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Presentations Magazine-September 2002 Cover Story
Three Alternatives to PowerPoint

Quit using PowerPoint? But why? After all, you're used to PowerPoint, it does the job, it's the corporate standard, and you're not a techie trying to impress an audience with your know-how. All you want to do is create and deliver a good presentation with the least amount of effort.

Which is precisely the point. If the objective of a presentation is to train, teach, sell or motivate, then good may not be good enough – PowerPoint may not be good enough. Other programs may have better options for illustrating specific processes or techniques, or they may have advantages when it comes to re-purposing the content for distribution via print, CD or the Web. Your time is also valuable, and there may be times when PowerPoint is not the most efficient way to create the visuals you need.

Furthermore, today's rapid-fire business environment is making it necessary to deliver content in a variety of media, on-demand, in a multitude of forms and formats. Capitalizing on some of these options now – options that PowerPoint does not offer – may mean a more successful and efficient way of creating, archiving and distributing your presentation.

PowerPoint is a competent application, to be sure, and may even be exactly what you need. But sometimes it pays to be open to other possibilities, so we're going to take you deep inside three of them – Adobe Acrobat, Macromedia Flash and SkunkLabs Liquid Media – to see the advantages they have to offer the adventurous presenter who has the courage to look beyond PowerPoint.

Note: This article was written using Windows XP Professional. Macintosh commands, when not explicitly stated, may differ.

The Power of PDFs

Advantages: Can use more sophisticated fonts, graphics and design concepts. Retains integrity of original documents. Can re-purpose already existing material in presentation form. Can easily re-purpose material for distribution via print, e-mail, CD or the Web.

Disadvantages: No animation capabilities. Not a creation program, per se.

Ideal for: Presenters who want to use already existing files in a presentation, or who want to distribute a presentation widely, in different mediums.

Product info: Acrobat 5.0: compatible with Windows 95, 98, Me, NT 4.0, 2000 and XP; Mac OS 8.6 through OS X. Prices: $249; upgrade, $99. Acrobat Reader 5.0: free download. Contact: Adobe Systems Inc., 800.833.6687,

Richard, a friend who is a glass artist, was in a panic. He had to do a short presentation showing his latest creations. He wanted the ability to randomly select and enlarge photographs of his works, but still retain sharp picture quality and detail. For Richard, the answer to his dilemma was Adobe Acrobat.

If content on demand is your game, then you already know Acrobat as a major player. Acrobat wraps native file formats (Microsoft's Word, PowerPoint and Publisher, Quark XPress, Adobe's PageMaker and InDesign, and so on) into one neat, little package called a PDF, or Portable Document Format file. What most are not aware of is that Acrobat is also an effective program for creating presentations, and it works just as well in a Windows or Macintosh environment.

As it was, I had helped Richard develop and print a small brochure that contained all the pieces he wanted to feature in his talk. I had converted the brochure, which was originally created in a page-layout program, into an Acrobat document for easier printing and archiving. All that was needed was to take this Portable Document Format and turn it into a "Portable Presentation" format.

PowerPoint-like action

It is actually quite easy to make Acrobat behave similarly to PowerPoint, simply by adjusting a few preference options. In either the free Acrobat Reader or the purchased full version, go to EDIT » PREFERENCES » GENERAL and click to open the dialog box. On the left side, highlight "full screen" and, in the middle, check ADVANCE ON ANY CLICK and ESCAPE KEY EXITS. This will make Acrobat perform like PowerPoint in the sense that it enables a mouse-click anywhere to move to the next page (or slide), and programs the Escape key to bring you back from full-screen mode.

Also, as in PowerPoint, the arrow keys will allow forward and backward movement, even if ADVANCE ON ANY CLICK isn't checked. While you're in Preferences, you will see additional options for adding transitions, looping, automatically timed progression and mouse actions.

Basically, that's all you need to know to turn Acrobat into a presentation program. But to fulfill objectives like Richard's, it's helpful to learn a few keyboard shortcuts.

Take the shortcuts

To put Acrobat into full-screen mode, go under VIEW » FULL SCREEN, or use the keyboard shortcut Control-L (or Command-L on Mac). This makes Acrobat look and function like PowerPoint. One of Acrobat's great advantages over PowerPoint is that it allows you to zoom in on pictures or documents without losing picture detail – which was a perfect solution for my friend Richard. In Acrobat, Control + (Command +) lets you zoom in, and Control - (Command -) lets you zoom out. Control-M (Command-M) displays a "zoom to" dialog box that gives you precise magnification settings. To return the document to its original size, you just hit Control-0 (Command-0).

