Presentation Software

If you have been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I am not a fan of Microsoft Word. Truthfully, I’m not even sure if fans of that abomination even exist, but I am surely not one of them. I am no friend to Microsoft, and being a platform nomad I frequently find little use in its products. What good is an application to me if I can only use on one out of my four computers. Word is probably the best example here because in addition to being proprietary, and platform locked (Windows and OSX only) it is also absolutely terrible at its primary function.

Let’s face it: Word is a tool that is pretty much only capable of reliably generating single page ofice memos, but only if you don’t care about consistency too much. I never use the damn thing, and yet I know more about it’s goddamn quirks and failure modes than most of the people I know combined – and they are the ones who use it professionally for 8 hours every day. Which in itself seems like a punishment. I’m pretty sure there is a circle of hell in which crooked accountants are forced to edit word documents with long lists, figures, footnotes and embedded objects that get corrupted all the time for all eternity. If Word (and all Word like products, including the Apple and Open Office variants) vanished today, erased from existence by some cosmic event, the universe as a whole would be better off.

That said, I do use one of the tools that comes under the Microsoft Office umbrella, and it’s name is Powerpoint. It’s actually quite embarrassing, but for all the shit I heap on Word I am actually fond of the big P. As weird as it may sound, it actually does exactly what I need it to do. It lets me put together quick presentations with minimum hassle. I can create a master template that gets applied to all the slides, and then rapidly build up content by copying and pasting images directly from a web browser, cropping, editing and repositioning them, and annotating them with small amounts of text.

PowerPoint Addiction

No I’m not! Shut up! I can quit whenever I want.

I have tried to wean myself of of it, I really did but its hard. I did make my Masters thesis in LaTex using the Beamer document style, but that was mainly because I needed to typeset a lot of math (and Powerpoint is famously bad at it) and most of my source materials were LaTex and EPM files to begin with. These days however I mostly create presentations for the introductory level course I teach. There is no math to be displayed there. Actually I did put some math on the white board one time, and my students were mortified. Those who could overcome the uncontrollable fear tremors and hold back the sobbing pulled out their phones and dropped my class right there and then. So I actually don’t need my presentation software to be able to display mathematical equations. What I do need it to do is pictures. I need colorful images and pop culture jokes with which I can trick them into learning.

With LaTex I need a separate tool for image processing and I have to name, organize manage all the images I use as files in some directory. With Powerpoint I can just copy, paste, crop and forget. Not only that, but I have more freedom when it comes to placement, and can do silly things like “farting Canadian head from South Park” effect via motion path animations.

I could of course roll my own web based slide thing, like Jenn did and use gifs, CSS and the Canvas element to create complex animations. But that would require effort. Creating graphics and animations that is, because making slides with HTML is not very work intensive. Managing the image files, and making sure they get placed correctly, and that things don’t get screwed up when the resolution changes is. Which is why web design is a serious profession, whereas making Powerpoint slides is something you tell an intern to do.

I have tried using Open/Libre variety of presentation tools but they always seem to produce wonky files. I need my students to be able to download, open, read and/or print these slides. Giving them Powerpoint files is a safe bet, however when you save Open/Libre presentation to the OpenXML format you typically lose some fidelity. If you post them in a native format, half the students won’t be able to open them because both Apple and Microsoft hate freedom. Or at least older versions of their signature office suites did. The only other acceptable format is PDF but once you go that way, your students lose the neat ability to print 4-6 slides per page. Seeing how my presentations can sometimes go up to 80 slides, I feel like I would be contributing to deforestation of the planet a bit too much if I did this.

This is especially important since over the years I have been slowly refining my slides, in a reductionist way. Every semester I minimize and abbreviate the bullet points, or remove them entirely making my slides more of a visual backdrop: illustrations of ideas, and cues for my key points and accompanying jokes. As I refine my lessons, my slides become progressively less useful without accompanying commentary. So printouts and notes on the margins become all the more crucial way for students to capture the lesson I’m trying to impart.

