I do a lot of presentations. They come in various forms: class lectures, conference papers, keynote talks, corporate presentations, and business pitches, to name a few.

Often I use slides and visuals in these talks, and I do so in various ways. In my class lectures I try to use slides as a way to reinforce the key ideas from the material. In conference papers and keynotes, I use slides to interject visual aids and evocative images as I speak. In corporate presentations and business pitches I use slides to show a current or a potential work in progress. I’m pretty good at all of these things by now, and I use slides without relying on PowerPoint in an “evil” way.

In fact, I don’t even use PowerPoint, I use Apple Keynote instead. I do this partly because I don’t want to use Office, but mostly because Keynote makes it easier to create simple, visually effective images. Most of my slides have either one big image or a single sentence, so I could easily create them in any program. I don’t use animations and fancy transitions, since those just distract the audience.

But the truth is, Keynote is no better than PowerPoint. In fact, all presentation software sucks. And the reason they suck is not because such programs make it hard to create presentations. The reason they suck is because they fail to make it easier to give presentations.

Yes, I know that PowerPoint and Keynote both offer “presenter displays” that give a more useful view of the presentation from the speaker’s perspective, including timers, the next slide, and slide notes. I use this feature and appreciate it.


The problem is, that’s not enough, not even close. Presentations entail not only the images on screen and the words that accompany them, but also the context for their presentation. Where is the audience? The speaker? The computer? Is there a lectern? A wireless mic? How much time do I have? Will there be rapid changes between speakers? It goes on and on. One thing’s clear: Microsoft and Apple don’t make software for people who do a lot of speaking.

Here are some of the things I find myself constantly wishing I had in presentation software.

Presentation Screen Bookmarks. Keynote gives me one layout, and changes are permanent. But the situation of a presentation can be very different: a laptop on a lectern, or on a table 20 feet away, or fed into a monitor at stage bottom, or in any number of places. In such circumstances, the size and arrangement of information needs to be different.

Presentation-Wide Note Formatting. For the same reasons described above, I want to be able to change the font size and appearance of slide notes on my display monitor across an entire presentation, rather than per-slide. This is a huge issue for me, as I often have 100+ slides for an hour talk, because I blast through images quickly. Changing each one manually when I discover that my monitor will be 20′ away is impossible. Yes, yes, I could memorize my speech or use cue cards. But this would be so simple to do, why isn’t it supported?

Slide Libraries. Very often, my talks are variations on a theme. The same general subject for different audiences, or different allotted times, or different contexts. Now I have to make copies of presentations and then add, remove, or adjust them. The result: copies everywhere, with partially modified versions scattered everywhere. Instead, I want the ability to collect a family of presentations into one file, with common slides situated individually or in groups, so I can assemble them together into multiple versions of the same general presentation.

Timing Aides. Related to the above, I want to be able to rehearse sections of a presentation and have them timestamped into the section thumbnail. That way, when I go to arrange a presentation together I’ll know how long a section takes to run through.

Conditional Branching. Often I want to go in different directions at key moments in a talk depending on how the audience has reacted to previous material. I’d like to be able to set up branch points that I can take based on circumstances that arise during a talk. Or in another common situation, sometimes it’s necessary to truncate a talk due to previous speakers’ overages or other unforseeable factors.

Embedded Web Controls. I mean, seriously? I have to quit out of the presentation and drag a browser over to show a website? The same goes for YouTube videos and the like. This is rare for my presentations, but when it does come up, it’s always awkward.

Packaging. Sometimes it’s necessary to send a talk ahead of time for installation on a special system. Why can’t I package a talk up so that my slides appear correctly on any machine, whether Mac or PC, with proper fonts and layouts, and with precisely the presenter arrangment I desire? Insanity.

Programmability. More generally, why can’t I write my own software to embed in a slide, or to drive a presentation? I guess PowerPoint supports VisualBasic for Applications macros, but that’s hardly an accessible solution for things like live data, embedded visualizations, or anything else that doesn’t take the form of an image or a video.

That’s a start, anyway. Anybody out there listening? Apple?

published October 1, 2009


  1. Federico Fasce

    I certainly hope there’s someone out there listening. I pretty appreciate conditional branching. I’m often finding myself thinking about a presentation as a old-style dungeon crawler game, where each slide is a room and you can navigate them in a more-or-less free way. This could be really useful to me.

  2. NrG

    Sounds like you need to go Cloud. Have you ever tried Prezi?


  3. librarian

    You should definietly try prezi:


    It hasn’t got all the features you wanted, but you can make stunning presentations with it.

    The other solution is of course latex beamer but it’s also lacks some features you ‘requested’.


    Basically, i think the best would be a hybrid from prezi and beamer (+ conditional branching which is not implemented anywhere as far as I know)

  4. popotam

    You should take a look at Bruce – a programmable (in Python) presentation tool.


