Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Worse than Really Bad PowerPoint

In some presentations the use of mathematical formulas helps to amplify and clarify the message. In mathematics the use of the TeX's package Beamer is unfortunately widely spread. In this post I make a case to avoid using Beamer and instead use TeX to only produce snapshots of these formulas.
Seth Godin is an American entrepreneur and blogger on marketing of ideas in the digital age. Seth knows one of two things about presentations. He is an all-time TED favorite. He also wrote a booklet call Really Bad PowerPoint (click here to get it!) where he briefly talks about the birth, problematic, and possible solutions of the Death by PowerPoint. I strongly encourage you to read it.

Bad presentations (aka bad PowerPoint) are all around, not only in sales, but also in education, science, and even in the military! Check out this article from the New York Times about use of PowerPoint in the US military. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse you meet Beamer.

If you are a mathematician, physicist, or a computer scientist you might know Beamer, a LaTeX document class for creating slides for presentations. Allow me to explain. According to Wikipedia LaTeX is a document preparation system for the TeX typesetting program.  In simple language, TeX is a computer program for the purpose of writing beautiful mathematical texts such as articles and books. In other words, very ugly computer code in, beautiful pdf file out.  Beamer is a set of instructions that allows users to create slides using TeX.

Let me show you what I mean. I took this example for the Beamer user guide. In the picture below is the Beamer input.

Beamer/TeX input. Marked in gray is the code corresponding to the slide below

Now behold the result!

It is not a coincidence that this slide resembles Seth's Bad PowerPoint.  Forget Death by PowerPoint, Beamer  is the Thermo-Nuclear Winter of presentations. Beamer promotes clutter in slides. It does not facilitate communication, on the contrary it hinders. Using Beamer to create slides is the analogous of using a silverware knife as a screwdriver.

In spite of  how toxic Beamer is to presentations it is very popular among mathematicians, partly because TeX is the standard when typesetting mathematics.  TeX produces beautiful mathematical formulas.  So use it for that purpose, not to create presentation's visuals. If you need mathematical formulas for your presentation there is an efficient way to use TeX.

Avoid using Beamer to create slides,  instead use TeX to create snapshots of formulas and together with your favorite slideware create visuals that amplify your message. I contributed to the LaTeX wikibook on how to generate png snapshots of formulas (click here to go there). If you have a Mac you can use Latexit.  Here is an example using Keynote and Latexit.

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