Show Stoppers

As the millennium draws near, technology becomes more sophisticated in support of business people with a message to transmit.

Anyone involved with cutting edge developments in business presentation software is quick to point out that the time-honoured acetate overhead, flip-chart and slide

carousel have passed their sell-by date.

Even the 1997 Microsoft Power-Point, regarded by many business presenters as the vital accessory, will soon be superseded.

Microsoft will launch the PowerPoint 2000 this summer. With PowerPoint 97, you had laptop PowerPoint: you designed your presentation, took it to the client and beamed it up on the laptop screen. With PowerPoint 2000, it is much quicker, you design your presentation, tap your mouse, and post it on the Web.

That’s all very well for business presenters in multinational organisations, preoccupied with beaming their messages across the globe. While it makes sense in time, money and travel to present across the reaches of cyberspace – technologically, things have not stood still for the great business presentation back on terra firma.

Crown Business Communications managing director Nick Lamb is a great believer in change. “We have had industrial theatre with the large set, darkened room and big screen, with a speaker talking from behind a podium since the Seventies,” he says. “People are bored with that.”

Lamb maintains there is a tremendous requirement to move forward in business presentation techniques. “It is not about change for change’s sake. But it is a basic law of commerce that change works.”

To meet the need for change, Crown came up with the concept of FutuVision two-and-a-half years ago.

“We looked at the best way companies could present, to make the audience feel more involved and closer to the action.” explains Lamb. “We disposed of the set and replaced it with a semi-circular background, and added multi-media with the latest digital projection techniques.” FutuVision is described as creating the effect of “an environment within an environment” and has been used by a number of Crown’s clients such as BT, United Utilities, Spar and Bayer.

Not content with this as a concept in business presentation, Crown has gone on to introduce yet another concept – Immersivision. As the name suggests, this is about completely enveloping the audience with sound and pictures.

Gone is any hint of a fixed set. A 65-monitor video wall stretches from wall to ceiling, left to right, curved into a semi-circular cyclorama. This, claims Crown, occupies the entire field of vision, leaving the audience entirely immersed in a single presentation experience.

And the future of presentation technology does not stop with wraparound sound. There are more developments on the way and all for the greater good of the business message, if only people realised, says Lamb.

“The vast majority of production companies don’t recognise the power of channelling all things that are happening with multimedia and compression technologies,” he argues.

But do we really need all this sophistication to get the business message across?

According to Lamb, we do. “There are so many people out there fighting for that little piece of cake – anything that will give a company some advantage to get the business has to be worth it.”

This view is shared by production company Catalysm.

“Everything in business is about change,” says Catalysm co-founder Robert Lee. “And harnessing what technology has to offer is the way to achieve it.”

Lee credits the advent of Power-Point as having had a profound effect on business presentations by making the presenter really focus on what they have to say. And now there is the added advantage of being able to use the Web to enhance the effectiveness of the business presentation.

Catalysm has arranged events for which it has created a Website before the live presentation to inform people of the agenda – and then downloaded the presentation to tell people what happened. But in Lee’s experience it may be a while longer before Webcasting becomes a regular fixture among business presenters.

“We have suggested it to our clients but they are not biting,” he admits. “There is still development work that needs to be done.”

But it will happen, assures Lee. “My vision is that in time we will be able to hold virtual events that will be as exciting as the live ones.” Already, benefits are in view.

According to Andrew Hillary, managing director of production company Clearwater, new developments have made business presentations easier and cut back on the amount of hardware involved.

“By using something such as swuitep software run on a Stealth hardware system, you can now bring together PowerPoint video and computer graphics. This system reduces the kit, alleviates the need for a control room, and cuts down on staff.”

Hillary maintains that as the audience becomes used to an improved standard of presentation in their own home and leisure environment, so they will also come to expect more in the business environment.

But isn’t all the presentation wizardry just for the big corporates with loads of money? Not always, says Hillary. “We have done tiny jobs that have been just as sophisticated as some of the 500,000 projects for larger companies. Generally, as the cost of equipment comes down, smaller companies will have greater access.”

Hillary concedes that there will be times when it is inappropriate to wrap your audience up in a wall of pictures and pound home the presentation of the century.

“Big presentations have their place. But it would be inappropriate for a company that was downsizing, for example, to put on a big high tech show. Then, you would need a presentation that was more emotional.”

This is where the real person has a serious part to play. Despite the fact that there are business presenters who can create their own shows with a swish of the laptop, there continues to be huge demand for training.

People still want to be coached in the simple art of standing up behind a lectern and doing something quite untechnological – speaking.

David Lancaster, director of Presentation Techniques, points out that the most powerful visual aid is still the speaker. “People are using all these props for the wrong reasons. Very few people have sufficient skills in speaking, so they turn to technology to beef up their act.”

Patricia Adams, senior management consultant and associate of the Industrial Society, reinforces this view of presenter beware. “Visual aids and statistics can be like lamp posts,” she says. “People lean on them more than use them for the light they give out.”

Adams believes there is a danger that presenters could get so caught up with technology, they may neglect other aspects of their presentation. Or they may become complacent with their own performance believing that PowerPoint will get the message over for them.

Stuart Blake, communications director for production company The Visual Connection, believes that visual aids are fine as a piece of support. But what really holds the show together is personal passion. There is a place for technology in business presentations if your company operates on a large scale and can afford it. But this should supplement, not supplant, the presenter.”

According to research carried out by the Conference & Banquet ing Centre on a random sample of 1,000 conference delegates across a number of venues, the elements that were most important were a big-name speaker and the use of advanced technology.

Looking ahead to 2000, over a third of the delegates believed that multimedia features will replace existing presentation aids and one in five said Web conferencing should be standard practice, thus removing any need to spend time away from the office.

So those technophobes out there stocking up on acetates and slide collections should take heed. Your days as business presenters may be numbered. Cue sound. Cue software. Times are indeed changing.

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