One PowerPoint, Indivisible | Markdown Presentations for Futureproof Flexibility
A response to PowerPoint Remix Rant by Mike Caulfield.
Mike laments how the long list of specialized graphical tools in PowerPoint is a recipe for making Open Ed Resources that are next to impossible to reuse, remix, and repurpose to other contexts.
Most things work like this, unfortunately, encouraging us to think of our resources in almost physical terms, as pieces of paper or slides for which there is only upside to precisely controlling their presentation. But that desire to control presentation is also a desire to control and limit context, and it makes our products as fragile and non-remixable as the paper and celluloid materials they attempt to emulate. We take fluid, re-usable data and objects, and then we freeze them into brittle data-poor layout, and then wonder why nothing ever gets reused.
As he astutely mentions, presentations are made up of nothing more than text and images, but the PowerPoint format tricks our monkey brains into thinking of them as physical things, indivisible, unified whole “units” of information. By combining your authoring environment with your publishing format, it’s easy, sure, but it also creates a form of dependence on the tool itself. Similarly, combining your ideas with your “styling” in a presentation deck also discourages other collaborators from breaking apart your creation and building upon it in their own work.
Markdown for Presentations (and blog posts, and documents, and emails, and…)
I have adjusted my way of working so that the “master version” of any document I work on either lives in Markdown or HTML (futureproof, open source, interoperable text-based formats), then are “published” into more common formats for different sharing contexts – PDF, PowerPoint, word docs, emails, blog posts, etc.– as needed.
Looking at a presentation in markdown, you can see it for what it truly is – a text list of bullet points. (Hopefully an organized, interesting, informative list, but a list nonetheless!) You can embed images and videos and other goodies to add interest and clarity, but your authoring environment should just provide a convenient “wrapper” for your ideas, not claim to become their home.
The strength of this approach is that you can build upon your text, offering a simplified presentation version (with simple bullet points, pictures, videos, etc.), but then expanding on your ideas with written text paragraphs (AKA speaker notes) that can be posted in their entirety as a blog post. This way, when people ask for your fantastic slide deck, you can actually send them a complete document of what you said and what you showed in your presentation.
If your starting point is Markdown, most Markdown editors will have easy tools for exporting your document to a variety of formats. My favorite cross-platform Markdown Editor, HarooPad, now has the ability to publish your markdown documents directly as presentations, but there are other options like Slid.es or the open source software that powers it, Reveal.js. For a more consumer-level Mac authoring environment, you could do worse than DeckSet.
But what about making it PRETTY?
I 100% agree that looks matter in presentations. I am not one of those austere, text-only markdown fans – I think that presentations should be as visually rich and attractive as possible to heighten understanding and clarity.
I will still often design attractive slides in Apple Keynote (where it’s incredibly easy to combine text, images, and gorgeous graphical effects), but then I export them as JPEG images and post them in my markdown presentation as a graphic.
Alternately, you can just grab a web image by its URL and set it as a background or inset in your slide with a simple line of code:
You can set a graphic as the background of a slide, and then your text and bullet points can float over the top. I’ll even sometimes use a handy trick – LoremPixel is a great free image placeholder service, where you can just add images to any document using a standard URL scheme that loads up a random, attractive stock photo in the size you specify:
The presentation tools I mention above automagically apply nice CSS styles to your presentation so you can just pick a nice set of fonts, colors, transitions, and backgrounds and then just leave it alone.
Again, this approach nicely supports your ability to repurpose your presentations as web graphics, emails, PDFs, and all other types of publishing formats. As an added bonus, text files are much easier to work with on your mobile device, so you can scribble down your ideas from anywhere you happen to be. Again, by separating the content from the styling, you get so much more flexibility and convenience.
Getting Back your Precious Presentations
I have muggafuggabytes of old Keynote presentations on every hard drive I own, and I fear the day when any of those drives ever fails and those presentations are lost forever. Now, there are scripts for freeing your presentations from Keynote into Markdown, Evernote, text or HTML so you can at least back up your data in a future-proof text format.
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