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How Prezi uses Prezi

Whether you use its software or a rival's, the way the company thinks about building a presentation might help you get your ideas across better.

How Prezi uses Prezi

Prezi is perhaps most associated with how it's used outside of traditional business settings.

Image: Prezi

The James Bond films may have taught you how to order a martini or wear a suit. They taught Prezi executives how to run a meeting.

It's a lesson that started with an analysis of two car chases, both passing through a construction zone: One came from the Sean Connery-era "Dr. No," and the other came from Daniel Craig's "Quantum of Solace." The team at Prezi likes to think of the differences in how two scenes utilize movement, space and timing as a guide for how it builds and uses its own products internally.

The 11-year-old presentation software company is perhaps most associated with how it's used outside of traditional business settings. It counts Bono, Hannah Fry and a network of teachers as users. As the first company TED ever invested in, it's a staple of high-profile presentations at the TED Conferences. But in the last five years, the company has expanded its offerings to enterprise clients and is working to establish itself not just as an alternative to Powerpoint or Google Slides, but as a broader productivity tool that could help meetings be a more effective use of time.

Prezi says it has more than 100 million users currently; that's 20 times fewer than GSuite, which includes Google Slides. So the challenge for the company is to translate its value from on the stage during an annual keynote to the simplicity of everyday use. That means that what drives Prezi's internal use of its own products is less about specific hacks or shortcuts and more about how it gets the entire company to communicate in a way that grabs and keeps people's attention without requiring feature film-level budget or labor.

We spoke to Prezi to learn how its employees think about building presentations. Here are some of the highlights — which are useful whether you use Prezi or not.

Embrace movement, to an extent

Spencer Waldron, Prezi's director of global brand communications, has been studying the way people communicate for the better part of the last 10 years and ardently advocates for the use of motion. Motion in moderation, he noted, is crucial to avoiding a boring presentation -- a cardinal sin at a company that prides itself on a better communication style.

"What Hollywood figured out quicker than anybody else was that movement spikes dopamine in the brain," Waldron said. "That's what makes us pay attention."

That dopamine spike is why Waldron pointed to the Bond movies in a recent internal training session. The chase in "Dr. No" — cutting edge at the time — was shot primarily through the lens of a fixed camera, while the similar pursuit in "Quantum of Solace" relies on frenetic pacing and rapid cuts. In the almost two-minute-long scene in "Dr. No," the camera's shot changes 26 times. It takes "Quantum of Solace" fewer than 30 seconds to hit that number. For Waldron and Prezi executives, those concepts play out in meetings, too. A slide deck shared on a Zoom call might be the original way of doing things, but a current action movie director's sensibility applied to a presentation, namely a quicker pace, more movement and different angles, is better at keeping the audience engaged.

But everyone knows the person who goes overboard with transitions in a slide deck (and if you don't, you're ... in for some bad news). That's not the kind of movement Waldron means, or the kind he sees within the company. In his presentations, he uses motion to move the narrative along and make an audience feel like they're making progress, the same way set pieces and plot points might let you know how much time is left when you're streaming a movie on Netflix.

In one recent internal presentation, Waldron used Prezi Video — the company's videoconferencing overlay — to navigate through a set of visuals that appeared over his shoulder, like they do behind a news anchor. Bringing the deck onto the same plane as his video, he could point to specific charts and seemingly interact with the images during topic transitions. (It's worth noting that Prezi isn't alone in exploring this idea; mmhmm is doing something pretty similar.)


An example of Prezi's "concept car."GIF: Prezi


The company's human resources manager, Kinga Fekete, made use of what Waldron refers to as Prezi's "concept car" in an HR training session this year. That involved actually interacting with the presentation she'd made using the company's new gesturing features, which arguably have more in common with today's augmented reality products than a slideshow, but shares the concept of using on-screen motion to help keep an audience engaged.

