Class Act: Presentations and the Video Producer
Posted May 1, 2005

The thoughtful process that goes into creating a good wine is much the same as what it takes to create a great lecture: a good body, rich and bold yet playful and lively. A key component to achieving lecture greatness is the use of a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint has become the Swiss army knife of lectures and presentations. It has single-handedly replaced overhead transparencies, videotape segments, slide projectors, and charts boards, in favor of a laptop and reasonably inexpensive software. Anyone can combine these elements into a single, continuous, and cohesive presentation.

The migration to PowerPoint also affected those who record presentations. Rather than needing to worry about getting good exposure for an overhead, dealing with potentially missing video footage or challenging framing/image issues, PowerPoint presents it all in a single video feed.

(I recognize that there are several presentation programs besides PowerPoint. In fact, two of the more popular ones, Acrobat and Keynote, have their own cult followings For simplicity's sake, I will use the term "PowerPoint" to evoke this type of presentation software, since the issues discussed here apply to all three programs.)

If you're in the business of capturing/recording lectures, you'll need experience with a scan converter. The primary purpose of a scan converter is to take a computer display signal (VGA) and "convert" it into a NTSC/PAL video signal. The trick is transforming the high-resolution/ frame-rate video-out of a computer laptop into an interlaced 525 signal that then can be recorded to a video device. Scan converters come in many styles and options, so as with all other hardware, do a little research before investing in one (try demo units, get professional feedback, etc.). As with the other tools we use, by and large you get what you pay for. I went through several units before I found one that was reliable enough to handle the different resolutions and frame rates that were thrown at it.

Creating a good PowerPoint presentation is like creating a work of art; one has a broad palette to draw from. This wide variety of stylistic options is also one of the program's biggest problems. The colors, transitions and sound effects can be overwhelming. It is at this point that live presentation and video collide. Since most PowerPoint presentations are shown live through data projectors, the colors, layout, and vertical resolution are generally a non-issue for creation and presentation but can all pose a problem with video capture. Of course, some issues are more challenging than others.

Red is still not a very forgiving video color. If it goes too far in saturation or brightness, then all you have left is a red blob. This isn't the forum to list all of the colors that can pose problems, but in any case you should check the colors in advance. With a few too many options available, you'd be surprised what color combinations people come up with in their PowerPoint. For example, purple over blue might be okay in person, but is often unrecognizable on video.

Another problem: some people like to use all of the visual space. Good concept when frosting a cake, not so good when showing on video. If a particular point or phase gets chopped off because it goes beyond the safe title area, you could experience problems. The best way to solve this problem is by making some slight adjustments to the layout in advance.

One of the worst things to look at in PowerPoint on video is a one or two pixel-width line. What you end up with is a strobing line that is on video for every other field. It is distracting and annoying. If you've ever built DVD menus, you can run into the same problem. Again, this is a simple fix, but one that has to be dealt with in advance.

Beyond the technical pitfalls, there are many mechanical challenges as well. One of my personal favorites is taping the PowerPoint presentation and hearing the speaker refer to someplace on the screen: "If you look over here you can see the effect of…" Where's here? What's over there? You end up with an hour of PowerPoint that the viewer cannot follow because you were taping the video of the PowerPoint, but the audience was watching the speaker with a laser pointer. To get the most out of a PowerPoint recording, these challenges need to be worked out in advance.

Another thing to keep in mind is the ultimate destination of the lecture/presentation. Will it be broadcast? If so, was there any copyrighted material in the PowerPoint presentation? If there was, then you may find yourself in violation of those copyrights if you attempt to broadcast it. Most people don't think, or need to think, about copyright permission when presenting PowerPoint for a live audience.

As a result of these challenges you could end up with a two-page document that outlines all of the technical tips and tricks to give to a speaker, but that's not a good idea either. So try to pick your battles, feel out any potential problems, and try to address those specific issues ahead of time. Ultimately, your job is to try to convey the information in the PowerPoint to the viewer as the speaker intended. Good luck.