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How do I... Spice up a list in a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation?

Most of us use bullets or numbers to introduce specific ideas or points. There's nothing wrong with them, but they are rather ordinary. In a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, you might want to forgo the ordinary and go with something a bit more novel, and certainly unexpected. Susan Sales Harkins shows you how.

Most of us use bullets or numbers to introduce specific ideas or points. There's nothing wrong with them, but they are rather ordinary. In a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation, you might want to forgo the ordinary and go with something a bit more novel, and certainly unexpected.

The concept of replacing bullets and numbers applies to all versions of PowerPoint. This article provides step-by-step instructions for PowerPoint 2003 and PowerPoint 2007.

This blog post is also available in the PDF format in a TechRepublic Download, which includes a sample PowerPoint file.

Getting started

Deciding what to use instead of boring bullets (and numbers) can be a challenge. The key is to know your presentation and your audience. Use color or graphics to reflect or at least balance the content and purpose. For instance, the slide in Figure A uses bullets and frankly, it's boring. Considering the audience -- people you're motivating to lose weight -- the slide falls flat.

Figure A

You need to motivate this audience, not put them to sleep!

Your first step is to remove bullets (and numbers) from the existing presentation as follows (in PowerPoint 2003):

  • Choose Master from the View menu and then select Slide Master.
  • Select the bulleted levels, as shown in Figure B, and choose Bullets and Numbering from the Format menu.
  • In the resulting Bullets and Numbering dialog box, click None, and then click OK.
  • Close the Slide Master by clicking Close on the Slide Master toolbar.

Figure B

Remove bullet lists from the Slide Master.

In PowerPoint 2007 do the following:

  • Click Slide Master in the Presentation Views group on the View tab.
  • Click the theme slide (the first slide from the thumbnail views to the left).
  • Click the Home tab.
  • Choose None from the Bullets control's dropdown list in the Paragraph group.
  • Return to the Slide Master tab, and click Close Master View.
If you're working with an existing presentation that previously had bullets, review your slides. For instance, Figure C shows the previous slide after changing the Slide Master. Those hanging indents are an additional problem. Most likely, you'll want to ditch them. Return to the Slide Master and get rid of them as follows:
  • Display the Ruler by choosing Ruler from the View menu (if necessary). In PowerPoint 2007, choose Ruler from the View tab.
  • Figure D shows the left margin and the hanging indent for each level. (If you want to retain individual levels, repeat for each level.)
  • Drag the first level's hanging indent marker to the left until it's directly under the first level's left margin marker, as shown in Figure E.
  • Close the Slide Master.

Figure C

The bullets are gone, but the slide's still unimpressive.

Figure D

Each level's left margin has a corresponding hanging indent.

Figure E

Eliminate the hanging indent.
Wrapped lines now align with the first line of each item, but the slide shown in Figure F is still boring. Perhaps more importantly, the slide is confusing. It's hard to tell where one item ends and the next begins.

Figure F

The hanging indents are gone, but now the slide's confusing.

Use color

You can easily differentiate list items by alternating colors. As always, keep the presentation's purpose and audience in mind. Also, keep the choice consistent by applying the same colors to all lists (although that's one rule you can break for the right presentation). For the dieting crowd, you might consider shades of blue and yellow as some experts believe that blue suppresses the appetite and yellow improves digestion.

To apply alternating colors, do the following:

  • Select a list item.
  • Click the Font Color icon's dropdown arrow and choose More Colors to open the Colors palette. In PowerPoint 2007, use Text Fill in the WordArt Styles group in the Format tab.
  • Click a color and click OK.
  • Repeat the process for each list item.
The slide in Figure G isn't pleasant or easy to read, even applying what you think are appropriate colors for the subject. (This slide might actually startle me during a real presentation.)

Figure G

Alternating colors might make things worse!

You could continue to play with alternating colors, especially if you have the artistic background for it. The truth is, alternating colors might work and they might not.

