In the last post, I have written about existing tools for creating technically-oriented slides and what I dislike about them. TLDR version:

  • WYSIWYG tools (e.g. PowerPoint) require a lot of manual and repetitive work, don’t support syntax highlighting very well, don’t provide proper tools to precisely draw complex visuals and animations, and they can’t be easily put under source control.
  • Declarative tools (e.g. Beamer or reveal.js) are much better, as they have solid support for syntax highlighting, they can draw complex visuals and animations (especially Beamer) and they and are easily versionable. However, neither of their declarative languages (LaTeX nor HTML) provides me with the level of flexibility that I ultimately want for creating complex slides.

What I’d like to have is a tool that gives me ultimate control of everything on a slide when I need it, but at the same time provides reasonable defaults for creating simple things for which I don’t need fine-grained control.

Now if only there was a way to tell the computer to do exactly what I want, with the option to abstract common scenarios into concise commands to avoid verbosity when performing simple tasks? :thinking: Well, I’m a programmer, and this sure sounds a lot like programming! So why not simply write a program that will generate the slides for me?

Programmable slides

You could argue that the declarative tools that I have talked about (Beamer and reveal.js) are already “sort of” programmable. I don’t want to get into an argument whether LaTeX and HTML are programming languages, but for me, there is still quite a large gap between a declarative language like HTML and an imperative language like, say, Python.

Imagine for a moment that instead of clicking on text boxes in PowerPoint or writing LaTeX/HTML markup, you would create slides by writing a computer program in an imperative programming language, ideally using some slide API/library to make your job easier.

It might sound a bit silly at first, but if you think about it, programmers already create programs that present data to users all the time (think of websites, mobile/desktop apps, etc.). So why don’t we also use programming languages to create slides for presentations?

Existing tools for programming slides

Now, there are certainly people who thought of this concept before. There is a Python library called python-pptx, which is basically an API for building PowerPoint presentations. While that’s truly great if you like PowerPoint (or if you are forced to use it), it doesn’t solve its many issues. Creating complex animations and visuals, having pretty syntax highlighted source code snippets or rendering math symbols and equations with LaTeX-level quality will still be difficult, even if you use this library. It is however a step in the right direction and if it wasn’t PowerPoint-specific, and it contained some high-level functionality (such as a layout model or built-in support for syntax highlighting), I think that it could support most of my use cases.

There is also an API for creating Google Slides. Similar limitations as for PowerPoint apply here, and the slides must be created using a JSON object, which is… less than ideal for anything complex.

I couldn’t find any other tools for creating slides programmatically (other than some other libraries for creating PowerPoint slides). If you know of any other such tools, please let me know on Reddit!

Elsie

A few years ago, one of my colleagues was frustrated of having to deal with the existing solutions for creating slides with a lot of technical content (code snippets, complex diagrams and animations, math symbols etc.). He decided to solve this problem by creating Elsie, a Python library which allows the user to create slides programmatically. It provides basic building blocks (such as text blocks, images, code snippets, shapes, lists, etc.) that can be combined to create slides. Internally, it transforms these building blocks to SVG and then renders the SVG slides to PDF.

We have been using it internally for several years, and we find it so useful that lately we have decided to write a proper documentation for it and share it with others. I won’t be explaining Elsie in detail in this post, but just to give you an idea of how it looks, here is a simple hello world example:

import elsie

# Create a new presentation
slides = elsie.SlideDeck()

# Create a new slide
slide = slides.new_slide()
# Draw some text on the slide
slide.text("Hello world!")

# Render the slides to PDF
slides.render("slides.pdf")

You import the library, create some slides and then render them to a PDF file. There is no DSL or anything like that, it’s all just Python. You call functions, use variables, conditions, loops, etc. to build your slides.

Elsie has a lot of useful features, such as syntax highlighting, a layout model, or a powerful revealing system. It can also render LaTeX or Markdown and you can use it to create your slides interactively in Jupyter. You can find a guide how to install and use Elsie in its documentation.

