Two Reasons I Rarely Recommend Prezi

There has been a lot of talk in the last year about Prezi, a new slideware application which is an alternative to the established Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote.

Prezi is different in that it gives you one big canvas, and allows you to zoom in and out, and pan around, while still including photos and videos. The developers talk about the many uses of non-linear presentations, and the limitations of slide-based competitors.

Now I’m all for innovation, and Prezi is a fine idea which is quite well-executed. You can criticize it for the limited built-in fonts or various other technical points, but in general, what it sets out to do, it does well.

Sadly, when it comes to live presentations, I am not a fan of what it sets out to do.

For me, the visuals you use when presenting need to do three things. They are there to help you to communicate your message:

a) more effectively

b) more interestingly

c) more memorably

You could well argue that a cool and eye-catching show on the wall will be more interesting than a set of bullet points, and you’d be right. It’s possible that you could use Prezi to produce visual effects which are especially memorable.

The trouble is that you don’t really want people to remember your visual effects. You want them to remember your messages, and the visuals are merely hooks on which they can hang those memories. When the hook gets more attention than the message, you have the beginnings of a problem. It’s not because an all-zooming, all-twisting, all-panning Prezi visual is more interesting than a set of bullets that it is the right solution. A blank wall is better for communication than a set of bullets too.

I always say that visuals should be simple and clear. They should help the audience to better understand the message the speaker is trying to communicate. They should also take as little of the audience’s attention as possible, and only when necessary. Most of the audience’s attention should be on the speaker, and where nothing needs to be projected to enhance the spoken message, that’s exactly what should be projected: nothing.

And this is for me the main difficulty with Prezi, as well as with highly-animated slides created with other slideware apps. The main challenge of the Presentation 2.0 revolution is not to banish bullet points to the dustbin of history: it is to reestablish the connection between the speaker and the audience, while using the best modern techniques to enhance that communication.

I contend that using Prezi – in most cases – will in fact make this worse, not better. There are two key ways this happens.

  1. While preparing a presentation, I ask presenters to focus as much as possible on their audience, to ensure they gauge the audience’s needs and expectations right, target their messages properly, use appropriate language, and ensure their audience will be able to receive and understand the presenter’s key messages. While the big problem with some slideware apps is that it is too easy to produce bad slides, the problem with Prezi is that to make it all look exactly right and design a fantastic-looking visual treat, it takes a very long time. I have seen this happen. The result is that the presenter is focusing too much on the visuals, and not enough on the audience. This can lead to beautiful visuals, but a failure to communicate effectively. That is one way in which the use of Prezi breaks the link between the presenter and the audience.
  2. During the presentation, it is important for the audience to focus as much as possible on the speaker. This way, the speaker can create a connection with the audience, and convey meaning through the exchange with the audience, through their body language and through their passion. If the audience spends all its time looking at the projector screen, rarely looking at the speaker, that connection is lost, and the speaker might as well not be on the stage at all, and instead just record a voice-over. I’ve seen some fantastic Prezi visuals. But they are just so eye-catching, particularly with all that movement, that they become the star. I believe that is counter-productive unless your sole objective is to impress the audience with your ability to create stunning visuals. (And enough people have now seen enough Prezi shows for the novelty to have worn off.)

So there are the two reasons I don’t recommend Prezi: it stops the presenter from focusing on the audience before the presentation, and stops the audience from focusing on the presenter during the presentation. It therefore goes against everything I teach.

There are good examples of the use of Prezi. TED’s Chris Anderson gave a fine talk with Prezi – but because he toned down all the animation, in a laudable attempt to avoid having the audience look only at the slides, there was nothing there which couldn’t have been done equally effectively with Keynote or PowerPoint. In fact, in all the really good Prezi-backed presentations I’ve viewed (and I’ve viewed many), the other tools could have been just as effective.

So there’s the irony. Prezi is a great tool for producing stunning swirling visuals which don’t help communication; whereas if you choose to use it in a way which doesn’t stop communication, you might just as well use Keynote or PowerPoint instead. The one situation where I think Prezi is simply brilliant is for producing videos with a voice-over. That’s where you want the audience to focus on the visuals. It’s not what you want in a live presentation.

I’ll leave the last word to Guy Kawasaki: “If you need animation to make your presentation interesting, you must suck.” The answer is not animating more – it is sucking less.

In other words, the answer is not a cooler tool like Prezi – it is learning to communicate effectively with your audience. Focus less on your visuals and more on your audience, and you’ll be on the right track.