  5. Ian Bogost

    Nate, librarian, Prezi is interesting. I’ll have to look at it more, but my concern is that it seems to focus on animation and gloss—the presentation itself—instead of the delivery of it. I just gave it a cursory review, but I’m not sure how it deals with any of the problems I’ve described…it just looks pretty. Maybe I’m being dismissive, but that’s my first impression.

    As for the Cloud, I’ll admit that I’m generally opposed to doing my work online, partly because I often need to work offline, but mostly because online versions of traditional desktop applications seem to remove or cripple features, under the mistaken impression that onlineness is enough.

  6. Ian Bogost

    popotam, Bruce is interesting … does it run interactively, or does it just create a static presentation. I’m not sure I need to program ALL of my presentations—it might be a bit too much (like LaTeX beamer), but I’ll have to dig in to learn more.

  7. Mark N.

    Making slides using a LaTeX presentation package like Prosper or Beamer allows for desiderata numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8. The downside is non-GUIness, of course.

  8. dizzyjosh

    I was curious if you’d given HTML slidy a shot — it’s some (apparently simple) javascript that allows for basic presentation controls through HTML. That might allow for some of the features you want, although you have to prepare it all in advance.

  9. Mark Sample

    To the people recommending Prezi, did you even read Ian’s post? Prezi commits all the sins of PowerPoint and then adds some more of its own. It is tedious to create a presentation in Prezi, and it is even more trying to give a presentation.

  10. NeilG

    Great ideas, a classic example of the disconnect between the people designing software and the people using it.

    Another option to consider is Open Office Impress. I’m not sure that it does everything you’re asking for, but being Free software you can (a) ask the development community for features you want, (b) hire someone to implement them, or (c) DIY.

    The OO dev community will at least listen to your ideas, good luck getting the same from MS or Apple. 😉

  11. Lucas

    I’ve found that exporting to PDF (using software like PDF Creator, which supports embedding fonts into the PDF) is a good way of packaging a deck of slides such that it will read and display properly on almost any computer.

  12. Ian Bogost


    I haven’t tried that specific approach… I’ll have to take a look. My main beef with HTML/web solutions is that they don’t solve the presenter display problems.


    Good point about Open Office. My guess is that some of these would require a lot of work to implement, but it’s true that one could, at least, take a swing at it.


    Indeed, I’ve used that method before too, particularly for sharing slides with individuals. But it’s not really a solution for delivering presentations.

  13. Ian Bogost

    @Mark N.

    But I’d still have to compile once per show right?

    @Mark Sample

    Right, exactly. More web 2.0 snazzporn.

  14. Jesper Juul

    Concerning presentation-wide note formatting, Powerpoint’s presenter view does have a zoom button that changes the size of all notes across the entire presentation.

    Why do you want to avoid Office? I also have negative gut feelings about Microsoft, but they are the only company that seems to understand that many people use word processors for, well, editing text. Apple’s Pages appears to think that word processing is about layout, and the Open Office people keep shooting themselves in the foot for the very same reason.( http://qa.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=4914 )

  15. Ian Bogost

    Jesper, that’s interesting to know about PPT.

    As for Office, apart from the general negative gut feelings, the programs are just so bulky and bloated, I can’t stand using them. I’ve taken to writing in text editors (more on that in another post), but keeping Office off my computer is more like opting against philly cheese steaks than it like opting against lab-tested sunscreen.

  16. Mark N.

    @Ian: It depends on which parts you mean. You can compile a single presentation that has conditional branching within the PDF, with some embedded buttons, either on every slide, or on specific slides (there’s markup for “this is a section I might want to sometimes skip”). If you want to change the fonts/layouts you do need to recompile, though that can always be rolled in to the presentation launcher (a 2-line script that does a recompile/open).

  17. Jesper Juul

    Conditional branching: In ppt, you can right-click on a screen object and add a hyperlink to a different slide.

    As for fonts, the theory is that (in Office 2007) you can choose to embed fonts in the file when saving it. (Tools – Options in the save dialog).

  18. Bryan Alexander

    Great post, Ian. I share your frustrations with ppt.

    Sometimes I present from a wiki page, text structured as an outline of the talk, with plenty of links to Web content directly. It seems very clear to me, and to a minority of my audience. But most people prefer to see the large, projected images, and are just generally used to seeing a ppt stack.

    I’ve tried presenting with materials in The Brain, but a) it takes significant prep time, and b) confuses the heck out of audiences.

    Prezi looks like it could offer some interesting affordances. I’ve seen a few good examples, and have been assured by some users that audiences quickly focus on the content, rather than glitz.

    I’ll got try Impress.

    -Bryan, who also starts writing in Notepad

  19. Jason Mittell

    The killer feature that I really want to see in a presentation tool is what I imagine as the “Family Feud tool”: you have a list of items on a slide, and you can reveal them in whatever order you’d like. I regularly want to do this in teaching, where I have a list of potential answers to a question and want to display them as the class offers them.