However, for me, the ultimate feature of Elsie is simply the fact that it makes slide creation programmable. This is a big paradigm shift that has changed the way I approach creating slides, as it lets me do things that simply wouldn’t be possible (or would be much more difficult) in other (WYSIWYG or declarative) tools.

I’ll now try to present some use-cases to demonstrate why it might be a good idea to create slides programmatically. I will be showing some Python code snippets using Elsie, but they will mostly serve as pseudocode to demonstrate why slide programmability can be useful. Therefore, if you know basics of Python, you should be fine even if you don’t know the Elsie API.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that the following use-cases are impossible in declarative or WYSIWYG tools. Just try to think about how difficult it would be to achieve them in your favourite slide making tool.

Avoiding repetitive tasks

Programming is incredibly useful for making repetitive tasks easier, and this also applies to making presentations. Here are some examples of situations where programmability can help avoid doing tasks manually or e.g. copy-pasting things all over your presentation.

Changing style quickly

Say that you want to quickly change the font (or its size, color, etc.) of all the text boxes in your presentation, to see what style looks best. Or you might want to change the style of a specific category of text boxes (e.g. all footnotes or headings). Or worse, right before your presentation, you realize that the projector’s aspect ratio (4:3/16:9) or the room’s lightning conditions (light/dark) do not match your slides, and you have to change the style ASAP.

Declarative tools can handle these changes relatively easily. WYSIWYG editors too, to a certain extent, but it requires a lot of discipline by the user to e.g. use shared styles (if the tool supports them). If you are not disciplined, you will need to resort to going through each slide one by one and painfully changing the desired style by hand.

With programmable slides, the default font size, color theme, slide dimensions, etc. can simply be variables, which are then used by the rest of the code that creates the slides. In that case, if you need to change something, just modify the value of the variable (usually a single line change), execute your program, and you will get a new version of your slides immediately.

# A shared style is just a variable
color = "black"
...
slide1 = slides.new_slide(bg_color=color)
...
slideX = slides.new_slide(bg_color=color)

What if you want to change the font size of only selected (categories of) text boxes? Just create more variables! For example, you can create a separate text style for each text box category, to be able to change the style of all the texts with the same category easily.

default = elsie.TextStyle(size=30)
# Changing this style will change the style of all footnotes
footnote = elsie.TextStyle(size=20, italic=True)
...
slide.text("Foo bar[^1]", style=default)
slide.text("1: This is a footnote", style=footnote)

TLDR: Variables can be useful for creating slides.

Avoiding needless copy-paste

I often like to show an outline of my presentation (especially if it’s long). However, if you only show the outline at the beginning, the listener will probably forget its contents after the next few slides. Therefore, I tend to show the outline repeatedly during the presentation and highlight the next section that I will be presenting. Something like this:

Fragment: 1

You can use the buttons to change individual slides (called fragments here). Imagine that I want to show the outline, then some content, then the outline again, etc.

This means that I need to render the same slide (outline) several times, but each time with a slight change (a different section will be highlighted). Now, if only there was a way to perform one thing repeatedly with different parametrizations, but without copy-pasting it. In programming languages, this is usually called calling a function. :slightly_smiling_face: I can just create a function that will receive (an empty) slide and a name of the current section, and it will render the outline on the slide and highlight the selected section. The implementation is not really important, so I’ll just show the function interface and its usage:

def draw_outline(slide, active_section):
    # render outline on the given slide
    # highlight the active section
    ...


draw_outline(slides.new_slide(), "Section A")
draw_section_a(slides)
draw_outline(slides.new_slide(), "Section B")
draw_section_b(slides)
draw_outline(slides.new_slide(), "Section C")
...

This is of course a general concept, useful not only for outlines. Everytime you need to draw something multiple times (perhaps in a slightly different way each time), you can just put it in a function, parametrize it and call it in multiple slides.