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31 Responses to Two Reasons I Rarely Recommend Prezi

    • Rachel says:

      This author is standing in his own way.

      People remember 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read and 80% of what they see. -Forbes.com

      Seriously, if you are not capturing your audience with visuals why the heck are you giving a presentation?

      This argument is seriously archaic thinking.

      • Phil Waknell says:

        There is a difference between using strong visuals (which I strongly encourage in most cases, as regular readers know well) and attracting the audience’s attention entirely to the visuals, and not to the message you are trying to communicate and the action you are trying to instigate. As Nancy Duarte says, a good visual can be understood in a few seconds so the audience can focus right back on the speaker. For me, the best visuals actually make people listen more, e.g. by planting questions in their minds and making them want to listen for the answers.

        I have seen Prezis which do this. But for every good one, I’ve seen plenty which are visually dazzling to a point that they obscure the message, like those fantastic TV commercials which are highly memorable – but you have no recollection of which product they were advertising. Memorable, but ultimately useless. And while vision is our most important sense, don’t forget that the most important visual of all is the speaker, not the slides. Your expressions, movements and gestures add meaning and colour to your presentation, and help to make you more convincing and credible. None of which will happen if the audience’s attention is always glued to the screen.

  1. So true.

    I spoke at a tech event once where I was the last speaker. The guy before me used Prezi and he was spinning and zooming around so much, that I literally was getting nauseous. I had to turn away from the screen..

    At the end, everyone was buzzing about his presentation, but not a single person I asked could remember what his presentation had been about.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and experience. Yes, I get a number of people telling me they end up feeling rather dizzy watching some Prezi shows. It doesn’t affect me in that way luckily.

      It’s very good if (a) you want to impress people, (b) you have enough time to put into it, and (c) your audience hasn’t already seen Prezi shows. And of course, (d) you only seek to impress, not to communicate.

      Sometimes, it is important to stand out from the crowd, and sometimes it is enough just to be remembered, without necessarily communicating a message effectively. If so, then Prezi is probably a good way to do that. But it was for that reason I advised one start-up CEO to use Prezi in a pitch day earlier this year, and while he did a good job, he had spent too much time preparing the visuals which he should instead have been spending building his business. After that experience, I don’t expect I’ll recommend it again.

      Personally, I tend to think that if more presenters focused on communication and let go of the desire to impress, they’d end up making a better impression.

  2. Can you hear my Amen from here? :)

    I ranted about Prezi a long time ago (http://www.curved-vision.co.uk/presentation-skills-blog/presentation-tips/2010/prezi-for-presentations-perhaps/) but you’ve done a much more thorough job here!

    Pretty much all the good stuff I hear about Prezi boils down to one thing: “It’s not PowerPoint and therefore must be better” which, as you say, completely misunderstands the importance of the presenter.

    That said, there’s an irony that in many of my presentation clients I urge them to create, on paper, something that looks a bit like a Prezi presentation as a way of understanding what they need to say in their presentation and to give it some structure, so I guess they *might* be onto something… :)

    S

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Simon, appreciate your input as always.

      Is there a presentation coach out there who actually recommends using Prezi?

      We had a customer last week, as it happens, who asked us to prepare a fantastic full-movement Prezi show for their big presentation to help them tender for a huge contract. They are a marketing firm and they wanted something sexy and fresh to go with the theme they were proposing for the customer’s campaign. So you can understand why they might have thought Prezi was a sexy and fresh way to present.

      We recommended using Keynote, for exactly the reasons outlined in the article, and produced some fantastic slides (yes, with a little animation, but not too much) to support their campaign but also to support their oral presentation, not detract from it. And they won the deal. (Love it when a customer gets quick results!)

      At the end of the day, communicating effectively is far more impressive than aiming solely to impress.

      Cheers
      Phil

  3. Hi all,

    I agree that with all tools, you should think first about the audience and show restraint in the use of visual effects. Thus my use of prezi has become more and more static. The strong points of prezi from my experience are first the ability to show the structure of your talk visually and second its ease of use. The main challenge is to come up with a significant visual structure for your presentation so that this structure becomes very easy to understand and remember. Some nice guidelines can be found in the book and web page of Andrew Abela (http://www.extremepresentation.com/).

    By the way, to have more freedom (typographical possibilities and an open source tool), I am now experimenting with Sozi (http://sozi.baierouge.fr/wiki/). This freedom comes at the expense of a much more complicated UI though.

