Is Using Prezi for Scientific Presentations Worth it?

I’m always looking for ways to improve the presentation of science, either to the scientific community or the public. If you’ve seen my last posts, you may have noticed that I tend to be big on visual presentation. This debate is not new. In fact, Andrew Gelman has a great couple of posts and slides on the difference between scientific data presentation (i.e. graphs) and info visualization (i.e. InfoViz, the pretty ways people come up with to display data). I leave it up to you to explore this further. That is not the topic of this particular post.

Instead, this post focuses on presentations. Not just graphs, but the actual format of presentations. Typically, science presentations are Powerpoint slides with bulletpoints, some graphs, and a some pictures. Very linear and standard. Animations and effects are frowned upon as distraction (as they ought to be). Good talks present very little text on the slide and don’t move through slides quickly. They force the listener to key on the speaker, rather than just reading the slides.

TED talks are a great example of how to give wonderful talks. If you haven’t seen one, there are many, and they are never a waste of time. Many TED talks use a different format than the typical Powerpoint slides. I learned that many speakers use Prezi to make their talks.

Prezi is a new style of ‘nonlinear’ presentation software. Talks are set up as one giant slide and the frame skips from area to area. This allows for great flexibility in how you plan your talk. It no longer has to be linear, you can move around in circles, show relations in different ways, etc. It features zooming and rotating, which in principle are meant to be used to show complex relationships between topics.

I’ve seen one scientific talk using Prezi, and I’ve watched a couple of more (most of them are public online at Prezi). I’ve not been terribly impressed. Most talks, including the science one, simply used Prezi as a fancy way to have fun slide transitions, rather than actually using the effects to link pieces of a story together in a visually explicit way.

However, because I love TED talks (they are masterfully done), and because I think Prezi can be a good tool for public speaking if used correctly, I wanted to see if I can use it for the defense of my dissertation proposal. I thought this would be a great chance to use Prezi to its full extent. My work is over several biological levels, and the zoom effect allows me to make this visually explicit. However, I kept slide transitions to a minimum and avoided rotation or anything else overly distracting. You can see the final product here. Let me know what you think.

I’ve not given my defense yet, so I can’t tell you how it went. Some people I’ve shown it to so far have loved it, others.. not so much. Jury is still out. However, I have formed a general opinion of using Prezi for scientific talks from my experience in trying to actually build one.

Here it is: Don’t. Except in extreme cases. Long talks, such as keystone speeches, job interviews, defenses, etc., are good choices for a Prezi talk IF you can master the format. Short scientific talks have no business being in Prezi format; there is nothing Prezi can do that Powerpoint (or, my new favorite, LaTeX Beamer) cannot. Couple that with uncertainty over file format compatibility at conferences along with the issues listed below and Prezi quickly becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

Others reasons to avoid Prezi:

1) It’s free for the basic service. Extra services will cost you. A lot. And it’s not a one time fee like most software. It’s a (very expensive) yearly subscription. Want to have a program to edit Prezi’s offline? Roughly $150 per year, please. Don’t want to pay? Then you’d better have a good internet connection, because you have to work on it online.

2) It still feels very much like unfinished software, which it may very well be. For example, there are effects to fade-in items (make them appear), but no way to make them disappear. My biggest complaint is that about the styles. Each theme has limited styles (i.e. colors) of shapes. Want to customize your colors? Better learn CSS/HTML, because you need to edit the CSS file. Know how to do that? Great, but Prezi doesn’t save the CSS file correctly, so you have to re-edit it every single time (including right before your talk). At least, this seems to be the case on my system.

3) Huge compatibility issues across browsers. Prezi works better on some than others. In fact, the CSS issue might be related to this. I use Chrome. Prezi doesn’t work well on Chrome. Want to cut and past objects in your talk to make duplicates of the same size and orientation? Better use Firefox, because this functionality is broken on Chrome and, I believe, Safari.

4) I hope you have a fast computer. Mine is six years old. It runs like new, it’s by no means the fastest thing on the market but it’s not slow. It gets bogged down in Prezi at points and it eats up my battery.

5) I feel like Prezi’s limitations are in part because it’s Flash based. There are similar, and free, options available if you happen to be good at HTML, called Impress.js, or jmpress.js (jmpress.js is actually impress.js with some extra functions). These are based on Java, run better, and are compatible across browsers and on mobile devices (see, iPhone: No flash playback). To use them, however, means you have to code them yourself from HTML, something most of us just don’t have the time or inclination to learn (NOTE: most ecologists I know are not nerdy computer geeks. Most are nerdy play-in-the-mud-and-water-and-forest-and-holy-crap-an-ocelot-I’ve-never-seen-an-ocelot! geeks [look at his tufted ears!]).

UPDATE: A seventh problem: 7) Prezi offered a free trial of the desktop editing software this morning (it was very convenient to this post). I downloaded my Prezi to try to solve the CSS issue there, except its even worse on the desktop. When I edit online, the changes work and remain so long as I don’t save in quit. In the desktop software, the changes never even show up. So in short, the desktop software works less well than online editor, but costs $150 per year.

In short, I sort of regret my decision to use Prezi. I’m too far along now to remake the whole talk in Powerpoint. I actually prefer 1) LaTex Beamer, 2) Apple Keynote which, although old, still rocks, and 3) MS Powerpoint if I absolutely must. (Speaking of, where’s the iWork update, Apple? It’s been 4 years! I love Pages and Keynote. Numbers, meh. But they show their age in places).

