Make Library Instruction Zoom: Prezi as Presentation Tool

Author:  Stewart C Baker

Yet another Instruction Session

The problem of keeping students engaged during library instruction sessions is a common one.  Presentation software may only compound the problem: as slide after slide appears on the screen, with bullet point after bullet point, students’ eyes (as well as instructors’) may be at risk of glazing over.

The author of this blog post takes full responsibility for the exaggerated awfulness of this slide.

The author of this blog post takes full responsibility for the exaggerated awfulness of this slide.

In large part, the eye-glazing qualities of slideshow based instruction can be blamed on presentation style (i.e. reading directly from the slide), and choices made while designing slides (e.g. poor color choice and too much text).

Nonetheless, the linear style of a slide show, while suitable for most presentations, may not be the best model for instruction, where questions from and interaction with students may force you to deviate from your planned presentations.

Breaking Out of Slides with Prezi

Prezi is a relatively new (2009) web-based presentation tool which does away with slides in favor of a large, editable white space commonly called an “infinite canvas” (Although Prezi’s learning materials use the term “Prezi Canvas” instead).

Prezi is an attractive instructional tool for a number of reasons, many of which also hold for library instruction in particular.

Among these are:

Infinite Canvas

Users can organize materials in any way they like on the canvas, grouping them together via visual cues like circular frames or simply placing them loosely on the page.  Items which can be placed on the canvas include:

  • Text (hyperlinks, bullet points, headers, and body text)
  • Images
  • PDFs
  • Video (files, or via links to Youtube)

One big benefit of the canvas as opposed to the slides is that it is possible to get an overview of the entire presentation at once.  This, coupled with visual grouping of related items, can easily show how a presentation is structured, as well as being used in other contexts to show the relationships between different groups of items.

The Prezi canvas allows you to show an overview of your entire presentation at once.

The Prezi canvas allows you to show an overview of your entire presentation at once.


Another nice thing about the canvas is that you can actually use Prezi to organize your ideas, as well as just creating a presentation.  Since you can see all your ideas on the same page, it can be easier to spot commonalities and differences, and structure your presentation accordingly.

Presentation Path

Although Prezi’s canvas is a wonderful tool, it is best when supplemented by the system’s “presentation path” tool.  This allows users to give each item placed on the canvas a numeric value, turning the disparate items placed on the canvas into an easily clickable moving presentation.

Once all items have been given a number on the path, users can navigate through the presentation with the click of a button–either the left or right arrow on the keyboard, or by clicking on the on-screen equivalent with a mouse.

The path editing tool, showing numeric values assigned to various screens and items.

The path editing tool, showing numeric values assigned to various screens and items.

Nonlinear Presentations

Just because you’re using a path, however, doesn’t mean you’re limited to using it.  Unlike in a slideshow, in Prezi you can also freely zoom around the canvas of your presentation with the system’s “smart zoom” functionality.

The smart zoom is easy to use.  All you have to do is click on any item, frame, or section of the canvas, and Prezi will move the screen to focus on it.  You can then go back to you were by clicking the left arrow on your keyboard or the digital, on-screen equivalent.

What this allows you to do as a presenter is organize your talk in a sensible manner, and then deviate from your plan as circumstances dictate.  The combination of zooming and pathing represents a more dynamic, practical approach than the locked-in, static method of a slideshow, where the only way to move around within the presentation is through a cumbersome process of clicking the ‘stop’ button, scrolling around for the slide you want, discussing it, scrolling back to the slide you were on, and continuing your presentation.

Changing the Design

Much like Powerpoint and other slideshow software, Prezi does include the option to change the text and background color of your presentation through the use of pre-set themes.  For more tech-savvy users, there’s also the option to modify the CSS directly, without use of a wizard.

Although you can’t modify the shapes of the frames much, almost everything else is easy to change with either of these tools.

The Advanced Theme Editing Wizard also contains a link to manually edit the theme’s CSS.

The Advanced Theme Editing Wizard also contains a link to manually edit the theme’s CSS.

Of course, if you do use custom colors or CSS, it’s important–as always–to make sure your presentation’s text is still legible!


