Office Hours: The polished presentation: Tips from a pro

Shellie Tucker June 30, 2008

Shellie Tucker

There you are, pulling a PowerPoint presentation together, with pictures and animation effects. You want polish — if not perfection — but your result feels sadly lackluster. Who ya gonna call? Julie Terberg, MVP.

Applies to

Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007

So much of one's success with PowerPoint depends upon the small detail. Or rather, a lot of small details: little touches that give your slides punch and finish, and make them look as good as they can look. Success also depends on choices, and to some degree, methods. For example, if you're using animation effects, the ones you choose and what you apply them to can mean the difference between a distraction and a perfect enhancement.

The right details give a presentation polish and make it work well. That was really brought home to me recently, when I was lucky enough to get input about some slides I'd created from Julie Terberg, a professional presentation designer.

Terberg produces PowerPoint presentations that make your jaw drop with their visual richness and complexity of effects (just check out her portfolio, on her site). The kind that make you say, "You can do that with PowerPoint?" I met her through her affiliation with Microsoft as a Most Valuable Professional for PowerPoint. MVPs are technology experts who use Microsoft programs and help customers use them. They give Microsoft invaluable information about its products in the workplace — the real-world gains and pains, joys and wants of its customers.

As part of what they do, MVPs make themselves available to review our Office coverage — the training, articles, demos, and other things we publish on our Web site. Sometimes, they contribute articles themselves. And sometimes, just because they are great people (especially the PowerPoint MVPs) and proponents of good software and its use, they lend us their expertise simply because we ask.

What would Julie do?

I sought Terberg's expertise after a slide show that I'd created left me frustrated, and with a lot of questions. It needed to be a self-running show and pull together examples — using screen captures — of our online content. No problem, I thought. I'll bring in the screen captures using nice shapes and effects, and I'll fade them in using animations.

But why didn't my show look better? The screen shots were all right, but felt unfinished and kind of crude. And the animations seemed awkward. I was unsure of both my methods and my choices. I had a handle on where to go in PowerPoint to do certain things, but was my approach the best one, for great results? What were the keys to making merely serviceable slides snappy?

I asked Terberg if she would look at my slides and offer pointers on making them look better, as well as answer a bunch of questions about best practices. In response, she did a makeover of my slides, and generously offered a lot of tips and information, which I've tried to distill and present here.

It's all in the details: photos

My questions had largely to do with pictures. One of my slides had several photos of team members on it. I'd used a Soft Edge Rectangle picture style on these, and more or less eyeballed their layout. The slide looked something like this (team members' actual photos are replaced here with others):

Slide photos

The Soft Edge Rectangle style gives a fuzzy border to the picture edges. It's one of the styles that's available from the Format tab, which appears on the Ribbon when you select a picture on the slide.

Picture styles on Format tab

I thought the slide looked pretty good. But now look at Terberg's version:

Slide photos

This one pops. What all did Terberg do to it?

  • First, she made all the images a uniform size and shape.

  • She put them closer together, in more of a stack, which gave room to make them a bit bigger.

  • Instead of the soft edges style, Terberg used Simple Frame, White, another choice in the picture styles, which gives the photo a crisply defined border. She then changed the frame fill to a blue color that is part of the show's color scheme.

  • As an effect, she added a bevel to the frame. (You find bevels next to the styles gallery — see the art below.)

  • And here's a wonderful detail that really brings home the power of small: she added a perspective shadow to each photo, which is both fancy and subtle at the same time. (Look closely at the bottom right area of each photo.)

  • Another detail is that she boldfaced each person's name, a nice touch. Here's a side-by-side look.

    Close up of pictures before and after

  • Last but not least, she used the Align menu (in the Arrange group, Format tab) to align the photos by their tops, and distribute them evenly across the slide. She put all the text in the same position, beneath the slide (I had alternated between text on the top and on the bottom).

Terberg suggests not using a soft-edge style for standalone photos. “It makes the group look more scattered,” she says.

How-to tips     To change the picture borders' fill color, you use Picture Border, next to the styles gallery. For the beveling and shadow effects, you use Picture Effects, right under Picture Border:

Picture effects menu

(The bevel effect Terberg used was called Relaxed Inset.)

For the shadow, Terberg used a Perspective Diagonal Upper Right effect. At the bottom of the Shadow gallery, there are Shadow Options. In that dialog box you can set the degree of darkness for the shadow, and the degree of blur. (Talk about nuances!)