Use AutoShapes

If colors just don't work for you, try AutoShapes. As with color, the shape you use is up to you, but let the audience and the content guide you. Some shapes will be more intuitive to your cause than others. To add an AutoShape, do the following:

  • Display the Drawing toolbar (if necessary) by choosing Toolbars from the View menu and then choosing Drawing. Alternatively, right-click any toolbar and menu and check Drawing. In PowerPoint 2007, find Shapes in the Illustrations group on the Insert tab.
  • Click the AutoShapes button's dropdown arrow to display its options. To add the Block Arrow AutoShape shown in Figure H, choose Block Arrow from the resulting submenu and then click the third item on the fifth line.
  • The slide has four list items, so the slide needs four arrows. You might have to resize the AutoShape.
  • Once the arrow's the right size, select it and press [Ctrl]+[C] to copy it to the Clipboard.
  • Press [Ctrl]+[V] three times to add three more arrows.
  • Drag and drop the arrows to their respective spots. In this case, the four arrows are equally spaced between two columns and rows.

Figure H

Use AutoShapes to differentiate list items.
The next step is to add the list item text. From the Drawing toolbar, position a Text Box on top of the arrow and enter the appropriate text, as shown in Figure I. Repeat the process for each list item. You don't need the Text Box controls. You can right-click the AutoShape, choose Add Text, and start typing, but I find the results harder to control.

Figure I

The list items are in a Text Box control positioned over the AutoShape.
Figure J shows the initial results. The text doesn't always fit, but that's easily fixed. Reduce the text font (usually a bad idea), increase the size of the arrows, or eliminate some of the text. On the other hand, it is a more interesting slide than the original list, but we're still not done.

Figure J

Some of our original list text doesn't fit.
Figure K shows several changes:
  • By eliminating just a little text, the items fit. Also notice, that a few typos are fixed. It's always a good idea to keep your editor hat on.
  • Each arrow's fill effect helps pull the reader from arrow to arrow.
  • A few appropriate graphics illustrate list items. You don't need a graphic for each item.

Figure K

It only takes a little imagination to liven up a slide.

Don't settle for ordinary

Bullet and number lists are appropriate, but they might be too ordinary for your purposes. Study the content and learn all you can about your audience. Then, use your imagination to eliminate the already done and over done with something unique and interesting. Just don't go overboard -- too much excitement can be as bad as too little.

Susan Sales Harkins is an independent consultant and the author of several articles and books on database technologies. Her most recent book is "Mastering Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express," with Mike Gunderloy, published by Sybex. Other collaborations with Mike Gunderloy are "Automating Microsoft Access 2003 with VBA," "Upgrader's Guide to Microsoft Office System 2003," "ICDL Exam Cram 2," and "Absolute Beginner's Guide to Microsoft Access 2003" all by Que. Currently, Susan volunteers as the Publications Director for Database Advisors at http://www.databaseadvisors.com. You can reach her at ssharkins@gmail.com.

About

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.

39 comments
bjbjesie
bjbjesie

Whew!!! the comments are just a little edgy.... Why do you all say "no clip art" and what is the alternative? thanks for the help.. barb

fneily
fneily

If you're a bad public speaker, as most presenters are, then it really doesn't matter what your presentation looks like. In five minutes, your audience is thinking of the weekend.

kriskirkwood
kriskirkwood

Nice look, but the author is still flouting Rule #1 of "10 Things You Should Know about PowerPoint Abuse": "PowerPoint is NOT a word processor! The point of a PowerPoint slide is not to cram as much information into a single slide as possible. The idea of a slide is to have memory joggers that trigger thinking in the audience. That means you do not need to even have complete sentences. Simple statements work just fine." WAY too much information on one slide.

urs.frei
urs.frei

In most of my slides bullet points have gone. I do agree with Susan's basic idea but find SmartArt the best way around.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Blech...I HATE clip art, it's distracting and ugly...

