Make the most of the message

April 12, 1996

Technology cannot switch on charisma, but it can help a poor communicator improve, reports Christina Preston. When Will Hutton recently gave a talk based on his book The State We're In unassisted by charts, diagrams and illustrations, he engaged his audience in a fluent debate about the economic state of the nation. Not a promising subject for most speakers, but most of the audience were impressed.

How did a mere journalist achieve this marriage of minds between audience and speaker? He gave a multimedia performance without taking refuge in the lecturing technology that Toshiba, the seminar sponsors, offered - no bullet points, no notes, no hand-outs, no pictures. But he wove throughout his text the linguistic metaphors and images a mature and educated audience values.

Unlike Will Hutton, few lecturers would proceed to the auditorium without a handful of overheads. Research in progress indicates that this may involve rather more than just slipping in a few pictures.

Gunther Kress, from London University's Institute of Education, sees the shift in communication towards visual forms as a fundamental challenge to the hitherto unchallenged centrality of written language. For example, when images were used in A-level science textbooks in the 1930s, they were illustrations of the text. Progressively images have come to communicate in their own right.

While Professor Kress is examining the links between text and illustration in teaching, his colleague, Margaret Meek, has been looking at children's CD-Roms. She concludes that most factual information is better understood in the form of animated models, sound, graphics and high-resolution colour photographs than in written text alone. The opportunities for interaction with the data are also important in learning. A CD-Rom has defined limits. Multimedia surfing, in contrast, demands sophisticated navigation and a clear understanding that there is no single path through the ever-changing jungle of data.

Young children appear able not only to retrieve information stored in a multimedia form but to create it. For example, one of the top prizes in the 1995 National Council for Educational Technology multimedia awards was won by a team of Scottish six-year-olds from Inverkeithing Primary School. They offered their audience a variety of routes through the narrative and hot links to more information if the user chose to dig deeper.

They had used multimedia to describe concepts hard to handle in words. The key to success was the use of graphics and pictures as narrative. Overall, the six-year-olds had an intuitive understanding of the hypermedia connections that characterise the best multimedia compositions - connections that more closely resemble the free flow of human ideas than do books.

So how can a lecturer begin to experiment with multimedia communication? Accessible software includes: Microsoft Powerpoint, Claris Impact and Adobe Persuasion. Simple cut-and-paste techniques are all that is required to combine pictures, words, sound and animation. These packages do not offer multirouting or interactivity, but they will develop a basic understanding while providing a useful resourcing service.

I have been preparing my talks in this medium for about a year. A colleague created a Miranda template into which I can import word-processed and desktop published text as well as pictures and clip art. I use a scanner for my own images. A digital camera can capture video and bullet points can be timed and graded in size. Several screen layouts are available. My talks are stored in Powerpoint files, just as my papers are stored in those of Pagemaker.

I find the entry framework helps to marshall my thoughts and screens are smaller than overheads and provide a thinking discipline. Well-designed screens can be printed as overheads and customising my talk is easy when I carry my mobile PC. If the organisers on site can connect my mobile computer to a large screen I do not need overheads. My presentation will be in colour and, if a printer is available, I can supply quality hand-outs on the spot. I have also used my internal modem to print out on the hotel fax.

The mobile computer means the teaching materials are more adaptable than slides and an edited presentation easily fits into a floppy. Microsoft Powerpoint also provides a viewer so the speaker does not have to carry the full software package. Powerpoint presentations will equally work on Apple or PC hardware. Travelling abroad is rarely a problem. Most universities now have standard applications and appropriate connections to screens Many learning institutions are keen on developing presentational skills, so they are resourcing studios and supplying technicians to help staff and students create multimedia stacks. Not only does this facility introduce high-level information technology skills to the whole institution, but promotes thinking about effective methodology. For example, Halton Community College in Cheshire has impressive facilities that include 20 PCs, a scanner, a CD tower and a CD writer.

Resource centres will already have some of the kit for implementing multimedia authorship, but wait until next Christmas to buy.

The storage capacity of the Super Density Digital Video Disc (SD-DVD) will increase exponentially the use of multimedia facilities in homes. SD-DVD is a cheap standard agreed by all the main commercial players. Sound and picture quality will be greatly enhanced. The double-thickness, CD-Rom-size disc will hold a full feature film with eight spoken soundtracks and subtitles in 32 languages or the contents of current CD-Roms. Cross-platform products will be in the shops by the end of the year. Between the linear simplicity of Powerpoint and a fully-fitted multimedia studio stands software that can offer more features for effective multimedia composition. Hypercard for the Apple and Toolbook for PC are the original multimedia authoring packages which still require programming knowledge. Hyperstudio for PC and Apple is distributed by TAG and carefully designed for the novice. It is widely used by children and allows for alternative routes. Illuminatus, MM-Box and Visual Basic are PC applications.

Macromind Director for Apple and PC was the powerful professional tool used for the Toshiba seminar. The results can be stunning in the hands of a professional media agency. I also know a class of ten-year-olds in Wickham Market, Suffolk, who can produce excellent results with this package. Resourced by BT Laboratories for the last two years, they also have enough experience to use Timbuctoo, a screen-sharing facility, to create multimedia essays in collaboration with a school in Wales.

When Toshiba offered this seminar opportunity to make use of a professional package, MacroMedia Director, I realised that it was my training as a film and theatre director that was more useful than my linear academic writing skills. Having a professional designer at my disposal was like having a set designer and sound technician all rolled into one.

But while powerful hardware and software can create a slick screen they do not make up for poor content or a merely adequate presentation from the speaker. Speakers who read the official speech using the software only to produce better-designed bullet points might as well use overheads. And, ironically, a talk can be harder to deliver through these packages. The screen projection frequently requires the hall to be dark, so the speaker loses eye contact with the audience.

Other questions about this medium occurred to me too late. Was introducing a videoed interview with teachers into my narrative too static? Would a video-conference have been a better way to introduce speakers who could not be there.

I also worried whether the audience would think that my art nouveau-style template in Charles Rennie Mackintosh pink reduced the importance of what I had to say. Was an atttractive border appropriate for a serious message?

This will be the kind of discussion that these media will elicit in higher education. I also realised that I should have relinquished the security of starting at the beginning and finishing at the end. Maybe I should have let my audience choose their route through my head. I took fright and decided to leave the really challenging techniques of presentation to the six-year-olds.

Christina Preston is director of Project Miranda at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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