Life After PowerPoint: Prezi Zooms Ahead in Digital Storytelling

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 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.

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.