Pros and cons of three new ways of presenting
People are tired of the same old stuff
All business people have to pitch. It is seldom that a person’s reputation so greatly precedes them that their proposals are accepted without question and they compete with no-one. All business people have to communicate en masse at some point. Sometimes it just works better to get everyone in a one place and run a presentation. But after decades of Microsoft PowerPoint slide presentations, people are pretty much sick of slides. Here are three alternatives to PowerPoint. The fourth is just to design slide presentations properly in PowerPoint, which could make them quite effective.
Yes, you read right – No. 4, PowerPoint, has been around for decades. It was officially launched on May 22, 1990, as a part of the Microsoft Office suite. Weirder still, considering the divide between Apple and Microsoft operating systems and software, it was originally designed for the Macintosh computer, the initial release was called “Presenter”, developed by Bob Gaskins and Dennis Austin of Forethought, Inc. In 1987, it was renamed to “PowerPoint” due to problems with trademarks, and Forethought was bought by Microsoft and became Microsoft’s Graphics Business Unit.
Granted, many people are not trained on PowerPoint, can’t spell or write well, have no sense of style, and generally are poor presenters (reading off bullets, talking too much, turning and pointing at the screen, using poor quality graphics, etc.) However, “Death by PowerPoint” has become a common joke in boardrooms and presentation venues, people nodding off at the same old styles and same old animations and transitions.
Everyone who’s up-to-date with apps for business knows of Prezi, the cloud-based presentation software. Prezi, which is short for “presentation” in Hungarian, is a giant forward leap in presentation technology: it allows users to display and navigate through information within a 2.5D or parallax 3D space on the Z-axis. There are no slides – there’s a “canvas”; no slide transitions, rather, zooming in, out and around. In short, what makes it radical also makes it tricky. You have to learn how to do it, same as most people did when they started using MicroSoft Office.
“Prezi has a marvellous approach to the visualization of information – the freshest I’ve seen since the 1980s.”
— Rob Campbell, Co-founder of Forethought, Inc. (on the Prezi website).
Being so different, a prezi (referring to the presentation, not the program) has much more visual and emotional impact than traditional slides.
It’s been around since 2009, but lately, with better internet access and faster up-load ability, people who really care about how they come across are adding Prezi to their arsenal of presentation tools. Like all disruptive technologies, the main objective of the owners of Prezi would be to get past the early adopters and institutionalize the software as the “standard” to use. With some 40 million people using it now, it would be safe to say they’re getting there. But, like all newish apps, it has its ups and downs – the main one being that, like moving from a PC to a Mac, you need to make a massive mental shift to get into it. The buttons you’d want to click ain’t there. The stuff you want to type and pull in won’t work like you’re used to. The terminology is different.
Depending on your licence, you can design your press on-line, on the Prezi website, or download the software to your Mac or PC, and your iPhone, and design and run it off-line. You can download your prezis with so you can e-mail them to people. The prezi file format is called .pez.
While it takes some getting used to both viewing (as you would with a 3D movie) and designing, the increase in visual appeal makes it worth trying. The issue of how much information can be loaded onto a canvas – as opposed to tens of slides – is still to be sorted.
How to get into Prezi
To learn it, you could go trial-and-error, or actually learn it properly. Packt Publishing specializes in books, eBooks, video tutorials, and articles for IT developers, administrators, and users. Packt published its first book, Mastering phpMyAdmin for Effective MySQL Management (a title only tech boffins could love), in April 2004, and continues to specialise in publishing focused books on specific technologies and solutions. The company’s business model involves print-on-demand publishing and selling direct. Packt offers PDF versions of all of their books for download and in August 2010 began offering them in ePub and Mobi format. These eBooks were made free from digital rights management in March 2009. Packt has an entire range of handbooks on Prezi, for absolute beginners, to people who know the commands and functions but would like to increase the appeal of their prezis by using camera moves, music, videos, voice-overs or 3D backgrounds.
To learn Prezi you could go trial-and-error, or actually learn it properly.
Domi Sinclair’s Prezi Essentials (Packt Publishing, Sept. 2014) is one of a range of books on Prezi published by Packt. Let me just say that all the moves and zooms and in-your-face graphics that typify a prezi presentation are great to have, but can lead to a hot mess on screen. Play around too much and you could have a disorientated audience. It is essential that you plan your prezi so that the information flows correctly, the overall effect is aesthetically pleasing, and you avoid the 3D-nausea effect, as Sinclair explains:
“It is essential that you understand how to correctly use features such as frame animations and paths, to create a seamless flow though your presentation. Inappropriate use of features, such as the path to transition between frames, can lead to the audience experiencing motion sickness, which is the last thing you want at a conference or business meeting.” (p. 5).
Sinclair, a Learning Technologist at University College, London, writes simply and directly, starting with reiterating the basics of Prezi, like what is a “frame”, a “canvas” and a “path”. Later, she goes into some detail on how to keep and reuse themes, templates, selected content from PowerPoint slides (even re-using entire slide presentations in a prezi) and favourite sound tracks and movies.
Sinclair’s approach of juxtaposing Prezi and PowerPoint is necessary because many people are so used to PowerPoint that they cannot make the mental shift to Prezi. The transition can get pretty confusing, and can be off-putting. In some ways Prezi and PowerPoint are similar, but a slide is not a canvas, and a canvas is not a slide. A transition is not “cut”, “fade” “wipe” or “split”. It is a camera-like zoom from object to object in a landscape, with a push of the space bar. And animation is just two things – fade in and fade out.