    Cheers,

    Pierre.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Pierre – again, you seem to agree that to use Prezi effectively, you have to restrict the use of animation. Such a pity that the main selling point of an app is something you need to avoid using!

      It is important to create a clear structure, and represent it visually if possible, and indeed you can do that in Prezi, although I’ve never had a problem doing it in other tools. I don’t agree with the ease of use though – while it’s not rocket-science for an experienced designer, I’ve seen amateurs take ages to get things looking just right – and then spend ages doing it all again when finding the projector uses a different resolution.

      Thanks for the tip about Sozi – I’ll take a look!

      Cheers,
      Phil

  4. I certainly agree that the wild zooming and flipping is one of the downsides of Prezi. Just like PowerPoint, you need to learn how to use it properly.
    The great advantage to Prezi, as Pierre mentions, is the ability to show the whole picture and then zoom in on the details. This would work great for complex topics such as teaching the metabolic pathways in biochemistry, or mayb even that infamous spaghetti slide from the military.
    Tools are only effective when you use them properly.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Hi Nathan,

      I can indeed see uses for Prezi in showing how certain things interact with each other and fit together. You give two good examples. In fact that was the original reason I recommended it to a startup (as per an earlier comment) earlier this year, although given the time he took to create his visuals, I found myself regretting that recommendation. Unfortunately however, that’s not how most people use it, and that’s not the kind of information most people need to communicate.

      I could imagine for example examining an insect, and periodically zooming in on certain parts of one very large hi-res photo of an insect, with text that appears in each frame to point out certain characteristics of the eye, the wings, the thorax, etc. That would be a good use of Prezi (without all the twisting around).

      Equally, all you need is Keynote and the Magic Move transition and you can do exactly the same thing, frankly more easily in my view… but for PC users, Prezi is cheaper and easier than buying a Mac and iWork.

      In the end, for me Prezi is a niche tool for very occasional use in very specific situations, and (like with other slideware apps) it is most effective when you ignore most of its advanced graphical capabilities. I really wish, however, they wouldn’t market the app by talking up all the animation as a way to make presentations more interesting. In a live presentation, if the visual aids are more animated than the speaker, you have a serious problem.

      Phil

  5. Jakob says:

    Sorry I don’t have time to give this the attention it deserves, but since you asked whether there is someone who recommends using prezi: I do, given the right circumstance. You know I love Keynote and am rather experienced getting unusual results from it. Still for some projects Prezi is easier to use. It’s just a tad unfair to claim that the defining feature is the animation. Neither are the bullet points for Powerpoint the thing that makes the software. Prezi is the best tool, for example, to navigate content you produced externally. There was a great visualization at the Guardian where zooming around in the data was much more powerful than any static set of slides, because an element of exploration was added that an experienced presenter might very well harness for spectacular results.

    Cheers,
    Jakob

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Hi Jakob,

      Always appreciate your comments, and I like the fact you aren’t afraid to disagree!

      There are niches where indeed it can be a particularly suitable tool, and if it were marketed as such, I’d be a little less hostile. But it is marketed as an alternative to Keynote or PowerPoint for general use, and stating that the animation will make your presentation more interesting, and on those two points I thoroughly disagree. They even signed off their latest blurb message with “Happy zooming!” – so is that intrusive animation really not central to how they market themselves?

      And how do you not perform either a zoom or a pan between two ‘screens’ of content in Prezi? The unnecessary animation is there by default and can’t be avoided, whereas you certainly can avoid bullet points in PowerPoint.

      I would much prefer to see Prezi marketed as an expensive niche tool for rare use, which would help to ensure that the ‘novelty effect’ doesn’t wear off – which it is already doing, reducing the ‘wow’ factor. I love the tool for animated videos with a voice-over, and it is highly suitable for a few uses such as Nathan suggested earlier. But those are the exceptions, not the rule, and my advice is that if you want to make your presentation more interesting and/or communicate more effectively, you’d be better off using whatever tool you know best, and spending time on understanding your audience and finding clear strategies for communicating your few key messages to them, rather than making them look more at the wall behind you.

