Some thoughts on non-linear presentation tools

Many people rely on what I will call linear presentation tools when they lecture. This includes software such as LibreOffice Impress, Google Presentation, MS PowerPoint, or Keynote. These tools are great for smooth, timed, linear lectures. I also use them from time to time, but mainly if I know exactly what to say. They are also good when I lecture with others, and we need to develop a presentation together. However, linear presentation tools do not work equally well for general teaching, where spontaneity is required. For example, I often like to take questions during lectures. Answering questions may quickly lead to a different presentation order than what I had originally planned. For that reason, I have explored different non-linear presentation tools.

Document camera as presentation tool

Sometimes, but seldom, I only speak when I teach. I am a person that thinks very visually, so when I want to explain something, I usually prefer to show something as well. I used to be quite happy with using a black- or whiteboard when teaching, but some years ago I invested in a document camera.

Teaching with my document camera in the MCT Portal.

The benefit of teaching with a document camera is that I can show small instruments or electronic parts while teaching. It, of course, also works well to write and draw with pen and paper. In fact, I prefer this to write on a whiteboard.

When we started up the MCT master’s programme, I found that the document camera also worked well for online teaching, and during the pandemic, I have used it for several online presentations. Here is an example of how this looks like from a RITMO presentation about microphones earlier this year.

Such a setup allows me for writing with pen on paper, which leads to a very different delivery than if I am using pre-made slides. It also allows for showing things in front of the camera. The downside to using a document camera is that you need to make all the content on the fly. I usually have a draft of what I want to say, which helps in structuring my thoughts. Sometimes I even pre-make some “slides” that can be shown in front of the camera. But there are also times where I want to pre-make more material. Then I have found that mind-mapping works well.

Mind maps as a presentation tool

I have often found that my drafts for document camera-based lectures were developed as mind maps. That is, multi-dimensional drawings spreading out from a core title or concept. For that reason, I wanted to test whether I could use mind mapping software for presentations.

Over the last couple of years, I have tested various solutions. In the end, I have found Mindomo to fit my needs very well. It is online-based, but they also have a multi-platform app that works well on Ubuntu. It is not the most feature-reach mind mapping software out there, but it has a nice balance of features versus usability. I also like that it has a presentation mode that removes all the editing tools. As such, it works very well for mind map-based presentations.

I have primarily used mind map-based presentations for teaching and internal seminars, but some weeks ago I decided to test it for a research presentation. I was asked to present at the EnTimeMent workshop run by Qualisys, but as I was preparing the presentation I didn’t know exactly who the audience would be and the format of the workshop. Then it is difficult to plan for a linear presentation. Since I had lots of video material to show, this wasn’t an ideal time to use the document camera, either. So I decided to test out a mind map-based presentation.

Below is an embed of the presentation I made:

And here are screenshots showing the fully collapsed and fully open versions of the mind map.

I had planned a structure of how I would run the presentation, moving clockwise through the material. I kept with that plan, more or less. What was nice was that I could adjust how many levels I should dig into the material. After listening to some of the speakers before me, I decided to skip certain parts. This was easy because I could leave out opening some of the sublevels of the presentation.

Here is a recording of the presentation:

I had some issues with the network connection in the beginning (yes, presenting over wifi is not a good idea, but it is sometimes unavoidably), so apologies for the poor audio/video in some parts of the presentation.

I still have to get more familiar with moving around in such presentations, but all in all, I am happy about the flexibility of such a presentation tool. It allows for developing a fairly large pool of material that it is possible to draw on when presenting. Rather than deleting/hiding slides in a linear presentation, a mind map-based presentation can easily be adjusted by not opening various parts.

Finally moving from Apple’s Keynote to LibreOffice Impress

Apple’s Keynote has been my preferred presentation tool for about a decade. For a long time it felt like the ideal tool, easy to use, powerful and flexible. But at some point, probably around the time when the iOS version of Keynote came along, the Mac version of Keynote started loosing features and became more limited than it had used to be. Since then, I have experienced all sorts of problems, including non-compatibility of new and old presentation file versions, problems with linked video files, crashes, etc.

Even with its increasing amount of shortcomings, Keynote has been one of the few programs that I have been missing after my move to Ubuntu as my main OS three years ago. Keynote has also been one of the few reasons I have often decided to bring along my old MacBook rather than my current Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro workhorse.

Over the years, I have been trying other presentation software. I was an early user of Prezi, and still like the looks and non-linear approach that it affords. However, the lack of a native Prezi client for Linux has been a turn-off, particularly since I never trust the network connections when I am out traveling. I am also somewhat skeptic about not being able to use local media in Prezi presentations, particularly since I often use a lot of video material.

I have also been excited about trying out some markdown-based presentation solutions, including reveal.js and Remark. This has been refreshing, and I like such an approach when working mainly with text-based presentations. I do realize, however, that many of my presentations rely heavily on images, sounds and videos, which make the markdown-based approaches less ideal.

I have been trying Impress, the presentation part of OpenOffice/LibreOffice, on and off for several years, and have, to say it mildly, never been impressed. The design of the software has been ok, not even close to as intuitive as Keynote, but not so far away from MS PowerPoint. The biggest drawback, however, has been its performance, both when it comes to editing presentations, but also when presenting. After all, a presentation software has to be efficient to work with and needs to perform flawlessly in presentation mode.

Luckily, I decided to give Impress yet another try before giving a presentation in Hamburg this week. I exported a Keynote presentation to a .pptx file, and opened it up in LibreOffice Impress on my Ubuntu laptop. To my big surprise it worked very well! Not only did the graphical elements look good, but also the embedded videos worked well. There must have been some major update to the software recently, because suddenly the speed of editing also worked quite fine. There are still some issues when scrolling through a large presentation with lots of multimedia content, but not more than I can live with.

The conclusion: today I held my first multimedia-rich conference presentation using my Ubuntu laptop. Not only did the projector connection work flawlessly (which has not always been the case with Linux systems…), but also the presentation ran without any performance issues whatsoever. A new era has begun in my presentation life! LibreOffice Impress is still not as smooth and solid as Keynote was a few years back, but it is now at a point where it is stable and easy enough that I actually want to use it professionally.