Prezi, on a mission to wean business people off PowerPoint

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright October 29, 2015
Presentation creator Prezi wants business people to junk PowerPoint bullet points for a more visually appealing and digitally astute way of conveying ideas

Prezi screen capture
It's not easy to bring businesses round to a new way of doing things, even when the failings of the old way are widely acknowledged. That's exactly the challenge faced by Prezi, whose touch-first, pan-and-zoom approach to presentations offers a strikingly different way of conveying information than the corporate staples of Microsoft PowerPoint and its lookalike competitors Apple Keynote and Google Slides.

The company acknowledges that new users have to invest some effort to get into the groove of working with its cloud-based presentation creator. Therefore it relies on word-of-mouth and the enthusiasm of individual advocates to conquer enterprise accounts, the growing list of which includes names such as Staples, Lufthansa and Verifone. CEO and co-founder Peter Arvai told me this week:

It usually starts with an evangelist inside of an organization realizing that this is just a more effective way of sharing their stories. Then as they work — most people don't work in silos — they collaborate with other people.

Often, when we sell hundreds of licenses, it started with that one individual who started to understand the power of the tool.

Still today, we have only three sales people in the company because our customers are coming to us, rather than us coming to their door.

Business case

There's a solid business case behind Prezi's growing sales into the enterprise: people pay more attention to a Prezi presentation. That translates into more sales, better communication and more effective training, said Arvai.

At the end of the day, nobody does a presentation simply to get it done. They do it because they want to influence somebody or convince them of their point of view. The key is, do people really understand and resonate with what you're saying?

That's really where we see that Prezi comes to its full fruition — to the extent that when we talk to our customers, they say that when they do comparisons, their close rates — if you're a salesperson — or if you're just a marketer, audience satisfaction rates, they tend to get up to thirty percent improvement.

While the largest group of business users are in sales and marketing, human resources is also a significant source of users, as well as trainers.

I think Prezi works anywhere where you have something important to help people to understand. It is true that it is usually sales and marketing people that are first to adopt Prezi because, if you think about it, their jobs are about presenting really well.

The next group after marketing and sales is often HR people. For the internal communications it's HR that is responsible. Then of course teachers and students are also a big part of our user group. They spend a vast majority of their days sharing stories and ideas.

Touch interface

Prezi is increasing its focus on the business market after raising a $57 million funding round last year. It has 250 employees, with offices in its home base of Budapest, Hungary, and in San Francisco. It is building up the capabilities of Prezi for Teams, emphasizing the ability to sync, view and show presentations from smartphones and tablets without everyone having to be in the same conference room.

In a sales environment, the touch interface of a tablet works particularly well with Prezi's style of panning and zooming across a single canvas rather than having to follow a sequential slide deck, as Arvai explained.

Most salespeople know that actually the best way of being successful in their presentation is to engage their customers. But when you have a traditional, linear or slide-based approach where you have to get through twenty slides to get your story across, it's not a very engaging thing for the customer.

Imagine now that you come with your iPad to a meeting and you show essentially people the catalog of things to discuss. You pan, pinch and zoom around as you like, freely, and let the conversation develop the presentation rather than the presentation forcing the conversation. It becomes a very powerful way of engaging people in meaningful conversations that are relevant to them, rather than prescribed by a marketing department.

When you use it on an iPad, because it's a touch screen, most people tend to use it in this multi-touch experience which is a non-linear one. It encourages people to discover the ideas that are most relevant to them.

Cognitive science

Although its visualization-based approach can be hard for people to learn at first, Prezi provides inspiration and ideas by sharing examples created by its community of users. Arvai told me the company had learned the hard way that there's no short cut to creating a successful presentation.

Early on, we started doing things like being able to make quick Prezi's, based on user feedback. Then we realized that the way to make quick Prezi's is essentially the way you make PowerPoints, which is let people do a lot of bullet points.

We now understand, in retrospect, working with cognitive scientists, we've learned that if you sit in an audience and you see someone presenting with a bunch of bullet points, you're less likely to actually understand the content than if the presenter had not used any visual aids at all. Audiences get confused by, should they listen to the presenter or try to read, and our brains aren't really capable of doing both at the same time.

If you show a picture, that actually reinforces the message you're talking about because it doesn't compete in the same way for cognitive resources. Beyond that, what Prezi does and what slide-based tools can't do, is it can show relationships. To understand an idea really well, you need to be able to connect the dots. That is really the essence that became the strength of Prezi.

Increasingly in the last few years we've been thinking a lot about how can we give people experiences of being successful as they develop their presentations but also inspire them to push their ideas and stories further.

My take

I frequently criticize the computerization of paper-based information delivery formats, and PowerPoint is a prime candidate to add to the list. We call them slide decks because in the days before slides went digital, the slides were transparent sheets (known as foils) mounted in cardboard frames for use on an overhead projector (or for special occasions, people had 35mm film slides produced for use with a film projector). When you piled them up they looked like a giant deck of playing cards. (As a sidenote to etymologists, I had some trouble establishing this until I found a comment by Bob Wyman to a 2005 blog post, which cites 1970s usage).

Now that we are digital, and no longer constrained to the dimensions of a sheet of paper (or of a transparent slide), why do we persist in chopping up our presentations into consecutive pages of information? It's only force of habit. Yet adhering to that format is actually harming the effectiveness of our communications.

Prezi uses digital technology to transcend the boundaries set by notepad-sized slides — and to challenge the bullet-point convention that emerged to ensure the contents of each slide could be read from the back of a room. Instead of being a digitized deck of individual slides, the result is a mindmap-like canvas that visually shows key concepts in context.

Like any innovation that's better than what went before, no doubt Prezi has drawbacks of its own. One clear disadvantage is this requirement for a mindset shift to get started — especially for diehard PowerPoint users. Ease of use is often cited as an essential attribute of a digital application, but sometimes making us stop and think about how we've approached things in the past is an essential part of getting the most out of new ways of doing things. That's not always an easy thing to do but it shouldn't become a barrier to trying out new ideas.

Below, a Prezi that explains how Prezi works.

Image credit: courtesy of Prezi

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