Present Tense

I made my first PowerPoint presentation in 1997, and actually used Microsoft's application to prepare 35mm Kodachrome slides for a carousel projector. Since then, I've seen thousands of PowerPoint presentations (and a few dozen Keynotes), and had a hand in creating many, myself.

Not since a conference a decade ago have I needed to make Kodachrome slides. Yet almost everyone still uses software built around printing slides, making a linear progression of topics. The impact of this format on human thought is substantial -- PowerPoint was fingered as contributing to the Columbia disaster and has spawned a lot of discussion and linkage, even here, regarding effective communication (probably all conceived of during dull PowerPoint presentations).

While compelling presentations are possible with Powerpoint (using the Lessig Method, for example) those kinds of talks require planning, and a mastery of the material. And some great stock photos. My experience in school and training is that the PowerPoint is often made as the presenter is learning the content and so is bound to lack the organization and expertise necessary for a Lessig-style presentation. People procrastinate about public speaking, and when crunch time comes it's just too easy to flip through a a textbook, call up a Pubmed abstract, and churn out another verbose PowerPoint slide. With practice, it's possible to whittle down the number of words and bullets per slide -- but who has time for that? Much easier to read the talk from the slide itself.

While I strive for Lessig-like clarity and impact in my talks, it's rare that I can eliminate all the slides with three or more bullet-points on them. PowerPoint, even though it's based on making Kodachromes for obsolete carousel projectors, is just too much of a crutch.

Which is why I was relieved to see Prezi come along. If you could imagine what presentations should look like with modern computers and digital projectors, Prezi is pretty much that -- more like a mind map than a slide deck.

Prezis can still be a linear progression of images, text, bullets, etc. But even linearly, it's easy to make big concepts stand out, and parenthetical points diminutive and aside from the main progression. Tangents can literally be tangential. Related ideas can be visually grouped, and you can easily give your audience the bird's eye view, for perspective. Most significantly, though -- Prezis needn't be linear. A presentation can go in various directions, based on audience input or presenter's whim. I think this will ultimately lead to much more interactive, engaging presentations.

Furthermore, Prezis just look great. I was always trained to avoid flashy animations and effects -- my grad school advisor wisely counseled, "Let your data do the dazzling." And I agreed with him, especially whit PowerPoint's cheap, tacked-on effects. But Prezi's more fluid animations have purpose -- they are literally moving the audience's focus along, from one concept to another, or to multiple ideas.

I gave my first Prezi presentation last week (here's the public version, stripped of many incriminating screenshots and some diversions). It was a challenge, and I still have a lot to learn, but I think it was more compelling than I could've made the material, in PowerPoint. And coming at the end of a long conference, I think people were ready for something different.

It wasn't easy, though. It took a while to get the hang of the zebra circle controller. There are still some things about frames that baffle me (no resize option? really?) But the greatest hurdle was old habits: Prezi forced me to think much more about the outline of my talk, up front. I couldn't just churn out some slides to get the ball rolling, but really had to plan where I'd take the audience.

Other thoughts:

  • A poorly planned PowerPoint will bore the audience. A poorly planned Prezi could make the audience violently ill. 
  • PowerPoint encourages and even rewards procrastination. With Prezi, it's hard to make (as many) last-second rearrangements without disrupting the carefully-laid path.
  • Getting videos to reliably display in Prezis is easier than in PowerPoint. Images should be as easy, but there are quirks -- .png files look pixelated, and pdf's don't yet display on the iPad app. 
  • We are pretty close to the point where a presenter can walk around with an iPad and control (or let an audience member control) a Prezi projected on the big screen (this may already be possible with extra hardware, but the Prezi iPad app doesn't faithfully reproduce the Flash-based web Prezis, and doesn't yet allow Prezis over AirPlay).
Even though my talk was (mostly) linear, I'm looking forward to trying some choose-your-own-adventure style presentations, which could be especially useful for talks on medical decision-making. When you think about how many hours people spend looking at PowerPoints, it's easy to get excited about the potential for Prezi. Other Academic EM types are experimenting with Prezi  -- and someone has gone and made a Prezi touting its advantages. Finally, inevitably, there's now a blog about Prezi tips.