Phil Libin hates PowerPoint presentations. Slide decks, he said, are for lazy presenters who don’t care about their audience. As soon as we see a slide deck, our Pavlovian response is to tune out. Much to Libin’s relief, it’s been months since he’s seen an “earnest PowerPoint pitch deck.” Presenting slides over a one-hour Zoom is such a terrible experience that maybe, finally, we’ll be done with the slide deck for good.
“It’s taken us a few decades to wean ourselves off of it, but I think it's finally happening,” Libin, the former CEO of Evernote and current CEO of video product mmhmm, said.
Not everyone is as vehemently anti-slide as Libin. The folks at PowerPoint, as you might guess, see slides as a “core medium.” But it’s true that people have been itching for better ways to present information visually for a while now. Like meetings, calendars and messaging, the realm of workplace presentation tools is ripe for disruption and improvement. It’s hard enough for company leaders to earn employees’ attention during in-person all-hands presentations. But presenting to a largely remote and dispersed workforce whose members might turn cameras off to make lunch? Forget about it.
A slew of startups and major tech companies are competing to address this conundrum. But they’re all attacking the presentation problem from different angles. Google Slides is focused on the collaborative presentation-building experience. Pitch wants to be your main all-in-one presentation platform, while the folks at Beautiful.ai think they can win the presentation war by making it easier to create elaborate, eye-catching slides. Prezi and mmhmm are focused on video with floating visual aids, letting execs look almost like newscasters. Brandlive thinks workplace presentations should be as entertaining and polished as TV, like “Netflix for work.”
The battle for the future of presentations is crowded, and it’s unclear who will win. It’s so easy to stick with the tools that we know when pulling together last-minute visuals for a talk. Are you willing to put in the effort to better engage your employees during meetings? A growing number of startups are betting that the answer is yes.
Beautification of slides
Beautiful.ai offers users templates to choose from.Screenshot: Beautiful.ai
Step one: Make your slides less boring. The slide deck is alive and well for customers using Beautiful.ai. CTO Mitch Grasso said he sees tons of users creating traditional presentations consisting of 20 to 30 slides. Rather than ditch that format, he wants to help people make their slides as pretty as possible.
“It’s still an incredibly highly used document form because it solves that problem of: We want to communicate visually, we want to communicate bite-sized chunks,” Grasso said. “We want things to be attractive and look good and present our brand. We don't want to write a lot of words because we're lazy.” And reading a large chunk of text in slide format sucks for the user, anyway.
His goal is to take away all of the design labor that comes with building slides. It might take someone hours to turn a blank set of slides into an aesthetically pleasing, consistent presentation. Beauitful.ai leans into templates, which are a must-have in any presentation tool nowadays. It also uses AI to automate elements of the design process, like suggesting image size and layout.
PowerPoint is also leaning into slide design, along with a number of other features to compete with newer presentation startups. PowerPoint Designer aims to push users away from making bad slide decisions: For example, instead of writing a list of dates as bullet points, turn them into an infographic.
Creating a dull slide deck might come from laziness. It’s more likely, though, that you’re a busy person whose time is eaten up by meetings, administrative work and brainstorming. It’s understandable that presentation creation might become the lowest priority. Presentation deadlines often creep up on you, leaving you scrambling to pull together a coherent, permissible deck. “Bullet points are just so easy,” Grasso said. “They’re the path of least resistance.”
The key is to get users to put more thought into their presentations. Shawn Villaron, VP of Product at PowerPoint, said he first wants people to focus on the narrative arc. Then PowerPoint Designer will “never force,” but gently push users to consider adding more exciting visuals.
“We very carefully nudge you in a direction that we think is more valuable if you're going to be successful at hybrid presenting,” Villaron said.
Integration and collaboration
Maybe the reason we make bad presentations is because our presentation tools are all over the place. “Too many tools!” is a common refrain in the workplace, with organizations using an average of 89 workplace apps according to Okta’s 2022 Businesses at Work report.
Pitch’s pitch is to be the ultimate presentation platform: create, edit, present and publish presentations all in one place. Like other productivity apps gunning to become platforms, it dreams of enticing creators to publish presentations as consumable content. “We have a presentation gallery where we highlight very interesting presentations that have been built in Pitch,” said Tomaz Stolfa, its head of Presentation Experience. “Soon, that's going to empower basically anyone to just publish their presentations there.”
