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Diving into Acrobat: Making a PDF Presentation

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If you ever make presentations to groups of people and are looking to escape from the “Universal PowerPoint Look,” check out Acrobat as your presentation medium. Real typography, control, wonderful graphics, and a better standard of living can be yours just by reading Adobe expert John Deubert’s article. Really!
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When I’m not busy writing articles or arranging my bookshelves by author and publication date, I do a fair amount of public presentation, mostly teaching on-site classes. In a typical situation, I wander into the classroom with my laptop, connect said machine to a VGA projector, fire up my overheads file, and start talking. After class, I get an occasional pat on my back for my overheads; students notice they’re different and arguably better than most they’ve seen, though they usually can’t say why exactly.

The secret to my overhead success is that I don’t use PowerPoint. PowerPoint (and its Apple equivalent, Keynote) are almost inescapable in the world of public presentation; to an astonishing degree, PowerPoint has defined the look and feel of the slides used in the majority of classes, seminars, junior high school class president candidacy speeches, and nearly all other categories of public address.

On the other hand, I lay out my slides in InDesign (though I could have used any page layout or graphics software) and export them to a PDF file that I use in class. To my eyes (and generally to my students’), this yields much better-looking slides.

Why do I use PDF files for my presentations? Well, let me tell you. (And I’ll also show you what’s involved in doing so.)

So, Why PDF? Why Not Use PowerPoint? Everyone Else Does

Exactly.

PowerPoint is ubiquitous. Everyone seems to use PowerPoint for their presentations. The distinctive PowerPoint “look” is probably painfully familiar to you, everyone you know, and most strangers you meet. PowerPoint has its undeniable strengths; in particular, it makes it quick and easy to knock out a one-off set of slides for a presentation. Just whip out the software, choose a template, and start filling in your text and graphics. Easy! Fast! Unimaginative!

If I’m asked to make a presentation next week that I’ve never given before and will probably never do again, I’ll use PowerPoint (well, Apple’s Keynote, actually, which I prefer) to make my slides. It can’t be beat for making overheads on short notice.

However, most of the presentations I make are scheduled weeks in advance, so I have the time to do it right: Lay out the slides in InDesign, export to PDF, and show up at the presentation venue. Life is grand.

My reasons for doing this come down to two words: appearance and portability.

Appearance

I’m fussy about what my presentations look like. Mostly this has to do with text: I want the typography to be good; I want to touch up the character spacing if it looks ugly to my eye; I want to control exactly how text wraps around the graphics on my slides. Using PDF for my slides allows me this control.

Now, properly speaking, this has nothing directly to do with PDF; Acrobat is not a page layout package and offers me no convenient way of tweaking text layout. However, adopting PDF as my presentation file format lets me create my overheads with any graphics or page layout software I wish. As I said earlier, I use Adobe InDesign to make my slides; it gives me all the control and quality I need with some extras that are useful (such as making the occasional PDF button from right within the InDesign application). When I export my InDesign-designed slides to a PDF file, all of the typographic and graphical niceties remain intact. (So I don’t get nasty emails from QuarkXPress users, I’ll state for the record that you can do all this in QXP as well.)

Portability

I teach in a variety of places, all over the world. One of my deepest fears is that I will arrive on site, plug in my computer, and see smoke drift up from the keyboard. If my computer belly-ups, I suddenly have no course materials; I’ll spend a week standing in front of the class, juggling and telling stories from years as a CIA operative. (Note to CIA: just kidding.)

To prevent this, I travel with a copy of my course materials, including the PDF overheads file, on a thumb drive. If my computer goes to that Great Recycle Bin in the Sky, I can borrow a computer from my host, put the PDF file (and Adobe Reader, if necessary) onto the computer, and I’m set to go. Note that because PDF files are self-contained, I don’t have to worry about what fonts are installed on the alien computer; my overheads will look exactly the same as they would have on my own machine.

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