How do I... Create and manage PowerPoint table data?

Tables are great for communicating and organizing data in a meaningful way. They're also efficient. However, in Microsoft PowerPoint, tables can be a bit troublesome because space is limited. Too much data on one slide can be worse than no data at all. Susan Sales Harkins shows you how to get creative and improvise how you display tables in PowerPoint.

Tables are great for communicating and organizing data in a meaningful way. They're also efficient. You can substitute several lists with a single table and your viewers will spend less time pursuing a table than several single column lists.

In Microsoft PowerPoint, tables can be a bit troublesome because space is limited. Too much data on one slide can be worse -- almost -- than no data at all. You might think you have no choice but to stuff all the data into a single table, but when that happens, get creative and improvise:

  • Show only the vital data.
  • Put the entire table in the presentation's notes and display a summary or highlights in the table format.
  • Divide the data into meaningful groups.

Creatively, you could come up with a number of solutions using custom animations. For instance, you might create a single-row table for each row and fade each row in and out during the presentation. That way, the audience can focus on just the current row. When applying special effects, remember that we want the table to be more readable, not busier or flashier (usually).

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NOTE: This article emphasizes how to manage table data. It doesn't offer a comprehensive review of PowerPoint's many formatting options or tables in general.

Managing data begins with creation

PowerPoint lets you display information in tables in four ways:

  • Import an existing table from a file.
  • Use the Clipboard to copy an existing table.
  • Specify the number of rows and columns and let PowerPoint create an empty table.
  • Draw a table.

Importing allows you to link the PowerPoint table to a foreign source, which is great if you need up-to-date data. When you choose this option, you must remember to move the source, or at the very least, take a copy of the source with you, when you copy the presentation to another system. Otherwise, you'll break the link and the table won't update. Be forewarned: Linking increases the size of a presentation.

Figure A shows a table copied from Word. This process is quick and easy. Simply open the Word document, select the table, and copy it to the Clipboard. In PowerPoint, insert a new slide and paste the table into the slide. This method gets the data into a slide quickly. However, the resulting table will usually need some serious tweaking.

Figure A

Copying an existing table gets the data into PowerPoint fast.

If the data isn't in table form in another file, you can create the table using PowerPoint:

  • Click the New Slide button on the Standard toolbar to insert a new slide.
  • From the Insert menu, choose Table in PowerPoint 2003. This option is in the Tables group on the Insert tab in PowerPoint 2007.
  • In the resulting Insert Table dialog box, enter the appropriate number of columns and rows, as shown in Figure B, and click OK.

Figure B

You should know the number of columns and rows before you create a new table.
To draw a table, click the Insert Table button on the Standard toolbar to display a table palette. Drag across the appropriate columns and rows, as shown in Figure C. This option is in the Tables group in PowerPoint 2007.

Figure C

Drawing a table is always an easy choice.

Of course, if you create the table in PowerPoint, you'll have to enter the data yourself:

  • Press Tab to move from cell to cell.
  • Press Enter to position the insertion point at the beginning of a new line in the current cell.
  • To insert a new row at the bottom of a table, press Tab in the last cell.

In this case, not one of the methods creates a polished table.

One size fits all -- not!

The copied table (see Figure A) has problems. Most important, it doesn't fit on the slide. In this case, the most obvious solution is to reduce the font size from 24 to 20 (font sizes will vary when copying an existing table).

Simply highlight the table text and choose a smaller size from the Font Size control on the Formatting toolbar. If you want to change the font size for the entire table, click on the table's border. When the border changes to the small dot border, use the Font Size tool -- just remember, this method changes everything, including the table's title. (Font Size is in the Font group on the Home tab in PowerPoint 2007.) To center the table on the slide, click a border to display the four-arrowed pointer and then drag the table.

If a smaller font isn't enough, try resizing the table. To do so, select the table and then drag a table's handle -- one of the small circles along the border. The mouse pointer will change to an arrow that indicates the direction in which you can shrink or expand the table. If you don't like what you see, press [Ctrl] + Z to undo the change.