Because of its all-encompassing vision, Pitch feels a little bit like everything. You update your presentations like they’re tasks in a project management app; you edit presentations with floating mouses and video bubbles like a multiplayer design app; you record presentations like a video app; and you publish them like a social media app.
Google Slides also embraces this all-in-one idea. But it gives you access to other tools through Google Workspace so the product doesn’t have to be everything at once. Dave Citron, director of Product Management at Google Meet, said collaboration is at the center of Google Workspace’s products. He’s concentrating on making presentations easy to build and convey. That means pulling information from Google Docs within Slides, or collaborating on Slides in a Google Meet.
“Where the need has really spiked — more so than those more visual, video-focused presentations — is around how you build them, and how you present them in the hybrid world,” Citron said.
Become your company’s Jimmy Fallon
The question of presentation format depends on your company. If you work at Notion, a workplace presentation is as simple as screensharing a Notion page with toggle lists. If you work at Spotify, a workplace presentation looks like a podcast. Even within a company, different situations call for different formats. A brief team catch-up warrants a casual Loom. But for a town hall, you might want to dazzle your employees.
Brandlive is going for pizazz. The former corporate event-planning company pivoted to hosting virtual events for major clients like the Biden campaign. In the past few months, it’s pivoted again, this time helping companies turn their workplace presentations into consumer content.
“Work shouldn’t be boring; the content we consume at work shouldn’t be this way,” said Brandlive CEO Sam Kolbert-Hyle.
Kolbert-Hyle thinks presentations should mimic TV programs like “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” or even “Saturday Night Live.” What do these shows, or popular podcasts, have in common? Segments. Brandlive runs its own meetings in segments, always starting with catchy intro music. For example, a recent all-hands meeting started with a hype-up clip from ”The Greatest Showman.”
“How do you make it interesting?” Kolbert-Hyle said. “How do you make it tie into whatever you’re going to say?”
Brandlive offers to help its big clients create video packages for high-stakes presentations. But eventually Kolbert-Hyle wants to be more like Canva, building plug-in templates so people can easily create their own flashy presentations. Like Libin, he thinks pulling haphazard slides together shows a lack of care for your audience of employees. “Any young person who grew up creating Reels and TikTok videos is going to want to lead differently,” Kolbert-Hyle said. “It’s going to encourage leaders to be more creative.”
Do we really need our corporate presentations to give us the same dopamine rush as TikTok, though? Company leaders may simply not have the time to put together an elaborate video presentation — as always, it depends on you and your preferences. Stolfa from Pitch said flashiness isn’t always necessary. “It’s a fine line between entertaining and over-the-top,” he said. Grasso from Beautiful.ai said it’s all about balance: “You’re not going to create the next blockbuster film, but you can build these amazing things really quickly.”
Prezi is used both for corporate reasons and casual presentations.GIF: Prezi
Brandlive isn’t alone in focusing on video. Prezi launched Prezi Video in 2019. The company has always focused on presentation movement and audience engagement. CEO Jim Szafranski said presenters should be like newscasters, but unlike Brandlive, he sees people using Prezi for casual presentations too. “Prezi Video exists in the Zoom app store,” Szafranski said. “You can send or get Prezi video on the fly while the presentation’s happening.”
The rise in popularity of asynchronous video presentations is also an important consideration. An increasing number of companies avoid synchronous Zoom meetings to let employees consume information on their own time. Zoom recordings of PowerPoint presentations don’t translate well. “If you make a recording explicitly because you know it’s going to be watched asynchronously, it’s much better,” Libin said. “If you think about it like you’re producing a TV show, it’s a different skill set, but it’s a fun skill set we’ve all grown up with. Everyone’s a creator.”
With an ever-growing need for engaging presentations and a colossal number of companies competing to help us: Is the slide deck really dead? Is the pivot to video and async the nail in the coffin? Villaron of PowerPoint thinks reports of slide decks’ death have been greatly exaggerated. There’s room for both traditional slides and narrative video. “Both play critical roles, and our job is to have a portfolio of products that allow people to choose,” he said.
Libin said PowerPoint slides have had their time, and we owe it to each other to build better presentations. At the very least, he said you should use a tool that merges the presenter and slides into one screen. But he acknowledged that the death of slides has not arrived just yet.
“It takes a long time to kill things that are as pernicious as PowerPoint slides,” Libin said.
This story was updated to clarify Dave Citron and Mitch Grasso's titles.