Most things you need to know about staging large events can be learned from This Is Spinal Tap. What event producer hasn’t turned up on site to find some equivalent of a 18-inch high Stonehenge set, because someone misread the plans?
I had my own Spinal Tap moment the other week. For those who haven’t seen the film, here’s where the hyped-up band gets lost in the subterranean labyrinth on the way to the stage:
In my own version, hosting a presentation in a very large auditorium, I had a 45 minute lunch break to get AV crews sorted, panel briefed, run sheet understood etc. With 10 minutes to showtime, it was all under control. At that point, I decided the professional thing to do was take a pre-show visit to the gents’. I headed for the exit doors underneath the raked seating.
The convention centre has gigantic airlock doors out of Battlestar Galactica. You push a large button on the wall and the first door opens. You enter the airlock and push a second button. The next door opens and releases you into the netherworld corridor a level down from the lobby. Being an environmentally responsible convention centre, the lights were off. I stumbled around in the semi-darkness, and finally found the bathrooms. Locked. I pushed the button to get back into the auditorium. Nothing. One-way, no-entry doors.
Visions of hearing the MC intro me, and nobody can hear my door-pounding and screams through the airlock.
Finally, with about a minute to go, run a hundred metres up stairs and push my way through a queue of audience at the door. Get to stage huffing and puffing. “Hello Cleveland!”
After the show I learned there’s an executive-class bathroom just backstage. It’s the little things that get you.
The design guys and I are working on a food packaging project at the moment. It’s quite a fiddly task. There’s a Dan Brown novel’s worth of legal mandatories to fit on each box, much of it warnings about the two greatest threats to Western civilisation: nuts and crustaceans.
DANGER THIS FOOD MAY HAVE BEEN PREPARED USING EQUIPMENT THAT MAY HAVE COME INTO CONTACT WITH NUTS OR CRUSTACEANS, OR POSSIBLY OPERATED BY A PERSON WHO ONCE SHOOK HANDS WITH SOMEONE WHO ONCE ATE A NUT OR CRUSTACEAN, AND IN FACT IT IS POSSIBLE TO DIE A SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH FROM JUST THINKING ABOUT NUTS OR CRUSTACEANS, THAT’S HOW DANGEROUS THEY ARE ACCORDING TO OUR LEGAL DEPARTMENT.
So there’s a lot of fine-print type going over the top of photos, which creates production dramas too tedious to relate here, but it has some relevance for creating presentation graphics.
A nice photo makes a more compelling background for your screen show than a cheesy graphic template. But adding words over the top can present all sorts of hassles. Here’s a quick guide to the words-on-pictures thing that you can do within PowerPoint, rather than having to use Photoshop, Illustrator or other fancy gear.
For demonstration purposes, here’s a picture of the handsome lads of Scene Change Tasmania, in their natural habitat of Constitution Dock (which, by the way, is ALIVE with dangerous crustaceans).
Like most shots, it’s a mixture of dark and light bits, so the black type disappears into the dark suit. Let’s try white type.
That’s a lot better, but it still gets a bit lost on the lighter concrete background. So we’ll add a subtle shadow to the text in the slide below. Adding the shadow actually reduces the perceived weight of the font, so I’ve switched it to Bold as well:
That’s much clearer. It’s a black shadow with a 75% transparency. It works best if your version of PowerPoint has an adjustable shadow facility. Some of the earlier versions had a single, very ugly setting with a gray, massively offset shadow which will do your photo no justice.
If adding a shadow still isn’t making it clear, try the ‘glow’ feature (Format/Font/Text Glow and Soft Edges). This is a black 8 point glow on 32 point type, at 75% transparency:
Almost all video titles use a glow, because of the legibility hassles with a moving background with changing levels of contract. It’s pretty foolproof for still images. But if you’re dealing with a super-contrasty background, consider putting a transparent background in your text box.
Drag the borders of your text box to the left and right margins of the picture, and centre your text. Now adjust the ‘Fill’ on your text box from ‘No Fill’ to black. Now adjust the transparency until the text is legible, without blocking out the picture too much. On this shot, I’ve set the transparency at 75%:
It’s quite a nice, elegant effect. Depending on the shot, and your personal taste, you could use black text on a white box, also set to 75% transparency, like this:
While the transparencies look great on screen, beware if you’re planning to print the pages. Some printers give you a messy, crosshatched effect. Test your printer well in advance of the deadline.
And after all those shots, you’re probably feeling a strong, subliminal attraction to Scene Change Tasmania. If you are, you should know the contact details for our beaut new office, a stone’s throw from where this photo was taken:
There you are up in front of an expectant audience, buck naked, without a script, and you open your mouth and nothing comes out.
That’s the standard presentation nightmare, though if you eat a lot of cheese before you go to bed, sometimes you get the enhanced version in which the audience consists entirely of llamas in lederhosen.
As you know, that sort of thing rarely happens in actual life. But the next worst thing happens all the time: you go to show an audience your thrilling video, and it’s NOT THERE.
