Animation for a Reason

A lot of people really hate PowerPoint animation.  You’ve probably complained (or heard complaints) about the distraction caused by random fly-ins and spinning logos.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore animation because it is perceived as motion.  We are visual animals and are extremely sensitive to perceived motion because it has historically been a matter of simple survival.  That motion in your peripheral vision may be a predator.  Or prey.  Or it will tell you the difference between a snake and a stick.

Like some other PowerPoint features, there is a lot of opportunity for excess with animation.  Meaningless motion and other random effects are very distracting for the same reasons that rational animation can be powerful.

PowerPoint is not very helpful in this area – the designers have included a lot of effects that are “cool” and may tempt you to use them, just because you can.  Keep a clear head, dear reader, and animate for a reason.  Who needs a heart-shaped motion path? Or a “boomerang” entrance effect?

But, there are some good reasons to use animation:

Progressive disclosure

We agree with nearly everybody else that slides packed with text, complex diagrams and spreadsheets overwhelm the audience.  Even after merciless editing, the slide may be hard to digest in one piece.  Why not show it a step at a time while the presenter explains each piece?  Using simple animation for this “progressive disclosure” (or “chunking”) can improve the audience’s comprehension and avoid overload.

In my experience, some people (15%?) are impatient with progressive disclosure.  Some of these complaints come from people already know the material (e.g., your colleagues); since these are not likely to be the people you need to convince, you may be able to politely ignore these criticisms.
The problem, of course, is that these people will read ahead and you will lose their attention.  On the other hand, you don’t have to present material serially; you can show brief top level points and then fill in the details.
In situations where your target decision maker is impatient, you may need to re-strategize your presentation or not make a formal presentation at all.

If you employ animation for progressive disclosure, use simple uniform effects (I use Wipe/From Left or Top/Very Fast almost exclusively for text).  Objects spinning and flying from various directions will distract the audience and negate any advantage from progressive disclosure.

Of course, don’t limit this technique to text; progressive disclosure of diagrams, Excel “charts” (graphs) and other graphical material is effective.  Again, use simple effects (e.g., Fade or Wipe) with short durations to avoid distraction.

Explaining and demonstrating

If pictures are worth a thousand words, moving pictures must be worth more.  In sales, showing how your widget works, how it is made and how it connects to your customer’s world is much easier if you build, demonstrate or connect the widget graphically.  Try animations of technology, relationships and processes, including software.  Show how your system interacts with the customer’s work flow, for example

For demonstrations, select animation effects that are meaningful in the context; for example, a Motion Path can be used to show information flow.

Emphasis

A big challenge in presentation design is managing attention.  Part of this is emphasis: drawing the audience’s attention to a point.  Motion is a very effective way to do this:  flying or zooming in an object is clearly more attention-getting than any combination of boldface or colored text.

Of course, emphasis (and a lot of other effects) looses its impact if it is overdone.  Restraint, restraint.

Visual metaphors

Animated graphics are an interesting way to avoid boring bullets.  You can actually show rising up, falling down, crumbling, growing, shrinking, fading away, spinning out of control, locking into place, exploding and dozens of other memorable visual metaphors.

Managing Complexity

Many PowerPoint gurus advise simplicity but sometimes complexity can’t be avoided.  Many products and services are fairly complicated and must be explained to show benefits and differentiators.  The challenge is to present complex material simply, within the restrictions of a good presentation.

Zooming and “panning’ can help show complexity while maintaining legibility and avoiding over-crowding.  (This topic will get a separate post).

Caveats

Don’t expect to become a full-blown animator with PowerPoint; the tools are fairly crude and some common movie effects can only be approximated (e.g., “morphing” or 3D).  Other effects (e.g., a walking figure) are just too much work.  Since animated sequences, like everything else in your presentation, will be edited several times, you might want to avoid complex combinations.  On the other hand, as your skills improve, you will be more comfortable with more complicated animations.

I have sometimes tried to postpone the work involved in animations by providing a “storyboard” which includes content but only indicates animation (like the storyboard used by filmmakers), the idea being to get approval before investing the work in animation or graphics.

This has never worked very well; usually, clients are not used to visualizing graphics and effects.  The best approach is to practice your skills until you can create rough presentations and make changes quickly.

Overall, I am convinced that animation is a powerful visual tool that can improve the effectiveness of presentations.  But use it for a reason and don’t let your creativity exceed the capability of PowerPoint.

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8 Responses to “Animation for a Reason”


  1. 1 Ellen Finkelstein July 2, 2010 at 12:39 am

    You came up with a very thorough list for good use of animation, more than I had thought of. However, I do want to add one more — for entertainment. Some presentations are meant to be entertainment, or have an entertaining component. Let’s hope text flying in will soon be a thing of the past!

    • 2 pptcrafter July 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks for your knowledgeable comment, Ellen.

      I find the “entertainment” component useful but tricky in business situations. It’s hard to walk the line between frivolous and boring. Some business people (especially technologists) are very suspicious of anything that suggests “marketing.”

      On the other hand, we should strive for engaging, compelling, attention-getting, etc…

  2. 3 Steve Hards July 3, 2010 at 7:40 am

    You clearly have a lot of experience of ‘getting you hands dirty’ constructing presentations for other people and you tackled issues that other writers often skip over. Well explained too. Do you have a background as a teacher?

  3. 5 Sean March 21, 2014 at 6:47 am

    I use animation to demonstrate/explain biological processes which are very effective but boy oh boy do they take a lot of time. I reuse the slides fairly often so it’s not so bad an investment but you can easily spend hours on less than a minute’s animation. I wish MS would put more effort into development of the animation features and less into redesigning the interface/ribbon/icons. There’s essentially no reason to update from Office 2010 to 2013 in my opinion. It’s pretty disappointing for three-years development.

    • 6 pptcrafter March 21, 2014 at 1:52 pm

      Sean – I agree. I would also point to long-standing bugs and lack of integration in PowerPoint. Microsoft gets press (and competition) in the user interface area and spends little to improve quality and functionality.


  1. 1 Animated Icons in PowerPoint | powerpointy Trackback on July 30, 2013 at 12:45 pm
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