Sizing the photos     As you saw on my version of the slide, the pictures had a range of sizes and shapes, some more vertical, some more horizontal. Terberg resized and cropped the pictures, giving them all a vertical rectangular shape and approximately the same height and width dimensions. You can do this using the sizing and cropping tools, in the Size group on the Format tab.

Sizing and cropping commands

You can crop and size using the commands shown here; you can also click the little launcher in the corner of this group (see arrow in red circle) to open a dialog box that shows you all measurements by number (including the amount cropped), and you dial the size up or down, and crop in or out, by selecting numbers with the spinners there. (Personally, I like the dialog box better because dragging the cropping tool handles feels harder to control.) Remember, if you're sizing the picture by dragging, always drag a corner so that you maintain the aspect ratio; don't drag the sides, top, or bottom.

Note:  If you open the dialog box, you'll see that two check boxes, under Scale, are selected by default, and that's good: Lock aspect ratio and Relative to original picture size. Leave these selected.

Of all the formatting required for this slide, I found the sizing to be the most painstaking. A method is to select all the pictures at the start and set a height for them. The widths will adjust accordingly, depending on the picture's dimensions. Then work with one picture to set its desired width. You will probably have to crop and resize to the target height again as you work out the width you want. Do the same with each of the other photos, always aiming for the one target height again after you crop, and approximately the same width. In the end, the widths will vary slightly, but as Terberg notes, "Because the layout is staggered, these subtle differences in width won't be apparent."

Timesaver for applying styles     You don't have to add the picture style and effects individually. Apply them all to one picture, first. Once you've got the picture style, border color, and effects (beveling, shadow, etc.) you want, select that picture. Then use Format Painter on the Home tab to apply the styles to the rest of the pictures: double-click Format Painter, then click each of the rest of the pictures to apply the styles.

Special Terberg tip     You may be familiar with the Pick Up Style and Apply Style commands, from earlier PowerPoint versions. These do the same thing as Format Painter, but are more useful because, once you pick up a style, those attributes stay in PowerPoint's memory (for reapplication) until you pick up another style. These commands now live in the "well" of commands you find when you click the Customize tab, as part of PowerPoint Options (Microsoft Office Button, PowerPoint Options). They're under All Commands on the Customize tab. Add them to the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT). Furthermore, add everything to the QAT that you use a lot.

Creating harmony and consistency

A couple of other changes Terberg made to the slide of team photos added both harmony and consistency to the presentation.

Two slide examples

  • The blue of the picture frames on the slide of team photos picks up the blue in the slide border on the title slide.

  • Terberg changed the title on the team slide from "Who we are" to "Our team," to echo the phrasing of the title, "Our company."

  • Also, she closed up the space on the title slide, moving the subtitle up for a tighter fit. The default spacing for the layout puts the subtitle lower; she prefers less empty space.

It's all in the details: screen captures

And so, what about those screen captures? For my presentation, I needed to capture clips from various Web pages. I used an internal tool to capture the screens. (I could have also pressed Print Screen, on the keyboard, and then opened Paint, and selected the portion of the screen that I wanted; copied it into a new Paint file, and saved it.)

To give the screen shots a bounded shape, I inserted them as shape backgrounds, so that I could use a rounded rectangle shape, to soften their corners, and apply shape effects like beveling to the border. NOT NECESSARY — OR ADVISABLE. I should have just inserted them as plain ol' pictures, as PowerPoint 2007 has picture styles (as we've seen) that will do the fancy stuff with borders. Furthermore, as shape backgrounds, the screen shots got distorted to fit the dimensions of the shape, instead of retaining their original aspect ratio. Here's an example of one of these slides, my version:

Slide with screen captures

On this slide, the image on the left was captured from the host page for a video demo. The image on the lower right is a capture from the video demo itself. To give an idea of their relationship, I used a Fade animation effect and had the first image fade in, then the second one. The look and sequence felt a little lumbering and not spectacularly successful.

Here's Terberg's version:

Slide with screen shots

Yeah. I'm liking that.

Part of this slide's success depends on the animation effects. So, imagine the larger image that sits behind appearing first, then fading to gray as the smaller one zooms in on top of it (more about the animations in a minute.)

Here's what Terberg did to give these images this look:

  • She inserted the captures as pictures, not as shape backgrounds. (If I'd been using PowerPoint 2003, I would've had to insert the pictures as shape backgrounds to get the rounded corners, but there's that issue of distortion. Given that, it would be best, said Terberg, to insert the images as pictures and use square corners.)

