Life After PowerPoint: Prezi Zooms Ahead in Digital Storytelling

Not every speech is improved by visual aids. Abraham Lincoln made do without PowerPoint at Gettysburg (though wags have tried to reimagine that), and Franklin Roosevelt’s voice on the radio in 1933 calmed a nation rattled by the Great Depression and cemented the New Deal.

But there’s high oratory, and then there’s the old-fashioned presentation, where the setting is usually no larger than a boardroom or lecture hall and the point is simply to enlighten, persuade, or entertain your listeners. In those situations, thoughtful visuals can have a big impact. No meeting between a startup entrepreneur and a potential investor would be complete without a chart showing that everything is going up and to the right, and nobody would remember statistics guru Hans Rosling’s 2007 TED talk if he hadn’t used his fancy Trendalyzer visualization software.

Sooner or later, you too will be asked to give a talk to a live audience, whether it’s your customers, your boss, your Girl Scout troop, or the local PTA. And chances are you’ll want to make some slides to go with it.

The good news is that there have been some big improvements lately in the world of presentation software. Microsoft and Apple continue to upgrade old standbys like PowerPoint and Keynote, which are now available in tablet-friendly form in addition to the traditional desktop versions. But even more encouraging, some new challengers are emerging. My colleague Ben Romano wrote recently about Seattle-based Haiku Deck, whose iPad app lets you build simple presentations around meaty bits of text and big, beautiful visuals. And lately I’ve been getting to know Prezi, a five-year-old, 130-employee startup with dual headquarters in San Francisco and Budapest, Hungary.

One of the first things that Prezi CEO and co-founder Peter Arvai tells any visitor is that despite the company’s name, “We don’t think of Prezi as a presentation tool.” To its creators, Prezi’s Web-, desktop, and tablet-based software—whose distinctive feature is its zooming interface—is all about telling stories, communicating ideas, and facilitating conversations.

Prezi co-founder and CEO Peter Arvai, on the roof deck of the company's San Francisco office building.

Prezi co-founder and CEO Peter Arvai, on the roof deck of the company's San Francisco office building.

But in real-world offices and classrooms, Prezi usually turns up first as an alternative to older, more linear digital-slideshow tools, and only then do users begin to discover more uses for it. That’s why I think it’s fair to talk about Prezi as part of a centuries-long lineage of presentation technologies, going back to the blackboard and the magic lantern and continuing all the way up to PowerPoint and Keynote.

The central innovation at Prezi was killing off pagination—the idea that a presentation should be a sequence of static pages or slides. Every prezi (the company’s lowercase noun for a presentation made using Prezi) starts with an infinite two-dimensional plane or canvas. Storytelling elements like text, pictures, or video can go anywhere on this plane.

Creating a prezi is basically a process of finding or creating the right elements, laying them out in some meaningful pattern, and then drawing a narrative path between them. During an actual presentation, the virtual camera’s viewpoint pans or zooms to each stop on the path, with all transitions handled by the Prezi animation engine.

It’s easier to show than to explain. Watch a bit of this video tutorial and you’ll get the idea:

I’m not yet a Prezi pro, but I’ve spent enough time immersed in the software over the last couple of months to see that it offers an unusual combination of power and simplicity.

Here’s the quick backstory: as early as February, I’d been considering using Prezi for a big talk I was preparing on the technology of storytelling. Then I visited Arvai at Prezi’s San Francisco office in early March, and we spent most of the interview talking about how today’s visualization technologies help people tell stories in more compelling and memorable ways. I went home more convinced than ever that Prezi was the right medium for my message, and that I should learn the software. Which I did—and you can watch the resulting talk here. Entitled “Stories About Storytelling: A Personal Journey in Technology,” it was part of the PARC Forum speaker series at the Palo Alto Research Center. (The Leonardo da Vinci image above comes from my prezi.)

[Updated 5/10/13] Today Prezi has 23 million registered users. But Arvai and his co-founders—who raised almost no outside money until 2011, when they collected $14 million from Accel Partners and Sunstone Capital—didn’t set out with much of a business plan or an aggressive mission to disrupt the incumbents in the presentation-tools industry. “It did not come from an analysis of how the market was tired of boring PowerPoints, or how we could impress people,” Arvai says. “We just saw that when people interacted with Prezi, it was like some visual passion had been lit. It was very emotional reasoning.”

The original inspiration for Prezi grew out of a 2001 project by Adam Somlai-Fischer, a Hungarian-born architect, artist, and programmer. “Adam was spending most of his time creating these stunning art projects, and one of them was … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Expivia

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  • FxMx

    you may wanna steer way from Flash-based platforms as if it were the bubonic plague. Don’t believe me, just re-read this comment 2 years from now.