Why I’m Not In Love with Prezi

It’s time to write this post. This may be the most frequently asked question in my workshops on evaluation reporting, data visualization, and graphic design.  What do I think about Prezi?

Most people’s first reaction to being in the audience of a Prezi presentation is “Wow, that is so cool. This is going to change my whole life.”

But that’s not what we want people thinking when they are in our audiences.

We want them listening to us. Digesting our words. Relating our message to their own experiences. Getting activated to go make changes in the world. We don’t want them distracted by our dizzying presentation software. This, sorry folks, is probably the same reaction audiences had to the introduction of those clever fly-in animation tools in PowerPoint.

I understand Prezi is working to provide more control over the quick zooming in and out, after early reports that some audience members were getting motion sickness. That’s a good development and a smart response to user feedback.

Even still, I find Prezi vastly too limiting. While all manners of media can be embedded in the show, the predetermined font choices are insufficient in that they’d threaten an organization’s existing identity and branding system.

Prezi also crashed around May 9. A desktop version is available, but for those who had relied on the online version of Prezi so they only had to be concerned about an internet connection, there may be a bit of a false sense of security in the platform. Prezi crashes seem rare and the company offered free 1 year trials of their Pro version for all who were affected. Nice handling of a tricky situation. But I’m not in love.

Moving Emphasis

As much as I advocate for minimalistic slide design, sometimes that just can’t happen. Sometimes you’ve gotta have a lot of words or a logic model or diagram to show. I previously showed one strategy for handling this – the Slow Reveal. But incrementally revealing parts of a complex image might not work for you. So here’s another strategy – Moving Emphasis.

Let’s say I was trying to explain to an audience how they can submit a proposal for the American Evaluation Association 2012 conference. My slide might look like this:

I need to show the whole screenshot here so I can illustrate the proposal submission process while also talking about the individual pieces. But instead of projecting this single screenshot, which would lose visual interest quickly, I can begin using arrows, circles, and other emphasis techniques, like this:

This was as simple as inserting an arrow shape in PowerPoint. Then, as I talk about the next bit, I move to the next slide. Same screenshot, different part emphasized:

I just inserted a text box and a circle shape to draw the viewer’s attention where I want it to go. This way, I can help my listeners better track my own words because the visual matches my verbal pace.

I like this red because it is so good at drawing attention (image how the effect would be lessened with black, for example), but you could even customize the moving emphasis to match your project’s colors.

When we use Moving Emphasis as a technique, it allows us to keep the same visual – which is really helpful in some circumstances, like websites. So we capitalize on attention-grabbing elements like circles and arrows to guide attention and maintain visual interest. Have fun!

Handling Colorblindness

Dealing with potential audience colorblindness isn’t as mysterious as it seems. (And as an added bonus, by way of handling colorblindness, you’ll also fortify your work against the dim bulb in the projector or the color settings on the presenter laptop that skew your established color scheme.)

One product, Color Oracle, can be downloaded right to your computer – it’ll run through your selected documents and show you what it would look like to someone with the various types of colorblindess. (Howeva, I couldn’t get it to download when I tried.)

Vischeck can do the same sort of thing online or on your computer. I uploaded a line graph produced with the default Excel colors:


As seen with red-green colorblindness:

This simulated image is pretty hard to follow, isn’t it? All the better to have good legend labeling. Or highlight the most important line with one color and make the rest of them gray. You can handle it.

Here I Vischecked a slide I replicated from all the others I’ve seen that make me cringe. The slide on the right shows what it would look like with red-green colorblindness (deuteranope).

Yeah, that’s terrible. But the original image on the left is pretty bad in the first place! So it isn’t really about the red-green color combination – it’s about the contrast of the two colors. Below I still used red and green to make my original slide, but note how much more readable it is both before and after Vischeck:

So don’t be afraid of color combinations – but do focus on making sure you have a light-dark pairing that will hold up no matter the projector quality, presentation laptop color settings, or audience impairment.

Slow Reveal

Most of the time I advocate for replacing words with images when presenting slideshows. But sometimes the slide just needs to have a lot of words, like this:

But when we have a lot of words on a slide and we’re truly trying to get people’s minds oriented toward our presentation content, overwhelming their field of vision with so much at once can cause them to just mentally check out (or check their email).

Here’s a strategy for presenting those word-filled slides that can better support audience comprehension – the slow reveal.