However, a reader who pays attention and actually does the exercises designed by Sinclair, will soon figure out where there is (dis)continuity. It is virtually impossible to predict or practice all the possible outcomes of the design process in Prezi, but Sinclair did succeed in providing enough information and application to give learners a decent basis and help even the most set-in-their-ways users to make the transitions to Prezi.
Prezi used to be a “disruptive innovation”, but as people get exposed to different kinds of information design, it is becoming a normal alternative in the business environment. More advanced users can get an idea of what the best in the business do with their prezis, in Hedwyg van Groenendaal’s Prezi HOTSHOT, a handbook for advanced users. Just think of it this way: Prezi is what the boffins use when they present at the TED Conferences.
Many prezis, too many, are about and by marketing people, about presenting and pitching. It will take time for Prezi to be used for technical information. However, there are some good prezis out there. Here is a link to a quite creative one: Smartphone Battle Royale.
Keynote is the Mac equivalent of PowerPoint. It was developed as a part of the iWork productivity suite by Apple Inc.
It is close to the functions of PowerPoint, but it has a different set of templates, animations and transitions, but these have the Apple design aesthetics. They just look better – more edgy, more sleek, more sexy. (Frankly, yes – sexy.)
Have a look at this stunning presentation by Jacob Jochmann. This Saul Bass-inspired animation to promote better presentation design was created entirely in Keynote. No flash, no After Effects, no Powerpoint. Jochman just edited the slide output in iMovie to match the music. Every movement here is a Keynote animation or transition. I think it looks just fantastic. (You can download the Keynote source file and get some more useful comparisons between the different presentations tools, here.)
Keynote began as a computer program for Apple CEO Steve Jobs to use in creating the presentations for Macworld Conference and Expo and other Apple keynote events. And of course, those presentations by Jobs were famously impactful and about as sexy as Jobs himself was. In 2006 Keynote gained a great deal of exposure when it was used for the presentation in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.
As for 3D, PowerPoint features 3D rotation of objects, and Keynote features OpenGL-powered 3D slide transitions and builds that resemble rolling cubes or flipping pages, or dissolving transitions that fade one slide into the next. But of course, the movements between slides are still 2D.
In case you were thinking this is well beyond your reach as a PC users, in October 2013, Apple redesigned Keynote with version 6.0, and made it free for anyone with a new iOS device (iPhone, iPad and iPod touch), or a recently purchased Mac.
Themes that allow the user to keep consistency in colors and fonts throughout the presentation, including charts, graphs and tables. OpenGL-powered 3D slide transitions and builds that resemble rolling cubes or flipping pages, or dissolving transitions that fade one slide into the next. (OpenGL stands for Open Graphics Library, a cross-language, multi-platform application programming interface for rendering 2D and 3D vector graphics.)
Keynote files have the .key extension and can be exported to PDF, QuickTime (including MPEG-2 and DV), JPEG, TIFF, PNG, HTML (with JPEG images) and PowerPoint. Note that when you try to save a Keynote presentation as a PowerPoint file, it becomes almost completely scrambled. Do not even try. The text and pictures will be there but most everything else will be gone or corrupted.
Make no mistake, a Keynote presentation that is well designed is a thing of beauty, like the Mac itself. It has built-in “ugliness avoiders”. There is only so much you can do if you use a Keynote template, which limits, to a degree, what you can add in and put on one slide.
One of the downsides to using Keynote, though, is that you do not have the feature of being able to fix, change or add art effects to graphics in your presentation, the way you can in PowerPoint.
Which brings us to showing a video clip or a movie rather than a slide. Prezi best practices discourages presenters from talking too much during the presentation, since the prezi is supposed to be self-explanatory (taking “a picture is worth a thousand words” – which it isn’t, quite – to the extreme). If videos are inserted end-to-end in a prezi, in other words, with no objects or stops in-between, the prezi can be viewed like one, extended video. However, it will still look patched-together of course.
You can, however, save your Keynote presentation, with its very slick animations and transitions, as a movie, and play it without a presenter. You can do the same with your PowerPoint presentation, so long as you have “recorded” it first and timed it correctly. As I think I demonstrated with my post on the Google Doodle movie on the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, videos provide users with both printed words, spoken words and pictures, rather than just printed words, making it easier to remember. Multimedia learning, which is where a person uses both auditory and visual stimuli to learn information, increases the audience’s intake and recall of information. After all, you want your audience to remember what you said.
You can even save your Keynote or Powerpoint slides as images (jpgs or pngs), make a slideshow of them in iPhoto, and export it as a m4v file. Voilà! There you have a glam-looking video with classy themes like “Ken Burns” and “Origami” – and a soundtrack of voice-over that you’ve recorded, or music.
The presentation, above, called “Green, green” (Hampstead Heath, London), is an iPhoto slideshow movie with music that comes with the program (©Red Pennant Communications, photos by MF O’Brien).
In all three instances, you can choose the size and resolution of the video format that you want to export to, depending on which devices you expect it to be viewed.
And just very lastly, consider that, if you have done the work and documented your data, you could, fairly easily produce an e-book that your audience can download and view, at their leisure, afterwards. E-books these days can be produced with video inserts, so it can look like an extended version of your presentation. In case you are thinking: “nah, tacky!”, remember that the highly conservative and media-shy author Harper Lee authorized an enhanced e-book version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which came out on 4 November 2014. It includes multiple audio and video inserts.
The competition is too tough and people are too inundated with information, for you just to do the same old thing. But remember: What’s true for programming is true for presentations: rubbish in = rubbish out!