Once you have zoomed in you can move the screen around simply by clicking and dragging.

The presentation and beyond

I had originally created Richard's brochure in Adobe InDesign, then made an Acrobat document for printing. Since I had the full version of Acrobat I could take advantage of the application's editing capabilities. These allow you to do such things as move and add pages (or slides, if you're using presentation terminology), rotate pages, move graphics and edit type.

In fact, Acrobat's Thumbnails palette is similar to PowerPoint's Slide Sorter view, and in the full version you can use this palette to shuffle your slides around, just as you do in PowerPoint.

Versatility and beyond

Another advantage of Acrobat is the inherent versatility of the PDF document. It can be e-mailed, burned to CD or printed with high-quality results, and will print and display correctly on any computer with no font or layout worries. Acrobat can display fonts with no re-wrapping, in the exact typeface you choose, even if that typeface does not reside on the viewer's computer. In addition, with Acrobat's abundant security options, you can lock the file so that the layout can't be altered, or, if you want, you can disable printing functions.

For the corporate presenter the possibilities are even greater, as most companies have a wealth of documents archived as PDF files. With the full version of Acrobat you have the ability to insert pages into your Acrobat presentation from any other PDF document without affecting the original. Let's suppose you want to insert pages into your presentation from your company's annual report, which is probably available as a PDF. All you have to do is open your PDF presentation in the full version of Acrobat and click DOCUMENT » INSERT PAGES. You will now be able to insert any pages from any PDF by using the browse dialog box. Of course, this is similar to the insert option in PowerPoint, but there are some advantages: You will be able to display the PDF page in all its pristine quality, plus you can enlarge segments with fine print, such as financials, and they'll still be quite readable. This ability to zoom in on any part of the screen without losing detail isn't an option in PowerPoint.

Not for animation

Acrobat can't do everything, though. It is not the program to use if you want flashy multimedia transitions and lots of movement, or if you want to use animated GIFs, or Macromedia Shockwave and Flash files (SWF) – Acrobat does not support them; PowerPoint does. However, both PowerPoint and Acrobat handle movies in a similar fashion. Neither program can truly embed a movie; instead they both allow seamless play of linked files. Elements in Acrobat can be linked to sound as well.

Another disadvantage is that Acrobat is not a creation program. Thus you must create your presentation in another application such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Quark XPress, Word, Excel or even PowerPoint itself – then produce an Acrobat document from the original.

A quality alternative

Still, Acrobat provides many options for the presenter. Advantages include the ability to accurately reproduce presentation visuals as well as retain the quality of type and design elements when magnified. Also, Acrobat files can be read by almost any computer, and instantly re-purposed for distribution electronically, via CD or in print. If your presentation requires any of these utilities, and doesn't require animation, then Acrobat is worth considering.

Big-time motion control and small file sizes

Advantages: Animation and interaction capabilities far beyond PowerPoint. Allows for nonlinear conceptualization and design. File sizes are relatively tiny.

Disadvantages: Complex program, somewhat difficult to learn. Design can be time-consuming.

Ideal for: Presenters who want a higher level of showmanship and flexibility in their visuals, and don't mind putting in the time to get it.

Product info: Flash MX: compatible with Windows 98SE, Me, NT 4.0, 2000 and XP; Mac OS 9.1 through OS X. Prices: $499; upgrade, $199. Flash Player: free download. Contact: Macromedia, 800.470.7211,

As a speaker at the high-tech Seybold trade show in San Francisco a couple of years ago, I wanted to show my audience that I was a presenter on the leading edge of technology. To accomplish this, I gave my presentation in Macromedia Flash. The presentation was successful, and fun to deliver, but admittedly time-consuming to create. Still, when you need to create a whiz-bang presentation, Flash offers possibilities far more dynamic than most programs.

Developed by Macromedia, Flash is better known as the undisputed king of Web animation. It's no wonder why. Flash files possess extraordinary animation powers, yet are small and self-contained, which is a necessity for all Web sites. In addition, this application has an almost endless array of options for automation and user interactivity, it's platform independent, and nearly everyone has the free Flash player on their computer. With such versatility, it's easy to see that a Flash presentation has numerous multimedia possibilities such as interactive CDs, DVDs and of course, the Web. It can also be used as an effective presentation program.

