With Sway, boring slideshows made easy

Sway screenshot

One of the most reviled pieces of software on earth comes from Microsoft Corp., and I’m not talking about Windows. Well, maybe Windows 8, but never mind.

My candidate is PowerPoint, Microsoft’s venerable program for creating slide shows that get projected onto video screens in boardrooms, meeting rooms and hardened military bunkers the world over. For 25 years, millions have spent countless hours assembling tedious PowerPoint shows, or sitting through them. For many, the resulting misery has congealed into hatred. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint at his company; Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter tells his generals to shut it off.

To read this column in Sway, click here.

But for many others, PowerPoint remains the best way to present heaps of visual data to large groups. So there have been many attempts to improve on it. The latest comes from Microsoft itself. For some reason the company calls the new software Sway, and while it’s no defense against dull slideshows, it’s a pretty handy way to create them.

Sway isn’t intended as a PowerPoint replacement. Instead, it’s a sleek, simple and free Internet-based service that lets amateurs slap together attractive presentations or simple websites with a minimum of effort and store them online. The tough decisions about “look and feel,” which can take time to sort out in PowerPoint, are mostly automated here, and to good effect.

You can use Sway inside a Web browser, by going to Sway.com and logging in with a free Microsoft account. Also, there’s a Sway app for Apple iOS devices and for computers running Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system. Versions for Android devices will come later, and even Microsoft’s own Windows Phones don’t have a Sway app yet.

With Sway, Microsoft is playing catch-up. Similar online presentation programs have been around for years. Perhaps the best is Prezi, available at prezi.com. This service uses templates that generate a map of your entire presentation. You can put all your slides on a single screen, then use the mouse to zoom in on any one of them, to add text, images or photos. It’s a smart, attractive approach.

Sway’s more conservative toolkit uses digital cards that aren’t too different from the blank slides in PowerPoint. These cards can be filled with text, photos and clip art, much of it borrowed from other locations on the Web. The software has built-in links to OneCloud, Microsoft’s answer to the Dropbox cloud storage service. You can also plug in content from your Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as YouTube videos and audio files from the Soundcloud streaming service. The Windows 10 version of Sway lets you save the presentation to a laptop for viewing when you’re offline, but you’ll lose access to cloud-based music and video.

Sway’s best feature identifies relevant visual content before you ask for it. When I titled one presentation “A Trip To Chicago,” Sway immediately displayed videos and still images of the Windy City. It’s also smart enough to avoid violating copyright laws; Sway only delivers images that are free to non-commercial users.

Using your own photos is slightly more complicated. Since Sway is based in the Internet cloud, you must upload your pictures, then add them to the presentation.

Sway automatically lays out and animates the presentation. You can choose from a handful of fonts and backgrounds, and decide whether your slides will scroll from side to side or top to bottom. Sway handles the rest, and pretty well. If you don’t like the software’s first layout choice, there’s a “remix” button that instantly overhauls your presentation, sometimes quite radically. Keep pressing till you like what you see.

Completed Sways are stored in your online account, where you can share them with anybody, and display them on any connected device. The online service reformats them instantly for tablets, iPhones, Androids or desktop computers, so presentations look good on any device.

Assuming they looked good in the first place. That’s a matter of taste and good judgment, and too many slideshow designers have neither. PowerPoint doesn’t bore people; people bore people. Too many PowerPoint users merely type up a rehash of their talking points and adorn it with gaudy graphics and goofy animations, to produce a tooth-grinding waste of the viewers’ time.

These dullards can do just as much damage with Sway, perhaps more, because it’s so easy to use. Lots of us inwardly groan when the lights go down and the PowerPoint show begins. In a few years, we may feel the same about Sway, but it won’t be Microsoft’s fault.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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