Just a big empty black box in your PowerPoint.
You click and click, hoping that the laptop’s just running low on available memory.
“Just bear with me,” you say. “Any second now.”
But there’s nothing. So today we’re going to look at the two main sources of on-site video trauma for presenters.
1. Embedded Video Not There
When you insert a video clip into PowerPoint, it doesn’t become part of the presentation file like a picture does. It’s just a link to somewhere else on your computer.
AV technicians spend much of their life trying to help presenters who have copied their PPT file across to a USB stick, brought it along to the show, and are wondering where their video or audio clips went.
If you’re not using your own computer for the presentation, you have to copy all the video and audio files into one folder on the USB stick or disc. Then when you load it onto the on-site computer, make sure the links are still working. Get there early, before there’s an audience in the room.
If you are using your own computer, check that the linked video files are actually on your machine, not on the server back at the office.
2. Is it really a DVD?
“I’m bringing a DVD” can mean a lot of things these days.
There’s your ‘classic’ DVD: a video program using DVD encoding, like you rent from Blockbuster. You stick it in a DVD player, and it plays.
Then there’s video files burned on a blank DVD. It says ‘DVD’, but it’s not programmed like a movie DVD. It’s just another form of file storage. So you stick the disc in the rented DVD player in your trade show booth, and nothing happens.
There are two ways to check what you’re dealing with.
One is to stick it in a DVD player - an actual playback deck rather than the DVD player on your laptop. if it brings up an on-screen menu and plays, it’s a DVD and will work pretty much anywhere.
The safest option is to look at the disk in your file management program. Actual DVD’s have a distinctive-looking file structure, with separate video and audio directories, like this:
If it looks like this, it’s just video files stored on a DVD disc, not a universally playable DVD:
To complicate things, some DVD players will read other file formats and play them. But some won’t, and that introduces a scary level of uncertainty if you’re travelling around using rented AV gear.
When in doubt, ask your AV people what to do, well in advance of the event. That way, there’s time to get the DVD properly authored so you can sleep as peacefully as your hotel room allows.
People love ye olde medieval frolics. Who hasn’t been to a Dirty Dick’s or the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur? And at least one regular reader of this blog got married in medieval style with lutes and town criers and acres of velvet.
Until now, there hasn’t been much medieval work done in the world of presentations.
For your enjoyment, here’s a surreal feast of mixed metaphors and a banquet of bizarre speaker support from US Senator Chuck Grassley, debating on healthcare funding.
If you took a poll of audiences everywhere, maths lectures are up there with OH&S inductions and televised golf for stifling dullness.
So top marks (ho ho!) to Matthew Weathers, professor of maths at Biola University, who proves that presentation greatness doesn’t need big budgets, just a great idea.
In this case, it’s an idea that you could stage using very basic AV equipment. And a long rehearsal to get the timings right. They’re just simple sight gags, but audiences love them. Admittedly there isn’t a lot of maths in there but I’m sure he brings that alive in his regular lectures.
Think about how you could mess around with the form of your presentations to keep people entranced like the professor.
Last post we spoke of how two revolutions have overlapped to lower the quality of picture and sound reproduction in every area of our lives. The digital entertainment revolution has compressed everything to fit through the web, and the Chinese manufacturing revolution has made equipment cheap and disposable. So the overall production values of presentations have plunged.
Here are a few tips to restore the production gloss so that people at your event get an experience worthy of the effort they made to get there.
Hotel ceiling speakers are designed for wedding speeches, and generally sound thin and tinny. A quality PA system will transform the impact of your video material, and lets you use music to greater effect.
Separate bass subs (professional ones, not the ones that came with your $200 surround sound system) take it to the next level. Movie theatres use them create that massive sound that makes going to the movies worthwhile. Your audiences ‘feels’ the soundtrack, and that creates a powerful impact.
Improve Your Image Quality
A lot of material is produced in HD now, then crunched down to standard DVD resolution for the live presentation. On the big screen, it can feel a little grungy, now that everyone has HD TV at home. Authoring your own DVD’s on your computer is another quality killer, as most domestic programs compress the picture even further.
If you need DVD’s to hand out, use a professional studio. If you’re showing something important, like your new ad campaign or corporate video, bypass the DVD’s, get a good, fast computer, and play it straight from a high-res .mov or wmv. file instead.
If it’s a important video, don’t embed it in PowerPoint, as it takes quite a while to get rolling, with your audience staring at the screen wondering what’s happening. Run the file in its native player in the computer.
Nothing adds atmosphere to a room like well-designed lighting. A good lighting designer can give your room instant emotion. And with modern lighting, you can change the mood instantly. Good lighting makes presenters look much better too, making them the star of the show rather than blending into the stage backdrop.
Use A Stage Set
Sets don’t just look good, they condition your audience’s expectations, so they perceive the presentation as being better than a standard speech. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how it works.
