And that’s why I should have done this column in Prezi
The process of writing is an unnatural act for most of us. Sitting alone, contemplating a blank white page, then conjuring lines of coded symbols in such a way as to paint a picture inside someone else’s head? When you really think about it, it feels a bit…over-engineered.
But writing is the best — or perhaps the most universal — thing we’ve got to move ideas from one mind to another, right? After all, isn’t that why Ev started Medium?
Maybe. But maybe not.
As a writer, I’ll admit my biases — I find it hard to imagine a world where writing isn’t considered the most important form of communication between us humans. But when you consider the evidence piling up, we’d be fools to not acknowledge what appears to be a growing truth: Writing is moving from a central role in our cultural literacy to — at best — a supporting act.
Why would I speak such a blasphemy? Because of my kids, and all the kids they interact with every day. Consider the yearbook — the place where the best writers at a given school once vied to summarize their year. This summer, I was more than halfway through my 12-year old’s middle school yearbook before I read a complete sentence — one of less than ten in the entire volume. And this was at a school that prides itself as a feeder for the best college prep institutions in California.
Sure, all the kids there are proficient writers — many are downright talented. But…if you want to understand the future, don’t look to what the schools are teaching. Look to what the kids are actually doing. And what they’re doing doesn’t look like writing. It looks like visual story telling — and it’s far more verbal and video-driven than textual. For them, text serves as headline, a framing mechanism — it’s a punchline, not a narrative engine. Kids today are telling stories, sure, but they’re doing it with their own voices — literally — supplemented by databases of emojis, gifs, and video.
What happens, I wondered recently, when all those kids get to the workplace?
Peter Arvai and his team at Prezi may well have the answer. You’ve probably heard of Prezi — it’s best known as a cloud-based competitor to PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides. But until I met Arvai, Prezi’s CEO, I was pretty much ignorant as to how different the company truly was.
First the business: Prezi is a spectacular success story — more than 75 million registered users, a small percentage of which pay between $60 and $240 a year, $70 million in funding, crazy good revenue and growth numbers. While Arvai wouldn’t confirm my estimates, I can report that my quick back-of-the-napkin figures engendered a knowing smile. If just 1% of his customers pay an average of $100 a year, that’d be $75 million in SaaS revenue. That’s a company profitably on its way to unicorn status, if it’s not already there. Clearly, there’s a huge appetite for a new and better way to communicate ideas via presentations.
But Prezi isn’t a Valley success story — the company was hatched by its three founders in a Budapest cafe, and its headquarters remain there. Arvai’s parents are Hungarian, but he grew up in Sweden, where his father emigrated after fleeing the Soviet Union’s grasp in the late 1960s. Arvai was deeply impacted by his father’s story — it forms the core of his beliefs that better ideas and communication can fundamentally change the world. Communism, he believes, was a bad idea, and the communist state spent a lot of time making sure better ideas didn’t spread.
“More understanding leads to more love in the world,” Arvai said, paraphrasing and citing a Buddhist monk he’s studied (Arvai is something of a polymath, and speaks four languages). “I know that sounds hippy dippy,” he continues, “but I really do believe it.” Prezi’s mission is equally expansive: To help two billion people make better decisions through better communication.
Even if you have never used Prezi, you’ve probably seen a Prezi presentation, more likely than not as a TED talk (they’re a favorite there) or as what feels like an online, animated explainer (find examples here, Medium does not yet support Prezi embeds). “Prezis” are pretty much the opposite of the boring, linear, bullet-point laden Powerpoints. Prezis present ideas as a interconnected canvas, with elegant zoom and pan features that allow for a more visual approach to storytelling. When you create a Prezi, you can import and incorporate all manners of media objects — only one of which is text. Gone is the bulleted, slide-to-slide approach that Google, Microsoft, and Apple all use for their presentation tools. 75 million users and more than 1.5 billion views later, Prezi is well on its way to reaching its goal.
Arvai loves to explain why Prezi works — the site even has a section devoted to the science behind visual communication. It notes that our brains take just a quarter of a second to process visual imagery, but up to six seconds to read and process words describing the same image.
Listening to Arvai explain this, it’s hard to not understand the rise of SnapChat and Instagram — not to mention that trend I noticed in my kids’ yearbook. And it makes me wonder if a generation or so from now, “writers” explaining a story like Prezi’s might find a far more compelling way to tell their tales. But I’m still the old school guy, banging on my keyboard and conjuring images from coded symbols. For now, anyway. But I’ve signed up for Prezi, and I look forward to learning how to communicate in an entirely new way. See ya later, PowerPoint.
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