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Buried deep inside of the Internet there might be real cool software that would work in any computer perfectly.Interactive video and audio stuff,like a computer game.Wow what a presentation!

ssharkins
ssharkins

I don't really understand the prejudice against clip art either. Many professionals seem to think it's just cheesy and cheap and it's sort of like cheating I guess... I don't necessarily agree. The alternative is to hire a graphic artist to create original pieces, which is rather expensive.

steve.hards
steve.hards

Conversely, if you are a good public speaker, it does matter what your presentation looks like! Hillary Clinton's team was criticised recently because they distributed an awful-looking presentation. Readers of this item and its comments will be interested to see an analysis of it and redesign by presentation expert, Rick Altman. Here's a link to the relevant post on his blog: Hillary Clinton Commits Death by PowerPoint

kdavis
kdavis

Those were illustrations of a concept, not necessarily PowerPoint Presentations 101. The idea was that there are other ways to present lists on a PP page other than numbers and bullets. Many of us are writing presentations for others to use. You follow the presentation style they want. I have presenters who cannot handle anything but full sentences and others who need nothing more than a single word to emphasize their points. In addition, some corporate cultures DO use PP as a word processor. One company I worked for did everything in PP. When you gave a proposal to a VP, it was done as a "deck" of printed-out slides. Weird? Yes, but I didn't make the rules. I called them "executive coloring books."

ssharkins
ssharkins

I see your point, I could've made those statements shorter. The focus was on bullets, not content, but you're absolutely right.

AtCollege
AtCollege

It seems to me that all the fiddling with the Slide Master could be skipped just by using SmartArt or add text to Shapes. But I do appreciate knowing that I can change bullets in the way Susan explained.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I'm not encouraging clip art, but since you brought it up, I don't see the problem. Blast away, but if the clip's appropriate, I don't see the problem. It's not likely that I'm going to pay an artist to create a professional graphic for a simple article.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

just exactly which freaking Martian comes up with the various uglies that comprise 'clip art'.

Dr Dij
Dr Dij

stuck to the inside walls of the Pipes that make up the internet. Maybe some kind of internet-rooter could get it out?

ssharkins
ssharkins

I viewed it and while it doesn't suit me, it doesn't offend me either. Why don't you tell us what rules they've broken and why you think it looks awful.

drmc
drmc

Nicely presented I thought. Nothing will ever suit everyone. Personally I steer away from any kind of flash in presentations. Sometimes (often) I even just use black on white like the old overhead (OMG!). But that's only because when I use PP it's usually an academic lecture. The idea is to get a message across. Most transitions etc are just distracting, and while I do use layered presentations of lists, many audiences are simply frustrated by not being able to see the whole list at the beginning (lateral thinkers such as Doctors are an example). These days black on white IS different, but not distracting. Of course if the audience or message were different, I'd tailor the presentation (and maybe even use flashy bits). Anyway, thanks again.

ssharkins
ssharkins

SmartArt is definitely another option. I found adding text to the shapes awkward, in fact, I mention that in the article. You just don't have as much control.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

It's ugly and distracting. If you can't afford an artist, that's fine, but for 99.9999999% of the crap you gotta do, you don't need art anyway... You need text, graphs, and maybe a few charts....The graphics are distracting.

ssharkins
ssharkins

After reading some of the responses to this article, I can't help wondering what kind of job these folks have... some of you seem to have a lot of time on your hands. :)

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Who in the right mind would actually use clip art in a corporate presentation? What really drives me crazy is that Powerpoint is a great tool, but so over used it has really lost out. MS, if you are listening, please kill all the canned sounds (zoooom!! ziiinnnngg! Ding...Plonk), kill clip art, and please kill 99% of all the animated transitions.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Bad PP shows, shudder, cringe, cower. The worst had to be from one of the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer's. I was told they had one on a product that needed to be presented to a large chain, so I didn't bother making my own. A day before I was supposed to have it in front of an audience, they finally sent it to me. It had the most gawdy purple backgrounds and banners, absolutely no animation settings )it just opened layered slides all at once), had cut and pasted artwork with boxy white backgrounds plastered over top of coloured backgrounds (no transparency used) etc. I had to stay up all night building a new one, creating a universal slide layout for all the slides to transition without jumping around etc.Finally dragged my butt out of bed a few hours after finally crashing and made it to the presentation, which helped close the deal. Man, never again. Everything I do is original and has either my own artwork or my own photos in it, if it bombs it's only my fault.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Moving all that fiber through ought to clean things out.