I guess what I’m saying is that Powerpoint is actually a semi-decent product, if you need to make goofy classroom presentations full of colorful, mesmerizing pictures and fart sound effects. It’s dreadful for serious kinds of presentations – ones which require math equations, actual data or which need to look “professional”. But if all you are trying to be is a wacky, silly and sometimes profound, absent-minded professor type then it works well.

Do you frequently make presentations? What kind of software and/or framework do you use? What would you suggest for me? I don’t really want to use Powerpoint, but so far it has been the best tool for the job. It’s main flaw is that it doesn’t work on Linux. Well that, and the fact that it is proprietary and by purchasing it I’m actually funding the development of Word which is something I’d rather not do.

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8 Responses to Presentation Software

  1. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Well, the only such tool I know is Reveal.js, which makes for some useless flashy eye candy, but I haven’t used it.

    With regard to the PDF printing problem, what my college teachers did was to simply pre-generate two or three PDFs with different numbers of slides per page. That said, I perfectly understand if that’s too much work when publishing ppt works fine for you.

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  2. At work I usually end up using Powerpoint because I’m collaborating with someone else, but I feel it’s just another inferior WYSIWYG product. It suffers from the typical problem of being incompatible with source control — you can’t automatically merge two variations of the same presentation. There’s also a lack of convention and good practices.

    When working alone I use deck.js. Awhile back I integrated it with Jekyll (way out of date now) so that I can sometimes write slides in Markdown. It’s still far from perfect. While having JavaScript as an extension language for a presentation has been really handy, doing anything non-standard with a slide is usually a spike in effort (CSS tweaking, etc.). Sharing is an issue: I don’t want to hand someone a pile of files as my presentation. There’s a tool for exporting deck.js to PDF, but the result is poor quality — each slide is a screenshot of the page taken using PhantomJS. Plus it loses any JS fanciness.

    Still looking for a great solution in this area. If my needs ever become high enough I will end up writing my own — probably Emacs-based.

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  3. klimeryk POLAND Opera Linux says:

    If you’re looking for ultimate eye-candy, try out Prezi. Unfortunately, it’s in Flash, but the management seems to love it, so I tend to use it for my presentations to “the big guys”. Actually, everyone seems to like those presentations, unless overdo the transitions/rotations ;)

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  4. Ethan Coldren UNITED STATES Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    Personally, I usually use Beamer or google docs depending on whether I am collaborating with other people (everybody else uses WYSIWYG, but I don’t like it). Other people use Prezi, but I flat out refuse to. With Prezi, the animations are usually overdone, and I always get seasick.

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  5. Sheriff Fatman UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    ‘Every time you make a PowerPoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten.’

    (Source.)

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ IceBrain:

    Good point on the Powerpoints. I guess it wouldn’t be that much more work to print them in two different formats. The real workload would be to convert them to non-powerpoint format and then manage the assets (pictures, animations) seeing how frequently I edit them (before each lecture usually).

    Chris Wellons wrote:

    It suffers from the typical problem of being incompatible with source control — you can’t automatically merge two variations of the same presentation.

    Very true. This is one of the annoying things about it.

    @ klimeryk:

    Doesn’t Prezi lock you into a proprietary platform?

    @ Sheriff Fatman:

    OMG, I have killed so many kittens. :(

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  7. Mitlik UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I am admittedly ignorant when it comes to PPT, but I find it at least as over used and disappointing as word. I generate a monthly “report,” which is basically updating a graph and three high level data points. Everytime I would import the graph into PPT I had to adjust the size and position on each page. So eventually I just made a beamer template and a script to generate the required directory structure. Anymore I spend zero time on the layout portion of said report, I only have to analyze the data and enter the points.

    While it sounds like you have other legitimate reasons for sticking with PPT, your printing worry is irrelevant. Adobe Reader, which is likely what most of your audiences uses to view PDFs, gives the option to print multiple slides per page. So from beamer you could just create two outputs from the same source – one with blank slides between for notes and one without.

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  8. klimeryk POLAND Opera Linux says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Yes, that’s a valid concern :/ I stumbled upon Sozi, an open alternative to Prezi – it doesn’t even need Flash. Haven’t tested how easy it is yet (it’s a plugin for Inkscape, AFAICT).

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