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Tech & Innovation
NOV 29, 2016

Can AI Help Us Create Better Presentations?

By Darren Menabney
iStock photo/metamorworks

Recently, after giving a TEDx talk, I was told that my presentation was inspiring, courageous, beautiful, funny, and a little unconvincing. Good feedback overall, I thought. But what was most memorable about that review was that it didn’t come from a human.

In his lab at the University of Tokyo, Professor Toshihiko Yamasaki has developed a machine-learning system that runs sentiment analysis on a presenter’s words, voice, and tone. It then gives feedback by scoring the presentation against a database of how viewers rated videos on TED.com. My speech was evaluated against the TED Talk archive, according to 14 separate categories Yamasaki pinpointed, including how “courageous,” “long-winded,” and “jaw-dropping” it was.

Yamasaki originally developed the system to give speakers an opportunity to receive objective feedback and improve their delivery, though he admits he may have had a personal motive, too.“I thought it would be great if AI could train new students for me,” he explained. Yamasaki’s goal is to ultimately make the system operate in real time, giving a speaker instant sentiment-analysis on how they sound over the course of a presentation.

“I thought it would be great if AI could train new students for me,” he explained. Yamasaki’s goal is to ultimately make the system operate in real time, giving a speaker instant sentiment-analysis on how they sound over the course of a presentation.

But his platform is just one of a handful of machine-learning and AI systems that are working toward that objective. In fact, there’s a quiet revolution going on in the world of presentations and public speaking. If it succeeds, it may be no time before we’re all planning, designing, and fine-tuning our presentations with help from AI.

PowerPoint On Demand

Wouldn’t it be great to feed a rough outline of tomorrow’s sales presentation into an AI-driven platform and have it create the slides for you? Several startups, such as Zuru and SlideBot, are already working on this, using technology to replicate the expertise of a human designer and build more compelling slide decks. Typically, these take an existing PowerPoint file and deploy different forms of AI to pull out key messages. Then they populate the slides with images they search for based on slide keywords and automatically apply design rules to format them.

Unfortunately, so far, the one thing that seems to be consistent is inconsistent results. One slide may get a message across beautifully, pulling keywords correctly from the presentation with  great formatting and perfectly chosen images, while the next slide comes out with an ugly bullet-pointed list or frighteningly inappropriate image.

They also share an aesthetic. The slides Zuru and SlideBot churn out tend to be of the Presentation Zen style :  big fonts, minimal text, and full-bleed photos as backgrounds. They tend to have a certain sameness, suggesting visual variety isn’t these tools’ strongest suit. What’s more, charts and tables need to be created manually in both platforms, and formatting options are limited. Fortunately, both Zuru and SlideBot allow you to export and download the slides for further editing.

While machine-learning slide design may still be in its infancy, it’s clear where the technology is heading. In the meantime, the best use for these applications is individual slides, rather than full decks.

Reshaping Presentation Tech

Some AI-backed presentation tools have shown vast improvements even within the space of a few months. Of course, they’re supposed to. By definition, machine-learning platforms learn: the more often you use them for a task, the better they get at it. So the more a human user manually tweaks the slides that an AI tool spits out, the less tweaking they’ll need over time.

We’re still in the early days of this technology. Haiku Deck has been around since 2010, but Zuru was born only in 2015, as was SlideBot. New startups are coming into this space, getting modest financing of a few million dollars apiece. But they all share a similar goal: to carve a space out of the enterprise productivity market, which has been forecast to clock in at some $58 billion by the end of this year. Whether smaller players focused just on the presentation niche can compete with AI heavyweights like Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Google, and IBM is an open question, but so far, they’re holding their own.

On the other hand, it may be only a matter of time before Google hooks up Assistant to Slides, Apple connects Siri to Keynote, or Microsoft links Cortana to PowerPoint. Speak to it and tell it what you want your slides to look like, and the AI will create it for you. The race is already on, and the competition is tightening.

Adam Tratt, CEO and cofounder of Haiku Deck, says the actual technology to make these integrations already exists. “It’s just a question of who puts the pieces together in a way that’s elegant and transformational, such that it feels like magic.” Bringing users that magic will be a huge service, whoever does it first.

This article originally appeared in Fast Company’s Leadership section