Structure presentations for the right amount of time

"I'm a big believer in the adage that culture will eat strategy for breakfast," Waldron said. "A lot of [my job] has been around showing people that if you use certain structures, you can do a video in two or three minutes that might have taken you 15 or 20 minutes at the beginning of a meeting."

At a recent all-hands, Prezi CEO Jim Szafranski highlighted to his staff ways that teachers were using Prezi Video during online classes. To do that, he zoomed in and out to explore three central themes of their efforts in the education space: the usage data, the written anecdotes they'd compiled from administrators and example videos of innovative ways teachers were using their products. Szafranski's piece of the all-hands clocked in at just a few minutes.


CEO Jim Szafranski utilizing structure.GIF: Prezi


For Waldron, the presentation worked because it used structure, not just in the way the narrative was crafted, but in how the objects interacted with one another in space. Using the overview to draw curiosity for what was to come and accompanying the idea of zooming in on a particular theme with a literal zoom effect both reinforced that the presentation had depth, Waldron said. And using the location of the visuals, Szafranski was able to illustrate how each of the concepts related to one another. Those kinds of ideas are ones that Waldron works to ensure are used across the company, where he's continually analyzing what works and what doesn't.

"What happens [after your attention gets drawn] is our modern cerebral cortex kicks in and goes, 'Yeah, but do I trust this person?'" Waldron said. "That's when you want to use data and charts and case studies and whatever you have at your disposal and use structure to an advantage."

Don't just tell one story

If Prezi uses Hollywood as the framework for how to craft a presentation, it uses gaming as the framework for how to deliver it. Specifically, Waldron notes that Prezi's sales team takes advantage of an '80s staple: choose your own adventure.

Whereas a regular slide deck is built with a narrative pre-baked in as a result of the creator's ordering choices, Prezis give users more freedom to call audibles throughout. Four years ago, Prezi ran an industry survey to quantify that value and learned that 72% of respondents found two-way presentations like Waldron described were more memorable than their linear counterparts. A study from Harvard (funded in part by Prezi) came to a similar result about the value of a presentation's medium a year later.

"The thing the internet changed was who already has information in a sales environment, so it's pointless people saying, 'Here's my 20-minute pitch' because [a prospect] will already know most of it," said Waldron. "What you can say now is, 'I've got four things here that I want to talk about. What's going to be most useful to you?'"

In Waldron's experience, that kind of conversational presenting works just as well internally. If he's presenting pieces of a new strategy to the team, he aims to read the room to see where attention begins to dip and then skips around to a different part by navigating his presentation structure.

"If I'm seeing that I'm losing you a bit, I pull back to the overview," he said. "You can use the ability to freeform around content quite effectively."

Redefine what (and when) a meeting is

Recently, particularly in the COVID-19 work-from-home era, the company has also adapted how it thinks of its employees' time. Waldron highlighted the difference between an engineer and a senior manager to illustrate the company's new push toward asynchronous meetings.

"How those two people use time, how they see time and how they value time is completely different," he said. "If you're an engineer, that [manager scheduling a quick meeting] can destroy your entire afternoon of deep work because you suddenly have to go to that meeting, and it takes you out of that concentration."

While live communication is still a big part of what Prezi does, the company has adapted to use its product to record videos and visuals that can be consumed at times that aren't disruptive to the kind of concentration-intensive work being done on the engineering side of the house.

"Async holds the keys to unlock the amount of time that you have to spend in video meetings," Waldron said. "[It] sounds kind of strange coming from somebody who has a video meeting product."

* * *

Ultimately, Prezi's share of the presentation market is still dwarfed by Big Tech players in Powerpoint, Slides and Keynote. But those three platforms all offer similar versions of the same concept. It makes sense: The slide deck has been the standard across industries for decades.

The way Prezi the company uses Prezi the product, however, points to a different way of looking at communicating. Movement and structure coupled with a conversational style are what the company argues makes information actually stick. And if having fewer meetings in favor of better ones is a central part of a company's mission, the Zoom-wearied post-pandemic crowd might take a keen interest.

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