Religion After PowerPoint

Laura Arnold Leibman 

In my graduate class this past summer, we talked about how different digital platforms shape the narrative structures of our scholarship.  How would moving an "essay" from WordPress to Wix or Prezi reorder the logic behind our ideas?  Which platform might crystallize and clarify our ideas more? In this post I am interested in an analogous question:  what is the impact of digital software and platforms on on presentations? That is, how does presentation software shape the stories we tell, for better or worse?  Like poets who try to choose the right form (sonnet, sestina, pantoum) for their subject, should scholars attempt to create an organic relationship between the types of stories we tell about American religion and the way we deliver those histories?

The issue of presentation software is crucial for me because I work primarily on material culture. Thus my lectures and talks often focus heavily on visuals, and I am constantly seeking out new and better ways of delivering those visuals to my audience.  When I am not obsessing about material culture, I commonly team-teach a large lecture class with 20-25 other people each year, which means I spend a lot of time sitting in the lecture hall reliving what it is like to be a student listening to lectures at 9 a.m.

As a listener, I find sometimes PowerPoint can help illuminate the structure of a lecture, but more often than not it competes with speaker and the logic she might have followed if PowerPoint weren't available. Indeed much has been made of the phenomenon of how PowerPoint shapes our thinking in unhelpful ways.  As Edward Tufte has pointed out,"the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis" (Tufte). Equally important from the student perspective is the fear of "death by PowerPoint" (above).  What however, are the alternatives?

This past year I set myself the task to use at least three different presentation platforms other than PowerPoint and Keynote (alias "Pretty PowerPoint for Macs"). As a result of this experiment, I increasingly feel that there is no one "perfect" software, nor is PowerPoint inherently a death sentence.  Rather, different stories benefit from different platforms.  Hence when I want to create a presentation, I begin my platform choice by asking myself, what kind of story am I telling, and what is the most important thing the audience needs to get out of it?  In this post, I discuss three presentations I gave in the past year, each of which tested out a different platform that competes with or augments PowerPoint: Prezi, Presentain, and Emaze.  I discuss what motivated the choice of each platform.

What kind of story am I telling?  Before I choose a platform, I think hard about the innate structure of the story I am seeking to tell.  Sometimes I find my question about "the innate structure of the story" is difficult to answer because my work "doesn't have a story"--I am just making arguments after all! Usually I find, though, that my claim that I "only have an argument" is a sign I need to think harder about the story about which I am making an argument.  Not only do stories help our audiences understand and remember the argument we are explaining, but also most histories have an inherent structure.  My question then becomes what is the storyline of the primary account or history I am analyzing?  Does my argument about this account reinforce that storyline or bury it? What are the main types of storylines religious histories use?

In her magisterial analysis of Aztec and Mixtec pictorial histories, Elizabeth Boone argues for three main kinds of early indigenous history from the Valley of Mexico: (1) spatial (cartographic presentations); (2) time lines (annals); and (3) linked events (res gestae) (Boone 10).  Boone rather modestly makes her claims only with respect  to early Mesoamerican history, but I have noticed when I team teach our class on the Ancient Mediterranean that these basic structures also echo historical narratives from a variety of other cultures.   Of course, almost every story contains elements of all three of these aspects:  the people discussed move through time, do things, and cover geographic space.  Yet, usually one of these modes (space, time, events) dominates or perhaps more crucially serves to organize the material in a way that the audience can digest and remember it. Moreover, different softwares and platforms can help draw out those inherent organizing principles.  Let me give three examples of storylines that benefited from being told in a particular platform.

(1) Spatial Narratives  - Prezi.   Spatial or cartographic histories benefit from being told in Prezi.   This past summer I was working with a student on a biography of a woman who began her life as a poor Christian slave in late eighteenth-century Barbados and thirty years later died as an extremely wealthy Jew in New York.  Throughout her life she undergoes several religious rituals in different countries that not only transformed her from Christian to Jew, but also from "mulatto" to "white." When I gave a presentation on the subject at Congregation Shearith Israel, I had  a choice to make--what was the essential structure of her life?  Since I wasn't presenting on the Sabbath and hence would have access to electronics, I knew I wanted to present visuals, particularly the beautiful portrait of the subject.

