Jamie and I were wrapping up a presentation last week, and as we toggled out of slideshow mode several participants were surprised to see that our slide deck was created in Microsoft PowerPoint. They had some great design-specific questions and unfortunately we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to talk about how we did what we did. We thought that you might have some similar questions, and decided to dedicate this week’s post to some of our favorite PowerPoint go-to moves and features.
First a bit of background.
There are a variety of slide deck design programs out there: Keynote, Prezi, Haiku Deck, Slide Magic, Canva (to name a few), and we like them all. However, PowerPoint is the program that really has my heart. That is right: I’m in love.
Have I lost you yet? It’s okay to be a little worried. We are, after all, hoping you to inspire you to approach presentations differently. It’s natural to be a little concerned that we are trying to convince you to use a program that is linked to phrases like Death by PowerPoint, and bullets don’t kill people, bullet points kill people. But just stick with me here, because I plan to do an excellent job of winning you over.
It’s true that we’ve all seen very poorly designed PowerPoint slides. It’s possible that the majority of PowerPoint slide decks you’ve seen have been quasi coma-inducing. Sadly, PowerPoint has gotten quite a reputation for producing dated, dull, and boring presentation visuals.
Many are surprised to learn that there are endless options beyond creating text-based/bullet-point slide decks with this program, but it’s easy to understand why. Most of us have never had any training about how to access PowerPoint’s tools and features. With no formal education, we worry that they’ll be too steep a learning curve or that we don’t have the necessary skills or talent to design visual slide decks. Further we really don’t know what’s possible, so seeking the information on our own seems challenging and overwhelming. To make matters worse, when a user launches PowerPoint, it’s default setting seems to encourage you to do the wrong things.
As you can clearly see in the screenshot below, it seems to whisper… “Insert text here…and even more down here (in a slightly smaller font). Great, now about a few bullet points – and ooh a nice patterned background that looks like a carpet.” This is not ideal, especially for what I’d otherwise label a very user-friendly program. C’mon, Microsoft…help a girl out here!
In addition to the lack of training and default settings, somewhere along the line PowerPoint became synonymous with the word presentation. Using those two words interchangeable has likely led many presenters to include every single word they plan to speak on the slides. Many of us are guilty of using slides as our “notes” area and reading from them verbatim, with our backs turned to our audiences. And while this is has been the standard approach, it’s not the best practice approach.
It certainly isn’t using this exceptional tool for it’s highest and most useful purpose. Slide decks are best used as the accompaniment to a speaker’s narration. They are meant to reinforce a message, not duplicate it. They offer us an opportunity to make that which is abstract, concrete, through visuals. PowerPoint slides are not meant to replace you, the presenter. In fact, the best slide decks I’ve seen would make little sense without the speaker’s narration.
Creating a text-based slide deck is admittedly less work for the presenter. It’s difficult to disclose that because I worry that it will deter you from trying out a more image-focused approach, and I know how awesome life is on the other side of the mountain. Including visual content in presentations can help you evoke emotion, explain how something works, say it faster, tell a story, show data, and simply make your information more beautiful. And that is just a short list of all that a well-designed slide-deck can do for you. What’s more is that with PowerPoint in your presentation toolbox – designing polished, professional, effective visuals is fairly easily done.
PowerPoint is my favorite slide design program because most of us have access to it, and basically understand how to use it. It’s a do-it-yourself-er’s dream. The barriers are very low, and options are endless. I’ve compiled a brief list of my top go-to moves in PowerPoint to get you started.
First, a quick tip: Slide deck design should actually be one of the last steps in the presentation planning process. If you start your planning in PowerPoint, it increases the risk that you’ll use slides as your notes area, and create text-based presentations. Wait until you have an outline on paper and have put some thought into the kinds of visuals you’d like to include to convey your information. This will prepare you for success in the design stage.
Bonus tip: Don’t let PowerPoint dictate your design. I like to start with blank slides (sort of like an artist’s canvas). Yes, I like to pretend I’m an artist when I’m using PowerPoint, it’s kind of like how I pretend to be a doctor when I’m using WebMD. If you’d like to play along, blank slides are easily done. Just click Layout on the Home tab and select the blank slide option.
Ok, now on to my favorite go-to moves.
Inserting pictures. If you have an image saved that you’d like to use, you can place it on a slide by clicking on Pictures on the Insert tab.
Insert>Pictures (then navigate to where you’ve saved your picture.)
Images that Cover the Entire Slide. Now that you’ve inserted your picture, you’ll want to make sure that the image covers the whole screen. It looks gorgeous if you do. You can do this by enlarging the image. Simply click on a corner of the picture while holding down the shift key to ensure that you maintain the correct height/width proportions and that your image doesn’t get stretched or squished. Stretched or squished images are not gorgeous. Make sure that you hold down the shift key the entire time or this won’t work.
Additionally, it’s okay if the image go beyond the slide area. No need to crop. Only the part that’s within the slide borders will be visible in slide show mode. However, if you are losing some parts of the image (which almost always happens) you may want to move your picture around a bit so that the part you want seen is sure to be seen.