If you want to use Prezi, just be sure you’re comfortable being the center of attention and are very good at ad libbing in case your presentation gets messed up or crashes, because with Prezi, it’s nearly inevitable.

UPDATE: I love the idea of Prezi, but the software isn’t there yet. Also, Prezi works great if you just use their set themes. If you try to go beyond that into customizing your talk, the software shows its youth. In summary, Prezi is great if you use the provided templates and themes and if you have a powerful computer and fast internet. If you don’t have all three of those, stick with the standard slide format.

9 thoughts on “Is Using Prezi for Scientific Presentations Worth it?

  1. I like what you’ve done with your Prezi-based talk. I agree that while I think the concept is neat, I really always found talks made in Prezi to be distracting, based on a combination of the sheer novelty of the thing (expecting a powerpoint) as well as people over-using the animations and zoom because they’re there.
    I’ve never used it except to play around, so I didn’t know there were so many kinks with it. That’s a bummer, because I think you’re right in that it is nice to have an easy way to show non-linear relationships, especially in a project designed as yours is.
    Well, anyway, good luck with the defense!

  2. The thing that I like in Prezi is that you can easily show overall picture and concentrate on details after that (http://prezi.com/2fs5rhvsn84k/smsnv2012_carbonhc – here is my 20 min. conference presentation where I tried to realize the concept with prezi ). I think it is important to do the speech this way. As for my knowledge you can do this with PP or Beamer only by preparing images for different zoom levels in other apps (Inkscape etc.) and the result will not be very smooth. There are, of course, such tools as Sozi or JessyInk, but it looks like they have their own “sins”.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Sozi and JessyInk. I’ve tried those (when I was looking for a free Prezi) and they just didn’t run as smoothly and didn’t allow transitions of background images. The background images issue was also the reason I didn’t use impress.js, which I would’ve much preferred.

  3. I am also an advocate for improving science communication and have been exploring Prezi. I’ve had to change my presentation from Prezi to Powerpoint once because the conference I plan to attend does not have internet connection (and I do not want to pay for the subscription). However, I still find Prezi as an exciting and engaging communication too, but you’re right when you say to limit distractions because it is easy to get carried away with transitions.

    I noticed in your Prezi that you used three different background images. Be careful when zooming in and out of your slides because as you zoom, the background images can get distracting. They don’t always completely transition into a single picture thus, creating distraction by trying to distinguish which picture you are looking at. The background transitions can also be piecy. Moreover, the white text on your slides with light blue background is sometimes hard to read.

    If you haven’t already defended your dissertation, good luck! I think it’s great that you are using Prezi. If you want, check out one of my Prezis I created to briefly explain one of my underwater research projects http://prezi.com/cgefz4wv6cpm/watersipora-project-by-emily-aiken-western/ . Word of caution, don’t go through my Prezi too fast or you may get motion sick…

    Cheers!

    Emily

    • Thanks for checking out my Prezi! You hit on my big problem with Prezi. My text boxes were black with white text, but nothing I could do would get Prezi to actually save that, so it reverted to light blue with white text every time I closed the program. I had to manually change the stylesheet before presenting every time. It seems to me that saving stylesheets should be one of those basic functions that just works.

      I looked at your Prezi, and I liked it. I do think Prezi is useful for certain situations. Presentations at scientific conferences to fellow scientists? No, they look for substance over style. You don’t need Prezi to get their attention. Good data does that. Presentations to general public? Absolutely. Finding creative ways to display data and get your message across are crucial. I liken the Prezi-Powerpoint decision to the Infoviz-Statistical Graphs discussion that Andrew Gelman has talked about.

      • Thanks for viewing my Prezi and for your reference! Andrew gave some good, easy-to-read tips about improving graphics. Another great source for the presentation of informational graphics is Edward Tufte (in case you haven’t already heard of him) who is a professional at it. Check out what he thinks about using Powerpoint: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

        I totally agree that using Prezi depends on your audience as any presentation should. I just wanted to try something other that ppt.

        Looking forward to more discussions with you about presentation techniques and design!

  4. Interesting review (and presentation), thanks.

    I am about to deliver my first talk using another tool which follows the same rough concept sa Prezi, but is SVG-based and FOSS: Sozi. A simple “presentation” to illustrate how it works is available here: http://sozi.baierouge.fr/pages/10-about.html

    I didn’t want to pay for Prezi’s service and could not make my presentations public to use the free online version (in business, as opposed to academic circles, ideas and knowledge are not nearly as often widely published), which is where Sozi came in. It is basically an Inkscape plugin, Inkscape being a rather good vector graphics design tool. You work on a desktop (i.e, off-line), publish a reasonably simple SVG for presentation in the browser and that’s basically it.

    It has to be said that Sozi should really be considered a proof of concept tool, but I find it already useful to produce attractive presentations. I intend to use it most when talking to an audience not previously familiar with the material to better attract attention. FWIW, if used well, I believe it could be useful with analysis of graphs/charts used to represent measurements, experiment results etc.

    Prototype-level quality, lack of “slide” notes, possible problems with browser compatibility and the additional effort going into each presentation raise doubts, but it really is refreshingly different from yet-another-Powerpoint-presentation, which I consider useful. Being an engineer, I do value content more than presentation, but I have to say that I’ve seen content delivery fail too many times because form has not been up to scratch.

    • I used Sozi when I was looking for a free alternative to Prezi. It did the job, but I found the transitions to be a little rougher and it was missing a few little things here and there a really needed. That said, I think Sozi would be a good alternative in most applications.

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