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The prezi that wasn’t

Written By: daveski on October 9, 2011 8 Comments

For Friday’s presentation at the Berkeley Language Center’s Moving Between Languages colloquium, I was really looking forward to moving beyond the world of Powerpoint or Keynote as a way of having visual support for my talk. But it didn’t look to be easy. Heck, even in that first sentence, I couldn’t write “visual support” without first feeling the word “slideshow” in my fingers, trying to type itself. The “slide show” as mode of presentation is so ubiquitous, sometimes I wonder whether speakers can be separated from their slides, laying knowledge out there bit by bit, point by point, screen by screen. “Powerpoint makes you dumb“, and all that. I was looking for something else.

Of course, there is still the possibility of giving a talk without any visual support at all. Or at least there should be. Really, has people’s capacity to pay attention to a talk if it’s only a speaker voicing his or her ideas, reading from a paper or speaking from note cards or whatever, so diminished that they find themselves bored by the lack of visual candy? Or, even worse, so that they genuinely can’t follow what is being said unless there are arrays of bullet-pointed key ideas dropping down behind the speaker’s head? I’m actually looking forward to a time when I can present, just me, without standing in the dark off to the side of the screen, not knowing which way to look (At the audience? Or, together with the audience, at the screen?) That’s why, as a symbolic wave toward switching the “off” button on the projector, I like to have white lettering on a black background for my Keynote slides. When the words disappear, so does the entire screen, since even the outline of the black background isn’t visible on-screen. (Can you see the rectangle inside the rectangle? Look harder!)


But, in order to talk about the virtualization of the bodies of language learners and teachers online for my presentation Friday, I wanted to show a video. And a drawing. And, beyond that, and despite my misgivings about the submission of the speaker to his or her own screen, I actually find that visuals created with a little thought and care can help create a pretty engaging and thought-provoking dynamic. They need to speak sometimes in different modes than the verbal. And they need to say something that creates a little tension, even dissonance, with what’s being said.

So, in view of all that, I thought about following in the footsteps of Glenn Levine and others who I’ve seen in the past year or two using Prezi, an online presentation design application that pretty much abandons the idea of the slide in favor of a two-dimensional map that you, the author, design. You can move across the presentation’s surface, rotate to your next point, zoom into the details, scale back to see the entire presentation’s structure all at once. And, in case you were thinking this sounds like an advertisement for Prezi…well you’re right, it does. Suffice it to say there are plenty of things you can’t do with it, or that might not end up ‘working’ as well as a Powerpoint. Or transparencies on an overhead projector, for that matter.

But I had a transcript for a 30-second online interaction between a student and her two French tutors, drawn up as a grid with lots of empty spaces in which nobody was saying anything. Yet, I wanted to show somehow, there was stuff going on in those apparently empty spaces. And, wouldn’t it have been cool (i.e., wouldn’t it have helped to drive home the point I was trying to make about the virtualization of the language learner’s body into the ‘empty spaces’ of the videoconferencing medium) if we could have zoomed in to the empty spaces on the transcript far enough to reveal that, in fact, there was something in there. In my case, that would have been the background information from my presentation, my research questions, several quotes about the body and language learning, etc…all of which the audience and I would have experienced, in motion, in the time of the presentation, zooming in and out, moving and rotating across the lines of the grid on the transcript. And hopefully, we would all have realized like we do in the big 3-D movie theaters, that you can virtually move without ever leaving your chair.

In the end, though, as the deadline approached and I struggled to arrange my introduction, my argument, my data, my conclusions—the prospect of designing and coordinating visual movements with these freshly minted words was just too much. I still don’t know how to use Prezi, though I’ve watched a few videos, played with it a few times, even saved a few test prezis (I use this noun tentatively—are there now “prezis” in the world like there are “powerpoints”?). It’s on my list of things-to-do, but, thinking again about the conference theme “Moving Between Languages” and about these visualizations of what my presentation would have looked like, sounded like, and what it would have done had it been done in Prezi, I wonder…how did this imagining itself structure what I did say on Friday, how I said it, and what I ended up showing in Keynote?

And, the way I see it at least, although software is not a language, taking the first timid steps within a new design environment like this must certainly engage some of the same dynamics as those experienced by the language learner, unable to express himself yet in a foreign tongue, but finding the ground under his usual ways of thinking beginning to tremble, just a bit.