That extra animated touch

The power and beauty of a Flash file is in its power to move. With a little know-how and patience, it's possible to produce a presentation with interactivity and animation way beyond PowerPoint's capabilities. While there's always a danger of overusing animation in a presentation, if the animation is used intelligently and purposefully, it can be incredibly effective. For example, my daughter, a high school teacher, once asked me to give a presentation to her students. One of my talking points was "always expect the unexpected." To demonstrate this, as well as liven up the presentation, I found an old picture of my daughter casually leaning on a parked car by the beach. The car had no driver and the door was open. I edited the photo within Adobe Photoshop and then created a Flash file in which the car door suddenly closed and the car sped away – leaving the image of my daughter (who was now leaning on air) falling to the ground. The humor not only amused a tough audience of teen-agers, but it also made my point in a memorable way.

Flash unfolded

Flash itself is capable of much more sophisticated forms of animation, depending on the designer. In general, when we talk about Flash we're talking about the Flash file format SWF, commonly pronounced "swif." Besides the actual Flash program, many other programs now allow you to output a Flash file as well.

Besides the time it takes to learn the program, one of the disadvantages of Flash is that it requires you to add in or create all of the presentation's elements, including graphics, clip art, buttons, video, sound and the like. In this sense it is similar to PowerPoint, but even more so, as you must arrange all the buttons, interactivity, animation and transitions yourself. The silver lining is the greater amount of control you get over these elements compared with what PowerPoint offers.

To create a Flash file (or "movie," as it is called), a user arranges elements in a composition window, which includes the Stage and the Timeline, that shows the progress of the movie. As far as animation is concerned, a Flash file "moves" at frames per second (fps). Thus if your animation is 12 fps, that means one second is 12 frames and 12 frames run one second. Make sense? This simple premise is the key to animation. To animate elements within Flash, it's important to learn how to use "tweening" and layering effects as well as scripting (which is mainly used for interactivity but can produce extraordinary results).

The space 'tween

The tweening technique is by far the best-known among animators. The word originates from a practice cartoonists used to call "in-betweening." Here's how it works: Draw or place any object (including an imported graphic) in the Stage and set a keyframe at any point on the Timeline. (A keyframe functions as an instruction marker for points in time, establishing the beginning and end points of the desired animation.) Now set a second keyframe at another point farther out on the Timeline, then move the object to another spot on the Stage. At that point you can select the area between the two points and create a "motion tween." The program will automatically fill in all the frames between the two keyframes. Using this method you can vary the path of the object quite easily, but you're not limited to motion or position. You can animate rotation as well as changes in the size, scale, color, opacity or skew of an object, and other variables, using the same simple technique with any number of different objects.

The need to control

The fact that you have to add control and interactivity to any Flash file has its good and bad points. On the downside, all the controls must be added, otherwise a SWF file will not stop – it will play through to the end just like a QuickTime movie or video file. In addition to having to build in a stop, there's also no automatic command to make the file go. Thus, stop and go are interactivity behaviors you have to create.

Flash's interactivity occurs in its Actions area, in which ActionScripts are used to create basic action behavior and other interactive commands. Unlike in PowerPoint, there are no individual template-type slides that can be easily addressed and rearranged (unless you are using one of the new presentation templates in the latest Flash MX). Instead, in Macromedia Flash you use Scenes. You now can add interactivity to these moveable segments, such as simple "stop" and "play" commands.

Although it may seem bewildering at first, once you learn how to use the vast variety of interactive options available in Flash, a whole new world opens – especially for presenters who prefer to work in a nonlinear fashion. For example, my wife recently moved an eight-point presentation into the Flash format. Why? She wanted to have the flexibility to go wherever she wanted in the presentation, as opposed to being limited by the usual linear, slide-to-slide organization.

PowerPoint compromise

Used competently, Flash can be a powerful addition to any presentation, but it can also be quite time-consuming. Consequently, many presenters prefer to make short Flash movies and drop them into PowerPoint, instead of creating an entire presentation in Flash. For instance, both the animated movie of my daughter and my wife's nonlinear presentation were SWF files dropped into PowerPoint.

Creating small Flash files is a good way to get your feet wet and start understanding the power of this format. Once you've experienced creating in Flash and start appreciating the presentation possibilities it offers, mere slideshows will begin to seem hopelessly archaic and limited.

Smells like multimedia

Advantages: Animation and 3D capabilities are far superior to those in PowerPoint, but the program can be run in a PowerPoint-like fashion. Action options are varied and deep. The program will meet you on any level you choose to approach it, from beginning to advanced. Multiple output options.

Disadvantages: Windows-only product. Has some difficulty importing PowerPoint slides.

Ideal for: Presenters who want a flexible, all-purpose presentation program that can do just about everything – but won't break the bank.

