In every type of industry, in organizations of every size, people are selling something to somebody all of the time. That goes not only for the dedicated sellers, the pros who spend all of their time pitching products to customers, but for the rest of us too. When we're not pitching our ideas to team leaders or our recommendations to company strategists, we're pitching ourselves - for a raise, for a plum assignment, for a dream job.
While each of us must harness our own intelligence and creativity to deliver a message, the right high-tech tools can help us enhance that message. The latest crop of laptops, projectors, digital and video cameras, and presentation-software packages deliver great flexibility for building up to the big pitch. They enable you to sharpen a point, amplify a message, customize a presentation. Best of all, they can help you break free from those canned presentations that everyone else is using. And who knows? They just might help you become a bigger rainmaker than El Nino.
Two Laptops for the One-to-One Pitch
Alone on the road, peripatetic pitchers need all the technology they can get. Trouble is, lugging around a full-blown multimedia laptop might result in heavy chiropractor bills - until now. The 12-pound technoburdens of yesteryear are on the way out. Today, slim is in. The PowerTools generating a lot of geek lust these days include a pair of svelte yet fully configured notebooks.
Digital HiNote Ultra 2000 ($5,399) The Ultra 2000's brightest feature is its 14.1-inch screen, one of the new generation of big active-matrix models. It's sharper than most laptop screens, with a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels and a viewing angle that makes it ideal for one-to-one, desktop presentations.
To give you enough computing power to crunch spreadsheets and to manage presentation graphics, the HiNote is powered by a 233-MHz Pentium chip and features 32 MB of RAM along with a 4-GB hard drive. It also contains a bay for either a 3.5-inch floppy drive or a 20X CD-ROM drive (you can swap between them). There's a built-in 56-Kbps modem for those who want to keep up with email and report back to the office online. The Ultra 2000 packs all of this into a 1.25-inch-thick case, and it weighs about 6.5 pounds.
To get the most out of presentations, add on the Ultra Multimedia Dock for $899. It features a Universal Serial Bus connector, an extra bay (so you don't have to swap out the floppy drive to handle the CD-ROM), two additional PC Card slots, and a three-speaker system that delivers high-quality sound. It also includes video output, so you can run a presentation simultaneously on your computer screen and on a conventional TV. All this is crammed into a 0.75-inch-thick slice of plastic that snaps easily onto the bottom of the Ultra 2000. It weighs just 1.5 pounds, and the rechargeable battery lasts an average of more than three hours.
Coordinates: Digital Equipment Corp., 800-722-9332; http://www.windows.digital.com
Mitsubishi Pedion (about $6,000) The Pedion is positively the most anorexic full-featured laptop on the market. Measuring less than one-inch thick and weighing just 3.1 pounds, it boasts a large keyboard and a 12.1-inch, thin-film-transistor screen. At 800 by 600 pixels, the screen isn't as sharp as that of the HiNote, but it works well enough for close-encounter pitches. The machine also has a magnesium case, making it more durable than most laptops.
With a 233-MHz Pentium processor and 64 MB of RAM, the Pedion can handle any kind of software, video clip, or graphics program that you throw at it. You might also want to bring along Mitsubishi's Media Pack docking station. Similar to Digital's Multimedia Dock, it contains a 20X CD-ROM drive, a 3.5-inch floppy drive, and speakers. When you strap it onto the Pedion's underside, the whole package measures about 1.5 inches thick and weighs less than five pounds. Better yet, the media pack comes free with the machine.
Coordinates: Mitsubishi Electronics Inc., 888-445-5250; http://www.mitsubishi-mobile.com
Two Tools for the One-to-Many Pitch
The best way to convey the big picture is to use a big picture. Unfortunately, people who must tote a laptop from customer to customer rarely know ahead of time whether they'll be meeting in a small auditorium with gads of AV equipment or in a small boardroom with just an electrical outlet. The standard solution to this dilemma is a portable LCD projector. Connected to a laptop computer or a VCR, an LCD projector can throw an oversized picture on a wall, but the image is typically washed out.
