July 13, 2005

Spice up your presentations with OpenOffice.org Impress

Author: Rob Reilly

The next time you give a presentation with your laptop, don't use bullet points, long-running paragraphs, or templates. Oh, and don't be so organized either. Exercise some freedom, as in free and open source, and talk to your audience, as opposed to reading from slides. Let OpenOffice.org Impress, a tool for creating multimedia presentations, add richness to your story.

This article will show you how to implement some advanced features of Impress. While all the minute particulars have been covered thoroughly in Impress tutorials, my purpose here is to encourage you to star in your own show, while your slide show serves a supporting role.

Create interest with pictures

"Keep the slides simple" -- that's what the experts say. I used to believe that one myself. A half hour in front of the TV, though, proves that the average consumer seldom has an input bandwidth problem. If fast-paced movies, newscasts, and commercials didn't work, companies wouldn't produce them. Go ahead and put in a detailed picture, and then weave your story around what's on the screen. See for yourself with this goofy example.

Figure 1 shows a picture of someone's front yard with blue boxes around several sprinkler heads. Using Impress's box tool, I created an unfilled blue box around the first sprinkler head at the back.

Figure 1 - Blueboxes around objects of interest

Then I copied and pasted new boxes around the other sprinklers, resizing as I went.

What are those sprinkler heads for? Who put them there? What relationships do the audience members see in the picture? Why should the audience even care about the picture?

Sounds like a perfect opportunity to tell the audience about the story of the sprinkler heads. Tell the audience how the spacing provides even coverage over the lawn. Expand on the topic of sprinkler head spacing. Talk about full circle versus half circle spray patterns. Explain why the installer used vertical risers instead of pop-ups. You could put the picture up on the screen and talk about sprinklers for five minutes without too much trouble.

Could you do the same with the packaging changes that you want to make in your pitch of the XYZ streaming video appliance? Use a few boxes, and then talk about what you want to change. This simple technique will put you in the spotlight, where you can interact with your audience, and keep the picture in the supporting role, where it should be.

Introduce new topics with transitions

Since we've jettisoned bullet points, we'll need another way to move from one topic to another. If you talk for five minutes on your changes on the XYZ streaming video box, you could conceivably have four other pictures, or segments, to cover in a 30-minute presentation. The transitions between slides are the natural breakpoints for switching topics.

You can use automatic transitions (ones that switch at a predetermined time) to make you aware of your time in front of the audience. Manual transitions (switching slides with a mouse click) give you more flexibility to expand or shorten your content delivery.

You can add a little more excitement with transitions, too. You might want to fade one slide into another, or have the current slide checkerboard into the next one. There are a lot of different slide transition effects that you can use. You can control the effects under the Task pane, as shown in figure 2. You can also switch on the automatic mode here.

Figure 2 - OOo Impress "Task" menu pane

Use the Task Pane item under the View tab on the main toolbar to turn the pane on or off.

Bring life to your show with object animations

To increase the audience's interest in your topic, you can animate an object. For instance, you could fly in the blue boxes, one at a time, on the sprinkler picture. Each time a box moves over a sprinkler you can talk about that particular one.

Fly in some blue boxes around the new buttons on your XYZ video server box. Then talk about those buttons. What does the button do? How is it different from the old ones?

To add an animation effect to an object (such as text, a box, or a picture), click the mouse on the object. Then push the Add button on the Custom Animation pane. A new window will appear, where you can select the type of animation effect you want to apply. Select an effect, and then push the Play button to see how the object moves using your chosen effect. You can animate another object in a picture by selecting that object and selecting the Add effect button. You can use the Slide Show button to see the animation full screen.

Effectively using animation effects does require some pre-planning. You might try rehearsing your talk while viewing the picture, then figure out which elements you need to emphasize. Finally, animate the objects to match your talk.

You are the show. Let the animations bring emphasis and focus to what you are saying.

Create eye-catching text

There's no need to completely abandon all text in your presentation, although that is a worthwhile exercise; just get rid of the bullet points and reserve text for important things, like headlines or attention-grabbing, two- or three-word notes.

Impress has some great text tools with a range of fonts, colors, and alignments to choose from. To add basic text, use the text button on the left side of the main Impress slide edit screen.

Another worthwhile text tool is Fontworks, which creates stylized 3D text that can summarize a point or introduce a new topic. Take a look at figure 3. Surely, there must be something interesting here -- otherwise you wouldn't spell it out, right? You get the idea.

Figure 3 - Fancy 3D text use on picture for emphasis

Use boldface and large text sizes for headings or introductory pages. You can use small text for notes on the slides. You could even make the text fly in simultaneously with the boxes or circles.

Notice that the text "Interesting Sprinklers" is not centered. For goodness' sake, don't line everything up smack in the center of the slide. Text should be used sparingly but effectively.

The show must go on

We've looked at several simple techniques and tools that can add punch to your presentation. These tools go well beyond the template and cookie-cutter slide shows that so many people turn out. They help make the speaker the show, and not the slides. Tell your story with passion even if it is about sprinklers, and your audience won't miss the bullet points one bit.

Rob Reilly is a consultant, writer, and commentator who advises clients on business and technology projects. His Linux, personal branding, and public speaking skills articles regularly appear in various high-end Linux and business media outlets.

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