The only thing worse than sitting through a boring PowerPoint presentation is delivering one. Yet death by PowerPoint may be one of the biggest risks of doing business. On any given day, some 30 million PowerPoint presentations are delivered, according to Microsoft. Of course, when it was released for Windows in 1990, the software was an exciting new way of presenting information. But that's not always the case today. Among the most common offenses: Speakers simply read the slides to the audience; the text is too small; the color and animation are dull; the charts are too complex. Technology got us into this mess; now, technology is working hard to get us out. There are scores of new products designed to enhance, or even replace, PowerPoint. Some cost thousands, others are free. Here are six offerings that can help make your next presentation less of a snooze and more of a blockbuster.
Best For… Instant feedback
Cool Features: With TurningPoint's instant-polling technology, each audience member gets a credit card-size response pad. Using PowerPoint, the presenter puts questions up on the screen. Audience members key in their responses, which are funneled via a wireless connection into the presenter's computer. The results are calculated and organized into PowerPoint graphs and instantly displayed on the large screen.
In Action: Architect Michael Dingeldein recently faced 200 parents, students, administrators, and neighbors--all there to see Steed Hammond Paul Architects' long-awaited designs for a new school building. Rather than waiting for the reaction to trickle in, he distributed TurningPoint response pads and polled the audience throughout his talk. "The audience engagement was incredible," Dingeldein says. "They were laughing and cheering as the results came up on the screen. What it does to the audience is incredible. They're right there with you."
Price: $2,920 for a 25-user system
Best For… Luddites
Cool Features: Rather than adding fancy graphics or animation, Ovation software lets people with limited computer skills make their run-of-the-mill PowerPoint presentations visually exciting, adding depth, motion, background, and improved resolution from more than 100 templates. Even better, it's an out-of-the-box product, with no confusing licensing fees.
In Action: Investment manager Sean Lehmann makes dozens of presentations a year--often to employees about their companies' 401(k) plans. It's not unusual for him to look into the audience and see the dreaded eyes-glazed-over look. "The material can get kind of dry," he admits. Ovation injects new life into the standard PowerPoint slide show--allowing Lehmann to, say, place his slide data into a home office environment, so the bullet points move from the animated computer to the to-do list to the appointment book. At a recent presentation, Lehmann could tell the visual gymnastics were making a difference. "Instead of leaning back with their arms folded, they were all sitting up straight, looking ahead, some taking notes," he says. "We got their attention."
Best For… Groovy graphics
Cool Features: In the unending battle between Macintosh and PC users, Keynote wields one of Apple's most potent weapons--super-rich visuals. Designed by and for Mac users, Keynote presenters incorporate 3-D images, a wide variety of shapes and textures, plus sharp photography and animation.
In Action: Richard Warner, CEO of What's Up Interactive, was just starting his presentation to the Technology Association of Georgia last year when through his earpiece he could hear the chatter of the venue's audio-visual squad. "As I was beginning my presentation, one of them said: 'Damn, what is that? It's beautiful.' Another responded: 'I'm sure it's Keynote.' 'Can we get that?' 'No, it's just for Macs.' " Audience members seemed equally impressed. Three of them are now his clients.
Price: Licensing fees start at $69 per seat per year for 10 to 99 users.
Best For… Staying on schedule
Cool Features: Thermometer for PowerPoint is just what it says it is: a thermometer-style bar that sits in the bottom area of each slide, displaying how much of a presentation has progressed and how much remains. The tool can be customized to be seen by the presenter, the audience, or both.
In Action: Most presentations go on way too long, says Geetesh Bajaj, a technology consultant and author of Cutting Edge PowerPoint for Dummies. He developed the thermometer to make sure that didn't happen to him during his own client presentations. The gauge keeps him on schedule and ensures he gives enough time to each slide; even better, he no longer finds himself rushing through the end of his slides when time is running out. In fact, Bajaj likes the tool so much that he shares it for free on his company's website; so far some 100,000 people have downloaded it.
Best For… Presentations on the road (or even off-road)
Cool Features: This laptop is built for abuse--a shock-, dust-, and spill-resistant machine designed to operate while bouncing around in trucks, at construction sites, and on factory floors. Features include an LCD screen, integrated wireless, and a tablet PC function that recognizes handwriting.
In Action: To sell their computerized measurement devices, execs at Faro Technologies, based in Lake Mary, Florida, give presentations under harsh conditions. Once, while making a presentation at a St. Louis factory, a Faro rep knocked his Toughbook off its perch and it crashed five feet to the shop floor. Not only did the machine not break, says David Morse, a vice president of sales, it didn't even stop running its application.
Price: $3,000 to $5,000, depending upon configurations
Best For… The "wow" factor
Cool Features: In addition to the standard charts and text, Ontra allows users to easily incorporate video, audio, and animation and can make a presentation seem more like network television than the standard slide show. Ontra can work alongside PowerPoint, or replace it entirely.
In Action: Sales execs at Tribune Entertainment rely on flashy presentations to help convince national advertisers to purchase time on its syndicated programming. In the past, that often required using a laptop computer, a VHS player, a DVD player, and a monitor. Ontra combines standard informational slides with digitized video clips--and the entire presentation runs off a single laptop. "Now that we're not trying to juggle three machines and all their moving parts, we can focus on giving our pitch," says Clark Morehouse, a senior vice president.
Price: $250 per month to $10,000 per month, depending on the number of users and the range of features desired