In one of my earlier posts, I described my thoughts on why LaTeX is a superior alternative to word processing packages (like MS Word) for creating written documents. In short, it is a system that more or less makes all the formatting decisions for you so that you can just focus on writing. It is also indispensable for those that want to use mathematics or technical symbols that are a pain in the ass to get right in other programs.
This is all well and good for creating great articles, books, papers, letters etc. But when you want to create presentation slides to talk through with an audience, I believe sacrificing control is counterproductive. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case for academic presentations (at least in economics) that people overlook this. The end result is almost every presentation looks the same and has a similar structure, even though it is absurd to think that every single topic has the same structure or needs to be presented (or thought about) in the same way.
Just to be clear, there are two causes for the problem here that work in tandem:
- The use of Beamer constraining creativity
- A poor understanding of good presentation design
There is a good reason why people use the ‘Beamer’ document class in LaTeX to create academic slides. This is the same reason that LaTeX is useful. Equations are easy, and there’s no worrying about colours or formatting, layout or compatibility (slides are output as PDF files). Here is a sample Beamer slide:
This sample highlights some of the problems we have. Most slides end up looking very monotonous and dreary. Because it is easy to convert an article into slides, people often don’t change the content enough to make it appropriate for a presentation. This often results in too much information on one slide. Perhaps this is fine for people who learn predominantly through text, but is less useful for those that prefer visual learning. And since slides are the perfect visual aid, it seems odd that people constrain themselves to the same large bodies of text that you would find in any book/article/paper.
That is not to say that Beamer is ‘bad’ in itself. It is just that with the way it is set up, it encourages bad practice. Shapes, diagrams, images, and other media are notoriously difficult to get right in LaTeX, and therefore the same is true for Beamer slides. As a result, people tend not to bother with them. These things can be dealt with if the producer of the slides is competent enough, but that is obviously not going to be the case most of the time if the difficulty level is non-trivial.
Why should we care?
I believe this is a problem because a large part of academia is getting your ideas across to other people effectively so that they understand (and ideally, like) what you are saying. Ultimately, this sort of closed-form presentation tends to discourage innovation in how ideas are put across. More worryingly, it might have an effect on how they are formed in the first place. Because many researchers use these presentations as inspiration for their own work, homogeneous presentations beget homogeneous research. Academia doesn’t need more narrow mindedness.
What can we do?
People need not be afraid of breaking the mould. As much as I like LaTeX, I would never use it for presentations unless it was unavoidable because of high mathematical content. PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Docs are great because they have a lot of themes that you can use for uniformity, whilst retaining greater control over slide content. Even better, though a little more difficult to work with, is Prezi. Prezi completely throws the assumption of a linear presentation out of the window. This makes it a lot easier to create a more unique and appropriate flow that fits your ideas, rather than forcing you to impose a predetermined structure on your work.
Secondly, people need to learn how to present their ideas in a more audience-friendly way. Unfortunately, this is a large and separate topic entirely. For now, I would suggest that people try to move away from using Beamer unless they have a good reason for doing so, and not use it just because other people are. When it’s easier to put a picture than an equation in a slide, I think people will be nudged into creating things that make more sense.