I started working past the abstract of my upcoming MySQL Conf 2009 presentation on scaling business intelligence solutions for Habbo this week. Since I learned of an interesting new presentation tool, Prezi from Jussi Laakkonen, I decided to give it a shot with this presentation, since PowerPoint and other slideware tools have never really felt like a good medium to me.

Prezi is certainly fun to play with, and pretty useful for turning a rapid mindmap-style set of notes into a presentation that while perhaps basic, at least is stylistically "different". However, several limitations rapidly become apparent as well. Before reading any further though; go and take a look at their 4-minute demo video and perhaps even try the online demo for a minute or two. I don't want to taint your first impression with these criticisms...

First of all; for me presentation means a performance. A powerpoint deck sent over email is not a presentation; it's an extremely clumsy alternative to a well-written 3-page white paper. Having someone read aloud a bunch of bullet points or throw page after page of text on a wall is not a presentation either - that's the bane of modern corporate culture.

Someone communicating their thoughts verbally, preferably in person (though sometimes a video recording or a teleconference will have to make do) using a set of visual support material is a presentation. Oftentimes they are informative or interesting, sometimes thought-provoking. Once in a while memorable. That's what I'd like to learn to do, though I make no claims to having reached any of those levels yet. One has to have aspirational targets, though.

Now, my workflow for trying to get there goes roughly as follows:

Write down an outline of the ideas I want to communicate, either as a mindmap or as a plain-text document. I typically end up skipping mindmaps here, because I'm lazy and haven't found any mindmap tool yet to be as fast as just plain pounding on a keyboard.

Expand that outline to include all the data I want to show to support my arguments. This is the point where it would have paid off if I had started with a mindmap; but like I said, I'm lazy, sometimes to the point of optimizing time now to spend more time in the next 15 minutes. My rationalization for this is that since the world can change in 15 minutes (insert your own example), what's the point of doing anything too early? Buy that or not :)

Create rough visualizations of all of the data, because I hate having to read text or numbers while listening to someone speak, and I figure I shouldn't have to put others through what I hate doing. Pictures it is, then.

Make the first pass on the sequence in which to present all this stuff. Here's one of the first conceptual challenges I have with Prezi: I get the usefulness of mindmaps, and I love the contextual documentation a good mindmap can produce; but how can a mindmap, a naturally non-linear medium, be the optimal format for what ultimately is going to be a linear storyline to be spoken through by someone? I'm not about to be stopped by a slight conceptual conflict, though.

With slideware tools, this is usually the point where I move the text into a slides outline for the first time. What I've written by this point will be rewritten almost in its entirety by the time I'm through, but rather than organize clouds in a mindmap, I'm now starting to work on the order of ideas as collections of slides.

Once the rough shape of the presentation is in place, I start working on three things at once: the text of the presentation (which I tend to draft up as speech notes just to get a feel for the number of words required to describe the idea, even if I ultimately don't refer to them much), the text on the slides (which tends to be lots and lots of individual words or short sentences shown one by one, rather than lists of bullets), and the rest of the visual support material (eg, actual pictures, rather than the charts and visualizations).

At the end of this phase, I have what I might call a first presentable draft. What's left now is polish: make sure the fonts match, text is aligned, pictures look smooth, transitions work, and so on. While I work on the polish, I'm likely to run through the presentation speaking it through a few times, to time myself, make sure I remember the linear order (since until now I've been working on all parts of it at once), and so on. Because getting the timing right is enough work on its own, I tend to want to leave the visual polish up to a good template; I apply one now, and a jumble of text from random places gets converted to the same style, slide backgrounds are matched up (some have likely been copied from older decks and would not necessarily have the exact same style), and so on.

Now for the parts where Prezi could, but as of yet doesn't support me in this process:

  1. It is impossible to rearrange text in a truly mindmap fashion. Either it's in the same text block and can at best be copy-pasted, or it's independent phrases that have to be manipulated one-by-one.
  2. Because styles can not be applied at the END of the workflow, I have to constantly interrupt my thinking of the ideas by thinking of the polish.
  3. Partially related to point 1, a keyboard pounder like myself is forced to grab the mouse to reposition, or end up writing a notepad-like text document into a Flash text field.
  4. And related to all of the above; copying sections of material from one presentation to another is impossible, so either each presentation must be a from-scratch operation (which might be okay if the mindmapping worked really smoothly and I could at least collect a media library over time), or they have to be evolutionary changes as new versions. Having multiple presentations partially cover the same stuff (as in; short product overview at the beginning of a presentation) is very cumbersome. You might argue it's not a good presentation style to include significant amounts of boilerplate anyway, and I might agree with you, but then the from-scratch creation process just becomes that much more important.
I made already an outline of the presentation I mentioned in the beginning in Prezi, but given these limitations, I may just have to re-do it as slideware after all. I'm bummed about that, though, and I'm sure it'll develop past these limitations.