Basically, just reveal one point at a time. You start by constructing the full slide, as I’ve shown above. That slide has 3 objectives plus 1 title, so I’ll duplicate it such that I end up with four slides that look the same. Then, just delete one item from each slide, working backward:

This way, when I start at the beginning and work through the slide deck, I’m presenting just one point at a time. This lets my audience focus on what I’m saying (instead of reading ahead and not fully paying attention). The slow reveal also better helps the audience build the mental concept I’m trying to convey.

So ultimately, I end up with four times the number of slides. But don’t let that scare you. It’s the exact same amount of content, same number of minutes talking.

Hot tip: Make each element on the slide a separate text box. So the final slide shown above has four text boxes (and a star). Using separate text boxes makes it a million times easier to delete individual items so the slideshow can build. I’ve seen people try to keep all the objectives in one text box, while attempting the same type of slow reveal. But keeping them in the same text box often introduces the chance for spacing errors. If just one space is different during the slide build, it’ll totally get noticed (in a bad way). Just use separate text boxes.

Related hot tip: Don’t try to compile it all into one slide and use animation to reveal each element. Animation distracts when you want the audience to focus. Animation is also often slower than anticipated, and sometimes doesn’t work at all in certain webinar platforms. Just use separate text boxes.


Here’s a procedure I use all the time to help me select color combinations for my reporting. It makes use of this great, free, online program that takes all the scientific color theory stuff and translates it for those of us without a MFA.

First, I head to my client’s website and take a screenshot of their logo.

Then I go to this cool program, called Adobe Kuler (pronounced “color,” I’m pretty sure) at kuler.adobe.com. This is a color picking website. Once you sign in, you can upload your image. Here I have my client’s logo I just stole from their website. And the program picks out the exact colors from the logo.

Once I save, I can click a little sliderule icon that gives me the RGB color codes. With those color code numbers, I can customize the palette of my word-processing and presentation software programs to match my colors to those of my client.

I just write down those RGB color codes and head over to Word. Here I’m showing a screenshot where I transferred the RGB codes from Kuler into the Custom Colors option (right-click on, say, Heading 1 in the Styles menu and select Modify, then click on the arrow by the color menu, go down to More Colors, and click on the Custom tab).

In the same area you can modify the font, justification, etc. Once you have set up your page layout the way you’d like, go to the Themes button and select “Save Current Theme.” This will allow you to access to these settings on other Word documents and even in other Office programs like Excel or PowerPoint. I like to name the theme after my client and use the theme consistently in all of my work with them.

Why go to all that trouble? Because now you have an intentional tone that communicates consistency and belonging with your client’s work, and that’s what evaluation should be.

On the Struggle of Locating High-Quality Images

I’ve been pretty vocal about the need for greater use of images in our evaluation communications. And while I can get most people to vow to halt the use of clip art, finding high-quality images can be a total pain. What’s at our fingertips (i.e., available on Google Images) is a problem because it isn’t often licensed for free use and it sort of sucks. I mean, lots of what’s available via Google Images are the cliche, emotionless images that actually work against the connection we’re trying to make with our audience. Here’s a sampling of what to avoid:

The alien dudes – totally un-connectable

The kumbaya symbol of diversity – so overused, it’s a turnoff

The handshake – cliche and ubiquitous

Susan Kistler, Executive Director of the American Evaluation Association, blogged about other free sites to locate high-quality images and I suggest you bookmark these places.

But oh! The time you can spend scrolling through images! Hours lost!

What’s the solution? Just like you wouldn’t wander around the grocery store aimlessly, you should go into the stockphoto site with a list of appropriate images in mind. Get really specific in the site’s search engine. Tell that thing what you want! Make it do your bidding! Which brings me to the most important point of this post:

You have to know what you want.

The most efficient method of high-quality communication in our evaluation reporting is to invest in 30 minutes of visual thinking. Take this as your hall pass to get out of the office with a sketch pad and just doodle. What images come to mind when you think about your topic, your client, your message? Brainstorm, sketch, and play. Grab a small group of people and ask them to do some free association with you (i.e., “What images come to mind when I say ‘connect'”?). Then you’ll be much better prepared to shop the stock photo site like you shop at the supermarket – as quickly as possible.

Atomic Slide Development

Seth Godin recently published a blog post on the atomic method of creating slides. He put into words what many of us have felt about the overuse of bullet points. But more than talk about it, he detailed a method for actually moving from a typically bullet-pointed slidedeck to one that better supports audience attention and comprehension.

I demonstrated this process at a recent conference, like this:

So, one starts with the typical slide, full of typical bullet points, looking something like the one below

Then, in the next step, one would separate the bullets such that there is only one per slide. It’s a simple copy and paste – no extra content, just more slides. Below, we’ve got just the first bullet point.