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8 Responses to “The prezi that wasn’t”

  1. Billette on: 9 October 2011 at 8:42 pm

    This is full of ideas that circulate in my head a lot these days, Daveski. For the first time in my teaching career, I find myself creating visual presentations (Keynote here) for every class I teach. Essentially, I’m making my lesson plan fairly explicit in a visual way. So the combination of speaking and visual background is new for me, and I’m not quite sure I’m ready to abandon it.

    For me, the crutch that it can be comes to my fear that, as a teacher, the focus is on “me”, not on the material. I choose to believe– superficially, perhaps– that a slideshow helps focus my attention and the students’ attention on the subject matter, not on me as subject or even on them as subjects. Is that really what’s going on, though?

  2. daveski on: 9 October 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks for these thoughts, Billette. It’s so interesting, I find that I have the same impulse and it’s only me reading your words now that wonders (thinking that you must be a fantastic teaching presence in the classroom), is there something about the educational atmosphere that we learn and teach in that makes us feel like embodying teacherliness, acting out the lesson plan and making it happen without showing its formal structure, isn’t enough anymore? Like a teacher becomes an animator of his/her own lesson plan?

    In terms of presenting, I liked how Tim in his presentation wove theory into what he was arguing, the data he was presenting, as he did it–I always feel like I have to make it its own section, and I only then earn the right to make the claims that I do after making the “theoretical framework” explicitly and visually clear.

    Hm. Lots to think about for sure. I think I’m with you on not being at all ready to abandon the visual–it’s so important and it feels like for me at least, I’m just scratching the surface.

  3. Trip Kirkpatrick on: 10 October 2011 at 5:20 am

    Is there some way, though, that the flow of a conference session can be guided without fronting a screen? That is, can we reconfigure the presentation to be more group-oriented? Is putting material on screen rather than in the hands of the participants just a fig leaf for a presenter-fronted mode? “Look over there at the screen, not at me” elides the fact that the presenter is present in the slides. I’ll grant, of course, that moving pictures, audio, and even good quality still pictures might benefit from a large digital display of some sort.

    But what if instead of having a slideshow, we put everyone on the raft together and just went down the river rather that walking along the bank single file? I’m asking real questions here because I’m not entirely sure what this all looks like. (My recent presentations have been on software, so I get to a) have the GUI on screen and walk through something actively and b) cop out by saying the same thing we always say, that I must, simply *must*, have all eyes looking at the actions I’m taking.)

    Put another way, what if we presented like we think language classrooms should be taught? More collaboration, less trying to make pâté de foie gras?

    By the way, @daveski, your presentation title reminds me of the old Firesign Theater album, “How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?”

  4. daveski on: 10 October 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Hm, yeah, neat ideas. I’m thinking about some of these things for a more informal presentation I’ll be giving in a class tomorrow, where I need to show some of my research, walk through some data, and, hopefully, have some interesting discussion. It’s not a language class, though, for sure. And I one of my gut feelings when reading your comment was something along the lines of “true, but giving a presentation and teaching a language class are pretty different things”. Or at least they offer different parameters and constraints for making things happen.

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but in a lot of conference presentation-type settings, I actually enjoy hearing a dynamic and knowledgeable person speak–someone who engages the audience, to be sure, but someone to whom the ‘audience’ (is that what we still call the people gathered together) cedes a certain degree of power to take them on a journey of sorts.

    Talking about these things in the abstract is pretty easy though, and doesn’t do justice to the variety of settings in which innovative ways to change a one-to-many dynamic to a many-to-many, collaborative dynamic would make a really positive difference.

    One idea that comes to mind is, as practitioners, how we can start to tweak what we do, experiment on the fly. Maybe tomorrow I’ll look for chances to click my keynote into “edit” mode and have the class dictate changes or additions to my slides 😉

  5. Usree Bhattacharya on: 12 October 2011 at 11:28 am

    I’ve always found Powerpoint very distracting as an audience member-and vowed each time not to use it for my own presentations. Somehow, that resolution never lasts. 🙂

  6. Youki on: 13 October 2011 at 12:35 am

    I thought it appropriate to make my comment in Prezi form:


    Usree Bhattacharya Reply:

    OMG, Youki, well done!!!!!!

    Big_O_Tree Reply:

    Prezi is Powerpoint on steroids. I get motion sickness every time I’m subjected to one, but I’m not completely adverse to it. I just prefer PPT. I’ve used Prezi before and I can’t understand how people tout that it is such a “better alternative” to Powerpoint. It’s like arguing which is better, Mac or PC. They’re both effective for the functions they serve. The only real difference is price…

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