PowerPoint Tip: How animating a graph makes it easier to understand

I spoke last week to a group of executives and one of the challenges that I saw in their presentations was the tendency to put spreadsheets on their slides when talking about financial topics. A graph is better than a spreadsheet to illustrate numeric information to your audience. Use a pie chart to show proportions, use a column chart to compare measured values, or use a line chart to show a trend. Showing the point instead of asking the audience to do math to figure it out is far more effective.

By default, the graphs in PowerPoint appear all at once. In this article I want to suggest that by animating the elements of your graph, you can make it even more meaningful for your audience. When you build each part of the graph one at a time, it allows you to discuss just that data and the audience can focus on each point you are making.

For example, you can show each set of data in a line chart so that you can discuss the trend in each set of data and what it means to the audience. If you have a pie chart, build each wedge, discussing the importance of that part of the whole picture. With a column chart, as you show each column, talk about what that value represents and how the audience should interpret the information. It makes the graph easier for you to present and much easier for the audience to understand.

When you are building the graph using the Animation feature in PowerPoint, don’t use any of the fancy swirling or twirling effects. Use the simple Appear effect or use the Wipe effect to show a line drawn from left to right or a column grow from the x-axis. The default setting when a graph is animated is to have all parts of the graph come on at once. You will need to change the option to build the graph by series or category, so that your graph is built piece by piece. Take some time to think through how you want to explain the graph in support of the points you are making so you can set the animation to match your plan. You can even bring related parts of the graph on at once, such as three related pie wedges that appear at the same time.

Many graphs benefit from adding descriptive labels that explain each data set better than the default legend does. You can animate these labels to come on while the parts of the graph are being displayed. To do so, set the timing parameter to With Previous and move the text label animation element right after the element of the graph in the animation list. This looks great when presenting using PowerPoint, but be aware that some web meeting services do not recognize this type of animation when they convert your slides (I know from personal experience). Always test how these slides look after being converted by a web meeting service.

Animating graphs to make them more effective is one of the topics I will cover in my courses to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ontario and Alberta this fall (see the listing to the left for dates and locations). I also covered animation and many more techniques in my Advanced Graph Techniques webinar earlier this year. You can get the recording here. Take the time to build your graphs using the Animation feature of PowerPoint and the message will be clearer for your audience.