Nine things everyone should know how to do with a presentation app

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5. Avoid movie catastrophes

Video clips enrich slideshows by letting you show material that can’t be described effectively with pictures or words. But nothing makes a presentation fizzle faster than a movie that plays erratically or not at all.

The only videos Google lets you insert on slides are YouTube videos, so they’re guaranteed to work as long as your Internet connection is active. You can only start and stop the movie, scrub through it, or zoom it to fill the screen.

Keynote and PowerPoint support many additional video formats, and you don’t need an active network connection. Since Keynote runs only on OS X, movies aren’t usually a problem unless you show your presentation on an older Mac that doesn’t support your movie’s format. Generally, it’s best to stick with QuickTime (.mov) or MPEG-4 (.mp4, .m4v) files encoded with H.264 or MPEG-4. (Here’s a complete list of supported media formats.)

You’ll also be okay if you use these formats in PowerPoint, though MPEG-4 is a safer choice if there’s any chance you’ll have to transfer your presentation to a Windows PC.

To insert a movie in either app, drag it onto the slide from the Finder. Alternatively, go to Insert > Choose (Keynote) or Insert > Movie > Movie from File (PowerPoint), navigate to the video, and click Insert. In PowerPoint, leaving Link To File unchecked copies the movie into your presentation, so you can move it to another computer.

6. Repurpose old slides

When you’re up against a tight deadline, it’s often quicker to transfer slides from an existing presentation and tweak them than it is to design them from scratch.

I prefer to do this in PowerPoint’s Slide Sorter or Keynote’s Light Table, views that show your slides in miniature form, which makes it easy to tell where the copies will go. Open the file you want to copy from, select as many slides as you want, and drag and drop them into the slideshow you’re working on. In Google Docs, you can choose slides in a presentation in one browser window or tab and copy them to another using the usual Command-C and Command-V keyboard shortcuts or by selecting Insert > Import Slides.

If you’re in less of a hurry, PowerPoint also has a command (Insert > Slides From > Other Presentation) that lets you navigate to any PowerPoint file and either grab all of its slides at once or choose specific ones to copy. The latter method gives you the option of deciding whether the transferred slides will adopt the appearance of the target presentation or keep their original design.

7. Place things quickly

All three presentation apps help you precisely position objects at the vertical or horizontal center of the frame by displaying lines that extend to the slide’s edge; guides in Keynote and PowerPoint let you know when two objects are aligned with each another. In my experience, Keynote’s guides tend to be a little less finicky, so it’s easy to place shapes, pictures, and text quickly. Another time-saving Keynote feature can show you when three objects are spaced equally by displaying arrows between them.

To control guides’ behavior in Keynote, open the preferences window (Keynote > Preferences) and click Rulers. In PowerPoint, use View > Guides or Control-click in the slide and choose Guides from the contextual menu.

Menu commands in Google Docs, PowerPoint, and Keynote let you arrange objects by their center, top, bottom, or right/left margins. Keynote’s and PowerPoint’s Arrange menus include additional commands to distribute three or more objects top-to-bottom or side-to-side equally without affecting their positions in the other direction. A convenient option in Keynote 6.2 (Arrange > Distribute Objects > Evenly) spaces selected objects uniformly along an imaginary line using the objects closest to the edge of the slide as end points.

8. Leverage groups

After you’ve drawn or imported all of the components on a slide, use Arrange > Group in Google, Keynote, or PowerPoint to combine them into a single object that you can move, resize, or animate. It’s just as easy to ungroup objects, though you don’t have to do so to work on them individually; grouped items retain their properties, and you can edit them by double-clicking. (In PowerPoint, you have to select the group first.) Google and PowerPoint even remember objects that were previously grouped; select one and use Arrange > Regroup to regroup them.

Keynote and PowerPoint also let you save groups as files to use in any application. In Keynote, select the group, copy it, launch Preview and go to File > New from Clipboard. You can then save the drawing, with transparency intact if you choose PDF, TIFF, or PNG for the export format. To achieve the same effect in PowerPoint, Control-click on the group and select Save as Picture from the contextual menu.

9. Display Data Clearly

Charts and tables are an effective way to display information that can’t be neatly summarized with word slides. Tables are best when you want to call attention to specific numbers in a data set, while charts are better for highlighting relationships and trends. (You can’t create charts in Google’s presentation app, but you can copy them from its spreadsheet module.) But even Nobel-worthy numbers aren’t compelling if your audience can’t read them, a mistake I see at scientific meetings with annoying regularity.

31.06 office presentations effective charting left

This is an example of what not to do in a chart.

When you’re designing a table, make sure that the column and row labels stand out, and use a text color that contrasts but doesn’t clash with the background. Shading alternate rows or columns makes it easier to read their content. PowerPoint and Keynote both let you apply banding with one click: In Keynote, check Alternating Row Color in the Table Format Inspector; in PowerPoint, click Banded Rows in the Table Layout tab in the ribbon. (Google doesn’t offer a banding option, but you can achieve the same effect manually.)

Similar design principles apply to graphs: Use colors, backgrounds, and text to make them as readable as possible. Resist the temptation to use 3D and other fancy effects if they won’t help highlight your data. And whether you’re using tables or graphs, don’t try to present too much information at once. It’s better to break the data up across two or more frames than to crowd everything in one slide.

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