Ever found yourself nodding off at the back of a conference hall? Even the most informative presentation can feel like wading through treacle if you’re not careful. Masterful use of transitions and keeping the number of words to a minimum can all help, and personally I get bored looking at slide after slide of bullet pointed lists – there are many more imaginative ways to present a list of facts to a live audience, and I want to share a couple of presentation building applications now that will really unlock your creative potential. I want to be up front too and tell you that these packages will take a bit of learning, especially if you have no real experience with graphics or design software. It’s worth persevering though if you want to make dynamic and exciting presentations and promotional films and deliver memorable pitches. I do a fair bit of public speaking and whether the audience is made up of a handful of company executives or a school hall full of GCSE students, people always ask me what I used to make the presentation afterwards. You can push through the early learning curve by having a look at some of the premade templates and seeing what you can do to them, before working up to creating your own designs.
Powtoon is a great fun application that produces both animated slideshows and short films, in a number of very current design styles. There is a limited (though still generous) choice of templates and character sets with the free account – with premium options for more (of course). This is quite a complex piece of software but I made a video HOW TO guide recently that should help get you kick-started making your own. There are more tutorials in the help section too, so never be too proud to read the manual. With a little patience soon you’ll be recording your own voice track (using Audacity which I’ll cover later in this article) and having your words animate on and off screen with all sorts of characters and props to interact with. It’s a great way to launch an eye-catching and memorable promotional campaign. The end result can be uploaded straight to Youtube, or downloaded and shared in a number of other ways. The free account has limited templates, assets , quality and duration. The pro upgrades look a little expensive until you consider the quality of what you can make and how much that would cost to commission an agency to produce.
Prezi is an old favourite of mine that is fun to use and delivers really stunning results. With a few clicks you’ll be building a cascading, zoomy-mind-map (yes, that is the official technical term) – although be careful not to get carried away with the effects and end up making your audience feel a bit seasick. You can drop in slides containing text, images, video, graphics and even bullet pointed lists if you really want them – then set the path for your presentation and watch it fly. The free account lets you create Prezis that are open to the public; if you want privacy and a vanity web address for sharing you’ll have to pay the subscription, or if you work in education you can apply for a full subscription free.
TIP: If someone asks what software you used to make your presentation (because they will!), use it as an opportunity to swap contact details with them by offering to email the link if they give you a business card.
Audacity is ideal for adding your sound – a free recording tool that lets make professional quality edits with whatever kind of quality finish you would like. To save your podcast as an MP3, the preferred format, you’ll need to download and install the LAME MP3 encoder; search the Audacity Help directory for simple instructions to do this.
There are thousands of places you can download free sound effects, usually in return for a mention when they are used. Freesound.org has never let me down so far when it comes to finding that quirky little sound effect that will add the finishing touch to a podcast episode.
Let’s be honest, meetings are a pain in the derriere (usually quite literally in my experience as you have to sit for far too long listening to other people’s business). They are a necessary evil in any company but you don’t need to burn half the day travelling to and from meetings when you can dial in just 10-seconds beforehand over a webcam instead. It’s now fairly common for people to hold online meetings with anywhere between one and 30 others, much of the time using free video and voice communication that works on VoIP technology. At the other end of the spectrum there are online conferences and ‘webinars’ (a contraction of ‘seminars’ and ‘web’ – sorry, not my marketing buzzword) that seat audiences of thousands without much trouble, even allowing participants to interact through text messages and live chat rooms in some cases. Believe it or not there are tools to do all of the above and more completely free of charge; you just have to know where to look.
I remember 1970’s sci-fi shows depicting space-age video phone calls as being just like watching the telly. How disappointed I was after the turn of the millennium when the experience was still more like watching a slideshow of photos taken every few seconds accompanied by some broken up audio you could just about make out as a voice. We’re still not up to unfettered HD video quality in our homes yet, but we are getting significantly closer as increased connection speeds and improvements in technology making it possible to fit more and more information into less and less space. Video conferencing is now very much a reality and there are some really high quality solutions for even the casual user.
GoToMeeting is a good platform for holding meetings in the cloud, with up to 25 people connecting in audio or 6 on HD video, free from a Mac, PC, iPad, iPhone or Android device. This isn’t a totally free service though; the host will have to pay eventually – but it’s reasonably priced and reliable for a small business. The free trial lasts 30 days, which should be plenty to figure out if it’s going to be useful for your business. There is a monthly subscription after that.