steve.hards
steve.hards

Yes, audience considerations come first, then you have to take a view on the time it is going to take to communicate effectively. Often, within an organization, PowerPoint is not the quickest way to communicate such things. (And I'm saying that as the publisher of a PowerPoint plug-in!)

kdavis
kdavis

That would influence my opinion of how good or bad it is. The redo is slick and very nice, although it leaves out a bit of information in the original. If the original is meant to be a quasi commercial for Hillary, it fails. The second would be better as that, but what if it is just a quick and dirty presentation to a small group of campaign supporters? At that point, its style and glamour are largely irrelevant. The audience usually dictates the amount of effort and the artistry involved. I'm not going to knock myself out if all the presenter needs is statistical information to present to a small internal group.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I hope you found the article helpful.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

Really, I hate it that much...it's irritating, distracting, and above all...it's UGLY

kdavis
kdavis

Tell us what you REALLY think. As a writer, NEVER is a word I almost never use. Exceptions abound.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

ITIL is a great example of boring slides that are useful ;-)

kdavis
kdavis

Not all concepts are the kind that can be taught hands on. I've done both types... concrete and abstract concepts. Definitely don't need a lot of PowerPoint anything if the objective is to learn a specific skill that can be taught hands on. DOING is uch better than watching. Sometimes, though, I've had to build presentations to teach abstracts, such as workflow processes or software architecture concepts or the logic behind building compliant circuitry. These things can't always be taught "hands on". Using PowerPoint animations does help illustrate how data is moved through circuits, how service-oriented architecture can be implemented using an enterprise service bus, or how stock trades are cleared, all concepts that cannot be seen.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

The curriculum department makes the slides for me ;-) Ok, not really, we all work together to make the material, but honestly, presentations are for me to cover goals and objectives, display difficult to draw stuff, and show a slightly more dynamic process flow to stuff... The reality though is that for a 5 day course, I'd be surprised if I used more than 10 slides. For the most part, it's easier (and more clear) if we do the stuff hands on after some walk through...

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

funny. The colors are god-awful too.

ssharkins
ssharkins

It's great to have some positive input. Thanks for sharing some of your experiences. There's no right or wrong way to use PP -- you're right, subject, audience, and purpose should guide the creative process.

kdavis
kdavis

I'm also a trainer/writer who occasionally builds presentations. I use the animations to aid the presenter. Having lists appear as they are discussed is no different than having a professor write them on a chalk board, but a lot faster and easier to read. The animations often allow me to illustrate data movement or transitions from one semiconductor test state to another more easily. Years ago when I had to use overhead projectors for my training classes, I used overlapping transparencies to get a similar effect with much more work and less clarity. I only use clip art when there is a compelling reason to do so. I do some illustrations myself, but I don't have time to create them all and I have no budget for professional artwork. Still, my presentations have been well accepted and appreciated.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Boy, you guys have really got some kind of hangover is all I can figure -- you are way too cranky. MS, leave the tools and let people decide for themselves. If a presentation is junkie, it won't work, guy's unemployed... Let the consumer decide. Please don't make choices for me. As for my position, as a trainer/writer -- I'm not going to pay money for professionally created graphics and sound for an article or a training session.

steve.hards
steve.hards

Although this showed how to change the bullet settings in PPT, this didn't turn out to have good examples. Anyone who wants a really slick alternative to PowerPoint's bullets should check out the list library images that come with the Perspector 3D add-in, http://www.perspector.com/gallery_library.cfm

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

one for corporate without most of the bells and whistles that drive me up a wall in an educational presentation, and another full-fledged for home/personal use. PP makes a great slide-show for anniversary parties, trips, other special occasions, just because of all the 'extra' you can do with those bells and whistles. I teach PowerPoint. Oz ain't seen nuthin'! :D

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

but I thought it might be Martian and you were going to get around to exposing that guy. :D

Dr Dij
Dr Dij

spam. but spam is already 90% of the traffic flowing thru the pipes and looks like it's not working! The search engines do spew alot of sh* so maybe the abrasive spam does work1