Using Keynote in a Powerpoint world: Making great scientific presentations

This is the first in a series on scientific presentation design.

I only have a few pet peeves. Stop snickering, honey.

Here they are:

  1. Flip flops.

  2. Use of the term “emails.” “Email” is plural.

  3. One doesn’t “use tracked changes.” One simply tracks his/her changes.

  4. The assumption that everyone uses PowerPoint. Even if most do. You see, in my opinion, no one should.

Much has been said about the abomination that is the PowerPoint slide deck. Academics are particularly PowerPoint challenged. We generally think it’s okay to splatter the screen with rows of data, as long as we preface the reveal by saying, “this is a busy slide.”

Perhaps inspired by TED and IGNITE, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in designing high-quality presentations. Several people have asked about my own workflow — so here goes.

Step 1. Get Keynote. Lose PowerPoint.

There are many good reasons to use Keynote over PowerPoint. Much has been written about the technical differences between the two. But here’s the key issue:

Keynote presentations look better.

No, really. Remember Al Gore’s little Academy Award-winning documentary [that everyone said was done is PowerPoint]? Nope. Keynote. Keynote is like a Monet to PowerPoint’s Thomas Kincaid. It’s like the skies of Phuket compared to those of Beijing. It’s like Duke versus UNC. Get my point?

So get Keynote.

But here’s the problem. PowerPoint-centrism is rampant. I give about two dozen talks each year and it seems that, independent of venue, organizers are becoming increasingly rabid about getting my slides early so they can “load them into PowerPoint.” When I’m the main course, I usually go all Jennifer Lopez and insist that I be able to present using my Mac. Otherwise, I’ll surrender. That brings me to problem #2.

Keynote doesn’t play nice with PowerPoint. It isn’t for lack of trying – Keynote can export a PowerPoint file. But it’s sort of like when you try one of those fun “DIY projects. [Usually] it just doesn’t turn out right. After hours of preparation to get my slides looking just right, there are few things worse than seeing them after a PowerPoint export. So here’s my Keynote to PowerPoint workflow.

Step 2. Export as a PDF.

Keynote allows you to export your slides as a PDF. Use the settings shown below to ensure that you have the highest resolution export, minus all of the extras. Note that at this point, you will not be able to modify your presentation. So do this when you’re absolutely finished editing your talk.

When I create a presentation that includes some animation (which you should probably limit as a rule), I will check the “print each stage of builds” option. This is really important for a reason that I will mention in just a moment.

During the export, Keynote will create a PDF file that is essentially a snapshot of each slide from your presentation. The file size will be huge, especially if you’ve used high resolution images. If you want to know why, bug me. For most though, it’s enough to know that from here on, your file sizes will be much bigger than normal.

Step 3. Make a new Keynote file from your PDF

Next, go get this program: PDF to Keynote. Amazingly, this program is free. This little app will take your PDF and turn it into a Keynote presentation file.

Open your .pdf in PDF to Keynote. For most, the settings below should work wonderfully:

Press Command-S to save your new Keynote file. Name it something that will allow you to differentiate it from your original Keynote presentation.

Step 4. Export a PowerPoint file from Keynote

Almost done. Now, open the Keynote file that PDF to Keynote just created. Choose Export, and choose the PowerPoint option. You will now have a .ppt file that includes a perfectly formatted version of your original Keynote presentation. It will show beautifully, everywhere.

Why all the run around?

It’s actually a pretty complicated programming task to allow interoperability between apps as sophisticated as these. So in the meantime, what we’re doing is creating images for each page of your original Keynote file and, only then, asking Keynote to export a .ppt. You can’t mess up exporting a bunch of images (at least not too badly).

This may seem like a lot of work, but trust me — it’s worth it.

A note about transitions, animations, movement, oh my.

I’ll talk about animation in an upcoming post. For now, keep it simple. Let’s say that you are using an “Appear” animation to make bullets show sequentially. When you export the PDF, Keynote will create a separate page for each step of the animation. So for the “Appear” animation, you’ll get 2 pages — one without the bullet and one with it. Once you’ve exported your PowerPoint file, it’ll be the same. So in your presentation, you’ll simply advance through your animations — much the same way that you would anyway. However, if you use more complex animations, you’ll need to do a lot more clicking. That’s why I recommend keeping it simple.

Coming up next: Assembling the right tools to make high-quality scientific presentations.