 rpm, and a faster drive of that size can cost more. Still, if you're serious about presenting, it's worth it.
One last thing about your computer: Check with the manufacturer to make sure the on-board video interface can handle external video. Some computers have video adapters that work fine with the built-in LCD screen, but are over-taxed when trying to drive an external display such as a projector. Ideally, you want a video adapter that will not only handle your graphics and video, but will also allow you to use the external port for both your projector and the computer's internal display at the same time. That way you can see what you're projecting by looking at the computer, and won't have to turn and look at the projection screen (a cardinal sin of many presenters).
You have many options when selecting a projector. First, decide how you plan on using it. If you're going to set it up in a classroom or other fixed location and leave it there, you can get by with a larger, heavier model. On the other hand, if you're going to travel with it, opt for one of the smaller, lighter models. It may not seem like much, but when you're hauling your computer and all the necessary support gear, a 10-lb. projector can seem as if it weighs 100 lbs.
Make sure you get a projector that's bright enough. Projectors are rated in lumens, and manufacturers have a tendency to overstate their products' capabilities. Go online and read reviews of projectors; many reviewers actually test the machines, and they are more likely to give you accurate numbers.
If you plan on having any room light on at all during your presentations (this is typical), look for a projector rated at around 2,000 lumens or more. You'll also want to look for a projector with adequate inputs for your needs, and one that comes with a remote control, preferably with a decent laser pointer built in. You'll likely be disappointed here, though, as most projector remote controls have pretty wimpy laser pointers. Still, you might get lucky.
If you're going to make presentations in fairly small venues, know the useful range of your projectors. There are some great projectors out there, but many require you to position them far from the screen in order to get a large enough image. In a small conference room or classroom, this can pose a real problem.
The Projection Screen
You may have no control over the choice of your projection surface. If your presentations are typically traveling road shows, you might have to deal with what you find. I've used everything from screens, bed sheets, and walls as a projection surface. You sometimes just have to make do. However, if you've got a choice, or are buying a screen for your department, choose a real screen rather than a painted wall. Screens have treated surfaces that make your images pop out with vivid colors and good sharpness. Opt for the biggest screen you can, and set it up as high as you can from a practical standpoint. Higher images are easier for your audience to see, and you might even be able to walk beneath the projected image, as opposed to crossing in front of the projector, and casting the proverbial giant shadow.
Whatever set-up you end up with, always take a walk around the room and view your screen from various angles to make sure your entire audience will be able to see your presentation. If it's a very large room, get a large screen and shove it up high. I once attended a presentation in a large hotel ballroom with about 400 people in attendance. I was late, so I got stuck way at the back of the room. I assume the presenter had some good stuff to show, but I couldn't really tell because he was using a 5'-wide screen. From the back it looked like a postage stamp.
For most presentations you'll need three additional items: a remote control, a good laser pointer and speakers.
Even though your projector probably came with a remote control, it might not suit your needs. Most projector remotes have way too many buttons for the average presenter. When the lights are dim, you'll have trouble deciphering which button you need to press. Good remotes are simple and easy to use.
Also consider your remote's range. Cheaper remotes use infrared signals, which have limited range and are line-of-sight. You'll be much happier with a radio frequency (RF) remote. Most of these operate in the 2.4-GHz band, so you may get occasional interference from nearby cordless phones and the like, but this is pretty rare, and if you encounter a problem, you can switch to a different channel.
Interlink Electronics makes one of the best remote controls out there, the Remote-Point Global Presenter. Very sturdy, with a decent laser pointer, and a 100'-range.
Remotes have a way of dying at the worst possible moment. I always carry a second remote tucked into my projector case. Mobile Edge makes a neat remote that slides into your laptop's PCMCIA card slot (not used much anymore, so it's usually empty), so you always have it with you. Great alternative!
You might need a laser pointer, especially if you present in large rooms or show slides with a lot of data on them. Pointers are ubiquitous now, and you can get them cheaply. But the really cheap ones are not for the serious presenter. Invest in a good laser pointer that should last many years and is the brightest one you can find. A little Internet research will help here. I use a green laser pointer (most are red), mainly because green laser diodes are much brighter than red ones. Also, green is unusual enough that it captures people's attention more quickly than a red one. And yes, I also carry a backup laser pointer. Call me crazy.
Again, the RemotePoint remote control has an outstanding laser pointer incorporated into its design.
Lastly, you'll need powered speakers. If you're going to show videos, the speakers in your laptop and/or projector just won't do. Both are low powered and aren't intended for presentations. In fact, I don't know why manufacturers bother to put speakers in projectors. Most laptop speakers I've heard are louder than most projector speakers. You can pick up good, quality powered speakers at any office supply or big-box retailer. The problem comes in figuring out how to transport them. They tend to be big and clunky, even the small ones.
Interlink Electronics comes to the rescue again with a great set of speakers called GoSpeak! They contain a 40-watt amplifier and fold together, making a package about the size of a thick laptop computer or a phone book. They handle good-sized rooms very well. They're a little more expensive than other set-ups about $400 but they are so ideal and sturdy, that they're worth it. After going through half a dozen sets of $50 $100 speakers over the years, I wish I'd found these sooner. You can also get them bundled with a very nice wireless microphone for about $100 more. Most places you present will offer some sort of microphone, but you can't count on it.
We've discussed the equipment you need for dynamite presentations, and reviewed many of the problems faced by (and sometimes created by) presenters. Now it remains for you to get out there and share your accumulated wisdom.
Stay safe, and wear your vest!
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