Beyond the use of themes and CSS, there are a number of ways to customize your presentation.  Here are just a few:

  • Fade-in animation — Text stays hidden until you click the “next” button.
  • Insert images — If you’re artistically inclined, or have access to high-quality, usable images, the “canvas” of Prezi really opens up.  You can interweave uploaded drawings with the textual content of Prezi in interesting, novel ways.
  • 3D backgrounds — Instead of inserting a flat background image, you can include several, and layer them using Prezi’s theme tool.  Then, the software will implement a parallax effect when zooming which makes the background pop out as though it were 3-dimensional.
  • Insert flash files — Flash files (.swf) are one of the types of item you can include.  By placing them in the background behind your text, you can achieve sophisticated-looking results (see the fourth example at the bottom of the page).

Ease of Access

One of the best things about Prezi is that it’s freely available to anybody with Internet access and the right software plugins–the latter of which should be included by default on almost all computers.

No Cost

Anybody can create a Prezi account at no cost, although free accounts include a “Prezi” logo at the bottom of the screen and a limited amount of storage space, among a few other limitations.

For educators (anyone with a .edu address), the limitations are fewer:  you can replace the “Prezi” logo with another, and get more storage space.


You can give presentations from the Prezi website, or (with an Edu account) by downloading a SWF file that you can run from any computer with or without Internet access.

Prezi presentations are also very simple to embed (i.e. to place inside an external web page).  This means you can load a Prezi into your library’s instruction guides, or any other page on your site, and students will be able to look at the presentation any time–although they won’t be able to hear you speak, as Prezi has no real option to record or include voice.


Of course, as with any program, there are a few drawbacks.

First, it’s not possible to print handouts of your presentation.  This is partly due to the nature of Prezi’s nonlinearity, which might make sensible handouts impossible.  It’s also a drawback of the web-based, flash-based nature of the software, which doesn’t allow for easy printing in any case.

Prezi’s zooming feature is very easy to over-use.  If you make a Prezi that’s too zoomy, or in which the items you’ve uploaded all face very different directions, you may end up making your audience sick–and you certainly won’t keep their focus.


Too much spinning and zooming will make your audience queasy.

Too much spinning and zooming will make your audience queasy.


Prezi has a rather steep learning curve.  It’s not what we’re used to seeing in presentation software, and so it can take quite a while to get used to how things are organized and where to find all the options (although see the addendum at the bottom of this post for an update on that).

While there may also be other drawbacks to the software as a presentation tool, overall its benefits seem to outweigh these costs.  Especially given that Prezi adds new features regularly, and is likely (at least for now) to be something students haven’t seen a whole lot of, Prezi should make any instruction session a more memorable experience.

Examples of Prezi in Use

Here are a few great examples of how Prezi can really make an instruction session memorable.  Some are simply more traditional slide-style presentations made more interesting through the use of the different visual cues in Prezi.  Others showcase the benefits of Prezi’s nonlinearity, infinite, zoomable canvas, and high degree of customization.

  • RES104-Topic selection and narrowing — This Prezi from Becky Canovan at the University of Dubuque is a great example of how you can use Prezi’s nonlinear layout and frames to teach students how to select and narrow down a research topic
  • Hunger Games Readalike — This Prezi (also by Becky Canovan) breaks out of the path altogether, using Prezi as a way to show relationships between items.
  • The magical theory of relativity — This Prezi by Petra Marjai is an amazing example of what you can do with animation and extensive customization, as well as Prezi’s zoomable canvas features.


While I was finishing up this blog post, I just got an e-mail from Prezi announcing that they’ve completely revamped their design.  Taking a look at the changes they’ve made, I think this newest change makes Prezi even more approachable.  They’ve removed the “bubble,” which was a big part of the learning curve, in favor of a simpler, more logical drop-down menu.


Prezi’s new, more simplified menu makes the whole process much easier.

Prezi’s new, more simplified menu makes the whole process much easier.

If you’re new to Prezi, hopefully you won’t even notice, but if you’ve tried it before and got lost in the learning curve, now would be a great time to give the software another try.

by Stewart C Baker

Reference / Web Services Librarian

California State University, Dominguez Hills






Loretta Wallace

Business, Economics, Hotel & Restaurant Management Librarian University of Houston

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