Adding Text. Adding text is another easy option. You can add a text box by clicking on the Text Box icon on the Insert tab. Once the text box has been inserted on the slide, you can simply type your desired text. After I’ve have the words that I’d like on the screen, I highlight them, and then click on the Home tab to access all my options for font selection, size, and color.
Insert>Text Box – then type text and customize by highlighting it and going to your options on the Home Tab.
Adding Shapes to Slides. Sometimes, after I’ve inserted a text box, I think, “Gee, I’d really like to have a rectangle or oval under my text so that it stands out a bit more”. Inserting shapes can be done by clicking on the Shapes ribbon that can be found on the Insert tab. There are so many shapes. It’s really exciting. Once you select the shape you’d like to add, a little + sign will appear. Just drag with your mouse and the shape will be created. If you want to create a perfect square or circle, use the same method we used to keep the height/width proportions on the picture (hold down the shift key while you drag.)
Now I’ve added my rectangle. Of course I will need to position it underneath my text, but first I’d like to customize it.
Use the Eyedropper Tool for Custom Color. The rectangle I added is in a default blue color, but I’d like to change that. There are preset colors to choose from on the Shape Fill ribbon that can be found under the Drawing Tools tab. Those are all very nice, but none perfectly match my photo. So it’s time to use my favorite PowerPoint tool, the Eyedropper.
The Eyedropper allows you to select a color from your photo (or any other image or shape) and make your new shape that exact color. It’s kind of awesome. Just click on your shape to select it then select Eyedropper on the Shape Fill ribbon under the Drawing Tools Tab. Then you can roll around the image and different color options will pop up as you move your mouse. I found a beautiful color from one of the socks.
Drawing Tools>Shape Fill>Eyedropper
Now you can see that the rectangle has taken on the color of the sock. This looks great, and there are times when I stop right here. But I like variety, so I will keep going with a few more options for this slide.
Making Shapes Transparent. A really popular trend right now is to use transparency in your design. I do this frequently with shapes I’ve placed under text, like this rectangle. To access the transparency options, go to More Fill Colors under the Shape Fill ribbon on the Drawing Tools Tab.
Drawing Tools>Shape Fill>More Fill Colors
Once you click on More Fill Colors, a box will appear. Here you’ll see options to enter custom color values, as well as transparency tools. (We’ll leave the custom color values for another blog post.) The transparency tools are on the bottom right hand corner of the box. You can either use the slider, the up and down arrows, or enter a specific percentage of transparency. I decided to make my rectangle 25% transparent. Play around with the transparency until you reach your desired look. There’s no right or wrong here. As long as you are assessing for easy readability, you’re just fine. You can also make photos transparent.
Here is the result. I think it gives it a polished look while still being able to clearly read the text.
Combining Shapes to Make Icons. I like the photo with the title caption and transparent text background, but perhaps a different look is what you seek. I thought it might be nice to do sort of a split screen approach to take this design up a notch. On one side I wanted to make it look like I had a piece of paper with charts and graphs on it, and on the other side I wanted to keep this picture. I was able to find a shape on the shapes ribbon that looks exactly like a piece of paper. Score! I inserted it, and then began to add rectangles and circles, combining as needed to create the finished “data icon” look.
If you’d like a more in-depth tutorial about how to create icons using basic shapes, please check out Jamie’s excellent blog post on the topic. You can also check out the Icons Inspired section of our website for even more training and tips.
I used the eyedropper tool once again to customize the color of all the shapes. The piece of paper is the color of the suits in the picture, and the charts and graphs are all colors that can be found in the stripes of the socks. I also added a subtle white border by drawing a rectangle over the slide and then selecting no fill under the Shape Fill ribbon and giving it a white border by clicking on the white color swatch under the Shape Outline ribbon. Don’t ask me why, but I think the border just ties everything together nicely.
The finished look is kind of fun, looks appealing and is cohesive. The most important part of this visual is that I think does a good job of reinforcing what I want to convey content-wise. This is part of our presentation where we explain how to use data to do an activity that requires people around the room to stand up, thus giving everyone a visual (and human) representation of stats.
We could stop here, but let’s go one step further.
Adding a Gradient. Okay, so I’m pleased with the slide – but maybe it’s a bit “flat” looking. If you want to give your slide a bit more dimension you could add a gradient. Just select the shape you want to apply this effect to, then click on Gradient under the Shape Fill ribbon on the Drawing tools tab. There are many gradient options to choose from. Feel free to play around until you find the look you like.
Drawing Tools>Shape Fill>Gradient
I selected something fairly subtle. I think it gives it just the right touch without drawing to much attention.
Okay, we should probably stop there before you get too excited. That’s a real danger. Once you figure out just how much fun PowerPoint can be, you probably won’t be able to stop yourself from public displays of jubilation. I almost don’t dare to tell you that the tools I highlighted are just the beginning. It’s really Chapter One in a very thick book. Think Gone with the Wind length (or Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for you millennials).