Daily Archives: November 8, 2008

Why Apple’s Keynote keeps raising the bar when it comes to presentations – it’s all to do with why it was created in the first place.

Is the Powerpoint style of presenting on the way down?

Is the style of Powerpoint on its way down?

There’s a long running comparison between Microsoft and Apple that suggests that while Apple can turn on a dime (or sixpence if you prefer) when it comes to dealing with the changing technology landscape, Microsoft is like the Titanic, unable to chart its way through troubled waters, and make the necessary rapid diversions to avoid obstacles, foreseeable or otherwise.

It had a chance to do so with mobile phone technologies, but CEO Steve Ballmer who saw the iPhone coming laughed it out of contention and continued on his predictable path. We’ll see where the SS Microsoft navigates to in a year or two with respect to cellphone software and market share.

It’s its sister ship, SS Powerpoint (above) that I’m considering in this post. Some time back, I wrote a blog entry entitled, “Just what is it about Keynote that is changing the way people present? where I trawled through the blogosphere looking for who was using Keynote and why. I was searching for others’ notions of Keynote’s ability to elicit creativity, non-conformity and and persuasiveness in its users so as to deliver impactful messages.

Since that time, I’ve noticed (because I look for such things) an increasing number of high profile presenters overtly using Keynote. I’ll update that blog entry soon, transferring over onto this Presentation Magic blog. Just this morning, on a discussion list I subscribe to, I saw the following message:

“My employer wants me to look into taking an advanced Apple Keynote course…. Our company is looking to migrate from PowerPoint to Keynote and I am the person who will be performing all of these tasks… I’m pretty versed in Keynote, but I think I’m just at the tip of the iceberg with the program. I know it can do more.

Well yes; it can.

In my travels where I’m just speaking about presentations, much like my friend Garr Reynolds with his Presentation Zen approach, I take a platform-agnostic stance. Audiences have not come to learn about software choices. But no matter whether the audience are teachers or CEOs, they know they haven’t seen Powerpoint in action.

They see razor sharp text (usually just a big word or two per slide), megasharp pictures (no pixelation), unfamiliar themes and backgrounds which don’t compete with what’s in the foreground (the message!), movies which play flawlessly within the slide without revealing the controls, spoiling the sense of a seamless presence, and they see intriguing, enhance-the-story transitions and builds (otherwise known as animations).

It’s not that Powerpoint, the application, can’t do these effects adequately – it can. Indeed, it goes one or two better than Keynote when it comes to picture manipulation abilities, for which one needs to leave Keynote 4 and seek third party assistance, such as Photoshop. And it has better timing controls, for sound and image “ins and outs”, something sorely lacking in Keynote 4, but which I expect to be addressed in an update, utilising the timing features we’ve seen in iLife apps. such as Garageband, iMovie and iDVD.

For me, in 2008, the historical differences in the products’ DNA is becoming glaringly obvious. Powerpoint, the app., can’t seem to shake off its corporate lineage, its graduation from being an ersatz overhead transparency producer for the Mac Plus and an adjunct for sales and marketing professionals, complete with bullet point templates for outlining a widget’s selling points.

Keynote’s origins, as a medium for Steve Jobs’ keynotes, where he would display his company’s wares, came as a cinematic, narrative device. Few will disagree that a Jobs’ keynote is a keenly anticipated event, often as not letting the non-techie world know where the techie world is heading. That’s not to say Jobs usually introduces unheard-of products. But he and Apple have displayed an uncanny knack since 1997 to reinvent the familiar, and turn it into something emotionally satisfying rather than a sterile object to be endured due to an impenetrable user interface or lack of reliability.

To help persuade us of Apple’s foresight and ability to provide emotionally satisfying products and future offerings, thus building up anticipation and desirability, as we witnessed with the iPhone introduction in 2007, Jobs uses Keynote to tell stories. Even when on rare occasions it fails, he tells stories such as when he and Woz would play pranks in their dorm using Woz’s gadgets, all the while no doubt hoping that the tech. gnomes in the support area are getting things working again. Pronto!

Keynote was designed from the ground up as a story telling device in the tradition of movie making, hardly surprising given Jobs’ involvement in Hollywood. It elicits in the user, scene construction, editing facilties, and high quality graphics and sound reproduction. A great deal of thought has been put into matching its themes with default fonts and photo cutouts. The reflection and shadowing effects, which Powerpoint has now added and in some ways exceeded, allows for lifting images and text off the page, playing into the audience’s depth perception capacities it takes for granted.

