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.
- 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.
- 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.