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Five favorite PowerPoint tips

Whether it’s the office standard or you’ve simply used it forever, Microsoft’s PowerPoint ( ; $400 as part of Office 2008) is a terrific tool for presenting your thoughts and ideas to colleagues. During the many years I’ve used PowerPoint, I’ve found a few tips that I go back to again and again. And thanks to the recently released Office 2008 Service Pack 2, now I’ve got some new tricks too. If you haven’t already, update Office using the Microsoft Auto-Update application (in any of the Office programs, choose Help -> Check for Updates) or download the software directly from Microsoft. The service pack fixes bugs, improves performance, and, in the case of PowerPoint, adds some new features. (Thanks to Blair Neumann, PowerPoint’s Program Manager, and Jim Gordon of Microsoft’s MVP program, for their insights.)

1. Write it in Word

The single best thing you can do to improve your presentation is to spend more time—way more time—writing your presentation, rather than fiddling with the look of your slides, transitions, fonts, and graphics. One easy way to focus on content is to write your presentation in Word 2008’s Outline View.

In Word, create a new blank document (File -> New Blank Document), and then choose View -> Outline. Write your presentation as if you were writing your slide bullet points. Word automatically applies its built-in heading paragraph styles (Heading 1, Heading 2, and so on) as you indent text to different levels in the outline. When you reach a point where you want a new slide to begin, press Return to get a new paragraph, then press Shift-Tab or use the Promote button on the Outlining toolbar until you see that the line has the Heading 1 style in the Formatting Palette. Each Heading 1 paragraph in the Word outline will begin a new slide in PowerPoint.

When you’re done, choose File -> Send To -> PowerPoint. Your outline will open in PowerPoint using the plain Office Theme. Now that you’ve got down your message, you can start to jazz things up. For instance, go through each slide and apply slide layouts (Format -> Slide Layout) or change the presentation’s theme (Format -> Slide Theme). If you find that you usually want to use the same theme (perhaps something company approved), Service Pack 2 adds the ability to do just that. See the Microsoft Help file “Set a default theme for your presentations” for details.

2. Make objects fly

Service Pack 2 adds a long-awaited feature to PowerPoint: custom motion paths for objects. This feature allows you to animate a shape or other object along any path (though you can’t move objects between slides). That means, for example, you could fly an icon of a plane above a map, to illustrate travel.

Build a path
Office's Service Pack 2 adds the ability to create motion paths in PowerPoint. An object's path appears on your slide as a dotted line with a green arrowhead at the beginning and a red arrowhead at the end. Use controls in the Formatting Palette to adjust the behavior and timing of the animation.

To begin, select an object on your slide, and then click on the Custom Animation tab (marked with a star icon) in the Formatting Palette. From the Palette, click on the new Add Path Animation button and choose one of the drawing tools (line, curve, freeform, or scribble) from the pop-up menu that appears. Click on your object and drag to create an animation path. Click while dragging to add points to the path. Double-click to end the line. When the show runs, the shape will follow the path you created.

Want to change a path? Right-click (or control-click) on a path and choose Edit Points from the pop-up menu. Drag the points around to change their positions. When everything is the way you want, you can use the additional controls in the Custom Animation palette to control when the animation triggers as well as its speed. You can even add sound effects. (Click on More Effect Options to reveal sound options.)

Motion paths you create in PowerPoint 2008 are completely compatible with PowerPoint 2007 for Windows. Previously, you could play back motion paths created with PowerPoint for Windows on the Mac, but you couldn’t create them on the Mac.

3. Turn your bullet points into diagrams

PowerPoint’s SmartArt feature breathes life into dull bullet points by placing text into easy-to-understand diagrams. Create a SmartArt graphic from scratch by choosing Insert -> SmartArt Graphic, choosing a diagram style from the gallery under the toolbar, and then entering the text into the graphic. Better yet, use a little-known feature to convert a set of bullet points already on one of your slides to SmartArt. Place your insertion point into the text box containing bulleted text. Right-click, and then choose Convert To SmartArt from the contextual menu.

Transform bullet points
By changing a set of bullet points into SmartArt, you can add visual interest to your presentation, and illustrate the relationship between your points.

Below the toolbar at the top of the window, PowerPoint opens the SmartArt Graphics Gallery. Choose a diagram style that you want from the gallery, and PowerPoint converts your bulleted text to fit into the diagram. You can then move, resize, recolor, or apply any of PowerPoint’s other graphic formatting tools to the SmartArt diagram. Don’t forget that you can select an individual shape in a SmartArt graphic and format it separately from the other shapes for an even more customized effect.

4. Command the stage

When you want to bring the audience’s attention from your slides back to you, use some of PowerPoint’s keyboard shortcuts. While you’re expanding on a point, press the B key to make the screen go black, or press the W key for a white screen. Press the same key again to continue.

When you need to point to something on screen, you can use a laser pointer, or better yet, use The Omni Group’s free [OmniDazzle] (http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnidazzle), which lets you spotlight, annotate, or even zoom in on part of your screen.

Emphasize a point with Omnidazzle
The Omni Group's free OmniDazzle gives you a variety of tools to draw your audience’s attention to a particular part of the screen. This effect, called Flashlight, is one of the more subdued, merely dimming the rest of the screen outside the area around the cursor.

Finally, you can get away from your Mac and out from behind the podium by using an Apple Remote to step through transitions and slides. Just make sure that you pair the remote with your Mac so that no one else can prank you with his or her own. To do that, place your remote about 3 or 4 inches away from the infrared sensor on the front of your Mac, and then press and hold the Menu and Next/Fast-forward buttons simultaneously for 5 seconds.

5. Always be ready to present

Presentations are about informing and persuading others, but these days, you never know when you might get the opportunity to make your case. Use PowerPoint’s integration with iPhoto to carry your presentations with you everywhere—on your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPod. All you need to do is export the presentation as an iPhoto album.

In PowerPoint, choose File -> Send To -> iPhoto. In the resulting dialog box, enter a name for the iPhoto album, and then choose if you want the slides exported in JPEG or PNG format. You can also choose to export all or just selected slides. Click on Send To iPhoto. PowerPoint exports the slides, creating the new iPhoto album. The next time you sync your mobile device, make sure that the album goes to the device, where it will be available in the Photos app. That way your presentations will always be with you, and you’ll be prepared to show off your ideas anywhere, whether it be the hallway or in an elevator.

You can reach a wider audience—and give your audience a chance to refer back to your slides—by making your presentations available on SlideShare. Upload a PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentation to this free service and it will convert the file into a Flash slideshow. (Unfortunately, slide transitions and animations are lost in the translation.) You can then choose who can view your presentation. Viewers can watch it on SideShare’s site, or as an embedded Flash slideshow on one of your own Web pages.

Tom Negrino is a longtime Macworld contributor and the author of seven books about PowerPoint and Microsoft Office. His latest book is Styling Web Pages with CSS: Visual QuickProject Guide (with Dori Smith; Peachpit Press, 2009).

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