How-To Use the LaTeX Beamer Class for Great-Looking Presentations

In academia, LaTeX is a popular alternative to PowerPoint for presentations. In this how-to, I'll introduce you by example to the beamer class for creating presentation in LaTex. Using LaTex for this purpose has many advantages:

  • Present great-looking equations.
  • If you use LaTeX for your papers, you can easily reuse your equations and tables.
  • A more "professionnal" overall look.
  • Avoid compatibility problems when using computers other than your own. While you don't always know which PowerPoint version is going to be available (if any), you're almost sure to find a PDF reader. Just to be on the safe side, you can carry with you a standalone PDF reader like Sumatra PDF portable.

However, using LaTeX has limitations such as the lack of a user-friendly graphical interface and the impossibility to add media elements such as videos and animations. Furthermore, you have to say goodbye all those great transitions (just kidding, I hate transitions).

Before we start, if you are new to LaTeX I suggest you first have a look at Getting Started with LaTex.

To introduce you to the use of the beamer class, I will go throught a sample presentation:

\documentclass{beamer}

\usetheme[secheader]{Boadilla}
\usecolortheme{seahorse}
\usepackage[latin1]{inputenc}

These commands tell the TeX engine that the document is going to be a beamer presentation. To see what other themes and colorthemes are available, check out the beamer class user guide [PDF].

\title{My Nice Presentation}
\author{Productive Scholar}
\date{March 12, 2008}
\institute[2008]{ECON 101}

\begin{document}

\frame{\titlepage}

Sets up the title frame. The author and the institute (here I put 2008, but it could be your university) appear on the bottom left corner of every frame.

\section[Outline]{}
\frame{\tableofcontents}

\section{Introduction}

\frame {
	\frametitle{First Frame}
	\begin{itemize}
		\item<1->One good argument
		\item<2->Another good argument, after one click
		\item<3->Last one, after another click
	\end{itemize}
}

The first two lines make the outline frame. The rest create a frame with three bullet points. This frame consists of three actual PDF pages. The first bullet point will appear on all three, the second one on the last two pages and the last one on the last page only. This way, when you "click" (advance one page), a new element appears. To control the page on which the item first appears, change the number in the \item<1-> tag.

\section{Next Section}

\subsection{First Sub Section}

\frame {
	\frametitle{Second Frame}
	This text will stay on all pages.
	\only<1>{
		\begin{itemize}
			\item<1->This will only appear on the first page
			\item<1->This is also only for the first page
		\end{itemize}
	}
	\only<2>{
		\begin{itemize}
			\item<2->This will only appear on the second page
		\item<2->This is also only for the second page
		\end{itemize}
      }
}

In this case the first two bullet point elements appear on the first page of the frame, and only on that one. The other two elements only appear on the second page. To limit a part of the frame to a specific page, put your LaTeX code inside brackets after a \only<#> tag, where # is the page number.

\subsection{Second Sub Section}

\frame {
	\frametitle{Last Frame}
	This is the last frame
}

\end{document}

One last frame and the document is complete.

This short example is only meant to get you started. To learn more advanced stuff, like creating hand-outs or designing your own themes, check out the beamer class user guide [PDF].

On Windows most people use Acrobat Reader for presentation, which is ok (except when an Auto-Update pops-up at the beginning of your prensentation). The free Foxit Reader is another alternative.

On Mac OS X my favorite PDF reader for presentations is Skim. It works great and even allows you to add nice (for those who like transitions) Keynote-like transitions to your presentations (it has to be the same transition for all frames though). I also use the free iRed Lite to control Skim with my Apple remote. [Update: The most recent version of Skim now has built-in support for the Apple remote.]

Please share your beamer tips and tricks in the comments!

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