Using Prezi

by Willie Wong

I was introduced to the use of Prezi for doing presentations (I know, I am slightly behind the times) from a MOOC I am taking, and so for my recent trip to Cambridge I decided to give it a try. The audience seemed to like it, and I felt that in this particular instance, the use of Prezi vastly improved my talk. On the other hand, I don’t think in the future I will do every one of my presentations as Prezis: that presentation style is suitable for some topics but traditional (be it slides or board talks) methods do shine for others.

To start: what is Prezi?

You can go to their website and find out what they think Prezi is all about, but let me tell you my take on it. The traditional slide format, for me, enforces a linear (1 dimensional) ordering to the presentation. In contrast, a Prezi is a nonlinear (2 dimensional) presentation format. More precisely, I think of a Prezi as a giant poster (or a large collection of black/white boards, if you will, which I wrote ahead of time). You organize the information you want to present on this poster, in ways which are sensible and take advantage of the two-dimensionality of the medium, and then you provide a narrative. The narrative is simply a sequence of zooms and frames that brings particular portions of your giant poster in sharp focus.

An older, low-tech version of this idea has been around since the early days of the overhead projector: the speaker has prepared a transparency, and during the presentation she uses an opaque object to “hide” certain parts of the transparency to focus the audience’s attention.

What this allows you to do is to add some physical structure to the ideas you want to present. For example, suppose you want to study a problem in three different ways. A possibility with a Prezi, which is less feasible with traditional slides, is to actually arrange your poster in such a way that the three methods radiate out from the central problem. Or, in the reverse, suppose your conclusion draws from multiple lines of reasoning, you can easily arrange the presentation such that the conclusion is shown visually as the confluence of the three ideas.

To me, this is the largest benefit from using Prezi to do presentations. So if the talk I want to give is basically linear, or lacks any sort of natural hierarchy, a Prezi probably will not help much; in fact, the animation inherent in a Prezi presentation may actually be distracting in this instance. But if the talk I want to give has some nonlinearity that I can exploit (like the one I just gave yesterday in Cambridge), I will turn to Prezi at a blink of an eye.

With that said, here are some of the pros and cons of the presentation style.

Prezi pros:

  • Allows highlighting nonlinear narrative. On the one hand this can help the audience see how you organize the ideas in your head (which provides additional cue to help them understand your presentation); on the other hand this can also help you, the presenter. One of the problems that I have sometimes had when giving a long presentation is that I lose track mentally of how I forced the slides into a linear format. The two dimensional format I found to be effective as a memory aid for the “map” of m talk.
  • Allows for a more board-like talk. One of the problems of slide talks is often that the talks go too fast. And this is in part because the slides contain too many words, and this distracts the audience (they cannot both listen to you and read). I find that when designing my Prezi it is easy to, using the zooming, limit the amount of distractions on the page. When I want to present a complicated relation between ideas, I will zoom in to each of the ideas separately and explain them, and then zoom out to show the relationship. Even though my Prezi for my last talk had more than 50 frames, I felt it was very comfortable to deliver the talk in the allotted hour with enough time to carefuly explain each of the points I want to make.
  • You cannot zoom on a board. The zooming feature allows seeing the ideas both as frogs and as birds. I didn’t use it too much this time, but my next Prezi I will certainly incorporate this feature more. On a black board this would not be possible, at least not without a lot of erasing and re-wrting.
  • Interestingly I found that the fairly limited design tools offered by the Prezi platform is a plus. By not giving to many bells and whistles, it forces you to think about content and the presentation during the design process, instead of distracting you with unnecessary embellishments.
  • The presentation is in the cloud. Makes sharing and loading onto the presentation computer slightly easier.
  • Good support for multimedia elements: the presentation can incorporate videos and images which you upload yourself, or which you (or someone else) have previously made available on Flickr or Youtube or Wikimedia.

Cons:

  • Zero math support. Only some of the built-in fonts have full unicode support, and there’s no way to typeset mathematics. I managed to get by using one of the serif fonts which fits together pretty well with the Kepler fonts that I prefer when I use LaTeX, and I typeset the mathematics separately, convert them to high-resolution PNG images, and upload them.
  • It is slightly difficult to get the relative font sizes uniform between slides. This is not really a big problem, but there was one particular transition in my presentation where this may have been slightly distracting.
  • Beware of pan-and-zoom. If you do it too much the audience can get motion sickness. It helps to draw out on a piece of paper first a rough organization scheme for your talk and try to minimize the number of long-distance jumps.
  • For the free version you must work in the cloud. So you cannot work on the presentation on the flight to the conference. But if you are willing to pay a subscription, they do offer offline editing software for Mac and Windows.

The learning curve is pretty low. I think I spent about the same amount of time preparing my Prezi presentation as I would have were I to have planned the presentation using LaTeX-Beamer.

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