Mandela & the Powerpoint Junkie

What’s your favourite slide animation? Fade in? Zoom from centre? Push? Cartwheel? Everyone has their favourite, and most tend to over use it. Some are cool, some are stylish, but most are cheesy, and nearly all of them are unnecessary when it comes to making an impactful presentation. I didn’t always think like that though, and sometimes it’s hard to admit it. But I wasn’t the only one. We were all were the same. I promise. I feel I should start a club for old presentation designers called the AA. No, not for recovering Powerpoint junkies, Keynote addicts, or a Preziholics, but for recovering Animation Abusers. I’m told the best way to get over this is to talk about it. So here goes…

Once upon the time, a long time ago in a far off land when computers were beige, keyboards clicked and I had long hair, I used to use slide animations. Not just use them, but abuse them too. My clients thought they were great, they were getting added value, and I thought they looked cool.

I was happy in my ignorance – every now and then I got the chance to show off some fancy combination of animations that people had never seen before, and they would always say ‘Wow! Is this really Powerpoint?’. I would glow proudly, safe in the knowledge I was King of the PowerPoints – nobody could make a slide dance like I could.

Then one day, I learned a lesson. I was working on a presentation for a very senior guy who was about to be appointed as global chairman of a large multi-national. I’d spent about a week on it back in the UK before we jetted off to Cape Town (yes, everyone went abroad for the company conference in the old days!), working with his executive assistant on getting the messaging right and making it look good. His presentations were always great to work on as they were usually ‘big picture’ and it allowed me to stretch my presentation designer wings.

What I hadn’t figured was he hadn’t actually seen the presentation in ‘SlideShow’ mode before we got to rehearsal, he’d just seen it as a print-out he could flick through. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except that i’d added in a whole bunch of builds and animations. His first run through was a complete disaster! He had no idea where he was, what was going on and why someone had changed his presentation – I guess he was a pretty stressed guy, and he blew a fuse! Obviously all fingers pointed to me – and I didn’t feel too clever. However, I was King of the PowerPoints, so it only took a few minutes to fix and he was soon on his way again.

When it came to delivering his speech he proved to be exactly right. If he’d kept my builds and animations (even though they were quite subtle) it would have ruined his presentation. Most of them were what i’d call ‘cosmetic’ – they had no purpose other than to make it look pretty. He simply didn’t need them – he was an impressive presenter and if he’d stood there waiting for the animations to resolve, it would have broken his flow and disrupted his message.

As an aside, an even bigger lesson was learned from the next presenter. If you’ve ever seen this guy give a speech, you can’t be anything but awed by his presence and moved by his words. We’d been told in the morning that he was to be the special guest speaker, and the crew were all pretty excited. If you’ve ever worked with a production crew of any kind, be it in events, live music, TV production etc, you’ll know that they’re a pretty cynical bunch – used to seeing famous people and really not giving two hoots, so an excited crew is a rare event.

We were then told that his security detail were insisting that only essential crew remain backstage for his speech. The big question was, who was essential? I somehow managed to persuade the production manager that I was (they needed a logo on the screen from PowerPoint) so I could stay backstage. Then in walked 6 security guards (not the chubby kind in bad fitting uniforms that you see in shopping centres but very mean, lean fighting machines, each with a holstered pistol on view) followed by an old man in a silver & blue pattered shirt. Nelson Mandela walked into the room and everyone stopped dead. Instead of making his way directly onto the stage as planned, he made a point of walking upto each member of the crew, stopping, shaking their hand and for a brief moment making them feel like the most important person on the planet…a wonderful moment I’ll never forget! Then of course, he went on to deliver his speech, and it was masterful. He instinctively knew how to connect his stories with the audience and wrench at their emotions. By the time he’d finished, there was barely a person in the room without a tear in their eye or a lump in their throat.

So what was the second lesson I learned that day? Not only do great speakers not need animations, they don’t need slides either! Rather than talk about what it takes to become a speaker with the power to move your audience to tears, I’ll bring us back to the real world and continue talking about Animation Abuse.

The main argument for using animations that I’ve heard is that it makes the slides look interesting & more visually stimulating, ergo: the talk must be more interesting too. That doesn’t really work for me. If you need a word moving across the screen to make your talk interesting, then there is probably something fundamentally wrong with what you’re saying or how you’re saying it.

The argument against is more compelling. I guess it’s a matter of taste as to what constitutes a ‘stylish’ animation and what constitutes ‘cheesy’, so the danger if you use any animation is that half your audience will think you’re cool and the other half will think you’re an idiot, but ALL of them will be thinking about your animations and not what you’re talking about! It all goes back to the fundamental reason for having slides (or speaker support as it used to be known) in the first place. It’s there to help you get your message across, and to enhance your message when and where you need it.

A simple rule to remember is that using an animation will put the audience focus on the screen and not on you. There are times when you want this to happen, but for the most part, the focus should be on you, the presenter. So I’m not saying ‘Never use animations’, just be very careful how & when you use them.

There is often confusion as to what constitutes an ‘animation’ and what constitutes a ‘build’. The fundamental difference in my mind is that an animation has some kind of movement or visual action that is designed to catch your attention, a build is bringing an object onto the screen with the least amount of fuss and with the purpose of building up a bigger picture.

When should you use an Animation?

Quite simply, when it helps tell or punctuate your story. That’s it. No other reason will do. Let me give you some examples of appropriate use:

Message: Sales are rising month on month.
Appropriate Animation: Wipe from left on a line chart showing rising sales.

Message: We’re merging three departments into one.
Appropriate Animation: 3 small boxes merge on screen to form one larger box

I’ve also seen animations used for comedic effect, like something falling off the slide at an inappropriate moment, and I’ve seen animations used to draw the audiences attention to the screen because that’s where the presenter wants them to look for the moment.

When should you use a build?

When you have something that is complex to show or talk about, that would benefit from being broken down into bite sized chunks.

When shouldn’t you use an animation?

Ask yourself the same question – ‘Does it help tell my story?’ if the answer is ‘No’, then don’t use it.

On the topic of unnecessary animation, I was recently asked what I thought of Prezi, which makes a virtue of the fact that you can zoom around a ‘canvas’. My immediate reaction was that I didn’t use it any more, as there’s lots of unnecessary movement that doesn’t help with telling the story, but now I think that view is unfair.

Prezi suffers from the same basic problem as PowerPoint – bad design. When a Prezi is badly designed, it can make you feel sick or give you a headache, and when a PowerPoint is badly designed, it can send you to sleep! In the hands of a skilled presentation designer both can be effective. I was an early advocate of Prezi as it had a bit of ‘the emperors new clothes’ about it. I used it successfully on a number of pitches that needed to demonstrate innovative thinking, and at the time, most people hadn’t seen or heard of Prezi. Now there are a purported 5m users (well done Prezi!) I think that moment has passed. Would I incorporate Prezi into Present.Me to allow you to talk to a Prezi? Perhaps, if enough people asked, and the kind people at Prezi were to open up their API, I think it could be an interesting mash-up. Which then begs the question, will we allow PowerPoint animations on Present.Me too?

So, there you have it. Slide animations are a thing of the past – as far as i’m concerned they can sit in The PowerPoint Vaults of History along with bevelled edges, drop shadows and graduated text fills!





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