I deviate from Godin’s method here and suggest that one reviews the slide to see how many words can be taken out while still holding on to the meaning. There’s a redundancy above we could remove. Also, one might choose to highlight what one finds to be the most important part of the message. See below.

We can probably still remove some text from the example above. And add a few elements that will help drive the message home, like this:

Since the original idea of the first slide was to compare definitions of evaluation as given by different scholars, it is probably pretty important to link those definitions with the authors in a visual way. Hence the need for Michael’s photo, which I borrowed from the Genuine Evaluation blog.

And depending on what one wanted to explore in this fake talk on evaluation, one could probably break this slide down into its atomical parts even more. An example is shown below:

This way one could better explore what Michael means by merit, worth, and significance – and help the audience better retain the information along the way.

So atomic development is one idea per slide. We break a slideshow down to its most basic particles by removing the nonessential text and simplifying the slide content to what will make the biggest impact on memory.

Report Layout in PowerPoint?

I was recently workshopping with a group of evaluators who had bravely submitted their work examples for group critique. In one instance, they had admitted that what I thought were text-heavy slides was actually a full written report. That’s right – they’d used PowerPoint for written report layout. Mind. Blown.

Then I started asking around. As it turns out, this is somewhat common. People find PowerPoint immensely easier to work with, particularly in terms of arranging text and graphics, than Word.

I get it. Totally. Evaluators don’t have time (or money) to learn fancy new software programs that make report layout simple. We’ve gotta work with what we have. And if it’s all going to end up as a PDF anyway, I suppose the software doesn’t make much of a difference. Just be sure to pay attention to two things:

1. Long reports need to be presented in portrait orientation. And this is possible in PowerPoint. Here’s a screenshot:

You can actually turn the orientation of your slides so that it looks more like a written report. In PowerPoint 2010, this is under the Design tab, within the Slide Orientation setting. Pretty cool, eh?

Why is this so important? Well, we are used to seeing slides in landscape (and the occasional chart or table) but we are used to reading long text in portrait orientation. And if we want people to be able to pay attention to what we are saying, rather than get distracted by internal questions like “Is she trying to give me a full report on PowerPoint slides?”, we have to work with the familiar.

2. Because PowerPoint works through textboxes, evaluators need to make sure the narrative text is set at an appropriate length.

Headers, call out boxes, and graphics are places where one can stretch the boundaries of margins in PowerPoint a bit more. But when placing the narrative text, it should be done such that the lines are no more than 8-12 words per line. (That’s 50-80 characters, depending on the font, for you folks that like to labor in long words.)

When our lines are longer than that (super easy to do when filling a landscape-oriented slide with a textbox), it gets difficult for the reader to track the text. Tracking the text is when a reader tries to finish one line and start the next. When the lines are too long, readers mistrack often, getting confused about which line is the next (and this interrupts comprehension and works against our intentions as evaluators).

So I’ll remain agnostic about the proper software program for report writing, as long as we can agree to pay attention to the components of legibility and comprehension research wherever we are.

I Think Powerpoint Just Did Something Right

It is so awesome to see Microsoft addressing the misuse of Powerpoint (I mean, did they really have a choice? One of their main tools has been so badly knocked in the media for its contribution to harming understanding, it was either address it or repackage!).

Though the storylines were insulting and they mistakenly referred to only males in the first sentence, good gracious they got it right!

1. Keep your chart simple

2. Don’t overdo the animations – use them when you are changing sections or topics

3. You can kill your presentation by overdoing bullet points

4. Move supporting data you would put on the slide into the notes section or in a printout

5. Ask yourself: Can I make my point with an image (Hint: YES!)

6. Please don’t read off your slide

7. Cut slide text wherever you can (then go back and cut more)

8. Distribute your handout at the end of your presentation so the audience stays focused on you

9. Help your slide content stand out by using simple, unpatterned backgrounds (but avoid their recommendation to use the preloaded templates – everyone recognizes them as a template!)

10. Step away from the computer to see if your text is large enough for the audience to read (Hint: Pick size 30 or larger)

See all 5 short videos here: http://www.microsoft.com/office/powerpoint-slidefest/do-and-dont.aspx?WT.mc_id=oo_enus_eml_videos

Looks like you can also submit your best slideshow for a contest starting soon. I’d love to see how this gets judged because in my view the best slideshows are completely uninterpretable without the presenter. If a slideshow can stand on its own, you need to cut text.

Nevertheless, it looks like the folks at Microsoft have finally figured out what some of us have been screaming (and begging and pleading) about for a few years now. Sweet! The more, the merrier.