First Impress-ions

Just what is it about PowerPoint that seems to stifle creativity? Can you remember the last time you saw the PowerPoint splash screen without groaning? Me neither. It’s as if we’ve seen so many brain-numbing, bullet-splattered presentations, using the same clip-art and the same templates that we somehow believe when we come to create our own presentations that this is how it must be.

First Impress-ions

PowerPoint’s dominance over the business presentations market can be put down to two facts. First, it’s astonishingly easy to use. It takes almost no technical knowledge – let alone creativity – to chuck together a presentation, and this is a main reason for the poor quality of the vast majority of these slide shows. It’s just too easy to click and enter bullet points, drag and drop a little clip-art then top it all off with a nauseating special effect (particularly if the creator has spent a good proportion of their professional life watching other people mangling their messages by insisting on a 3D twist effect).

The second reason for PowerPoint’s ubiquity is that it’s bundled with Microsoft Office, so just as most people don’t think twice before using Excel for their maths-related work, they’re equally happy to use PowerPoint for presentations. Word and Excel are both outstanding applications and ‘best of breed’ in their categories, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that PowerPoint is the same. Sadly though, it isn’t true. PowerPoint may be de facto champion but it’s certainly not de rigueur.

Indeed, Microsoft’s dominance of the office suite market may finally be under threat from the excellent OpenOffice, which offers the vast bulk of Office’s functionality free of charge. With the ongoing development of version 2 of OpenOffice, any remaining reasons for sticking with Microsoft Office are being eroded for the vast majority of users. I suspect many existing PowerPoint users may find themselves migrating to the OpenOffice equivalent (Impress) over the coming year or so, whether they like it or not. The good news is that it’s not PowerPoint – the bad news is that it’s capable of producing presentations every bit as banal as PowerPoint.

PowerPoint’s problem is that users don’t exploit its more advanced features, so it’s relatively simple for a software developer to create a competitor. Compare this with, say, competing feature-for-feature against Word. Impress does an excellent job and it’s even able to open and save PowerPoint files. Most usefully, it’s able to export presentations in several formats including Adobe PDF and Flash SWF. This makes sharing presentations much simpler, and doesn’t require the end user to have Impress installed on their PC. Impress can’t compete with the range of templates and clip-art provided with PowerPoint, but then most people seem to use the same few that were shipped with Office 95 in any case. This is one of the few situations in which a lack of bundled resources might be a blessing.

Putting together a bullet-driven presentation is simple enough in Impress: select Insert | Slide and pick one of the familiar slide layouts from the thumbnails presented. Click to add the title and again for the bullets. If you want the bullets to appear as the mouse is clicked, then select Slide Show | Custom Animation and apply the appropriate text effect and speed. Impress will automatically apply the effect to each line, one after the other so that each bullet appears in sequence.

As I write this, no release date for version 2 of OpenOffice has been announced but previews are available from However, version 1 has all the features you’d need if you’re looking for a PowerPoint replacement and so it’s safer to stick with that until the bugs have been ironed out of the new version. If you feel like extending yourself beyond the PowerPoint/Impress comfort zone then you need to find a tool that will allow you to express your creativity with a minimal learning curve. It also needs to be able to create standalone presentations that can be loaded onto a laptop or email and, most importantly, it must allow you to put together presentations quickly.

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