The capacity of Keynote to allow for exceptional vividness and presence is one of its secret herbs and spices, all too easy to neglect when all you’re doing is preparing the next bullet point series (must remember to keep to the 7 x 7 rule – as if!), and locating brain-wearying clip art. At least Powerpoint 2008 for the Mac has eschewed clip art for high quality photo objects.

One shouldn’t underestimate the story-telling, narrative-building capacities of Keynote. More than ever, the power to weave a story arc, with its beginning – middle – end, is essential for conveying complex ideas and concepts to naive audiences. By “naive” I don’t mean willfully ignorant, but an audience who is attending in order to learn and assimilate unfamiliar concepts into their own knowledge base. In order to do so, presenters would do well to make essential assumptions of the audiences prior knowledge, and build a story, using metaphors and similes and even biographical tales.

This is where Keynote’s advanced transitions and builds help the presenter weave his or her story, sometimes applying cinema quality dissolves Powerpoint is incapable of achieving, or advanced masking controls, much like matte artists at Industrial Light and Magic.

Indeed, it’s my guess that we will see in the next Keynote update even more acknowledgement of its cinematic heritage by the inclusion of the sort of effects we have come to see in such Apple products as Final Cut and Motion.

For the past five years since its introduction, Keynote has gently added new features, starting from a fairly low base compared to the bells and whistles Powerpoint users have come to expect. Long time users had to become quite innovative and clever in their use, making up for Keynote’s feature deficits, yet capitalising on its superior visual and text qualities. In Keynote 4, Apple unleashed some of the most desired and necessary features such as motion, alpha masking and scaling.

Keynote still lacks the diversity and multiplicity of features Powerpoint boasts. But if the feedback I receive is to be relied upon, audiences certainly don’t notice the disparity. Indeed, because they so often see the same unimaginative themes and unnecessary animations in Powerpoint, the simplicity of Keynote shines through.

It does mean that Keynote users work harder to achieve these effects, using the application’s precision features. This may come as a shock to those who expect Apple products to make life easier, but this is to misunderstand the desired effect: to make the audience’s task easier in understanding the presenter’s essential points.

I was once told that an expert makes a difficult task look so easy a beginner could contemplate undertaking the task, only to discover the task’s inherent difficulty.

Helping audiences understand difficult concepts, including ones they may intially resist, requires tools which help the presenter make the difficult seem possible. Keynote’s cinematic qualities taps into the dominant medium by which we learn and are entertained simultaneously.

Powerpoint will get there too, once its users shift from its cognitive style incorporating an overabundance of the written word, and it improves its graphics abilities. We are already seeing this shift with a number of books recently published acknowledging its deficits, and helping its users achieve more, focussing on essential presentation skills. Google the names “Cliff Atkinson“; “Stephen Kosslyn” and “Rick Altman“.

But by then, Keynote will have leapt ahead, improving its audio handling abilities, and incorporating sophisticated timeline features to assist presenters’ ability to have even more precise control over the slide and its elements. As Keynote’s strengths attract more third party developers, expect some thrilling breakthroughs in presentation capabilities.

That’s what I’m looking forward to including in my Powertools workshop – I won’t be surprised to receive news of such developments in the lead up to Macworld. Plus more rumours of a Keynote 5 on the way.

Powerpoint users may console themselves that it is still the dominant knowledge transfer tool on the planet. But today more than ever given financial circumstances, it’s time to stand out from the crowd and differentiate oneself. And with Macintosh market share growing, more and more switchers will peer inside their new Macs’ Application folder and wonder what this trial iWork bundle can achieve. Some will “get it” straight away, revelling in Keynote’s comparatively simple interface, while others will wonder how they will get by with such a “minimal” set of tools. But if they persevere, use facilities like Apple’s online seminars featuring Keynote or sign up for Lynda.com self-paced tutuorials, they will ultimately come to understand why Keynote generates so much enthusiasm by its long-term users, despite its shortcomings.

Please use the comments section to share your Keynote stories, especially if you’re a switcher. You can be assured Apple’s Keynote team will be listening!

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