PowerPoint is like a BMW – a great piece of kit that is usually driven by idiots.
I’ve driven a few BMW’s in my life and I’ve always been struck by how appallingly badly other drivers react on simply seeing the badge. The same is true of PowerPoint users. As soon as the projector is fired up, audiences are used to settling in for an hour or two of complete boredom.
PowerPoint suffers so much from over-familiarity. And, while it is packed with features, standing in front of even the most beautifully crafted slide-deck is a limiting experience. Explaining ideas usually works best when is framed around a loose kind of story telling. PowerPoint, though, demands a strict narrative structure with beginning, middle and end tightly connected to each other. Moving between different story elements is extremely clunky and far too many presentations end up stifled. Presenters will often flick back and forth between slides as they clamour for clarity.
Those of us who present for a living are therefore looking for alternatives, a vehicle for our ideas that won’t be maligned for simply existing, and one that allows a more natural flow for explaining ideas. And thankfully there are plenty of alternatives available.
Prezi is a tool that has the design conscious drooling. The swirling visuals and deep dive zooming are enough to pep up even the most jaded 3 day conference crowd. It also gives the speaker the chance to engage in ‘non-linear’ discourse. In other words, while there may be a pre-planned route through a story, Prezi lets you take detours and fly off at tangents before coming back to your main thrust.
Prezi is very easy to use. Spend an hour playing with the tool and even the modestly techno-phobic will be comfortable with the main features. There is also plenty of scope for collaboration with some nice synchronisation between the desktop client and the online hosting service.
That said, while it is visually stunning, there is very little scope for self-expression with colours and fonts. Undoubtedly this will improve over time. As will the need to use highly visible borders around graphics and text to make the animations work. Output comes in the form of a flash file, so don’t expect Prezi on an iPad anytime soon.
Another intriguing PowerPoint alternative is the Visual Understanding Environment or VUE. This is a project from Tufts University and it wears its academic heritage on its sleeve. And there has clearly been a lot of beard-tugging going on in its design. The idea that makes VUE unique is the way it builds layers of information – a ‘mind mapping’ layer to help organise thoughts, a pathways layer to link thoughts together, and finally a presentation layer that pretties everything up in a PowerPoint kind of way.
What VUE lacks in visual immediacy is more than made up for by the flexibility afforded by these layers. Where PowerPoint may require a separate mind mapping tool to organise thoughts and then a labourious process of transcribing ideas into slides, VUE takes care of all of this. And what’s more, the ‘Add Most Relevant Flickr Image’ function takes care of the time consuming picture-editing process that is the heart and soul of a good presentation.
While not as intuitive as PowerPoint or Prezi, VUE is a real breath of fresh air for those looking for a new way of presenting. The concept is fantastic, allowing for linear and non-linear presentations with complete control over look and feel. The layers are strong but flexible and provide a direct link between original ideas and the finished presentation. Output to pdf puts notes and images alongside each other, akin to PowerPoint’s handouts.