I’ve never spoken with the creators of PowerPoint, Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin, but if I ever get the opportunity to do so, the first question I’ll ask them is why they think the phrase “death by PowerPoint” has become so widely used in the lexicon of presentation do’s and don’ts. The second question I’d ask them would be, if they had it to do all over again, what would they do differently? I have no idea what their response to the first question would be. But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, in response to the second question, they said, “We’d make it more like Prezi.”
Unlike the slide format of PowerPoint, Prezi is based on the concept of a “zoomable canvas”—you create your presentation imagery on a single canvas, and zoom in and out to highlight the various elements of your presentation. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Peter Arvai, CEO and one of three co-founders of Prezi, all three of whom are Hungarian (although Arvai was born and raised in Sweden). Prezi itself was born in Hungary, which most of us in the United States probably don’t think of as a hotbed of software development. So I asked Arvai what the software development scene in Hungary is like. He said even Hungarians don’t think of themselves as a nation of startups:
I was born and raised in Sweden, and worked a lot on the Stockholm startup scene. Stockholm is seen as a pretty advanced startup city. London and Berlin are usually considered to be at the top, but on the next tier down, Stockholm is mentioned. Budapest is usually not mentioned, but what I’ve seen from my experience is that the amount of talent and creativity is very much on par with Stockholm. There’s a great set of Hungarian companies that are achieving global success, and we don’t necessarily associate them with Hungary. I think we will see more and more.
I asked Arvai if he could cite anything about the software development scene in Budapest that made it conducive to creating a product like Prezi, or that helped to define the characteristics of Prezi. He said there are a couple of things:
There’s a really good science tradition in Hungary—the engineering talent that exists in Budapest and the region is at a really high global level. The second thing is that being one step removed from Silicon Valley has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is obviously not being close to that large pool of venture capital. But the advantage is that Silicon Valley tends to align pretty narrowly on a couple of investment hypotheses. So whether you are looking for an investment from VC Company A or VC Company B, their investment theses are not that different, and there are a number of companies that are being built on the same thesis. However, since the Hungarian scene is not that closely aligned with Silicon Valley, it allows you to step outside and think more creatively. I think Prezi is an example of that. Around the time that Prezi was started in 2008, one of the biggest investment drivers, and one that I think still colors Silicon Valley to a large extent, is connecting into the “dopamine cycle.” If you can give people some short status update and some sort of instant gratification, you can try to hook them into consuming more and more—you have this same type of status-update startup, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. With Prezi, what we try to promote is helping people make better decisions by having more thoughtful conversations, and understanding and retaining information better. We’re trying to help people to connect the dots, and to see the relationship between things, rather than piecing it up. That’s a very different approach.
So are there any markets anywhere in the world where Prezi is more popular than PowerPoint? Arvai said he couldn’t confidently say, because he doesn’t have the PowerPoint numbers:
But there are certainly markets that are charging ahead of other markets [in adopting Prezi], and they tend to be commercially oriented markets. For example, in Europe, Holland has a great resume in international trade and business, and has been one of the leading nations to adopt Prezi. Interestingly enough, in Asia, we have South Korea, which is booming right now, thanks to a very successful import/export industry.
I asked Arvai if any myths are out there about Prezi that need to be dispelled. He said there definitely are:
I think all tools can be used and abused. One way that Prezi doesn’t work well is when you only use it to zoom around the canvas, and there’s no meaning in the zoom. This is usually what’s happening when people say they get seasick. There’s actually a very simple solution for that, but it requires a little bit of discipline in the creation of a Prezi. The solution is to group topics in meaningful ways. As long as you spend some time identifying what the topic is that you want to take an audience to, and you group the topics so that when you zoom out, you show the groups of topics, people tend not to get seasick. And they understand the relationships between the topics. I think the biggest myth around Prezi is that it’s just fancy zooming. But used well, Prezi enables the presenter to make clear what the message is that he’s trying to convey. It enables audiences, in the blink of an eye, to understand the entire story, and to drill into the details. And that’s a very powerful way of conveying the message.
I mentioned to Arvai that the biggest criticism I hear about Prezi is that it has a relatively steep learning curve. I asked him if he thought that’s a valid criticism, and whether Prezi is doing anything to make the learning curve less steep. He said the learning curve is not so much around the tool itself, but around how to tell a story with clear visuals rather than with pages of text:
In school, we are trained to tell a story with long pieces of text. And if you look at a PowerPoint, in many cases it’s many pages with bullet points. Essentially what people do, is they write out their story on the slides. To be an effective user of Prezi, you truly have to start thinking about how you arrange the information in a way that people can, at a glance, understand. So to rephrase the learning curve challenge, it’s how do you go from being a text-based communicator to a visual-based communicator.
Arvai wrapped the conversation up by pointing out that conversations he’d had with cognitive psychologists yielded the conclusion that the Prezi metaphor resembles more closely how the brain works:
Essentially, ever since we were babies, we’ve grown up in this visual world, and we’ve tended to arrange information based on visual placement. When you present that way, it turns out to be a very powerful way to help people remember your ideas. Placing ideas on this large canvas, and seeing how they relate to each other, helps people to identify connections, understand and retain the information, and make better decisions.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.