29 September 2010

The Zen of Presentations, Part 36: Prezi

“I only have about six months where this will be really cool, and then everyone else will discover it.”

I thought that about Prezi over a year ago.

This summer, I went to two conferences in three weeks. And I was somewhat appalled by the complete dominance of PowerPoint – for posters as well as presentations. Of all the talks I saw at two conferences, the talk I gave at the International Association of Astacology meeting was the only one that didn’t use PowerPoint.

I used Prezi instead. It was only the second time I’d done so. But like the first time, people were slightly in awe. “How did you get PowerPoint to do all that zooming?” they asked.

I’d smile and reply, “Simple. I didn’t use PowerPoint.”

PowerPoint emulates 35 mm slides: a series of individual images, one after another. PowerPoint has allowed animation of the images, but you’re still basically using the computer as a fancy slide carousel.

Prezi emulates a whiteboard: you get one surface to play on. But it escapes some of the limitations of the medium by combining the whiteboard with a magnifying glass, allowing you to zoom in and out to particular locations at your pleasure.

Why have I only used Prezi twice, when I’ve gotten such a “Wow” response? Because it’s not right for every job. Even experts like Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte (replying to Garr on Facebook) seem to be trying to figure whether or not there are any real advantages to using Prezi over other media. There is, as far as I know, just one book about using Prezi – and it’s in Dutch. (Which is great for them, but not so hot for me.)

What sets Prezi apart from PowerPoint (or most other techniques) is the zooming. I’ve seen zooming used two ways.

Some use zooming as a fancy transition that PowerPoint doesn’t have. It’s a wasted opportunity, and such presentations are often called “dizzying.”

Where Prezi starts to rock is when you use it to show whole / part relationships. In other words, you’re zooming in and out of a single thing as though you had a physical camera that zooms in on a part of a larger object, or pulls back and reveals something is just a piece in a larger puzzle.

Here’s one we did earlier, as they used to say on the cooking shows.

This kind of story works extremely well in Prezi. The map ties it all together, and gives everything a spatial context. You can see how big a move going to McGill in eastern Canada was compared to going to grad school, for instance. I couldn’t tell the story as effectively in PowerPoint.

I’ve learned, though, to try to make each individual step rather small. If you go from a long way out to a long way in in one step, you will rightfully earn the “dizzying” label. Here’s another version that zooms straight from one place to another.

I don’t think it’s as effective as the one above it. Of course, both could be improved if I had higher resolution maps, but as “proof of concept” demos, they work well enough.

In the first example, notice that I don’t jump from Lethbridge to Killarney to the University of Victoria. I pull out from one some distance, in steps, before I start to zoom in to the other. In the second, I go straight from one location to the next. You don’t get as strong a sense of the context as the first one. (I think Prezi may have been optimizing their zooming rates; this one doesn’t seem to race from location to location as fast as I thought I have seen before. But maybe I’m imagining things.)

In biology, I can think of lots of different examples where Prezi would be fantastic at showing whole / part relationships.

  • Starting from a whole organism, zoom down to tissues, then specific cells, then maybe even molecules. (We biologists are always obsessing about “levels of analysis.”)
  • Showing relationships between organisms in phylogenetic trees. You can show the entire tree, then look at particular clades, and individual species within a clade.
  • Timelines. I could imagine some very cool things you could do with geological time.
  • Ecosystems and food webs.

Prezi is not a PowerPoint killer. There are many kinds of stories that don’t have any spatial relationships, and Prezi’s only advantage is novelty. As more people discover Prezi, that advantage will wear off. But for cases where you have a story that does have some spatial elements, Prezi is unmatched.

Related posts

No more slidesters, interlude: Making presentations more like posters

Rhett Allain has a nice list of Prezi pros and cons. Ed Yong mentions that the lack of slides allow him to change things on the fly more than PowerPoint. And Ted Curator Chris Anderson does a great talk using Prezi.

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