Breaking Out: Nonlinear PowerPoint

One of the raps against PowerPoint is the inexorable presentation of slides, from slide 1 to the end, without variation. The audience (and, often, the presenter) feels trapped in this unstoppable sequence.

The linear presentation of ideas may or may not be appropriate but it is clearly a bad idea to lock yourself into an invariable sequence, ignoring your audience needs or responses.

Prezi, a cloud-based “zooming” presentation tool, is lauded for its non-linear capabilities; see

Aspire Communications ( promotes “relational presentations” incorporating navigation.

On-screen navigation in PowerPoint allows the presenter to select specific sequences in the presentation, reacting to the pre-determined profile or actual behavior of the audience. You can always select slides in advance of the presentation; obviously this is a less responsive approach. It is also possible to exit slideshow mode and select slides to be shown but this is clumsy. Presenter View (with multiple monitors) also allows the presenter to select slides and modify the order of presentation but this can interrupt the flow of your presentation.

Navigation works by associating hyperlinks with objects on the slides. During slideshow mode, the presenter can click on the object and execute the link.  Links can be internal to the presentation (i.e., to a specific slide) or to an external file or web page.  This is precisely like navigating on a web page and is familiar and natural to most people.

CAVEAT: The presenter must use an actual pointing device to click on the linked object. An “air mouse” (with motion sensing technology) can be used but a “wireless presenter” that only has “next slide” capability will not allow the presenter to click on a specific object on the slide. You could also use a desktop mouse but this is clumsy when you need to present to several people with a large monitor or projector. Googling “air mouse” will yield several models appropriate for a presentation situation.

Obviously, the presenter should understand this need and be willing to use (and practice with) the air mouse.

Let’s consider a practical example. Suppose you want to show your sales prospect some success stories involving customers that are similar to the prospect (sounds like a good idea). Your company serves several market segments (healthcare, education and hospitality, for example) and your prospect happens to be a hospital.

Here’s the idea: present a “logo swarm” of your customers, organized by market segment. By clicking a specific logo – a hospital like your prospect’s – you navigate to a success story sequence, including juicy testimonials. At the end of the sequence, you return to the swarm and select another example. Your prospect sees a company he is familiar with and asks about that one; you respond by showing the success story (luckily, he picks one that you have a story for).  Following this discussion, you move on to the next part of your presentation.

Here’s how this looks diagrammatically:

PowerPoint navigation example

Here are the details:

  • We want a company logo on the “swarm” slide to be a link to the first slide of the corresponding story sequence. This is easy: select the logo, select Insert/Hyperlink and pick Place in this Document and the appropriate Slide Title. This link will work even if intervening slides are inserted later on. It’s also a good idea to fill in the Screen Tip so the presenter knows he’s picked the right logo before he clicks.

To test, pick Slide Show and mouse-over the logo. The cursor changes to a finger and the screen tip appears. Clicking shows the first slide of the story sequence.

If the finger icon doesn’t appear, your presenter should recognize that no story exits for that customer.

  • You can use the normal click order to present the slides in each story sequence.
  • On the last slide in the sequence, create an object (a small oval, for example) and insert a hyperlink as above pointing to the swarm slide.  Remember, any object can be a link so you can make the linking object unobtrusive (it’s not part of your message!).

Fill the object you use for a link; otherwise, only the outline (and any text in the object) will be “active” as a link. The fill can be partly or completely transparent (invisible) and still work.

It’s a good idea to put a “return” link like this on every slide in your story sequences.  This lets the presenter return to the swarm slide whenever she needs to.

  • On the logo swarm slide, add an “escape” link so that the presenter can continue to the part of the presentation following the customer section.

You should be aware of an odd relationship between navigation and animation in PowerPoint. The first time you link to a slide, the animations on that slide work as expected. However, the animations do not occur in subsequent visits to the slide during the show. Exiting slide show mode resets the animations.

I have no idea why this is the case. If you are concerned about this, make sure that the slide is at least readable if the animations don’t occur.

There is a fix for this – see the comments on this post.

You may have noticed the Custom Shows option in the Insert Hyperlink pane. Briefly, a custom show is a sequence of slides within the current file that you can define and name. The idea is that you can create a “master deck” and use parts of it for specific purposes (e.g., a short sales presentation, a long one, an investor pitch or a partner briefing). By setting up links on the first slide, for example, the presenter can pick the type of presentation appropriate for the situation. Another application is to create “details” custom shows that you can use if the audience wants (you guessed it) more details on a particular topic.

Access the custom show feature in the Slide Show tab (Custom Slide Show); use New… to select slides for a particular custom show.

Some additional notes:

  • These techniques are also applicable for a “kiosk” application where the viewer navigates through a sales or instructional presentation.
  • It’s important that your presenter practice with the navigation and the pointing tool. Of course, rehearsals are vital in any case.
  • Be careful when you update presentations with navigation so that you preserve the links and order.

Added:  The links are generally pretty stable; however, if you insert slides from another presentation, you will need to re-check the links (along with fonts, colors, etc.).

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