Courtesy of Mark Goetz
I initially placed the visuals in Keynote, mainly because the software is easy and exceedingly familiar.  I quickly realized however, that the structure of Keynote obscured rather than reinforced the structure of my talk.  The logic of Keynote-- like PowerPoint--is largely additive.  As my colleague Ray Kierstead once said about bad history, PowerPoint's logic is "one damn thing after another."  Indeed Edward Tufte argues that one problem with PowerPoint is that audiences "endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships" (Tufte, "PowerPoint is Evil").  But "one damn thing after another" was exactly the message I didn't want to underscore in my presentation: my subject's life wasn't "relentless sequentiality." Rather place--along with rituals--I argued, mattered for the construction of race.  Hence I turned instead to Prezi, and used a template that called attention to the subject's movement through space.  You can see visuals for the presentation below:

Those of you who haven't used or seen Prezi before will ask, why Prezi?  Prezi is "the presentation software that uses motion, zoom, and spatial relationships to bring your ideas to life and make you a great presenter" (  I have seen all sorts of claims about the messianic potential of Prezi to make presentations "more interactive" and "less linear."  Frankly, I don't think they are particularly true: Prezi typically moves through a presentation in a particular order ("linear") and it doesn't particularly invite audience participation.  (I do note, however, if you wanted to be more interactive and non-linear you could share your Prezi remotely while you were presenting and allow people to "pan and zoom freely" thereby creating a more post-modern--though most likely extremely distracting--presentation style).  What Prezi does do exceptionally well, however, is allow you to reinforce the spatial storyline of your story or to create a spatial analogy for your story. In sum - Positives: engaging and spatial. Negatives: the learning curve can be steep the first time you use it.

(2) Annals - Presentain.  Not all histories, however, rely on space as the main narrative thread.  Unlike cartographic narratives, annals or time-line presentations "link events to a constant and ongoing measure of time....Time proceeds usually at an unchanging pace, neither slowing down nor speeding up, regardless of the events associated with it" (Boone 61).  Boone provides as an example of this "ribbon of time" musical notations and the annals histories of the Codex Mexicanus or Tira de Tepechpan (below).

Lori Boornazian Diel, "Women and Political Power," 85
Antique Slide Carousel, with
thanks to Mad Men

Unlike spatial narratives, annals embrace the "relentless sequentiality" of time.  Hence, if your narrative at its heart temporal, PowerPoint might actually be a good option.  That said, I have been putting a lot of thought in how to emphasize sequentiality without falling back into the "death by PowerPoint" trap, and based on my experiments, I have four suggestions for how to breathe life back into Power Point.

Presenter with Black Screen Button
the black screen button is below
the slide forward (">")
For why you need to buy this
toy, see one of my favorite books
Berkun, Confessions, 147
One, embrace the pause.  Twenty years ago when I first learned to give lectures using actual slides and slide carousels, I discovered black slides were my friend.  When I stopped talking about an image, I needed to remove it from the screen by forwarding to an empty screen (the black slide).  Pauses are crucial for PowerPoint as well, and most today wireless presenters come with a black screen button (left).  Two, decrease the text and make the visuals emotionally reinforce the message.  Nancy Duarte's Slide:ology and Garr Reynolds' PresentationZen Design are great resources for how to accomplish this. Three, get rid of the automated bells and whistles.  Imagine reading a graphic novel that had random flashes, swirls, and KAZAAMs between panels.  It would make no sense.  Neither does needlessly calling attention to your transitions. Four, use some of the new software out there to make your presentation more interactive. My favorite of these is Presentain.

