Animation might be single-handedly responsible for more PowerPoint annoyance than all the other annoyances combined. Between Edward Tufte and Dilbert creator Scott Adams, PowerPoint animation is publicly flogged more often than our politicians are.
And at the same time, when done correctly, animation isn’t noticed at all. It’s not unlike being a major league baseball umpire, who gets no respect for doing a good job.
Indeed, good PowerPoint animation is so seamless that you are unaware of it. It reaches its zenith when it allows audience members to become lost in the story you are telling.
I approach this posting with the same fear and trepidation that I do our seminars on the topic at the Presentation Summit, our annual conference for the presentation industry. I know that your appetite for the subject is insatiable, and that your zeal could send you across the bounds of good taste a few times. And when that happens, it’s my fault. I’m helping you commit Death by PowerPoint. So please repeat after me:
- I will use custom animation wisely and appropriately.
- I vow not to offend the sensibilities of my audience.
- I promise not to use an animation technique simply because I just discovered it.
- I swear never to make stuff move on screen just because I like to watch my audience members’ heads bob and weave like zombies.
Wisely and Appropriately
Good animation promotes increased understanding and appreciation of a topic. It calls attention to the topic, not the tool. I sometimes wish that the function were called not animation, but “sequencing,” as that is more descriptive of the higher purpose of animation.
The image below shows a chart that can greatly benefit from well-conceived use of animation. This chart looks at the time requirements of an email campaign and the relative merits of doing it yourself or using an outside service to assist you.
There are two things that are noteworthy about this data: 1) If you use an outside service, the time required is the same, irrespective of whether you send out a handful or an ocean full of emails; and 2) the time required to send out 10,000 emails by yourself is literally off the charts—we created that bar outside of the graph to illustrate that.
Proper animation of this chart can make a world of difference to your audience’s appreciation of the point you are trying to make. Most content creators recognize that something should be done to charts like this, but they don’t think it through—so instead, they give the entire chart some weird animation, like a box in, or diamond out, or those Venetian blind thingies.
Calling attention to the chart is not necessary; it’s the only thing on the slide. What is needed here is to direct attention, and that requires more thought. If using an outside service requires 10 minutes irrespective of quantity, that becomes the baseline for the point to be made. Show all of those at once, instead of showing the data in pairs across the five quantities.
Once that point has been driven home, then you can turn the audience’s attention to the task of sending out the emails without outside assistance. Each of those five bars in the graph can be introduced on a click, the last one set on a long slow wipe from bottom to top for drama and comic relief.
Several good things happen when you use animation this way:
Your audience really gets it: I’m a big believer in separating form and content to promote understanding. Offering up the empty chart is a great way to prepare your audience for what they are about to see.
You control the pace: Charts are usually displayed too quickly, leaving audience members with the feeling that they’re drinking from a fire hose. If you suspect that members of your audience are not clear on what it is you’re about to show them, you can wait until they understand before continuing.
You become more confident: You have control of your audience in the palm of your hand (perhaps literally, if you use a wireless remote). Without being too crass about it, this position of advantage will likely manifest itself in a positive way.
You create trust: This is a great way for you to bond with them, by assuring them that you are not going to hurry them through data-heavy content. PowerPoint audiences are so often on guard in case a presenter does something ridiculous with animation or obnoxious with content, it’s amazing that they remember anything. Give them a soft landing with a heavy slide and they’ll remember it. They’ll relax and be more receptive to your ideas.
With that example under your belt, think about how you might animate the infographic below, a progression of prices based on level of service.
If you throw it all out there at once, you jeopardize potential impact, understanding, and appreciation. Furthermore, you will have to play catch-up and will likely find yourself explaining the slide more than sharing your ideas.
Instead, show your audience the continuum of pricing first, without offering any specifics. They’ll get it right away: it’s going to be a comparison of services, based on price. Now bring in each price point, one by one, speaking to it as you go. This is the kind of pace that promotes understanding and appreciation.
Oh, and once you determine how best to sequence your data, don’t blow it by choosing some screwball animation choice. Pick Fade, Wipe, or maybe Ascend, but resist all temptation to pick one that causes objects to move across the slide. That commands attention to a degree that has you crying wolf. Just use Fade and call it a day.
With any project that offers dense content, your use of animation must pass a litmus test of necessity. Is it needed, is it helpful, will there be benefit? If you can’t answer yes to these, the animation fails the litmus test and shouldn’t be used.
Even if it passes this litmus test, continue to scrutinize its use, asking yourself repeatedly what would be the best sequence, the best pace, and the best animation choice to create a blended and seamless presentation of an otherwise complicated topic.
You do that and you use animation in the best way. And if you do that, you distinguish your presentation visuals from just about all others out there today.