The Memeburn Interview: Q&A with Prezi CEO on ‘non-linear’ presentations

With five-million users, Prezi is becoming the online presentation tool of choice. The service is a cloud-based (SaaS) presentation software and storytelling tool for exploring and sharing ideas on a virtual whiteboard. It has gained enough momentum to rival other presentation tools like Microsoft’s PowerPoint. Prezi is stylish and slick and turns presentations into a creative exercise.

Prezi is used as a platform for bridging linear and non-linear information, and as a tool for both free-form brainstorming and structured presentations. Text, images, videos are transformed into a zooming, panning, moving whirlwind of media.

The service has been used by numerous leading voices in business and politics to share and explore their ideas. At the recent the World Economic Forum Prezi was as part of its presentation and media strategy.

Prezi was arguably popularised by TED Conferences speakers, including TED curator Chris Anderson, who used a prezi for his acclaimed TEDGlobal 2010 presentation: How Web Video Powers Global Innovation.

Memeburn caught up with Prezi CEO Peter Arvai to chat about where the idea for Prezi came from, its future and some of the more innovative ways Prezi has been used.

Memeburn: How is your company funded?

Peter Arvai: Prezi is funded by TED Conferences, as well as Sunstone Capital.

MB: How did you come up with the Prezi idea? Was it trial and error or by design?

PA: Prezi was initially developed by Hungarian architect and artist Adam Somali-Fischer as an architectural visualisation tool.

Adam found that a Zooming User Interface (ZUI) enabled him to present non-linearly: showing the “big picture” overview of his ideas and then zooming freely to the details, depending on how the conversation developed.

Since no commercially-available zooming presentation editor existed at the time, each ZUI presentation had to be coded by hand.

So, in order to make ZUI presentations accessible to everyone, Adam, along with Budapest University of Technology professor Peter Halacsy, created a prototype version of Prezi. Then, they recruited a third entrepreneur, me, Peter Arvai, to join as CEO. Together we have developed the product and the company.

MB: Is Prezi a PowerPoint replacement?

PA: We created Prezi to help people share their ideas in a more interesting way so that their messages will resonate with their audience. So yes, I’d say it can be used as a slideware replacement. Prezi is also good at bridging the type of conversations that emerge on whiteboards and are then translated to slides. Like storytelling–from concept to plot to narrative. We’ve always had our eye on helping users with the entire idea development process and not just the final presentation phase.

MB: Are you taking on Microsoft?

PA: Haha! I’d say we are more focused on idea exploration and sharing rather than documentation (which is what PowerPoint is good at). We think ideas should be fun to explore; we aim to help presentation creators and audiences go on a visual journey of discovery.

MB: Will we see a Prezi approach to any other well-known software products?

PA: We don’t comment on future products but we’re working very hard to make idea sharing possible on as many platforms as we can and helping users to cover the full ideation process.

MB: What makes Prezi different from other presentation tools?

PA: In Prezi, you pan and zoom around on a large open canvas instead of using a pre-scripted slide format. This gives you the flexibility be more creative in how you arrange ideas and show context of ideas in more powerful way then any other presentation software.

MB: Who is Prezi aimed at?

PA: The potential market is broad, just like with powerpoint and whiteboards. More specifically, we see good uptake in business among marketing/sales, HR/training, and functions that use project management. In education, there is adoption from kindergarten all the way through higher education–in teachers and students alike. In general, Prezi is ideal for professions that depend on inspiring communication.

MB: Have you seen uses of Prezi, outside of presenting?

PA: Yes, the educational realm is one we are particularly excited about. More and more teachers around the world are using Prezi to engage their students. It’s amazing! Prezi is well-suited to the student’s preference for visual learning, and many educators use Prezi to enhance their curricula via the creative exploration. In fact, our educational users really inspire us by their innovative use of Prezi. Here are some examples of Prezi in the classroom:

MB: How did you market the service, which can be considered a game changer, to your target audience?

PA: Prezi has really been an organic grassroots growth story. People share their ideas with Prezi and are wildly enthusiastic about spreading the Prezi word. They write blogs, tweet, and participate in community support. Some have create their own local Facebook communities (see Korean and Japanese Facebook communities). Others have leveraged Prezi to build very successful companies. Two great examples are Prometis, a Seattle-based prezi design firm, and Prezi Training, an independent UK-based Prezi training company. Just go to Elance and search for Prezi and you will find Prezi designers all over the world. I feel really great because it means that not only are we helping people share ideas, we are creating jobs.

MB: Prezi’s free version allows users to create presentations which are available to the public. Has this slowed adoption?

