Presentations, and the delight of reveal.js

Presentations are a modern bugbear. Anybody in academia or business, or any professional field really, will have sat through untold hours of presentations. And almost all of them are terrible. Wordy, uninteresting, too many “transition effects”, low information content, you know as well as I do.

Pretty much every speaker reads the words on their slides, as though the audience were illiterate. I went to a talk once which consisted of 60 – yes, sixty – slides of very dense text, and the presenter read through each one. I think people were gnawing their own limbs off out of sheer boredom by the end. Andy Warhol’s “Empire” would have been a welcome relief.

Since most of my talks are technical and full of mathematics, I have naturally gravitated to the LaTeX presentation tool Beamer. Now Beamer is a lovely thing for LaTeX: as part of the LaTeX ecosystem you get all of LaTeX loveliness along with elegant slide layouts, transitions, etc. My only issue with Beamer (and this is not a new observation by any means), is that all Beamer presentations have a certain sameness to them. I suspect that this is because most Beamer users are mathematicians, who are rightly more interested in content than appearance. It is quite possible of course to make Beamer look like something new and different, but hardly anybody does.

However, I am not a mathematician, I am a mathematics educator, and I do like my presentations to look good, and if possible to stand out a little. I also have a minor issue in that I use Linux on my laptop, which sometimes means my computer won’t talk to an external projector system. Or my USB thumb drive won’t be recognized by the computer I’ll be using, and so on. One way round all this is to use an online system; maybe one which can be displayed in a browser, and which can be placed on a web server somewhere. There are of course plenty of such tools, and I have had a brief dalliance with prezi, but for me prezi was not the answer: yes it was fun and provided a new paradigm for organizing slides, but really, when you took the whizz-bang aspect out, what was left? The few prezis I’ve seen in the wild showed that you can be as dull with prezi as with any other software. Also, at the time it didn’t support mathematics.

In fact I have an abiding distrust of the whole concept of “presentations”. Most are a colossal waste of time – people can read so there’s no need for wordiness, and most of the graphs and charts that make up the rest of most slides are dreary and lacklustre. Hardly anybody knows how to present information graphically in a way that really grabs people’s attention. It’s lazy and insulting to your audience to simply copy a chart from your spreadsheet and assume they’ll be delighted by it. Then you have the large class of people who fill their blank spaces with cute cartoons and clip art. This sort of thing annoys me probably more than it should – when I’m in an audience I don’t want to be entertained with cute irrelevant additions, I want to learn. This comes to the heart of presenting. A presenter is acting as a teacher; the audience the learners. So presenting should be about engaging the audience. What’s in your slides comes a distant second. I don’t want new technology with clever animations and transitions, bookmarks, non-linear slide shows; I want presenters to be themselves interesting. (As an aside, some of the very worst presentations have been at education conferences.)

For a superb example of attention-grabbing graphics, check out the TED talk by the late Hans Rosling. Or you can admire the work of David McCandless.

I seem to have digressed, from talking about presentation software to banging on about the awfulness of presentations generally. So, back to the topic.

For a recent conference I determined to do just that: use an online presentation tool, and I chose reveal.js. I reckon reveal.js is presentations done right: elegant, customizable, making the best use of html for content and css for design; and with nicely chosen defaults so that even if you just put a few words on your slides the result will still look good. Even better, you can take your final slides and put them up on github pages so that you can access them from anywhere in the world with a web browser. And if you’re going somewhere which is not networked, you can always take your slides on some sort of portable media. And it has access to almost all of LaTeX via MathJax.

One minor problem with reveal.js is that the slides are built up with raw html code, and so can be somewhat verbose and hard to read (at least for me). However, there is a companion software for emacs org mode called org-reveal, which enables you to structure your reveal.js presentation as an org file. This is presentation heaven. The org file gives you structure, and reveal.js gives you a lovely presentation.

To make it available, you upload all your presentations to github.pages, and you can present from anywhere in the world with an internet connection! You can see an example of one of my short presentations at

Of course the presentation (the software and what you do with it), is in fact the least part of your talk. By far the most important part is the presenter. The best software in the world won’t overcome a boring speaker who can’t engage an audience.

I like my presentations to be simple and effect-free; I don’t want the audience to be distracted from my leaping and capering about.

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