Free or cheap online tools that help you communicate in style

As a mobile professional, travel is essential to your job. But it doesn’t actually help you do your job, does it? In fact, travel actually gets in the way of being productive. Or it makes you so tired and stressed, you’re barely able to show up to a meeting, let alone contribute brilliant ideas.

For the next three weeks, I’ll suggest some New Year’s resolutions for you to consider.

The idea behind each resolution is to make your life a little more comfortable and less stressful in 2009. This week: Use communications tools to reduce travel, stay connected to colleagues, and increase the power of your messages.

Next week: how to be kinder to your poor body with a proper ergonomic setup. And finally, services and tools for syncing your data across multiple computers and devices.

Resolve to Communicate Creatively

People who spend a lot of time on the road have a particular challenge: How to stay in the loop and not become a bottleneck?

There are lots of tools you can use, either for free or a small monthly fee, to stay in touch with multiple people at one time, or to get your message out with a little extra oomph.

Here are four online services to consider:

Yammer is a microblogging service like Twitter, but for businesses. You can send quick, short messages to colleagues, offering updates, advice, and opinions on business-related matters. The service is free; companies can pay $1 per user per month for access to optional administration tools, security features, and such.

Phonevite is a Web-based service for sending voice mails to multiple people at a time. The service is free or 5 cents per call, which eliminates ads from your message and gives you other perks. For instance, the premium service lets you send your message to an unlimited number of people, while the free service limits you to 25.

Goldmail lets you create presentations with pictures, text, and audio. Your presentations, which you create in a Windows-only downloadable application, live on Goldmail’s site, and recipients receive a link to your presentation in an e-mail. The service costs $10 to $150 per year.

Eyejot is a cool service that lets you create a video message using your computer’s Webcam. The message is stored on Eyejot servers. As with Goldmail, recipients receive a link to your video message in an e-mail. The free version limits you to 1-minute messages. You can pay $30 annually for messages as long as 5 minutes, plus other benefits.

Resolve to videoconference instead of travel

If realtime, synchronous communication is crucial to your work videoconferencing is another high-tech way option you should explore.

Remember how the CEOs at the big three automakers flew to Washington in private jets to ask for a bailout?

Well, after being brought back to Earth by a barrage of deserved “what-were-they-thinking?” outrage, the big boys decided to give up their private jets.

And PR reps at the big three subsequently announced that whenever possible, employees at those companies would videoconference instead of travel.

Now they get it.

Videoconferencing can be a practical alternative to business travel. It’s “green,” it saves you time and stress, and it saves your company money. Videoconferencing works best when it’s with people you already know, such as your colleagues or long-time clients and partners.

When is videoconferencing not a good idea? I wouldn’t use it for the first few meetings with important new partners or clients. In that circumstance, there’s nothing better than actual face time.

The best inexpensive consumer-level Webcams, such as the Logitech QuickCam Pro for Notebooks ($63 and up), and QuickCam Orbit AF Webcam ($90 and up), do a good job of capturing video and audio.

Choose an Application

Your choice in videoconferencing software is a far more important consideration than the type of camera or microphone you use.

Only a few good video-chat applications are available, and they tend not to communicate with one another. Fortunately, these apps are free, and nothing will prevent you from installing more than one on your PC.

AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) is the most popular IM program around, and it supports video, too. The best part: In North America, at least, it’s nearly ubiquitous, so everyone you know probably already has an AIM user name. If they happen to have a Webcam, you can hold video chats with them.

iChat, Apple’s take on AIM, now does videoconferencing using the built-in Webcam that comes with every new Mac. If you have Mac users in your AIM buddy list, this is what they’ll be using. It even allows Mac users and PC users to chat together.

Microsoft Windows Live Messengeris a free download for Windows users, and it supports videoconferences. It’s more popular in Europe than in North America, so it can be a good choice for transcontinental face time.

Skype, which has won international acclaim for its free voice-calling service, now offers one of the best video-chat interfaces around. And because it works on Mac OS and Linux, too, it’s a great choice for cross-platform conversations.

Yahoo Instant Messengerhandles videoconferencing, too, but at this writing the feature was not supported in the Vista version of the software.

In addition to the free consumer-targeted offerings, several business conferencing services support video as well.

The popular Cisco WebEx service provides videoconferencing features to small-business customers, while the more specialized SightSpeed has a more specifically video-oriented conferencing service that includes a host of other file-sharing and collaboration features.

And many video chat services for small businesses such as ooVoo and SightSpeed offer free (as well as paid) memberships. So whenever possible, stay home and videoconference instead.

Source: PCWorld.com

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