(This is the second in a two-part series on international presentations.)
You're preparing for your first presentation in Berlin, Buenos Aires or Bangkok, and your to-do list is long. There are travel arrangements to make, liaisons to contact, visuals to revise, maybe even vaccinations to obtain at the local clinic. The equipment piece of the puzzle getting your presentation hardware and accessories from here to there, and ensuring compatibility in the overseas setting may seem the least of your worries. But plenty of surprises lurk for the unprepared.
The presenter's credo applies doubly overseas: Assume nothing and prepare for everything. What follows are a few issues to consider before hopping on your plane.
Should I carry, ship or rent equipment?
This decision depends on the equipment your presentation requires, the country you're visiting and the support provided by overseas hosts or contacts.
Although good rental laptops can be found in many industrialized countries, it can be difficult in other parts of the world to get the processing power, RAM and hard-drive speed you need for optimal performance, according to George Welles, president of Minneapolis consulting firm Future Images and a frequent international presenter.
What's more, rental-computer operating systems are often programmed in the host country's language. When Welles first presented in France, he rented a Macintosh laptop, plugged it in, booted it up watched with growing angst as the start-up screen came up in French.
"Both Windows and the Mac OS boot in the native language they're set for," he says. "You need to have someone there who can do a shutdown and change it to English someone who knows both the language and the computer functions." And if you rely on a local version of PowerPoint, Lotus 1-2-3 or other software in Paris, the pull-down menus will be in French.
Welles also says good data projectors can be expensive to rent overseas and hard to find in some countries. That's why he typically ships his own presentation equipment as luggage and takes copies of his software in a carry-on bag.
There are risks to bringing your own equipment, including the possibility of losing it to electronic thieves power spikes. While preparing for a presentation in Israel a few years ago, Welles noticed the lights in his hotel room dim slightly. Five seconds later, the hotel went black. "The good Lord was with me," he says. "I was able to stabilize and shut down right away, and I quickly unplugged everything."
He then heard a huge generator cranking up, with lights flickering back to a half-lighted level.
"If I'd had the computer on when that happened, it might have been history," he says, "because for about 15 minutes there were variations in voltage from about 20 volts to well over the 220-volt norm."
Uncustomary customs practices
Customs officials can also pose problems when you ship or carry your own equipment. Welles says some officials don't understand the customs laws as they apply to presentations equipment for use at trade shows, conferences or business-to-business presentations.
"The laws are subject to interpretation, and if you get a customs supervisor who doesn't understand the law, it can get dicey," he says. "You usually don't have problems but if you do, they tend to be big problems."
Registering all equipment with U.S. Customs on your way out of the country reduces questions about whether it was purchased during your trip. Problems typically occur at re-entry and registering equipment with a foreign customs agency may not work if the value of a single piece of equipment exceeds $1,500.
One way to avoid these problems is to use either a customs broker who will typically charge a couple hundred dollars for the service or a carnet, a document that proves you're the owner of the equipment and that you'll be leaving the country with the same equipment you brought in. One caveat: "In certain Third World countries, carnets may or may not be of help, because customs law there may be so esoteric they don't recognize the document," Welles says.
Other less equipment-intensive presenters simply hand-carry laptops or projectors through customs. Because carried items seem more like personal property, this method reduces chances of customs holdups.
Karen Riddle, Latin American sales manager for nView, has presented often in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South and Central America. She suggests coordinating the hand-carrying of your notebook computer or projector through customs at least two weeks in advance, and calling a local U.S. Customs agent for procedures. "Many Latin American countries will authorize hand-carrying one personal-use computer," she says.
But conditions vary by country. Last year while traveling in Peru, Riddle had to post a 30 percent bond a percentage of the dealer cost of the projector and list price of the computer she was carrying to guarantee she would hand-carry the equipment back out of the country (i.e., not sell it there) following a presentation. If the value of a product being imported into Peru exceeds $5,000, a government-appointed inspection is required, she says. Posting the bond meant she could avoid the inspection and any possible complications.
Because of such experiences, she suggests presenters going overseas rent AV equipment onsite, if possible. "Most hotels in well-populated cities have good AV centers with up-to-date equipment," she says.
Be aware of voltage differences
Equipment setup isn't a simple matter of plug and play. While the United States uses 110-volt, 60-cycle power, many other countries work on 220-volt, 50-cycle power systems and have different plug configurations for electrical outlets.