Product info: Compatible with Windows 95, 98, Me, NT 4.0 (with DirectX 7.0 or higher), 2000 and XP. Price: $150. Contact: Binary Research International, 414.961.7077,

A few years ago, any presenter who passed out interactive CDs packed with video, sound and slides was assumed to be either a multimedia whiz kid or backed by a team of professional graphic designers. Now, multimedia authoring is coming down to the level of the average presenter, and one of the shining stars in this new niche market is SkunkLabs' Liquid Media presentation software.

At first blush, Liquid Media appears to be a sort of PowerPoint on steroids, with elements PowerPoint and Macromedia's Director and Flash, all squished into one neat package. The software was created by a team of programmers at SkunkLabs' headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand. Liquid Media is more than just a feature-rich PowerPoint replacement, though – it is a true multimedia-authoring application for only $150 (less, per user, for multiple licenses). Its ability to perform a number of multimedia tasks above and beyond presentations puts Liquid Media in the category of multipurpose, "create it once and output it numerous ways" applications that are almost certainly the wave of the future.

Casting call for media

The Liquid Media interface opens up to a black-screen world with colorful icons. Everything is there for you, big and bold and icon-based. Movie-making is the program's operating metaphor. All major areas and inserted items are referred to as Scenes and Actors, respectively. Actors are basically the "performers" within a Scene and include backgrounds, images, text, sound, movies, music, buttons and 3D objects. However, unlike Flash's Scenes, Liquid Media's Scenes function much like PowerPoint's Slides. Like PowerPoint's Slide Sorter view, there's an icon-launched thumbnail display of all Scenes which allows you to rearrange and activate Scenes with a simple double-click.

Adding Actors is as simple as clicking on an icon. There are Actor icons for text, buttons, 3D, sound and media (movies). Above the Actor icons are buttons for a variety of other options, including Scene view, Actor view and so on. If you click the Image icon, a dialog box appears so you can browse for the image, or Actor, of your choice. Once the image is opened, four more icons appear at the top: Path, Embellish, Size and Actions. Simply click on any one of these icons to open a dialog box that contains a great variety of specific options that apply to any Actor.

Although not the caliber of such sophisticated desktop-publishing programs as Adobe InDesign or Quark XPress, Liquid Media does allow more control of typography than PowerPoint. The upcoming version 2.0 will also have the ability to rotate any text or other Actor on all three planes (x, y and z). Also worth mentioning is a texturing option that has been greatly expanded in version 2.0, which uses movies or any other type of Actor as a texture for your text. That is, you can have movies or 3D animations or photos that play or are animated within individual text characters.

Animate the actors

Besides the many options available when creating and importing media formats as Actors, it's important to mention the ease of animating any Actor within Liquid Media. By simply clicking and dragging its small center square, a path is created. From there, just hit "S" on the keyboard and points are created along the path. The path can be moved in any direction by simply clicking on these points and dragging them. Another option is to select Embellish for even more features, such as fading the Actor. In truth, the Actions feature has so many options that it's the program's steepest learning curve.

Liquid Media also has the ability to import and animate a 3D object. Not even Macromedia Flash can accomplish this without a third-party plug-in. By simply clicking the 3D icon I was able to import a rocket ship graphic that was created in a 3D program. In no time, I produced a quite realistic animation of the rocket in flight. I could see the top of it as it took off, the back as it flew away, the front as it came toward me, and the bottom as I made it spin. For an architect, engineer or anyone else who wants to animate all sides of an object, Liquid Media's 3D animation capabilities could be an extremely useful presentation or multimedia tool.

Because the animation/-action portion of Liquid Media has so much depth, learning to use the considerable number of options and their combinations could take time and practice. For starters, try using the program to create PowerPoint-like slides using basic Actions. Once your feet are wet, you can dive into Liquid Media's more powerful features.

Icons to movies

As with PowerPoint, you can deliver your presentation using the Liquid Media program by clicking the Play icon. The program also provides a number of other publishing options. For example, you can create a file that can be played by anyone with the free Windows-only player (downloaded from Or you can publish a CD that, when loaded into the user's drive, automatically starts the presentation or multimedia program, which is great for handouts and interactive learning. You can also use Liquid Media to publish Web slides and movies.

Some considerations

Another option Liquid Media has is the ability to import existing PowerPoint presentations. The transfer isn't perfect, however. Once they're imported, it takes a bit of tweaking to get things back in order. Furthermore, Liquid Media is a Windows-only product; Macintosh users are out of luck.

Nevertheless, this application is power-packed for multimedia and it goes far beyond PowerPoint in both presentation sophistication and multimedia capabilities. This program may not make you give up PowerPoint altogether, but it may open up avenues of creativity you never knew existed.

Originally published in the September 2002 issue of Presentations magazine. Copyright 2002, VNU Business Media.

Harry Waldman

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