Life After PowerPoint: Prezi Zooms Ahead in Digital Storytelling

Life After PowerPoint: Prezi Zooms Ahead in Digital Storytelling

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this really nice zooming interface,” Arvai says. “People would come up to him and say, ‘How did you do that? Is there a way I can do that?’ And he was like, ‘Sure, as long as you know how to code.’”

Years later, in 2008, Budapest-based developer Péter “HP” Halácsy convinced Somlai-Fischer that it was time to turn his hand-coded zooming interface into a piece of commercial editing software. And they, in turn, persuaded Arvai—who’d been raised in Sweden by Hungarian parents—to leave his Malmö-based digital health startup, Omvard.se, to become Prezi’s CEO and business leader. “When the three of us came together it was with the sole intent of allowing anyone to create these nice zooming presentations, irrespective of whether you are a programmer or an artist,” Arvai says.

In part, the trio was simply responding to a market pull: people saw Somlai-Fischer’s presentations and wanted to make their own. But as software engineers versed in showmanship—Somlai-Fischer had exhibited his works around the world, and as a child in provincial Sweden, Arvai had choreographed a ballet version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince—they brought with them some theories about the nature of the visual imagination.

“If I were to ask you now, ‘What kitchen appliances do you have at home?,’ what you are most likely doing is imagining yourself in your kitchen, looking around and naming the things,” Arvai says. “What you are not doing is creating bullet points or an alphabetized list. In fact, you are not even writing. It turns out that a large part of our brains is dedicated just to visual-spatial memory. So what Prezi does is create a space other than pages. And the spatial experience of a prezi engages that larger part of your brain and makes the whole experience more memorable and easier to understand.”

In a good prezi, views of individual elements—they’re called frames—are laid out in a pattern that contains an extra layer of meaning. The pattern might be obvious from the start of a presentation, or it might be revealed gradually as the camera swoops from frame to frame. Here’s another example that makes extensive use of the zooming convention—just click on the arrows to move forward and backward through the prezi:

Somlai-Fischer didn’t invent the concept of the zooming user interface, or ZUI. That’s actually been around since the early 1990s, and has taken many forms, including Gigapan’s zoomable images, Blaise Agüerra y Arcas’s Seadragon project at Microsoft, and comic artist Scott McCloud’s Infinite Canvas concept. But the key precursor to Prezi, in Arvai’s view, was Google Earth and Google Maps. “That was the first zooming user interface that actually hit it big,” he says. “Nowadays the younger generation would never even think about buying an atlas where you have to flip through the pages.”

Primed by digital maps and video games, people will gradually come to expect more from other forms of visual communication, Arvai says. And it’s not just about aesthetics—it’s about having the right tools to capture good ideas and turn them into action. The most successful Prezi users, Arvai says, employ the software as a kind of hybrid between a whiteboard and a lecture aid. They use the canvas to brainstorm, filter, edit, and rearrange their ideas, then take their prezis-in-progress straight into business meetings, where they can start pitching. “In an environment where a company’s survival depends on being able to bring something new to the table, having tools that spark creativity and new perspectives really matters,” he says.

Now, just as with PowerPoint or Keynote, it’s easy to make a bad prezi. Some beginners just throw a bunch of visuals on the canvas and make no attempt to shape them into a story. (The company calls that a “sneeze prezi.”) Others go overboard with the zooming and spinning, which can be vertigo-inducing. “Motion should have meaning, but you can certainly make motion that has no meaning,” Arvai says.

The bottom line: no presentation tool will make dull ideas sparkle, but Prezi is particularly unforgiving. In PowerPoint, it’s easy to hide sloppy thinking, as a legion of critics from Clifford Nass to Edward Tufte have argued. But in Prezi, it’s obvious, because it looks terrible.

To help Prezi users get off to a solid start, the startup provides more than 50 template canvases built around visual metaphors like a twisty journey, a tree of possibilities, or a mountain of obstacles to be overcome. In addition, there’s a huge library of public prezis created by users themselves and licensed for remixability.

Businesspeople are probably the leading users of Prezi, but the software is also starting to turn up more in education—where collaborating on presentations can be a form of group learning or peer-to-peer teaching—and nonprofit organizations, where it’s a persuasive tool for fundraising. To reach users on more platforms, the startup released an iOS app in 2011 that lets users view, create, and edit prezis on their iPhones and iPads. It’s not quite as full-featured as the Web version, and I’ve found that it has a tendency to crash when loading big presentations, but it does put the devices’ multitouch capabilities to good use.

Everything about Prezi is free—unless you want to designate your prezis as private, you need to extra storage space on Prezi’s servers, or you want to work offline using the desktop app, in which case there are two premium membership levels to choose from: $59 and $159 per year.

In closing, let me direct you to the single best prezi I’ve ever seen. It was made by Barcelona-based design shop Presentaciones.biz, based on a TED talk by poet Sarah Kay. It illustrates—just as with any presentation—that a great story starts with great visuals, meaning that most of the work of building an effective prezi actually occurs before you put anything on the canvas. There are a lot of effects in here that I don’t yet know how to create myself—but I’m looking forward to learning.

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Expivia

    If you would like some help in creating the wow factor in your presentations, website, YouTube videos or marketing materials with Prezi let us help. Here is a link with some examples of Prezi’s that we have completed:

    http://www.expivia.net/#!prezi/c1942

    tlaird@expivia.net for any questions!

  • 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.