Like Prezi, Presentain seeks to change the way we present, though unlike Prezi it does so through manipulating the pause for the force of good.  Again there is a bit of messianic hype: "Presentain lets you connect with your audiences by creating awesome experience that achieves the best of engagement and technology," or so the website claims.  Once you have created your presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote, you upload it to Presentain and share the link with the audience.  Once connected, you can ask questions, run a poll, and record your presentation so that other people can easily access and view it later.  Equally crucially, you can post the results of your polls and questions in real time (Note: for those who have access to clickers, Presentain may not seem so exciting, but if your students don't already have clickers, it is a great alternative).  Here is an example of a lecture I gave last year in our freshmen, team-taught class "Introduction to Humanities: Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean." For this lecture I used Presentain to make Keynote more interactive.

Screenshot of Presentain dashboard for lecture.
As you can see from the screen shot of lecture (above), Presentain recorded their questions, requests, and polls.  125 students in the lecture hall interacted with the presentation while I as giving it, and 34 people watched the video version afterwards.  The questions were mainly feedback from the students: some "questions" were just happy responses, other of which were kind prompts to me, such as to include more images of people who weren't "stereotypical white people" (point taken).  I used the polls to (re)engage students in the lecture.  Studies have shown that if you "break" or rest from the flow of the lecture roughly every twenty minutes, after the "rest" you re-engage students and increase retention (below).  I used the polls as a "break" and to prepare them for the material I was about to deliver. In sum - Positives: students were enthusiastic about the interactivity. Negatives: the first time I tried to use Presentain in lecture about a month before the above, the software for the interactivities didn't work, even though they had worked in a run through the day before. Thus I had to do polling by asking them to raise hands. In other words, I wouldn't recommend using this software for the first time during a high stakes presentation.

Bligh, What's the Use of Lectures, 53. Performance = Student Learning

(3) Events - EmazeBecause I often do close readings of material culture, sometimes the story I am telling isn't driven by space or time, but by events--or in my case objects.  This certainly true for a lecture I gave at the conference on Mapping Western Sefardi Diaspora in the Caribbean in Hamburg. It it I argued that during the early nineteenth century, Caribbean men used clothing to display their civic virtue, race, and proximity to power. Clothing became a battleground on which the war over Jewish equality and identity was waged. I then proceeded to look at how Jewish men used fabric, color, and tailoring to proclaim an elite racial status. I used Emaze for this talk, and the visuals are below:

Powered by emaze

Like Prezi, Emaze has templates that can help you animate your presentation.  Although I didn't use Emaze to its full potential in this presentation, several aspects made it better than PowerPoint for a visually-driven presentation.  One, the ratio of the screen is such that it is easier to display to images side by side so that images can be compared more efficiently.  For those of us who were originally trained to present images using two slide carousels, this is heaven.  Two, the templates allow for a more visually compelling presentation.  (One of the conference organizers noted how good my visuals looked - always nice feedback to get!)  For the visual richness alone I would have loved to have used Emaze along with Presentain for the lecture on St. Paul (above), but sadly Presentain doesn't allow for this. In sum - Positives: Emaze allows for some of advantages of Prezi (more visually compelling, transitions that decrease the feel of "relentless sequentiality") but is much easier and faster to learn.  Negatives: like with Prezi, one would need to think long and hard about whether the templates reinforced or competed with the narrative of the talk.  For example, given my interest in visuals, I could have used the "gallery" template that mimics walking through a gallery or museum.  Frankly, though, I thought the inherent story told by this template would just be distracting, as there was nothing about my argument that suggested a movement through space.  Likewise the animations could easily become distracting if they weren't organically related to the story being told.

I hope this gives people some ideas for upcoming presentations.  If you have used one of these platforms, free free to put in a link to your presentation below.  Likewise if you have tried a different platform or software, I'd love to hear about how it went!

Today I am celebrating Rosh haShana, but this post is available anyway thanks to the miracle of timed releases.  שָׁנָה טוֹבָה - Happy New Year! 



Unknown said…
Great post, and great examples! As people who’s profession it is to talk and teach, we should think more about the ways we present.

An article that I found extremely helpful is Designing Presentations by Idan Gazit. In my recent presentations, I try to combine his highly visual/typographic presentation style with the spatiality of Prezi. One tool that I found especially helpful for this is Sozi.

As an example, this is my presentation computational approaches to religious texts that I held at the ERiC Summer School 2015.

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