LibreOffice Impress: Overview and Guidance

As I have pointed out with the other components of LibreOffice, it is very important that we do not rush into clicking buttons and making settings, but instead begin with an idea of how to use the program and why you would want to use it. And this is if anything even more of an issue with Presentation software like Impress. Its more widely-used competitor, Microsoft Office’s PowerPoint, has given rise to the expression “Death by PowerPoint” which expresses very nicely the feeling of being trapped in a room and forced to endure a bad presentation. You would not want your presentations to create this type of feeling. So what should a presentation do, and what guidelines can we suggest to the practitioner?

Well, we do have a number of good sources to call upon, but it is worth noting that for this purpose most of our sources will not be about LibreOffice Impress, per se, but about competing products like Microsoft PowerPoint. That is fine because we are talking about broad principles, not about the tool-specific advice that later tutorials will address.

My first resource will be Edward Tufte. You may remember him from our tutorials on graphs and charts in Calc because he is the leading expert on graphical displays of information. But for this tutorial I am going to highlight a small booklet he has published called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. This is available for sale from his web site in a combined physical and electronic version for only $7 in the US, and is worth every penny. I won’t try to cover everything he says in this booklet because you should buy a copy if you are that interested, but he makes some provocative opening points:

  • PowerPoint, compared to other presentation tools, reduces the analytical quality of serious presentations of evidence
  • This is especially the case for the PowerPoint ready-made templates, which corrupt statistical reasoning, and often weaken verbal and spatial thinking.

He goes on to praise the analytical quality of using actual sentences and paragraphs which can be arranged to make meaningful statements.

So what are some of the problems that presentation software poses for effective communication? There are several worth pointing out:

  • Presentations are relentlessly linear, but people often absorb information more effectively when they can access information in parallel
  • Presentations do not reflect the character of the content, but the instead the limitations of the software
  • Presentations place all of the control in the hands of the presenter, but people learn better when they control the flow of information

So try imagine what a comparison would be like between good presentations and good teaching. Most presentations are like a dry and boring lecturer droning on in a monotone and putting the class to sleep. In such a case very little learning would take place. A good teacher uses a variety of strategies and methods to enliven the classroom and make learning interesting. This is a distinct contrast to Death by PowerPoint.

A congruent critique of bad presentations was offered by LibreOffice guru Bruce Byfield in a recent column for Linux Pro Magazine called How to avoid giving a summary presentation. He makes several good points here, such as knowing your material well enough that you don’t need to read from notes, and making sure you keep moving around the room. But the most important point is that a presentation should not summarize what you are saying, it should supplement what you are saying. Or put another way, if you are simply reading the slides, everyone will be reading along with you, and they will be entirely focused on the slides. And they should really be focused on you as the presenter.

For my last resource, I want to use a very good article called 7 Lessons From the World’s Most Captivating Presenters, by Marta Kagan. In this article she talks about several people, such as Steve Jobs and Gary Vaynerchuck, and says that these captivating speakers have lessons to impart to all of us that would make our presentations better. Here are the principles she found in their work:

  1. Start with paper, not PowerPoint – “The single most important thing you can do to dramatically improve your presentations is to have a story to tell before you work on your PowerPoint file.”
  2. Tell your story in three acts – Why should I care? How will this affect me? What do I need to do?
  3. A picture is worth 1000 words
  4. Emotions get our attention
  5. Use plain English (or whatever language you are speaking)
  6. Ditch the bullet points
  7. Rehearse like crazy

Now to get the full flavor you should really read the whole thing on her site, and I assure you it will be worth every moment of your time.

Now, most of what we will be doing in these tutorials will focus on the nuts and bolts of using the software, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted to make sure you had a good beginning point before you start. In other words, it pays to think before you start.

One last illustration will come from an experience I had of a great presenter who came to my Project Management Institute Chapter meeting. His slide deck consisted completely of pictures! There was not a single word of text on any of the slides. On one slide was a picture of bullets (the kind that guns fire) and he said “These are the only bullets you will see this evening.” Each picture helped to illustrate what he was saying in some way, but the focus was on him, not his slide deck. And he had clear mastery of his topic. This is something we can all aspire to!

Note: Additional Resource

Presentation Magazine, and online-only publication, is at http://www.presentationmagazine.com/. This offers an RSS feed and an e-mail newsletter.

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