      Cheers,

      Phil

      • Jakob says:

        Thanks for holding me in such high regard, Phil ;-)

        The animation of the zoom is the dizzying constraint you have to work around, not the feature. Being able to navigate freely on a 2D plane + level of detail is what sets Prezi apart. Simon Rogers at the Guardian makes quite good use to have the user explore maps (which are huge pdfs) with Prezi. e.g. http://prezi.com/wxanu172bopf/england-riots-where-they-happened-and-where-suspects-lived/

        You seem to underestimate the potential for nonlinear exploration here. Granted, for linear-structured speeches the classics are much more powerful. But for free exploration of detail on a plane nothing beats Prezi. And it’s just one upload of a file away, too! So if the presenter wants to take his audience on a narrated journey through a static 2D visual system (lack of animation is actually where Prezi is really hurting) I’d say Prezi is the presentation tool of choice.

        That being said, of course I don’t mean to defend Prezi as being on par with Keynote as an all purpose tool. The team has a long, long way to go to make the product intuitive to use right and not lacking important features.

      • Phil Waknell says:

        Thanks for the Guardian example Jakob – I looked at a few of them, and indeed Prezi is a fine tool for viewing complex infographics where everything doesn’t fit on one screen.

        This brings up an existential question about what exactly is a presentation, though. For me, it is about communicating to a live audience, with or without visuals, but with some key message to get across and/or some change you want to bring about in the audience. It’s not just about sharing information. And since I am always keen to preach that speakers should break down barriers, I strongly recommend detaching yourself from your computer and walking around the stage with a clicker whenever possible. That means (in Prezi terms) setting up a ‘path’, which was not done in those Guardian examples, and which ends up being a linear presentation.

        Yes, there are some clickers which feature a mini-mouse, so you could perhaps do some things in terms of moving the screen around on the fly without touching your computer, but you’d spend all your time looking at the screen instead of making eye-contact with your audience. So for me, using Prezi to communicate with a live audience means setting up a path and using a clicker. And it means zooming and/or panning at each step whether you want that or not.

        Yes, there are occasions where it will be helpful to use Prezi to show the relationships between different things. I still maintain it’s going to be the exception rather than the rule though, and for me the test is this: do you really need to show the relationships between different things? If so, use Prezi despite the intrusive movement (and try to avoid any spinning zooms). Certainly don’t choose Prezi because of all that movement.

  6. Dear all,

    I’m a speech writer, speaker and coach, and I’m a user of Prezi and Powerpoint, Flip-chart and photo’s. I don’t think that Prezi is the ‘answer’ to presentation purgatory, any more than any of you do. But sometimes it is the best choice for your crowd. http://www.jim-harvey.com/?page_id=178

    I have used it with clients and for pitches but only when I or we think that the advantages of Prize (Surprise, and visual image display advantages, largely) are the right thing for the event.

    I agree with Simon that a lot of the ‘buzz’ around Prezi is that it’s not PPT. I still contend that a bad presenter with Prezi would be worse that a bad presenter with any other method, ’cause you’d end up with a sick feeling, as well as a real sense that the world ended at the start of the presentation you were enduring.

    Good discussion too. Thanks.

    Jim

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Sorry for being slow to approve this Jim – hadn’t realised you hadn’t commented before, perhaps since we’d exchanged on Twitter previously, and prior commenters have their comments auto-approved, so when I saw my email notification I thought it didn’t need my approval. Doh. Must check back more often – just been a little busy the last week or so! Anyhow welcome to the blog :-)

      Appreciate your perspective and experience on the Prezi question.

      Thanks,

      Phil

  7. […] Phil Waknell gives a fantastic review of Prezi.  He says, “The result [of Prezi] is that the presenter is focusing too much on the visuals, and not enough on the audience. This can lead to beautiful visuals, but a failure to communicate effectively. That is one way in which the use of Prezi breaks the link between the presenter and the audience” (Source). […]

  8. […] Two Reasons I Don’t Recommend Prezi (philpresents.wordpress.com) […]

  9. Marc Siegel says:

    Very well articulated points, well done. The thing prezi does well is create a unique looking presentation, but I would venture to guess that most presenters out there don’t have the artistic eye to make a great looking presentation. Furthermore, as Phil mentions, the focus needs to be on the message of the presentation, not the artistic ability of the presenter. Talking with the audience (as opposed to talking at them) is the best way to find out what’s important and spend your time there rather than trying to get through the whole deck.

    ~Marc

    **Full disclosure, I am currently developing a new online presentation software that focuses on flexible content delivery rather than just prettier slides – Prezi is to some degree direct competition**

  10. Greg L says:

    A little over a year ago I went after a Prezi project so that I could get paid to learn it. I negotiated a fixed price to “convert” the client’s PPT, which was completely raw and the client was not open to rethinking it for Prezi. Well what can I say, I rode the learning curve right down to about $5 an hour.