You can also use loops to create e.g. grids or clusters of items on a slide with just a few lines of code.

TLDR: Functions and loops can be useful for creating slides.

Automating slide creation

If your slides are generated by a program, you can generate slides based on data from all sorts of dynamic sources in an automated way, to (again) avoid painful manual work.

Once I was preparing slides for a training, and I wanted to show a slide with several IP addresses of virtual machines to which the trainees could connect to. Running (cloud-based) virtual machines can be quite expensive, so I wanted to boot the machines right before the presentation. However, the IP addresses of the machines were dynamic, so I couldn’t just hardcore them into the slides e.g. the day before the training.

Because my slides were programmable, I created a function which used the API of the cloud provider to download the IP addresses of currently running machines1. My slide program could then use this function to get the current IP addresses and draw them on a slide everytime the program was executed. Then I just executed my program right before the training started and immediately got the updated slides, without the need to copy the IP addresses to my presentation manually.

More generally, if you can generate slides by a program, you can use it to automate creating work/performance/publication reports, charts etc. You can e.g. create a whole pipeline that will run some experiment or benchmark, collect the results, postprocess them into charts and summaries and directly render them into a nice presentation2.

I think that tools like python-pptx were created mostly for this purpose. Elsie gives you both automation and useful building blocks for technical presentations (the latter is mostly missing in PowerPoint).

Parametrizing slides

By automating slide creation, you can also easily create different versions of your presentation, for different use-cases. When I was preparing the slides for my Meeting C++ talk, I was a bit afraid that my live demo (presented inside an IDE) wouldn’t work for some reason. To stay on the safe side, I decided to create two versions of my slides. One with additional screenshots of code that I prepared beforehand (if there were problems with the demo) and another one without the screenshots (if the demo worked fine).

Because my slides were built by a program, achieving this was fairly trivial. I simply created a (boolean) variable that controlled which version should be rendered, and inserted the screenshots into my slides only if the variable was set. My program then rendered two versions of the slides into two PDF files, once with the flag set and once with the flag unset3.

Creating complex visuals and animations

For me, this is probably the biggest benefit of having an imperative language available for creating slides. Image that you want to put some complex drawing, diagram or an animation into your slides. Without specifying the context of the following animations4 (it’s not really important here), let’s say that you want to draw something like this:

Fragment: 1

or this:

Fragment: 1

These are the sorts of things that truly shine in a technical presentation and can often explain some concept much better than a single static image. I can’t really imagine how would I create these animations in PowerPoint or reveal.js. They could probably be created in Beamer, but for me, it’s much easier to create them using Python rather than using TikZ.

If creating such animations with a program is more exhausting for you than simply drawing them by hand, Elsie also lets you create such animations from manually drawn SVG or ORA images, using a naming convention.

Conclusion

I hope that these examples have demonstrated to you that it might make sense to create slides programmatically in certain scenarios. Of course, not even this solution is perfect. There are use-cases (such as very simple slides), where using a DSL, a declarative language or a WYSIWYG editor will probably always be quicker and easier than coding. And there is also the elephant in the room, that you need to have some basic programming skills in order to leverage programmable slides at all.

As for me, for most of my use-cases nowadays, I will first reach for programmable slides before WYSIWYG editors or declarative tools. And since Elsie is the only practical tool that I know of to make programmable slides with technical content, it is also my favourite slide making tool :)

So, if you know Python, but you’re still creating slides manually, check out Elsie to level-up your slide-fu. And let me know what you think about programmable presentations on Reddit.

  1. Now that I think of it, the function could have also outright started the machines! :smile: 

  2. And then it can e-mail the PDF to your boss, so that you don’t have to do anything anymore. 

  3. My demo has worked fine, but I’d be really glad to have the backup version if it didn’t! 

  4. Can you guess what do these animations demonstrate? :slightly_smiling_face: