Technology, Theatrics Can Deliver

September 12, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — When former Yahoo! Chief Solutions Officer Tim Sanders delivered his message on the new economy during Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Small Business Celebration luncheon last spring, he cited Bluewater Technologies by name.

"It's companies like Bluewater Technologies that you should be looking to," he said at the time. "These are the types of things that are going to help you get your message out."

Southfield-based Bluewater established a Grand Rapids presence last November, quickly growing its staff from four to 13. The firm was responsible for the audiovisual support at the Small Business Celebration.

"At the luncheon, that was just a screen," explained Mark Wilson, a Bluewater account executive who has managed over 200 events out of West Michigan in the past year.

"But he (Sanders) came up to me afterward and said that was one of the best staging opportunities he's ever had, just because we were set up before he got there and no one was running around.

"That's just a given," Wilson said. "I was thinking to myself, 'That was nothing.'"

Like most technologies, those associated with display and presentations have become cheaper and more accessible in recent years. Microsoft PowerPoint now is standard on most computers, while nonlinear video editing can also be accomplished on most, allowing many presenters to put together their programs without assistance.

Although a projector of the sort used at the chamber luncheon — bright enough to provide a clear picture when the room lights are somewhat dimmed — has a price tag in the six figures, smaller and more practical displays are now commonplace in local boardrooms.

Where once just making the presenter not look like a stick figure was a producer's primary concern, the affordability and availability of projectors and displays have now allowed some local firms to make presentations more effective and powerful.

"My heart and soul is in display opportunities, providing producers a pallet to paint their art on," Wilson said. "What I want to do is provide something more than a screen."

One of his favorite innovations is multiple-destination output switching. This allows high-definition imagery to be routed among different screens.

Extremely effective in video-conferencing — whether involving different computers in the same building or from locations across the planet — images from separate sites can be placed on screens side-by-side or split on the same screen.

With PowerPoint displays, different charts, graphs or data can be placed on separate screens.

Another multi-screen use involves creating a larger picture, he said, noting that four 15- by 20-foot screens can become one 15-by-80 screen. Where once there would be four separate identical pictures, Wilson said, one large picture now can be stretched across the entire stage. Too, a single presenter can be seen to walk from screen to screen as he moves across the stage.

"Videoconferencing is becoming popular now that the bandwidth is there," Wilson added. "But nothing will replace face-to-face."

He said the arrival of wireless capabilities gives new tools to live presenters. "Most people want to have a screen with PowerPoint," Wilson said. "PowerPoint? Video? That's no problem. But do you want feedback?"

At a recent event for the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Wilson outfitted the audience with audience response mechanisms (ARMs), which allowed feedback to be tallied onscreen. Audience members could see if their views were unique or shared. Presenters could better understand the response of the audience and the effectiveness of their message to the audience.

For a simple presentation of new developments to a group of 100 or so salespeople, an easy and inexpensive PowerPoint may be the best choice, Wilson said. But if the idea is to introduce a new product line and excite employees to sell it, something more may be needed.

"What you want to do is get them engaged," said Tom Scheidel, of the media event production company The Scheidel Group.

"No matter how good a PowerPoint or video clip, it's still just sitting there watching," Scheidel said. "The trend is that you want to get them engaged, get them out there and motivated, get them off their feet (with) music, games — that kind of thing."

Rather than working around new technologies like cordless lecterns, ARMs and multipoint switching, Scheidel said technology should only be used to support the message. Sometimes, the best solutions may not be technology-based.

"We did a kick-off sort of thing for National Heritage Academies (NHA) a few years ago," Scheidel said. "And we were joking about how it was a big rah-rah session. Then we thought, 'Hey, let's not joke about it. Let's make it a rah-rah session.'"

The Scheidel Group staged a pep rally for 1,500 NHA staffers. He said the staging was designed to resemble a college football stadium. The program began with a drum major and cheerleaders doing a fight song.

The group also created a large sign with the corporate logo through which the president and managers ran like a football squad charging onto a field.

"In between all this, the president is up on stage saying where he is going to take the company, reading it off a clipboard like he's a football coach," Scheidel said. "People were pumping their fists, up on their chairs screaming. Not only do they take away the message the corporation wanted to give, but they are reenergized and excited."

Scheidel said technology's allure can be strong and sometimes dangerous.

Wilson and Scheidel have decades of experience staging events in West Michigan, along with Peter Larson and Kirk Grimshaw, co-founders of Wilson's former employer, Intaglio Visual Arts and Technologies. They all agreed technology should be weighed carefully against the needs of the message.

"We all get excited about the technology," Grimshaw said. "Presenters get excited about PowerPoint and adding all kinds of animation. Producers get excited about the displays.

"But if it's not focused on whatever the message is, then technology detracts from it."

According to Grimshaw, one of the best ways to use technology is when trying to influence emotion. In the case of fundraisers, where the cause is often a social element, display technology can provide a picture of that element. By showing humanity on a bigger-than-life screen, the potential donor can see the whole cycle of the problem to its resolution as a result of contributing.

Intaglio is also experimenting with multipoint switching, having designed and installed a four-screen system in the DeVos Performance Hall that debuted last week. Also, the cost of the projectors Intaglio offers has decreased by a multiple of ten, while getting smaller and brighter. But demand has decreased nonetheless.

"We've seen a lessening of the Hollywood-style show," Larson said. "Partly because of budgets, there are more straightforward presentations. It used to be more common to have more showmanship."

But Larson believes this is not necessarily a problem, because many times a simpler design is more effective.

"Meetings and events have become focused on the wrong things," he said. "They're focused on the hardware and technology; it needs to be focused on the message. You need to figure out how technology can support the message — and not just do a fireworks show for the sake of doing it."    

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