    More recently I encountered an international consultant in the restaurant industry who wanted to produce an animated timeline introduction to a PowerPoint presentation about social media, which was about 2.5 weeks out. His assistant hired me for that gig, but when he saw Prezi he wanted to do all 200 slides with it (2 presentations). I agreed to be his Prezi production guy on a team that included his coordinator, an illustrator and a designer. This guy continued to add and shuffle slides, and as the emails tell, they were all either surprised or pissed at how much effort it was taking. About half way through, they brought in another designer and another Prezi guy. I built the timeline piece in Flash because they had exhausted the zoom depth. Every one of us worked non-stop right up until the morning of the presentation in Spain. In the end, the guy told me I took too long and stiffed me. That was a tough lesson, but I’m cured of working with people who think PowerPoint should be converted to Prezi.

  11. […] If you’re thinking of giving the professional presenter in your life an iPad, Nick Morgan of Public Words put together an iPad app list including Keynote, Pages, Evernote, Dropbox, and more… However, of this list, I would highly recommend that you skip Prezi.  No one needs to be using Prezi. […]

  12. Laura says:

    I just want to say that I agree with all your points, but I still like one thing about Prezi: it helps me organize my thoughts better than either Powerpoint or mind-mapping does.

    I would dearly love to find other programs that incorporate the ability to zoom in and out like that.

  13. David says:

    Prezi’s billing system is disgraceful. You sign up for a trial with a credit card, but they don’t make it clear that you will be billed. When they bill you, they charge for an entire YEAR of a Pro account automatically, then have the audacity to say you cancel the account but not ask for a refund. I’ve reported them to the BBB.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      I am a pro subscriber to Prezi myself, and I can’t say I’d noticed anything wrong with the way they handle the pro signup. I knew that if I didn’t cancel during the trial period, then the billable year would start. Perhaps it’s changed. Given that they offer free options, and given that the annual pro subscription isn’t so expensive if you use it often, I personally don’t have any complaints about their charging model (although I think they’d do better by charging ten times more and having Prezi as a niche tool that you see rarely and which gives that ‘wow’ effect which is lost when everyone uses it).

      No idea what the BBB is – perhaps that’s particular to one country. Note: I removed your statement regarding how they allegedly feel about Prezi because I don’t want to get into any legal hot water here. This is a place for discussion about presentations, not complaints about companies, so let’s stop this conversation here please.

      Anyhow the message to readers is clear: if you sign up for a pro Prezi account, expect that you are going to pay for it, and frankly any time a company asks you for your credit card, it’s usually because they’re expecting to take money from it, so if it looks free but requires a credit card, read all the small print very carefully.

  14. […] some people, such as philpresents, think that it creates a distance between the presenter and the audience. The presenter will spend […]

  15. […] problems with Prezi and two reasons I rarely recommend Prezi (very useful words of […]

  16. […] The problems with Prezi and two reasons I rarely recommend Prezi […]

  17. […] are, however, negative points in Prezi as well. As mentionned by Phil Waknell on his own WordPress, it is important that the audiance focuses on the speaker, and not only on what he shows on the […]

  18. TudyP says:

    I generally agree with the article and most of the comments.
    I work in a very technical field where most “presentations” are about parts, mechanical, electrical designs and technical reviews. In this case it’s always a challenge to present huge electrical schematics, 2D technical drawings, etc in traditional tools. Most text annotations or dimensions are too small to show well in a presentation. Or large tables of data to be reviewed (yes, we have to put up tables full of small text, e.g. FMEA, etc.) end up either unreadable, or the presenter has to spend enormous amounts of time to make these sources presentable.

    I just started playing with Sozi (similar to Prezi) and I find the ability to move away from any slide, zoom and move through a drawing as we discuss the technical details extremely useful. Again, it’s a niche use and I try to stay away from rotations and too much movement. But in our “presentations”, on most “slides” there are questions from the audience which can be much easier addressed by zooming in to show a detail or moving to the side to show more of the drawing, etc. These technical presentations/discussions are served well by such programs which allow for discussion during the presentation and when large, pre-existing external graphics have to be used.

    Just an alternative use…

    • Phil Waknell says:

      This is exactly the kind of situation where Prezi makes complete sense and allows you to do things you can’t (easily) do in a slide-based app. For your needs it is a fantastic tool.

      Thanks for posting your experience.

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