The good news is that newer presentation equipment is often dual-voltage/ dual-cycle, meaning with a push of button or slide of a switch it can be adapted to run on different voltage systems. All that's needed with this equipment is a plug converter or adapter, says Lucinda Blood, a civil service employee who's helped members of the U.S. Air Force set up and deliver presentations in locations including Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. "It can be frustrating to think you have everything you need, only to find you can't plug a piece of equipment in," she says. She bought a number of adapters in the $10 range from electronics stores before flying overseas.
Welles' first errand on arrival is to visit an electronics store (recommended by local businesspeople or sponsors) to buy equipment plugs made for that particular country. Israel, for example, uses a different plug than any country in the world, one that can't be found among standard plug adapters available in a U.S. electronics store, he says. Welles then wires the plugs into U.S. power strips, which he believes is a more reliable alternative to using multiple plug adapters. Make sure the power strips are not equipped or fused with circuit breakers, he says, and be careful not to use surge protectors designed for 110 volts on 220-volt circuits.
If your presentation equipment doesn't convert automatically to different voltages, power converters or transformers are needed, Blood says. Many computers, VCRs and even AV projectors require relatively small wattage, and thus don't require heavy-duty transformers. Voltage transformers convert volts (energy), not cycles (frequency), however. "Occasionally timing devices can get off track when using transformers most things keep time by cycle, and you're going from 60 to 50 cycles overseas but typically you'll notice little change at all," she says. "We ran our U.S.-made VCR on a transformer when we wanted to tape something, and it never missed a beat."
Blood says most luggage or travel stores, as well as some department stores, carry these small power transformers or converters but check to ensure they accommodate the wattage required by your equipment. Remember, too, there can be voltage differences within a given country. Parts of Brazil, for instance, have both 220-volt and 110-volt power. It pays to test voltage levels for yourself by using a small pocket voltmeter, available at Radio Shack for $20 to $30.
Video standards will differ
Countries also use different television or video standards. Japan and many Latin American countries use NTSC the television standard used in the United States and many European countries use what's called PAL, although France and Russia, among others, use a standard known as SECAM. So a video made for an NTSC TV and VCR may not play on a system made for PAL or SECAM, even though both systems use the same VHS-size tapes.
How does this affect the average presenter? If you're distributing videos overseas, you may need to convert them to a foreign standard. Otherwise, it's increasingly a non-issue for presenters using video outside of the developing world. "Because most of the 'name' projectors today are multistandard, it tends not to be a big issue," says Welles, who routinely ships his own multistandard VCR overseas.
Paper sizes, presentation fonts and other pitfalls
Bill Weech, who conducts cross-cultural training for the U.S. Department of State, points out that our familiar 8.5 x 11-inch paper is hardly a worldwide standard. Europeans, for example, use A4 paper, which is longer and narrower. If you need to reproduce your letter-size handouts on A4 paper, you could lose some of the text. Here, the time-honored handout advice avoid narrow margins goes double.
Then there are presentation-software issues. For example, if you use an unfamiliar notebook for your PowerPoint presentation, your chosen typeface could change if the computer you use doesn't have the same font stored on its hard drive.
"If you're using a fellow American's computer, the substitution may not be all that noticeable," Weech says. "But if you're using a strange computer in a strange land, the substitution may render your presentation unintelligible. That happened once to my boss she literally had a presentation converted into Greek before her eyes."
To avoid this problem, check the EMBED FONTS option in the SAVE FILE dialog box in PowerPoint to lock your fonts in place.
When Weech travels overseas, he also carries two sets of his presentations files one on his computer's hard drive and one on floppy disks as well as copies of his file-compression software. "I never assume that people on the other end will have what I need, even if they say they do," he says.
Today, there are plenty of options for transporting backup files around the world, including posting them to a Web site or sending them ahead as an e-mail attachment. "I continue to follow a rule of sending my files two different ways, just to be safe," Weech says. "Once, in New Delhi, one set of my floppies didn't make it, and my backups saved the day."
Build in extra setup and acclimation time
For lengthy trips to places like Singapore a trip that requires as much as 25 hours of travel time Welles arrives at least two days prior to his presentation. "You need enormous amounts of setup time for a high-tech presentation often a full day for me, with a technician available."
Likewise, Weech typically arrives on a Thursday night for a one-week training course set to begin the following Monday. That allows him all of Friday for setup and testing of training computers, then gives him the weekend to recover from jet lag.
Finally, resist the urge to stay in that wonderfully Bohemian hotel. "Spend the money to stay in a good hotel with an established reputation and infrastructure," Welles says. "You'll need that good night's sleep before your presentation."
Dave Zielinski (email@example.com) is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.