10 ways to get more mileage out of PowerPoint

Microsoft Office users know that PowerPoint is a powerful presentation package, but some of them find it easier to write the content than to create and deliver the final show. The truth is that PowerPoint is just as easy to use as all the other Office applications, but a lot of users just aren't quite up to speed with it. Here are a few quick tips that will help your users get familiar with some of PowerPoint's most useful features.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Annotate your presentation

With PowerPoint 2003, you can use the mouse pointer to write on a slide during a presentation. It's similar to writing on a transparency. This capability works best with a pen input device or a Tablet PC, but the mouse will work — it just isn't as steady.

There are three free-style drawing tools:

  • The ballpoint pen draws a thin line.
  • The felt tip pen draws a medium line.
  • The highlighter draws a fat colored line.

To use this feature, right-click the background of a slide and select Pointer Options. You can also choose a color. Then, simply select one of the ink options. Use the ballpoint and felt tip tools to write messages and draw objects. The highlighter's color appears behind the text and doesn't block the view of highlighted text or objects.

Just be careful: Ink markings aren't permanent. When you close the presentation, be sure to click Yes when prompted if you want to save markings you made during the presentation.

#2: Get your timing down

PowerPoint has a stopwatch feature that lets you time yourself as you rehearse a presentation. When you run a rehearsed timing session, PowerPoint records how long you spend on each slide. You can use this information in one of two ways:

  • Use the timed results to set a timed slide.
  • Use the timed results to help keep you on track during the presentation.
To enable this feature, choose Rehearse Timings from the Slide Show menu. PowerPoint will start the slide show and display the Rehearsal dialog box in the top-left portion of the screen, as shown in Figure A. The timer displays the elapsed time for each slide and the overall presentation.
Figure A: The timer tracks each slide and the overall presentation.

If you're creating a self-running presentation, be sure to save at least one run — your best run if possible. That way, your presentation can default to the rehearsed setting, just in case. If even one slide in your self-running presentation makes it through to your finished presentation without a timed setting, your show will come to a screeching halt — and so will the impression you hoped to make. With a saved rehearsed timing setting, that won't happen.

When you're finished rehearsing, PowerPoint returns you to Slide Sorter and displays each slide's time below the slide.

#3: Don't tie up your audience

The person viewing your self-running presentation might not need as much time with each slide as you anticipate. Be sure to include at least one action button with each slide so viewers can opt out of a slow slide or skip past a slide that doesn't apply to them.

To add a navigation action button to every slide in the presentation, add the button to the slide master by choosing Master from the View menu. Then, click Slide Master. In PowerPoint 2007, you'll find Slide Master in the Presentation Views group on the View tab.

When the slide master appears, do the following to add an action button:

  1. Choose Action Buttons from the Slide Show menu. (In PowerPoint 2007, you'll find Shapes in the Illustrations group on the Insert tab. Click the drop-down button. Action buttons are at the bottom of the list.)
  2. Click the appropriate action button (AutoShapes) from the resulting submenu.
  3. Click and drag inside the slide where you want to drop the button.
  4. When you release the mouse, PowerPoint will display a dialog with several settings. Most of the time, the default settings will be adequate — especially for a self-running presentation.

The action button submenu can also float. After displaying it, simply grab the handle — the dots at the top — and drag it to another spot. You can then add action buttons to your slides without going through the menu selections. (PowerPoint 2007 doesn't have this feature.)

You don't have to put an action button on the slide master. You can add a navigation button to just a single slide if you want to limit viewers' control of the presentation.

#4: Take a quick peek

While editing a slide, you can click the Slide Show From Current Slide button (at the bottom of the Slides pane). PowerPoint will start the slide show from the selected slide, instead of at the beginning. If you just want a quick look at the current slide, press Esc to return to edit mode. Otherwise, click through the remaining slides in the show. Skipping several slides in the show can be a great time-saver.

A full-size slide may be a bit more slide than you really want or need at the time. To see a smaller version, hold down the Ctrl key while clicking Slide Show From Current Slide. Instead of consuming the entire screen, PowerPoint will display a quarter-size version of the slide. Again, you can press Esc to return to edit mode or click in the small screen display to advance through the remaining slides.

#5: Change the body text default

You can use the slide master to set the font type, size, and other properties for each slide's title and body text, but you can't use it to change the default font for other objects, such as text boxes. Luckily, there's another way. First, display a slide in edit mode and make sure no objects are selected. Then, choose Font from the Format menu. In the resulting Font dialog box, choose all the desired options and click OK. From that point on, non-title, not-body text will reflect the new style you just created. (This technique doesn't work in PowerPoint 2007.)

#6: Nudge over...

Moving objects is as easy as dropping and dragging, right? That's true until you're working on a laptop that doesn't support a mouse. When that's the case, use the arrow keys to move an object. Select the object and then use the appropriate arrow key. Each key press will move the object approximately 1/12 of an inch. PowerPoint applies this predefined amount when the grid is enabled. To change or disable grid settings, click Draw on the Drawing toolbar and choose Grid And Guides. In the resulting dialog box, you can select or deselect the Snap Objects To Grid check box, adjust the grid spacing, and display the grid and/or drawing guides on your slides.

#7: Make a quick copy

Using the Edit menu, you can make copies of most objects, but there's a quicker way. In almost any view, hold down the Ctrl key and drag the object just a bit. Doing so will automatically generate a copy of the selected object. Hold down Ctrl + Shift to create a copy that's aligned with the original object.

#8: Squeeze it all in

Sometimes, you just can't get everything you want to fit on one slide. If that text is in a placeholder, you don't need to cut and paste part of the text into a new slide. In Outline mode, PowerPoint can push text along with just a few clicks. First, display the Outlining toolbar by choosing Toolbars from the View menu and then choosing Outlining. Next, click the Outline tab to display the presentation text in the Outline pane. Position the cursor at the end of the last line you want to keep on the current slide. Then, press Enter and click Promote (the arrow at the top that's pointing left) on the Outlining toolbar. Doing so will insert a new slide for all the text you just split from the previous one. Enter a new title for the new slide, as shown in Figure B. Continue to adjust the text as necessary.
Figure B: Use Outline mode to control overflowing text.

This method still works in PowerPoint 2007, but you don't need the Outlining toolbar. Just press Enter at the appropriate spot to insert a new slide.

#9: Suppress bullets

By default, PowerPoint enters a new bullet every time you press Enter, as long as you're using the bulleted list format. Fortunately, you're not stuck. Hold down the Shift key and press Enter to insert a soft return. This will drop the insertion point to the next line without adding a new bullet, as shown in Figure C.
Figure C: You won't always want a bullet point for every new line.

#10: Create invisible links

Hyperlinks make it easy to jump from one place to another, but by default, linked text looks different from the rest of your message. If you find the difference distracting, most likely your audience will too. Eliminate that distraction as follows:

  1. Enter the text you want to link.
  2. Select the Rectangle button on the Drawing toolbar and create an AutoShape that covers just the text-don't make it too large. (In PowerPoint 2007, choose a shape from the Illustrations group on the Insert tab.)
  3. Select the AutoShape and click the Insert Hyperlink button on the Standard toolbar. (In PowerPoint 2007, you'll find Hyperlink in the Links group on the Insert menu.) In both versions, you can right-click the shape and choose Hyperlink from the resulting submenu.
  4. Enter the hyperlink in the Address field in the resulting Insert Hyperlink dialog box and then click OK.
  5. Right-click the AutoShape and choose Format AutoShape. Set the fill color to No Fill and the line color to No Line and click OK.

The invisible AutoShape is really the link and not the text.


Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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