My gripes with prezi, and some suggestions for making good prezi presentations

Prezi is all the rage lately. It seems everybody and their dog is switching over to prezi for presentations. My twitter stream has more prezis than it has powerpoints, keynotes, openoffices, or whatever else people use to make presentations. (Latex beamer? Please don’t tell me you use latex beamer.) Just last week, I gave a presentation on giving engaging presentations, and one of the first questions I received afterwards was what I thought about prezi. In my opinion, everything I said in my talk applied to prezi just the same as it did to powerpoint.

It seems that people think prezi will magically make their presentations wonderful. Well, I’ve got news for you: it won’t. If you don’t have a story, prezi won’t help you. If you tell your story backwards, prezi won’t help you. If you have no stage presence, prezi won’t help you. If your slide design is atrocious, prezi won’t help you. If you fill your slides with text you don’t read out aloud, prezi won’t help you. Moreover, prezi gives you the unique new power of making your audience seasick.

So what’s the deal with prezi, what problems does it cause, and how could we use the prezi paradigm to make great presentations? The unique feature that distinguishes prezi from most other presentation software is that instead of individual slides that you flip through you have one large canvas on which you can pan, rotate, and zoom. This allows for some really cool effects that are not possible with any other presentation software, but it also adds a whole new level of complexity. Essentially, to make the most of prezi, you need to have some knowledge about videography. Very few people fit that bill and are sought-after public speakers.

Specifically, the two main issues with the prezis I’ve seen are:

  1. Unexpected and excessive camera movement. The whole presentation can feel like a roller-coaster ride. You never know what’s next, but for sure it’s going to be some serious flying over the canvas. Experienced videographers know that excessive panning and zooming is disturbing, but apparently this info has not yet filtered through to the typical prezi user.

  2. Distracting and mysterious previews of the material to come. Prezi encourages a slide design where the contents of the next slide is visible in the present slide, albeit scaled down to a really small size. I think that’s a bad idea, because it distracts the audience. Every time I see a prezi, I start wondering which element of the current slide we’ll zoom to next. Can I find the hidden text in the current slide? Needless to say, while I’m having these thoughts, I’ve stopped listening to the speaker, and I’ll probably miss most of the salient points in the presentation.

I’ve thought a bit about how one could work around those issues, and I’ve come up with the following design concepts. This list is not exclusive; there are almost certainly other really cool ways to make prezi work. I just don’t have enough imagination to dream them up myself.

Infinite pan: Just choose one direction (up, down, left, right, whatever you prefer) and keep panning in that direction. Simple, predictable, boring. But it will not detract from your presentation. And that’s a good thing! Astute readers will of course have noticed that the infinite pan effect can also be achieved with transition effects in powerpoint or keynote.

Infinite zoom out: Start at the highest zoom level and add new material by zooming out further and further. The previous material will appear as a trail of little specks after a while. This might be a pretty cool effect.

Infinite zoom in: Like the infinite zoom out but in reverse. Start at the lowest zoom level (where you can see the entire canvas at once) and keep zooming in. This effect has the disadvantage that it can cause the audience to speculate about what’s going to come next, so I wouldn’t use it. But otherwise it’s sufficiently predictable that’s it’s probably a reasonable choice.

In general, just choose a consistent movement pattern for your camera and stick to it. Also, make use of prezi’s ability to make things appear in the current viewport. If you have a slide with a title and three bullet points, I think you should zoom/pan/rotate to the appropriate viewport containing only the title. Then, the bullet points should appear one by one as you go over them, but without further movement of the camera.

Finally, I wish prezi added the possibility to swap canvases during the presentation. If it had that feature, it would have the best of both worlds. One could do regular powerpoint presentations (each new slide is a new canvas), pure prezi-style presentations (each new slide is just a different viewport on the same canvas), and hybrids (e.g., a different canvas is used for different major parts of the presentation). I suspect that some clever people could make really cool presentations with a system that allows for the hybrid design.

If you have a prezi that you think makes intelligent use of prezi’s paradigm, and that doesn’t have the issues I outlined above (disorienting movements and/or mysterious previews of things to come), please share that prezi with me. I’d like to be able to say that I’ve seen a great prezi.