In Focus LP420 ($5,999) In Focus has managed to get a truly bright image out of a projector weighing less than seven pounds. The portable LP420 projects an image so sharp that you don't have to turn off the boardroom lights when you make your pitch. The machine kicks out a solid image even under normal lighting conditions, boasting 500 lumens of brightness, compared with the 350 to 400 lumens delivered by wall-mounted projectors. Aiming the LP420 at a blank wall from about 20 feet away yields a 16-foot image in 800-by-600 resolution - a sharper image than that of many projection TVs.
In Focus packs its electronic and optical wonders into a chassis that's about the size of a laptop computer. Just plug it in, and the LP420 will automatically recognize whether it's hooked up to a PC, a Mac, a VCR, a digital-video disc (DVD) player - even a video-game station.
Coordinates: In Focus Inc., 800-294-6400; http://www.infocus.com
3Com Bigpicture ($449) Perhaps the pitch person's greatest challenge is to get people who are working off-site to pay attention to a long-distance presentation. To hold their attention, you really need to make eye contact with them. Conference calls don't give you that option; videoconferencing does.
For an inexpensive and easy-to-use videoconferencing solution, try 3Com's Bigpicture TV phone. It requires no computer, no special digital lines, no installation. Just plug the camera box into a standard analog phone line, connect the device to a Touch-Tone phone, and then hook it into a TV set. To make a video call, simply dial a number. When the other party answers, push a button on the phone to engage the video portion of the call.
You don't need to ask your MIS department to help you install the Bigpicture TV phone. One little black box that sits on top of your TV contains the camera, the video-compression chips, and a 33.6-Kbps modem. It's H.324-compatible, so you can communicate with computer-videoconferencing systems that adhere to that standard.
Coordinates: 3Com Corp., 800-342-5877; http://www.3com.comffbigpicture
Three Digital Cameras for Customizing Your Pitch
Any digital camera that costs less that $10,000 simply can't match the image quality of even a $10 disposable camera. But digital cameras offer one advantage over film cameras: convenience. With a digital camera, you can take a picture of the R&D team's latest prototype, plug the camera into your computer, and add the shot to a presentation that you're giving that afternoon.
Nikon Coolpix 100 ($299) For laptop luggers, the Coolpix 100 is probably the most convenient digital camera available. It has no cables to connect. Just push two buttons to remove its outer case, and slide it directly into the PC Card slot at the back of your notebook. Windows 95 treats the camera as if it were an extra hard drive, so it practically installs itself. All you have to do is copy its JPEG images onto your system or straight into your presentation. It's perfect for making last-minute changes or for personalizing a pitch by, say, adding photos that you've just taken of a customer's product.
The Coolpix 100 weighs just 5.6 ounces and is about the size of a sunglass case. It's powered by four standard AA batteries. With a maximum resolution of 512 by 480, its digital photos aren't the sharpest you'll see. But it can store 42 normal-resolution snapshots, and it has a built-in flash. The only real drawback: It lacks a color LCD screen for previewing your handiwork.
Coordinates: Nikon Inc., 800-526-4566; http://www.nikonusa.com
Sony Digital Mavica ($799) For those who don't use a laptop computer, I recommend the Digital Mavica camera. It's the first model to store its images on standard 3.5-inch floppy disks. A single disk holds from 20 to 40 JPEG shots, depending on which image quality you choose (the maximum resolution is 640 by 480). So the number of photos you can take is limited only by the number of floppy disks you have. And you don't have to connect any cables to your PC or Mac to transfer the images.
The Digital Mavica comes with a built-in flash and some gimmicky special effects, including sepia and watercolor tinting. Its rechargeable lithium-ion battery lets you take up to 500 shots on a single charge, and you can preview images on its LCD screen, which is bright and reasonably large.
Complaints about the camera are few. However, it is one of the more cumbersome digital point-and-shoot models on the market (it's 5 by 4.5 by 3 inches, and it weighs 1.3 pounds). It can also be slow, taking five seconds or more to save a photo to a floppy disk.
Coordinates: Sony Electronics Inc., 800-476-6972; http://www.sony.com
Olympus D-600L ($1,299) The D-600L yields clearer, cleaner pictures than models costing twice as much. With a 3X zoom lens that gives you a 36mm-to-110mm focal length, the D-600L can capture sharp, 1,280-by-1,024 images. And there are other features that make the Olympus D-600L especially appropriate for serious shutterbugs: It boasts not only a 1.8-inch color LCD screen but also a through-the-lens viewfinder, exposure compensation with three f-stop increments, and several flash modes.
