Making Meaningful Use of Transitions in PowerPoint


Transitional effects are often regarded as unnecessary or as outright distractions. However, when used purposefully, they can yield tangible benefits for your presentation, from giving it a professional finish using functional transitions to using narrative transitions to visual enhance and support your presentation and talking points.

We mostly notice transitions only when they are done wrong

If we are ever aware of the transitions in a PowerPoint presentation, it is when the presenter did a horrible job using them.  Transitions done wrongly is distracting and makes your presentation look tacky. The audience may not be too keen to spend four seconds watching your slide folds into an origami bird before revealing the next slide, especially when there are fifty slides to cover.

In Microsoft PowerPoint, the transition determines how the present slide visually changes to the next one. The default effect is None, in which one slide just “cuts” into the next instantaneously. If you choose to add one, there are about 50 different effects to choose from. With the options that are available with each transition, there are hundreds of combination that you can choose from.

You may decide to just steer clear of transitional effects. Most of the time, your presentation will do fine without any, especially when you are just presenting the “routine” materials such as text in bullet point and infographics that your colleagues see month after month.

However, there are times when transitions do have their virtues. You may have an upcoming presentation that you are wondering how to add a professional touch to. And there may be special sauce that transition can add to your presentation and you may not even be aware of.

I this post, I will describe two types of transitions and their practical uses: Functional Transitions and Narrative Transitions.

(I) Functional Transitions

I define functional transitions as those that are used to achieve some intended visual functions. Examples include the following:

(A) Visually ease the audience from one slide to the next

With no effects, one slide transits to the next instantaneously. Some transitional effects such as Fade, Wipe and Split allow one slide to visually ease into the next over a period of time (ranging from 0.5 to 3 seconds) so that the transition is not so abrupt and sudden. This is especially obvious when two adjacent slides have very different formats and contents, e.g. one is a full-slide image transitioning into a page with text in bullet points. Using suitable transitional effect helps to makes the transition more gradual and gives a more professional finish to a presentation.

No Transition Effects
Fade Effect Added

(B) Alerting your audience that you are moving on

In contrast, when your slides are similar in format and structure (e.g. when they have a similar layout of background and bullet points text blocks), transitional effects can be used to alert your audience that you have moved on to the next slide. If there are no effects used, one slide instantaneously transits to the next and some of your audience may not even know there is a change. For this function, consider using effects that are visually more “loud” but not distracting, such as Push, Cover /Uncover, Switch in the Subtle category.


(C) Emotional / empathetic considerations 

There are times when the topic of your presentation is an emotional one that needs to appeal to your audience’s empathy (e.g. when you are narrating on the perils of underprivileged children growing up in the city). Using subtle “soft” effects such as fade or wipe to transits from a full-slide image to the next one contenting your talking points creates a visual effect that is more aligned to your message compare to a sudden cut.

Some general suggestions for using functional transitions:

  • For functional transitions, I suggest using just one transition effect to apply through all the “standard slides”.
  • Use narrative transitions (described in the next section) only for parts of your presentation that you think will add impact.
  • Duration: Functional transitions should be swift, between 0.5 to 2.0 seconds. Transitions that takes longer may break your presentation’s momentum and make your audience impatient.
  • Sound: Usually not necessary, unless it fits into the context of your message. Having applause that comes on every time slide transits is committing presentational suicide.

(II) Narrative Transitions

Narrative (or meaningful) transition effects creates an illusion of physical changes such as movement or time transpired when moving from one slide to the next and this effect helps you convey your message or talking points to your audience. If this sounds rather vague to you, consider the following examples:

  • For a corporate timeline that spans 3-4 slides, the Push transition can be used to create the illusion of a camera panning (or sliding sideways) from one part of the timeline to the next.
  • Using a Flip transition to create the illusion of flipping from one side of the slide to the other side as if it is two sides of a card or a piece of paper.
  • Using Crush effect (but only sparingly as we are treading on the edge of tackiness) to convey the idea that the slide (or whatever content is on it) should be tossed out.
transition_PUSH TIMELINE
Above: A timeline that spans 3 slides is visually linked together using Push transition. I also created an infinite and quite impossible loop by linking 2020 to 2015 (just for fun)
Above: Using Flip transition to illustrate 2 sides of a card to show 2 opposite perspective: Right and Wrong
Above: Using Flip transition to illustrate 2 sides of a card to show 2 opposite perspective: Pros and Cons
Above: Using Switch to present a set of 4 related talking points on a topic to show that they are linked


Above: Combining Flip and Switch transitions: there are 2 talking points each with its pros and cons. Use Switch to transit from one card to another and Flip to turn the card to the opposite side.
Above: Using Crush transition to visually toss out ideas that you are rejecting or excluding

General suggestions for using Narrative Transitions includes:

  • Use narrative transitions only for a segment of your presentation that supports your narrative or theme. The rest of the presentation should stick to the standard functional transition that you have chosen.
  • The visual effect created should be obvious to your audience and does not require too much explanation. Stick to common visual metaphors which I will describe next.


Endnote: Not all the transitions effect are made equal

There are about 50 different types of transition effects in PowerPoint 2016. I have gone through most of them to “talent scout” potential ones that can be used for meaningful transitions. I find that the simple and subtle ones are still the more useful ones for creating visual metaphors. However, you may find ways to make them work so I will keep an open mind and not be too judgemental on what are the good ones and what are the bad ones.


About My PowerPoint Upgrade

Many of our skills in building visuals for presentation and lessons never went beyond the foundational course in Microsoft PowerPoint that we took a few versions ago. My PowerPoint upgrade is about looking at an old tool in new contexts and exploring new application that will add-value to your presentation and lessons


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