Animation in PowerPoint: Basic Principles

Posted on January 14, 2013 in Creating Rapport, Editing Slides, Slide Content, Slide Design, Technical PowerPoint Help, The Key to Make a Successful Presentation, Tips & Tricks by Toke Kruse

  • SumoMe

What comes to mind when you see the word “animation?” Maybe a vintage Bugs Bunny short or a full-length feature, such as Ratatouille or WALL-E. In the context of business presentations, animation refers to motion added to computer graphics. This movement can involve either an entire slide or the visual elements within a slide. In animation, these elements move onto or off the screen; or shift within the screen; or grow, shrink, change, or vanish.

We’ve all seen varying degrees of electronic animation in business, from the sophisticated sequences that appear on websites to the equally sophisticated presentations at industry conferences and trade shows, many of them worthy of Disney or Pixar. Often, even conventional prepackaged corporate pitches have screen effects that rival the production values of the big-tent special events.

Most of these examples of animation are created by professional graphic artists and technicians using complex software, such as Adobe Director or Flash. Professional artists also use Adobe Photoshop to render objects and images in vivid, opulent detail for animation as well as for conventional presentations.

For the rest of us, the vast universe of consumers, there is Microsoft PowerPoint, which is installed on hundreds of millions of computers that churn out 30 million presentations per day.

This ubiquitous software, launched in 1987, has been growing its market share with each successive release, and now it is standard operating procedure for business presentations. How often have you been asked to send someone a copy of your PowerPoint slides? How often have you sat next to someone on an airplane clicking through his or her slide show? PowerPoint has also reached beyond business into our daily lives. Even elementary schoolchildren use it expertly.

But why use animation at all? As a conservative businessperson, you might think that animation is irrelevant, frivolous, or unnecessary. “I’m not up there to entertain people,” you might say. “When I’m making a presentation, people just want the facts, plain and simple. Fancy animated PowerPoint backgrounds will just take away from my message.”

You may be right – at least in some cases. Any visual aid, including animated PowerPoint backgrounds, can indeed become a visual hindrance when it’s misused, resulting in distraction, annoyance, or confusion in your audience. So it is with animation. But any sword can cut both ways.

The word “animation” comes from the Latin root anima, which means “spirit” or “life,” just as the word “animated” describes a lively or energetic person. Animating the graphics in your presentation can add a sense of spirit and life to what might otherwise be a flat visual display.

Even more important, well-designed and appropriately applied animation can actually enhance your message. Just as you can create text, pictorial, numeric, and relational slides to express your important concepts, you can also strengthen that expression by adding animation to bring graphic objects on or off the screen meaningfully.

Perception Psychology

The operative rule for designing animation effects, including animated PowerPoint backgrounds, goes back to Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s “Less Is More” principle. Simplicity is the watchword for the graphics in any presentation, and that applies to animation as well. Moreover, whenever motion is involved, we must also keep in mind the cultural, psychological, and neurological factors that influence how people perceive and process visual cues.

Text in Western languages (including English) is printed from left to right. These predispositions have a profound impact on how ail human beings – including presentation audiences – perceive visual stimuli. Whenever our eyes move from left to right, the information we absorb feels natural, normal, smooth, easy, and positive. Many of the visual arts follow this same path:

▪ On the stage, protagonists usually move to the right (sympathetic movement), and villains move to the left (asympathetic).

▪ In the cinema, a pan to the right is positive and fluid; a pan to the left is negative and drags.

▪ In heraldry (the design of coats of arms), a crest that has a diagonal bar slanting down to the right is known as a bar dexter (from the Latin dexter, meaning right) and is said to represent legitimate members of a family. A crest that has a diagonal bar slanting down to the left is known as a bar sinister (from the Latin sinister, meaning left) and is said to represent a bastard.

Even language echoes our innate preference for the right side: “dexterous” means skillful or capable, whereas “sinister” means evil or malevolent.

For these reasons, if you want your presentation audience to feel positive about your ideas, your animation should follow the natural, reflexive eye movement: left to right. Of course, if you want to send a negative message – say, about your competition – you should reverse direction, and move your objects right to left. But do it deliberately; don’t send mixed signals by delivering a positive message about you or your business by making a negative move.

In addition to these innate emotional factors, your audience’s eyes are also driven by their highly light-sensitive optic nerves. When motion occurs on the presentation screen, the audience looks at the moving image involuntarily. If that movement is counter to the message you are trying to convey, you will confuse the audience for an instant. Such instants can build into a giant MEGO at best, or complete resistance to your ideas at worst. (“MEGO,” by the way, is short for “my eyes glaze over” – meaning “supremely boring,” or “way to technical for me to understand.”) If the movement supports your message, your audience will stay with you and be more receptive to your ideas.

Cinematic Techniques

In cinema, directors and editors use the camera and a montage of camera shots to express the emotional qualities of a story. The movement of subjects in front of the camera and the movement of the camera itself, along with the juxtaposition of the shots, can create either positive or negative feelings. In a romantic movie, when long-separated lovers finally come together in an embrace, the scene is likely to be filmed in long, smooth, flowing shots, conveying sensuality and abandon. In a cops-and-robbers drama, a car chase is usually captured in sharp angles and edited with short, rapid cuts, creating tension. In a western, when a wagon train of settlers moves across the screen, the camera slowly draws back from a close-up until the entire panorama of the prairie is visible, expressing the vast challenge of their journey. And in a suspenseful murder mystery, when the detective, searching for clues in a dark, empty house, suddenly hears a click, the camera quickly cuts to a close-up of a door handle, heightening the tension.

PowerPoints animations doesn’t offer the range and power of options available to a film director, but all of the techniques just described can be distilled into one a simple overarching principle:

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” (Shakespeare)


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