PA: The free version helps people to try out and get started with Prezi quickly, so I’d say no, it has not slowed adoption. If users want privacy, they try out the Prezi Public license and then upgrade. Also many of our users choose to make their Prezis reusable–i.e. not only do they want people to see their prezis, but they allow them to be copied. So if you need inspiration for making a Prezi, it is easy to search in our database of millions of reusable Prezis and avoid having to start from scratch.

MB: In what markets has Prezi seen the most success?

PA: Geographically, Prezi is being adopted all over the world–our biggest penetration being in US and across Europe. We also have strong adoption in Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America (particularly Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Columbia), and then in Asia, with S. Korea and Japan leading the way. Industry-wise, we are widely adopted within industries where communication is key to success. Just go to our Explore page and review the various industry categories we highlight. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

MB: TED speakers use Prezi, how has that been for the company and the service?

PA: It’s been great! TED curator Chris Anderson used Prezi in his 2010 TED Global keynote last year “How Web Video Powers Global innovation“, and numerous other speakers are using it this coming year. The great thing about TED is that our missions are so similar: we’re all about helping people to share ideas, and they are all about ideas worth spreading. We both want to improve the state of the world through sharing more interesting ideas.

MB: You refer to Prezi as a “non-linear” way of presenting. How does this make a presentation better?

PA: We’ve had slides for 350 years but unfortunately slides are not very good at interactive conversations between a presenter and an audience. If people ask questions a presenter has to interrupt and start flickering between slides or just ignore the question. The irony of this is that an audience asking questions is a sign if interest in a presentation and should be the best trigger to strike a conversation. (Seriously, today’s concept of slides is built on a 350-yr-old technology called the magic lantern. But I digress).

Because most people have been trained to present in a linear way, it is not surprising that many use Prezi in a this way too, jazzing up their bulleted text with photos and videos and zooming between each piece of content with a prescribed path- (slide after slide after slide).

But for advanced users, Prezi liberates you from having to show things in a predefined order. You may have seen some of the best teachers and sales people present non-linearly. They don’t talk endlessly but let the conversation with the audience develop the narrative by reacting to what people are interested in. The audience directs the presentation by their questions and ideas, however this requires the presenters to be confident enough to react dynamically. In Prezi you did this by zooming and panning across the canvas freely, based on the audience’s interest.

The research is conclusive too: non-linear presentations are the most effective to communicate ideas between audiences and presenters.

MB: What have been some of the biggest challenges since starting Prezi?

PA: Currently, our biggest challenge is to hire enough people. We’re growing fast and constantly looking for developers, particularly in our Budapest office (Prezi was founded in Hungary and the majority of our development team still resides there). Another big challenge is maintaining focus. This is a challenge for any start-up, but it is especially a challenge for a company whose customers are as passionate about the product as ours are. Our customers are so excited about the endless possibilities of Prezi that they are constantly sending us suggestions to implement this feature or go after that market. They want us to be everything from a website design software to a mind-mapping tool. We listen carefully and consider each opportunity to improve or shape the product. Balancing opportunity with focus is a constant challenge.

MB: Prezi seems to be a combination of a mind-mapping and a presentation tool. Do you find this to be useful to people?

Yes, people can put the different ideas of their presentation onto the visual plain, and brainstorm that way. Then, they can see it all together and arrange the most sensible path between the information when it comes time to present.

MB: What are some of the most innovative ways people have used Prezi?

PA: I love this one.

MB: Tell us a little bit about the “meeting” function on Prezi?

PA: Our research revealed that many presentations are developed as collaborative efforts, many times across time zones. Even more are shown remotely. Therefore we developed Prezi Meeting as an online collaboration and remote presentation tool. Prezi Meeting is included in all Prezi license types and allows up to ten people to co-edit and show their prezis in real time.

MB: There is Prezi for iPad, are there plans to roll out an Android equivalent?

PA: This is certainly interesting, but I can’t disclose our future plans.

MB: Are there plans to develop the brainstorming/Prezi as a whiteboard element of the service?

PA: Sorry, not sure what you mean here.

MB: Prezi is developed using flash – are there plans to look at a HTML5 version?

PA: Flash has a worse rep than it deserves. We used Objective-C for iPad, and HTML5 is exciting in the long run.

MB: It struck us that you could use Prezi to not only create presentations – but build brochure-like websites on the fly? Is this a possible angle for Prezi, or are we just plain crazy?

PA: As I mentioned above, other customers have suggested this. Prezi inspires visual creation. In fact, The Guardian (UK) recently used Prezi to publish a new World Map graphic on their site, which introduced the newly independent South Sudan. So I think there is potential for many types of graphic visualisation using Prezi. Opportunity and focus–it’s a constant challenge.

MB: Are there plans to allow users to get more complicated inside the different design elements?

PA: We are indeed growing the tool palette, and are making new releases almost every month. Please stay tuned for more — and join our user community who inspire and help us to identify and prioritise new features.



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