Technical Communication Through the Cinematic Lens

If told to compare a website or slideshow with a movie, it’s easy to notice more differences than similarities. Movies are geared more towards entertainment, while slideshows are predominantly used for work or school, leaving websites in that gray area between the two. Movies tell stories, while PowerPoint slides and tools visually present the speech you wish would end. But, what if I told you that looking at slideshows and websites as if they were movies could help you communicate better? Dr. David Gillette, author of Looking to Cinema for Direction: Incorporation Motion into On-Screen Presentations of Technical Information, presents the argument that the digital communication tools we use in school and work are essentially moving pictures. If we look at them as such, we can present information in a way that is more beneficial to our audience. 

When it comes down to their basic elements, websites and digital presentations are collages of visual elements like text or pictures set in motion by either interacting with the websites or clicking through the slideshow. This is the same for movies, a collection of visual elements put into motion to present information. However, movies typically relay information in a more memorable and concise way than some websites or slideshows. This is because movies take advantage of a few things: cadence, montages, and the audience’s previous experiences. 

Understanding the natural cadence that audiences are accustomed to when iterating with media is crucial. If the natural flow of the interaction is interrupted, the experience itself stutters. This disruption in flow could be anything from a slide’s animation that stalls a second too long to if the progression of screens during an online survey skips a step. Dr. Gillette uses an ATM as an example of a natural cadence in the technical communication world. When at an ATM the flow of interaction is predictable. You insert your card, enter your pin number, click withdraw, select the amount, retrieve your card, and finally retrieve your money. Many individuals could withdraw twenty dollars from an ATM in their sleep. If these steps were to change order or if an additional step were added it would disrupt the cadence of the interaction. While this could be a useful technique to grab attention, it could be a hindrance if not done purposefully. 

Typically montages are associated  with movies–where the characters go through a shopping spree set to the latest teen pop song. In this context, the focus is on the tone and feel of the presentation and how the audience interprets these visual cues. The focus is placed more on reading the room than the dancing in it. Dr. Gillette touches on various types of montages, but I think the most helpful to understand are tonal (the reaction to real-world experiences) and over tonal (the actual component of the tonal montage and the additional aspects used to support the reaction).By using visual elements that you know will trigger a certain response, you can create different experiences for your audience. This could be as simple as using a serif text and limiting the color palette in a business presentation to using handwritten fonts and colorful gifs in a PowerPoint for a second-grade classroom. It’s all about identifying visual elements that can support the kind of message you want to convey.

At the end of the day, movies and business presentations are two completely different experiences. However, that does not mean we shouldn’t use the best techniques that each one offers to improve the other.


Looking to Cinema for Direction: Incorporation Motion into On-Screen Presentations of Technical Information, by Dr. David Gillette

Viewpoint Written by Mariah Clem, Texas State University

Edited by Laura Soran, Texas State University

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