Use an Event Producer
Hire an experienced creative producer to plan out the presentation for you. They’ll do two things. Firstly, they’ll come up with creative ideas to get your message across. Secondly, they’ll stage manage the presentation so it all ‘feels’ right, like a theatrical show, with walk-on music, presenters entering and exiting the stage professionally, and all the other details that audiences draw a subconscious impression from.
Yes, they cost money. But consider the cost of the alternative: paying to entertain a room full of people who leave the room feeling ambivalent about your company and unlikely to take any positive action as a result.
This, by the way, is not a service Scene Change offers, being humble providers of technical services, but ask around and you should be able to find a good one.
As a piece of Youtube entertainment, the global U2 show was pretty good. The sort of production values that you can rely on from U2, and another epic bit of staging with their giant claw.
A digitally-minded person could watch it and think, ‘wow, it’s almost as good as being there.’
But it isn’t.
It’s on a screen the size of a cigarette packet, and I’m listening to it through a $5 earpiece I use for Skype. Sure, I could run it through the Apple TV and the good speakers at home, but those good intentions never quite eventuate.
The digital revolution has put entertainment into every corner of our lives, but it’s mostly delivered in low-fi, bargain-basement quality. Tiny video images on phones. Cheap-ass iPod docking stations with one-inch speakers. DVD’s played in thin, buzzy laptop ’stereo’. Grimy compressed web video with Lego-sized pixels. MP3 audio, the first major format in the history of recorded music to be noticeably worse than its predecessor.
Go to that U2 show in person and it’s immense. Their Zoo TV tour in the early 90’s remains the single most amazing live spectacle I’ve ever seen, and bless them for outspending the US defence budget to create it. I can still remember it vividly, despite all the refreshments, and I can’t remember stuff I saw on Youtube yesterday.
At an event like that, you’re committed to paying attention. You’re never going to experience being at that event again, so it’s special. You can’t just hit pause, do a bit of work, and restart it at your convenience. Like you can on the Youtube version.
It’s worth remembering the value of production quality when you’re creating a presentation or event. You’ve gone to the trouble to get a bunch of people into a room. So don’t give them an experience they could get at their desk. Presentation quality works both as a spectacle and a subconscious signal that the message is worth listening to.
A lot of presentation material is designed now it can be streamed and emailed, and that’s fine if that’s the medium you’re using to communicate. But there’s no need for compression in the live presentation. Are you going to give them material that feels like email, or are you going to sear your message into their memory in a way that will stay with them for years?
Next post, we’ll look at some specific ways to increase your live production values.
If you’re a meeting planner, want to know how to help your presenters get their message across better?
Put them against a better background. Just as the subject of a picture will always look better in an attractive setting, people will give presenters more respect if the stage set looks professional.
Audiences start judging an event from the moment they walk into the room. They think: what does this room environment remind me of?
If they walk into the room and see a tripod screen and a plastic banner, it’s going to remind them of school, or university lectures. They have flashbacks to long, eye-wateringly dull speeches from crusty headmasters in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.
They’re already a little dozy by the time the presenters start, even if they turn out to have no elbow patches at all.
On the other hand, if they walk in to a room with a professional-looking stage backdrop, lighting and music, it reminds them of theatre or TV shows.
Their subconscious minds think: Looks like we’re in for something interesting.
This sense of authority is why TV networks spend a fortune on sets. Can you picture your favorite news anchor sitting behind a hotel fold-up table on a stage, with the network logo on a plastic banner? You wouldn’t watch, would you?
A set gives your presenters a head start, because they don’t have to work as hard to overcome the expectation of dullness.
Sets for events can be really elaborate, but they don’t have to be. The main purpose is just to break free of the standard brown hotel wall or black draping, and add some lightness and colour. Your staging people can create looks with stretch fabric and lights that really lift the mood. It also creates much stronger corporate branding.
As a bonus, presenters in this environment feel more important, so they rise to the occasion with a more enthusiastic, energetic speech.
If you have a nasty feeling that your boss is about to make you redundant, do you:
A. Work harder to make your department more viable.
B. Accept your fate and start taking lots of office stationery home while you’ve got the chance.
C: Contract a team of six Colombians to shoot him dead before he can take you out.
The Head of AV at Barcelona Convention Centre selected Option C, according to this Reuters report, having his boss whacked by the Colombian contractors in a desperate attempt to save himself from ‘restructuring’.
Thanks to Greg van Dyke for drawing this incident to our attention.
Here’s how to tell if your AV technician has Pablo Escobar tendencies:
1. Amid all the black uniforms, one tech is wearing a white linen suit.
2. Only has one button on op. desk, for trapdoor to under-stage shark pool.
3. Has a moustache of any kind.
4. Delivery van has 20″ chrome rims*.
5. Reaches inside jacket when you mention you’re packing some bullet points.
*Scene Change vans only have responsible 15″ chrome rims. And no operators with moustaches outside of Movember. Yep, you’re safe with Scene Change.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.