Handling the Olympus D-600L is a more comfortable experience than working with other digital cameras I've tested - largely, no doubt, because of its film-camera design. It weighs about a pound, however, so you should think twice before packing it for a trip.
It stores pictures on a removable 4-MB memory card - which limits you to between 4 and 50 shots, depending on which resolution you select. (You can take more than 50 shots, but then you'll have to buy another storage card, or download the pictures to your computer using a serial cable that comes with the camera.)
Coordinates: Olympus America Inc., 800-347-4027; http://www.olympus.com
Roll the (Video) Tape!
We're living in a video world. real-estate agents show videos of homes. Lawyers use videos in court. Corporate evangelists run video clips at industry conferences. The same goes for sales pitches: Canned slides of pie charts and bar graphs just won't cut it anymore. You need to make mini-movies (aka commercials) to demo a product, to launch a marketing plan, or to sell yourself.
Hitachi MP-EG1A ($2,400) It's easy enough to insert video clips of customer testimonials into PowerPoint presentations. But how do you get the video clips into your computer in the first place? Turning analog videotape into digital computer files that your presentation software will read can be a real ordeal.
If you plan on shooting your own video segments, consider the Hitachi MP-EG1A video camera. Instead of using conventional videotape, it stores your directorial endeavors on a small, 260-MB hard drive that's housed inside the camera on a Type III PC Card. That way, the clip is automatically recorded in the MPEG compressed-video format. There's no videotape, and thus no need for digital conversion. The drive holds up to 20 minutes of video - or 3,000 still images in JPEG format, or 4 hours of audio.
The 1.8-pound camera fits in the palm of your hand and makes for an ideal on-the-road tool. Its images, however, are less than ideal. No match for videotape, the video clips are small (352 by 240 pixels) and relatively grainy. Still, they're adequate for most business-presentation needs.
Coordinates Hitachi Home Electronics (America) Inc., 800-448-2244; http://www.mpegcam.net
Alaris QuickVideo Transport ($149) If you're using an existing videotape rather than shooting your own, check out Alaris's QuickVideo Transport. It's a box about the size of a remote control that plugs into the bidirectional parallel port of your computer. It enables you to connect a camcorder or a VCR to your system, to import S-video or composite-video input, and then to capture video clips (or still images) on your PC.
The QuickVideo Transport is easy to use, but there are drawbacks. It's only able to capture video in a 320-by-240-pixel window. And only a fast computer will deliver the video smoothly. On a 133-MHz Pentium system, captured video clips are jerky and the colors can be blurry. But on a 200-MHz Pentium II system, you'll get full-motion, 30-frame-per-second (fps) clips and reasonably sharp images.
Coordinates: Alaris Inc., 800-317-2348; http://www.alaris.com
ATI Technologies All-In-Wonder Pro ($329) The All-In-Wonder Pro card lets you capture S-video and standard composite video from any of several media. Plug in just about any type of camcorder, VCR, or laser-disc player, and you can digitally record clips in a 640-by-480-pixel window at up to 30 fps. The result is a clean, crisp video clip that you can use in any presentation format that suits your needs.
You can also do things the other way around: To record your mouse movements onto videotape for a later demonstration, use the card to feed S-video or composite-video output to a VCR for recording.
Or suppose you want to incorporate a broadcast news story on your company (or on your competition) into your pitch. The card includes a TV tuner and special software that will let you watch and record that or any other TV program on your computer. Worried about upcoming news on your stock? Just type in a few keywords, and the software will alert you with a pop-up box whenever those words appear in the closed captioning for a given TV program.
Not impressed? The product even offers instant replay - including the ability to replay the last 2 to 10 seconds of any live broadcast. With DVD support and 3-D graphics acceleration, the ATI All-In-Wonder Pro covers just about every video move that your pitch might call for.
Coordinates: ATI Technologies Inc., 905-882-2600; http://www.atitech.com
Contributing editor John Quain firstname.lastname@example.org reviews technology regularly on CNBC'S "The Edge."