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PowerPoint Alternatives: Guest Post by Dean Laffan

Wednesday, August 24, 2011
posted by Geetesh on 10:00 AM IST

Recently on the Indezine's PowerPoint and Presenting Stuff Linkedin community someone started a thread with the question "What are some alternates to using Microsoft PowerPoint?"

Various people chipped in with suggestions. But the question got me thinking ... and what follows is a short article stimulated by that discussion.

While the original question asks about the mechanics of what software may be used to construct a presentation, it also raises deeper questions about what we do as presentation designers ... and as presenters as well. I’m reminded of of the old saying; “Never mind are we doing the thing right ... the question is, are we doing the right thing?" To answer those questions, we need to go back a step.

Here’s a few important principles we need to keep in mind when working as presentation designers.

  • Presentations are people, not files.
  • There is no substitute for a human presenter.
  • Presentations graphics are support for people’s stories, like frames in a movie.
  • Presentations graphics must follow the presenter, never lead them.
  • Designers must respect their presenter, supporting them, not competing with, or trying to trump them.

PowerPoint is just one of many tools we can use to create presentation graphics. Note I say presentation graphics. I make that distinction with great care because I believe the original question raises a topic that I cover with our clients daily. And as a presentation designer who owns a presentation design business, you may find this a strange thing I tell our clients, but I often have to explain that "we cannot design them a presentation."

Why is that? Not because we can’t concept, design and deliver effective, persuasive, well designed speaker support graphics ... we do that every day. In fact after 20 years, I think we’re getting rather good at it. We can’t design a "presentation" because a "presentation" is not a PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi file any more than a delicious meal is a recipe in a book ... or a great piece of music is notes on a sheet. The recipe needs a human being (cook) to bring the ingredients together in a way that results in a tasty meal. The music needs talented human beings (musicians) to play the music in a way that brings the notes off the page and into the air where we can hear and enjoy them.

There is only one thing that can embody a presentation and that is a human being who creates (delivers) that presentation. It takes an actual person to bring their physicality to the process, much like an actor does with a script, to make eye contact with their audience, to engage in a conversation, to tell stories, to persuade, to bring humour, tragedy, provocation, inspiration ... to make a connection. I don’t believe this can be achieved by any amount of 
gee-whizzery concocted into any ‘file’ And believe me ... I’ve tried it all.

From about 2001,we were creating and inserting Flash into PowerPoint. From around 1995, we worked in Macromedia Director creating many interactives, both CD and web based. We’re specialists in compressing video for web and disc. Over the years we’ve authored over 200 projects on DVDs and CD. Remember those little business card CDs? We did them too .. basically, if it's made of pixels, we've made it.

But our first love has always been presentation design and working with clients to build a visual support aspect to help them tell their stories.

A .PPT, or .KEY file is just a collection of ones and zeroes until it is delivered by a human being to create a presentation. Yet daily we hear people say “Put that presentation on a USB stick” or “Can you email me the new marketing presentation”. I’m really not trying to be a vocabulary pedant (honestly!) , but it is a daily reminder that sometimes we fall into the lazy habit of regarding the information as the presentation, when it’s absolutely not.

A PowerPoint file absent a presenter is just a document. This is sadly proved on a daily basis by the recent appalling rise of the ‘slideument’ so well skewered in the past by Garr Reynolds. It is also the genesis of the dreaded ‘data dump’ It’s like the old joke about buying computers from the 1980s that you couldn’t get fired for choosing IBM ... because it was ‘safe’

In the exact same way, we see far too many presentations designed as data dumps. Dumbed down and made ‘idiot proof’ so a legion of middle managers can trot them out all over the country. If criticized, the creators can claim that they know it may have too much information and reads more like a document than a presentation,. but they plead that ‘the slides also need to stand on their own ...’. You know when you hear that phrase, the poor audience of that presentation is doomed.

You can write a document … Word is useful for that. And you can design a presentation … PowerPoint is good for that. But we see far too many times, people confusing the two and creating documents in PowerPoint (in itself not necessarily a bad thing) but then presenting them .. and when that happens, then like Jim Lovell said on the Apollo 13 mission “Ahhh Houston .. we have problem.”

I’ll give you a good quick reference guide right now as to whether a presentation has been well designed. Flip quickly through the slides in screen show mode. If at the end you can’t really tell what the presentation is actually about, then there’s every chance it’s in pretty good shape. If however you can understand it enough to think, “Yeah I get what this is about” then you have a slidument and the last thing you ever want to do is present it.

In closing let me implore you that as presentation designers to stick to your principles. The worst brief any of us can get, is a client who says something like; “I want all the bells and whistles ! I want it high impact ! I want it to really wow the audience !!” ... as that 20th Century philosopher Charlie Brown often said; good grief ...

You immediately know you have a presenter who does not want to do the hard yards themselves on constructing a persuasive and entertaining presentation (or perhaps they just don’t know how and you should provide, or suggest help) . Either way they are expecting you to provide some kind of multi-media ‘Shock and Awe’ for which they will be happy and you will get paid, but which serves your client ... and their audience poorly.

It sometimes surprises my clients when I tell them "I don’t design slides for you ... I design slides for your audience." In doing so, I think I best serve my client because ultimately it is your client’s audience that decides the quality of the presentation, not the guy paying your bill. However, if you make him a hero with his audience you have done your job.

Keep up the good fight !

Dean LaffanDean Laffan is the founder of Real World Productions, a Melbourne based studio specialising in presentation design, events, interactive design and digital video. When not attempting to put the world to rights one slide at a time, he can be found as a beta tester for most of the current video compression tools. He is also on Adobe's Customer Advisory Board and is also on the beta team for various Creative Suite Products. When not chauffeuring 3 teenage children around weeknights and weekends he avoids iPhones, email and client briefs by cave diving in the Australian outback.

You can read more on Dean's new blog.

Note from Geetesh: This post originated from a comment posted in the PowerPoint and Presenting Stuff group on LinkedIn -- the discussion was May I know what are some alternates to using Microsoft PowerPoint.

Categories: guest_post, opinion, powerpoint

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