Resizing a table usually has unpredictable results, so keep the following in mind:

  • The row height won't go any lower than that which can accommodate the current font size.
  • If you decrease the size of a column, the row height will increase to accommodate wrapping text.
  • You can reduce the size of a column to the point where you can't see any text at all.
Figure D shows another table with a different problem. It accommodates all the data and fits on the slide nicely, but it's confusing. First, there's no way to identify what the currency data represents. In addition, each season comprises two rows, and that just looks odd. It's okay to have two rows per season, but we need to make the rows less intrusive. The simplest way is to merge the season heading cells as shown in Figure E. Select the cells you want to merge and click the Merge Cells button on the Tables And Borders toolbar. (In PowerPoint 2007, right-click the selected cells you want to merge and choose Merge Cells from the resulting submenu.)

Figure D

Tables of straight rows and columns can be confusing.

Figure E

Merging and splitting cells helps make sense of the data.
The next step is to identify the currency values as gains and losses by inserting an additional header column. To do so, select any cell in the 2005 column and click Insert Columns To The Left from the Table menu's drop-down list, as shown in Figure F. Take a minute to review all the possible options on this menu. (Right-click a cell and choose Insert from the resulting submenu in PowerPoint 2007.)

Figure F

There are many options for adding and deleting rows and columns.
Now, the table has two new problems. Adding a column created an additional and unnecessary header cell in the top row and the table's too big for the slide, as shown in Figure G. The first problem is simple to solve -- merge the two header cells.

Figure G

Solving one problem often creates another.

You can tackle the size problem in a number of ways, but the simplest way is to reduce the width of the headers (the columns on the left) by double-clicking the right border of each column. When you do, PowerPoint automatically adjusts the column to accommodate the largest existing value in that column. If that doesn't recover enough space, reduce the width of the remaining columns by dragging each column's right border just a bit to the left.

You can increase the row height manually as well. If the row won't reduce as expected, highlight the text. You may find an unwanted return, as shown in Figure H. When this happens, use Delete or Backspace to remove the extra characters.

Figure H

Sometimes unseen characters keep you from reducing a row's height.
This table still isn't as readable as it can be. As you can see in Figure I, a few subtle formatting elements make a big difference:
  • Add a meaningful label to identify the season column.
  • Add color to distinguish header text from the actual values. To do so, select the cells, right-click the selection, and choose Borders And Fills. In the resulting Format Table dialog box, click the Fill tab. Choose a color and click OK. In PowerPoint 2007, right-click the selected cells and choose a color from the Shading option in the Table Styles group on the Design tab.
  • Center the year headings by selecting those values and clicking the Center tool on the Formatting toolbar. The Center tool is in the Paragraph group in the Home tab in PowerPoint 2007.
  • Right-align the currency values by selecting those values and clicking Align Right on the Formatting toolbar.

Figure I

A table shouldn't be busy; it needs to be readable.

Evaluate the table

You're still not done. Be sure to view the table in Slide Show. At this point, the table probably won't require too many changes, but it's best to check. While viewing the table in full view, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you like the table?
  • Is the data easy to read?
  • Does the table contain too much data?
  • Would a chart represent your point better?


If you decide there's just too much data, you can move the comprehensive table to the Notes page and create a summary slide. Simply click the table, copy or move it to the Clipboard and then click inside the Notes window and paste the table from the Clipboard. Or divide the data into several tables, as shown in Figure J.

Figure J

Sometimes dividing a large table into several small tables is the best choice.

If you can't decide, consider the actual presentation. If the data in the table receives little attention, try to find a single-slide solution. On the other hand, if you'll be emphasizing the data in groups, separating the data into several tables makes good sense.

Table data management

As useful as tables are, they don't always fit on a single slide. When there's too much data, consider the table's purpose and then improvise. You may decide to display less data or to use several tables instead of one.

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 You can reach her at