Mar 302008

PowerPoint presentations almost always suck.  There’s a reason for that.

When I started my own business I wanted an inexpensive alternative to Microsoft Office, and I found myself at The Grumpy Editor’s guide to presentation programs. There are quite a few alternatives, like MagicPoint, which is often used by OpenBSD folk.  A lot of people really like the LaTeX Beamer class.  OpenOffice’s “Impress” gets reasonable mention.

But on that page’s discussion I see something heretical:� a link to Edward Tufte’s essay, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.”  What?!? Don’t use PowerPoint (or its imitators) for presentations?  That doesn’t make any sense.  But, like the minister’s son who first hears of Documentary Hypothesis, the thought sticks with you.  So, I ordered the essay for $6, and Tufte made things really clear.  You can read a good deal of it at PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports or get his book “Beautiful Evidence,” which includes the PowerPoint essay. Your local library should be able to get it for you.  The usual PowerPoint style hurts — not helps — communication.

Most PowerPoint presentations go like this.  A meeting is planned.  The only agenda given out beforehand is the Subject: line of the email invite.  Slides have either 25 words on them, or 250.  The presenter reads every word, regardless.  It’s boring as hell, and it’s a large waste of time.

Here’s how presentations should go.  A meeting is planned and a formal agenda is sent out.  The presentation is then written out in full sentences and paragraphs.  Then it’s sent out so that people can be intelligently informed about your thoughts beforehand.  They can digest and annotate your thoughts.  Then, when it really is time to meet, they’re not rudely kept waiting for you to talk (I can read much faster than you can talk) and can get down to the important business of discussing what it is you’re proposing.  That works so much better.  It’s efficient.  It’s respectful.

The only time I’ll use PowerPoint-like software is as a wrapper around large visual displays, like pictures or videos.  In fact, Adobe Acrobat PDF is a perfect format for this, as you can embed multimedia content.  With LaTeX, use the movie15 class.  Unfortunately, movie15 doesn’t work with XeTeX at the moment.

Put the text in an actual report.  I especially like the Tufte-inspired LaTeX style; in fact, I wrote my resume in it.

If you’re going to demonstrate something, use Alt+Tab.  That’s not a product, it’s the Alt key and then the Tab key — it switches between running programs. Just Alt-tab out of PowerPoint (PDF viewer, rather) into whatever you’re going to demo, and then Alt-Tab back to your presentation. On Windows, use Mark Russinovich’s ZoomIt, a free screen zooming utility that also lets you do simple onscreen drawing and annotation. If you’re afraid your software or whatever you want to demo might not work properly (insert Windows 98 USB dump reference here…), then record a video and place it in the presentation. In my list of good free Windows software, see CamStudio.

On a final note, most UNIX folk who want an alternative to Microsoft’s PowerPoint use the LaTeX Beamer class.� Leslie Lamport, the author of LaTeX, works for Microsoft now. That humors me. Of course, I like to use XeTeX, by Jonathan Kew.

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