Beyond Powerpoint

Having been in the consulting business and latterly interim management for (ahem) decades, Microsoft’s Powerpoint is a tool which has been hard to avoid. Twenty years ago, it didn’t have any serious competition and since then, due I think to a combination of overuse and misuse, audiences have become more and more underwhelmed with presentations and reports done as a powerpoint pack, especially as the ability to pack more and more information onto a page has increased. Not for nothing has the phrase “death by Powerpoint” entered the lexicon.

However, you have to ask, what’s the alternative? some time ago, I migrated all of my IT to a Mac environment – and while I have no doubt that the Apple world is a more productive world than that of Microsoft, it doesn’t solve the problem of slide abuse. I could make a case for Keynote being a better presentation tool than Powerpoint, but fundamentally it is not significantly different, it is just easier and simpler to use. Where there are gaps, (Powerpoint has more features) these are usually things which you don’t actually need. I suggest that the weakness of all conventional presentation software is the page oriented format, it is too easy to create boring slides and when done, too easy to take individual pages out of context.

Recently, there has been some media commentary about a system dynamics diagram of the war in Afghanistan created by PA Consulting in Powerpoint for the US Military

Afghanistan summary

Communication is an art form

and it does look like an unstructured mess. In a press conference, General Stanley McChrystal said “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war. Unsurprisingly, the media latched onto this comment and had a field day with it. As a typical example, here is what the New York Times had to say.

However there are two points which were missed in the ensuing brouhaha:

  1. The situation in Afghanistan is extremely complicated and can’t be described adequately with a simple laundry list; and
  2. The slide in question summarises an accompanying 30 page slide set which drills down into the detail, presenting the story in easier to digest chunks.

If you take the summary slide together with the backing pack you get a reasonably well constructed description of a complicated and difficult situation but the press chose not take this view.

You might argue that the folks at PA Consulting should have known better; people are who are put through the ‘big consulting’ sheep dip are taught never to make it easy for the crunch part of document (the conclusions and recommendations and definitely anything that contains estimates) to get separated from the assumptions that were used to arrive at that end point but in this case, I think they deserve some sympathy because they couldn’t really have known that General McChrystal was going to take a cheap shot at their work in front of his country’s press and it is hard to believe that he didn’t know the effect his words would have on that audience.

This storm in a teacup illustrates the damage that can be done when parts of a document gets separated form the main body and used out of context and this brings me to the subject of this post. This week, I was made aware of an alternative presentation tool called Prezi which at first contact looks pretty good. It dispenses with the page by page presentation mode and provides a single canvas on which you dump all of your thoughts. The canvas can be as big or as small as you need. When you have assembled the presentation elements on the canvas, you can then group them, layer them, emphasise some of them and define a path through them and add presentational effects.

The end result is a more visually interesting presentation and a tendency to put only one thing on the screen at a time which you can then talk about in free form, rather than put up lists of bullet points ( you can still have lists if you want, but they are not the default option). Take a look at this prezi: http://prezi.com/mojdt36mrozf/mixing-mind-and-metaphor/ and then see how it is used by the presenter James Geary http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/james_geary_metaphorically_speaking.html The presentation lasts 9 and a half minutes. As an aside, if you have not seen a TED talk before, there is some truly fascinating material to be found on their site.

I for one think Prezi looks like a more lively and engaging way of presenting. It moves emphasis away from the slide to what is being said. Judging from the enthusiastic comments on the Prezi site, I am not alone in this opinion, but it is early days for me and I haven’t tried to find its limitations – and there must be a some; here a few possibles that I can think of:

  1. You might argue that it doesn’t offer anything that Powerpoint can’t do, but I am inclined to think that the change in emphasis from page to canvas is a strong differentiator
  2. I don’t think it going to be very good as a reporting tool, i.e. hard copy does not appear not to be its forte but again, doing one thing well is probably an improvement
  3. Prezis are built online. Licensing is subscription based ranging from free – for which you get 100MB storage, to Professional which gives you a desktop version of the software as well as 2GB of storage and costs $159 per year – which I think is a bit pricy unless you are a professional presenter
  4. It is Flash based and so may not work on your iPad
  5. Too much panning and zooming can cause a feeling of motion sickness in the audience and so some restraint is required.

But overall I like it. What do you think? Let’s hear your views, especially if you are an experienced user.

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About lesormonde

Founder of CoDynamics, a business specialising in improving organisational performance.
This entry was posted in Communications, System Dynamics, Tools and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Beyond Powerpoint

  1. Les Ormonde says:

    Tony,

    thanks for the links. WHat did you think of Prezi?

    L.O.

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