Google Hangouts is number one on my list of video-conferencing services if you don’t want to pay. It goes without saying that integration with Google’s other offerings, such as Calendar, Youtube and Google Plus, will make organising and subsequently sharing your meeting very straightforward. All you need is a webcam (you can pick up a perfectly adequate one for £20, check that it has an in-built microphone) and a Google account and you can meet with up to nine other people, even using the ‘On Air’ feature to broadcast the meeting live to an audience. A lot of indie Youtube channels are springing up like this, feeding a growing hunger for things like cookery and DIY shows – I even saw one Google Hangout broadcasting live amateur-telescope feeds from different parts of the world, accompanied by a lively discussion about astronomy from those broadcasting. This show in particular made use of the screen-sharing feature in Google Hangouts, where you can switch from your webcam to a feed of whatever is on your computer’s desktop so people can see a document you’re explaining (or a planet you are discussing). Once the meeting is over you can save it directly to Youtube so anyone who missed the session can catch up in their own time.
TIP: If everyone at the meeting uses Google Docs you can share and collaborate on the same document, live and in real time. This means you can all work together and no-one has to take copious notes about what was decided because you’ll all end up with exactly the same thing on your desktop at the end.
TIP: Hangouts is part of the Google Plus social media platform, so can be used on the go through any of the official smartphone or tablet apps for that service. Be aware of data costs when broadcasting video to a Hangout meeting when not on a Wi-Fi connection.
Voices in the cloud
Not everyone has, or even wants a webcam. I know when I’m working from home most days I would definitely not want to suddenly find myself in a room full of people – but I am happy to sit in my dressing grown and fluffy slippers on a cold morning attending a meeting from behind the veil of a voice-only call. Apart from reasons of vanity and comfort, not everyone has access to a computer somewhere quiet enough to hold a meeting in the middle of the day – we’ve all seen them hunched in a quiet corridor listening to their phone. Voice conferencing is also a better choice if you’re joining the meeting from a mobile or other slow connection. Video contains at least 15 times more data than audio so could clog up the line making it hard to hear anything at all.
Meetupcall is a conference phone call service that is so simple to use you might never have another face-to-face meeting again. Just schedule an appointment using something like Outlook, Google Calendar or Gmail and add MeetupCall’s email address to the invitation list too. Now the service takes over keeping everyone informed about the upcoming meeting and who is attending, even compiling and sharing LinkedIn profile details of the attendees so you all know exactly who you’re talking to on the call. The ‘free’ account isn’t exactly free; there are no sign-up fees but the cost of your conference call is split between a maximum of 20 participants who all pay around 4.3p a minute to dial in from 10 global locations (which is not a bad price for a good quality conference call service after all). There are subscription accounts for more participants and additional global dial-in locations; the ‘pay as you go’ option lets you pick up the cost of your participants phone calls too if you’re feeling generous. Everyone in the meeting is given the choice of a dedicated dial in number or to have the service call them up when it’s time to roll; reversing the charges of course. Once the call is finished there will be a recording available in your inbox if you ever need to check what was said.
TIP: Why burden someone with the responsibility of taking minutes for your meeting when you can just record the whole session and stash it somewhere either privately, or where everyone can check it if they want to remember what was agreed?
TIP: If you’re meeting on Skype mobile it provides users with free Wi-Fi across the UK at coffee shops, airports and other public places. You’ll need the free Skype Wi-Fi app installed to see if there are any access points near you for free VoIP connections when you’re out and about.
There are a lot of ways to record and share your screen but you can also let people dial in live, even listening to you and watching what you’re doing as you demonstrate something on your desktop or run a PowerPoint presentation. If you want to strip out the complication of video and just use a lean, mean, screen-sharing machine, there is plenty of choice.
Join.me is a screen-sharing tool that will let you throw one-helluva-party with up to 250 people invited to share your screen and swap text chat and files. The presenter can also share audio and give up control of the screen to one of the participants. The service describes itself as ‘ridiculously simple’ and it really is. To run a meeting just download and launch the sharing tool, which gives you a join.me web address to share with anyone you want to invite. That’s it. No registration and your participants need only enter that URL into their favourite browser to be transported to your desktop. If you do register and upgrade to the premium service you’ll enjoy more management and scheduling features, the ability to share the presentation delivery with another person, plus you can share just one window on your desktop rather than your whole machine – quite handy if you want to relinquish control to a viewer but still keep your personal data locked away. As you’d expect mobile apps for Apple and Android devices round this offering off nicely as viewers can dial in from wherever they are and have a reasonably high quality experience.
TIP: Ever spent 10 minutes composing an email only to find when you send it that another person in the string has made your comments null with their input? Email is too linear for any more than two people to really communicate, so real-time collaboration tools like this are the way forward.
TIP: http://tweet-show.com/ If you’re running a live event you can let the audience join in using Twitter. Just create a (hopefully unique) hashtag on Tweet Show and run the application somewhere on a monitor or projected into your event space. Now anything tweeted with that hashtag will be displayed on your screen for all to see. Be warned; there is no moderation or profanity filter.