Does Better Presentation Software Make Better Presentations?

The boring, witless PowerPoint presentation is a stereotype for a reason: Anyone who has spent any time in the business world has encountered their share of them in the wild.

After sitting through a poorly presented hour with nothing to show for it but a stack of slides, it is probably easy to blame PowerPoint itself for your wasted time. At least that is what Prezi, a relatively new startup, might hope.

Prezi, which launched in Hungary in 2009 and now has offices in Budapest and San Francisco, offers web-based presentation software that differs from PowerPoint principally in the ability to zoom in and out freely, as well as allowing navigation through a parallax 3D space on the Z-axis. Sample presentations are available on Prezi’s website. Prezi has yet to catch on in a large way in the U.S., though it has recently gained substantial traction in Australia and New Zealand and reports about 40 million users worldwide.

Prezi is certainly slick. It was originally built using Adobe Flash, though it transitioned to JavaScript this year, and it offers the ability to play audio and YouTube videos from within a presentation. But it raises the fundamental question: How does the ability to zoom in and out fundamentally make you a better presenter? When is a picture just a picture, and when it is worth 1,000 words?

Much like a website – or a business, for that matter – a good presentation should be easily summarized. While animation can be eye-catching, it can easily become a distraction in which your content is lost amid zooms and rotations designed to impress rather than to educate.

Prezi presentations are stored in the cloud. For the business world, confidentiality and security are often vital. How comfortable will people be with storing their firm’s data with a third-party business? Of course, many businesses store some of their data in the cloud already on services such as Google Drive. But Google has built an established and mostly trustworthy name for itself. Prezi is still, essentially, a startup.

I am all for competition. If Prezi, or another company, creates software that truly delivers a superior product and an easier user experience to presenters, then PowerPoint will either have to catch up or become irrelevant. PowerPoint would have a long way to fall, given Microsoft’s clout and the omnipresence of its Office suite, but it is certainly not a flawless tool. Still, it is dangerous to fall into the trap of confusing changes to the medium with improvements to the message.

When computer spreadsheets first appeared and it became a simple matter to turn rows of data into a pie chart, pie charts were suddenly everywhere. Every report and meeting needed one or more. This was not always a bad thing. Then as now, some pie charts were really useful. Then again, some pie charts were, and are, really dumb.

Good communication, whether through a blog post, a presentation or a one-on-one conversation, is built on a few key traits. You must have a clear point to make; you must understand what your point is; and you must express that point in a simple, powerful and engaging way.

We are lucky today to have great presentation tools. But no matter how slick your graphics or intuitive your interface, true connection between a presenter and an audience comes from what the presenter has to say and how he or she says it. Offer your audience interesting, worthwhile material. The goal is to engage your viewers, listeners or readers, not to dazzle them. This will be as true 25 years from now as it is today, no matter what technology we might be using by then.

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