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Creating Motion Paths in PowerPoint

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This post is part of a series called How to Use PowerPoint (Ultimate Tutorial Guide).
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This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
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There's the default slide transitions in PowerPoint, but for the very best animations, you'll need to add custom animation to each object on your slide. There's the standard built-in object animations, like flying in or fading, but you might not realize that you can apply motion paths, too. Motion paths are pre-made paths, like curves and figure-eights, that your object will move along when its animation is played. The best part is that you can draw your own custom paths to make your objects do whatever you want in PowerPoint.

Motion paths are available in any version of PowerPoint released in the last 10 years, although there are more built-in paths in the Windows edition, and the paths are easiest to manipulate in PowerPoint 2013. But no matter which edition you're using, on your Mac or PC, here's how you can create and edit motion paths on your own.

 Screencast


Creating Motion Paths

To follow along with this tutorial, create a new PowerPoint file, and from the Home tab, click the Layout button and choose a blank layout. Using a blank page will be easier for these exercises. Now you're ready to start.

Blank layout button 
Click the Layout button and choose the Blank layout from the drop-down list

Now lets add an object to your blank slide so you can animate it. Again on the Home tab, choose a shape from the Drawing section of the ribbon, or from the Shape drop-down if you’re using a Mac.

Draw a shape in the upper, left corner of the page. Formatting (or not) is up to you.

Draw a shape on the page
Draw any shape on the page. You can also type text or insert a picture or video. Any object will work.

Applying a built-in path in Windows

Make sure the object is still selected, and go to the Animations tab. Now click the small down arrow on the right end of the animation samples.

Small down arrow on right side of animation section
Click the small, downward-pointing arrow on the right end of the Animation section

Then at the bottom of the panel that drops down, you’ll see there are only six pre-made paths. Instead of choosing one of them, click the option below for More Motion Paths.

Motion Paths list in the Windows edition
More Motion Paths is at the bottom of the drop-down. You may need to scroll down.

That displays a dialog box containing many paths to choose from. Make sure the Preview checkbox is selected, and click a few paths to see them run. Once you’ve chosen one you like, click OK. You can see it run again by clicking the Preview button in the upper, left corner of the PowerPoint screen.

Applying a built-in path on Mac

On the 2011 version of PowerPoint on the Mac, you display the paths by clicking the Motion Paths button on the right side of the Animations tab on the ribbon. Choose one, and the path gets applied, and the preview runs on the screen—though there's no preview in the selection chooser here.

Motion Paths button in the Mac edition
In the Mac edition of PowerPoint, click the Motion Paths button on the ribbon

Taking a different path

What if you change your mind and want a different pre-made path?

In Windows, select the path, then delete it (press the Delete key on your keyboard). Now return to this dialog box and apply another one. Warning: if you don’t delete the path, PowerPoint will apply the new path and the old path, and they will run in sequence.

On the Mac, there is no need to delete the path. When you go back to the Motion Paths dialog box and apply a new one, the old one gets replaced.

Drawing your own motion path in Windows

Now we're to the most important part: making your own custom motion paths. To draw a custom path, again click the small down arrow on the right end of the animation samples. This time, select Custom Path.

Custom Path button on the Animation drop-down list
Draw a custom path by clicking the icon on the bottom of the Animation drop-down. You may need to scroll down.

The mouse pointer will become a cross hair. Now, draw a path on the page that you want the shape to follow. There are two ways to draw, and you can combine techniques when drawing a path:

  • Click and drag to draw a continuous scribble.
  • Click-release, click-release, click-release to draw straight line segments.

To end the drawing, double-click on the page.

The beginning and ending of the line has a green and red triangle, indicating the starting and ending points, and in the 2013 version, there are semi-transparent versions of the shape.

Animation path visible on the screen
You'll see the path on the screen. In the 2013 version, you'll see semi-transparent versions of the shape at the start and end point

Drawing your own motion paths on the Mac

Drawing motion paths on the Mac is almost the same as in the above steps on Windows. Click again on the Motion Paths button and choose either Draw Freeform or Draw Scribble. The major difference is that with the Scribble, you can’t draw more than one straight line segment, and the shape gets completed automatically without your having to double-click.

Adjusting the shape

On both Windows and Mac, once you have a path—whether a built-in shape or a custom shape—you can modify it. For example, right-click the path and from the popup menu, choose Reverse Path Direction, and the shape will travel in the reverse direction. 

The best part is that you can change the shape itself. Right-click the path and select Edit Points from the popup menu. Then you can drag the start and end points, drag the control points to change the curvature (Bezier paths), and drag the adjustment handles to fine-tune the shape and smoothness of the control points.

Control points and adjustment handles for modifying the path
Adjust the shape of the path using the control points and the adjustment handles that come out of them

Click the page background when you’re finished editing the path to leave the motion path editing view—and if you want to start editing it again, just select the shape and select the Animations tab, and you'll be back in the editing view.

Conclusion

PowerPoint has a lot of hidden features that allow you to draw and modify motion paths, and some of these features are similar to what you’ll find in high-end drawing programs like Adobe Illustrator. The key is to remember where the features are: they're all under the Animation tab in both Windows and Mac. In Windows, you click the Down Arrow on the end of the list of animations, and on the Mac, you click the Motion Paths button on the ribbon.

If you drag the shapes and points around just a little bit, you’ll quickly get the feel for how they work. Have fun making your own animations—there's a ton you can do with custom motion paths that'll take your presentations far beyond the basics.

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