  • She enlarged the first image. "It's so hard to see details in screen grabs,” she says. “Larger can't hurt."

  • Also, a larger size in the first image helps to suggest that the second image has a subset relationship to it.

  • For picture style, Terberg applied a Reflected Rounded Rectangle to each image, which gave the rounded corners as well as the reflection at the bottom of each picture. This is one of the choices in the Picture Styles gallery (and for that, I say Thank you, PowerPoint 2007).

  • Subtle-detail alert: Terberg thinks that, for this picture style, the default degree of rounding in the corners is too much. So she modified it. You do that by grabbing the yellow handle, which appears when you select the picture, and dragging the corners out to make the curve smaller, less pronounced.

    Grab handle on selected picture

    The result is what you see in Terberg's slide, a very slightly rounded corner that doesn't cut much into the image. Contrast that with the deep rounding of my version.

  • For the second image, a shot of a video demo within its player window, that subtle rounding helped it retain the look of its original player window. Plus, Terberg sized and cropped the original screen shot to make it taller and narrower, taking off some rough bits of screen capture on the sides. She placed it in the middle and below the “parent” image to emphasize its subordinate relationship.

  • Furthering that idea, Terberg added a dark glow effect around the smaller image, which makes it seem to jump off the first picture. (Glows are in Picture Effects on the Format tab. You apply any glow, and then you click More Glow Options at the bottom of the gallery to pick a different glow color.)

    Close up of glow effect

Picture compression tip     Compression refers to making a file size smaller. You'll want to be aware of this when you use pictures, as they hugely bloat a presentation's file size. Here was Terberg's approach: When I sent my original screen captures to her, they were in .bmp format, which doesn't compress the file size. She converted them to .png format, which vastly compressed them while retaining visual quality. An example of the difference: a file size of 1,348 KB in .bmp format shrank to 90 KB in .png format. If you're sending presentations through e-mail, that's a critical difference.

You can convert a file to a different format in Microsoft Office Picture Manager. Open the picture, and on the File menu, click Export. There's a task pane on the right that opens and allows you to change the file format, and you click OK. If you've just taken the screen capture, save it right off the bat as a .png.

Note: PowerPoint 2007 does help with the compression issue by automatically compressing pictures when you save your presentation. You may or may not want this, as compression can reduce image quality. For more about automatic picture compression, see the content created by Steve Rindsberg, another wonderful PowerPoint MVP).

Picture resolution tip     Resolution refers to the pixel count in an image. You need to be mindful of it when you're going to be projecting your slides, to make sure that the pictures on your slides don't appear blotchy and pixilated. You can gauge this by comparing your picture's size, in pixels, to the resolution of your screen.

Note: You can see a picture's size in pixels in Picture Manager if you click Edit Pictures and then click Resize.

It's all in the choices: Animation effects

The look of the slides Terberg redid was enhanced by the animation effects she chose. At this moment, I have limited time for doing justice to explaining them. But I will try to give an idea — her rule of thumb and the effects she suggested for these slides.

Note: The following assumes that you know something about animations in PowerPoint. If you don't, I've included a couple of links at the end of the section that will help you get oriented.

Terberg's advice about animation: "Stick to a few, subtle, repetitive sets, so the result doesn't look like a three-ring circus. Fades, ascends, descends, all subtle. Less is more!"

What does she mean by "sets?" She says, "When you think about animation on a slide or slide series, think in pairs. For every entrance, there's an opposite exit. Ascend, then descend. Curve in from left, curve out from right. Others: Expand, contract; stretch up, stretch down. All opposites make the work look more professional."

So, if I'm going to bring a picture in with an Ascend effect, and later I want the picture to move off the slide, I'd use a Descend effect for the exit. You won't have entrances and exits on every slide (darn, I love drama), but you'll probably have a few of both throughout a whole show. So use your chosen pair of effects over and over.

There are opposites within the same types of effects, too. For instance, in the Entrance effects, there is an Ascend as well as a Descend. Terberg made great use of this pair on the team-photos slide.

Entrance effects

She used an Ascend effect for all the photos, to make them enter rising up. She used a Descend effect for each photo's text (the person's name and title) to make each bit of text enter in a descending motion. The text is timed to start With Previous, so it appears at the same time as the photo appears, with the photo rising from the bottom and the text descending from the top; they cross each other, quickly, to land in the right place.

This is what the list of animation effects looks like, in the Custom Animation task pane, for the slide.

Effects in animation task pane

  1. The Ascend effect, applied to the photo. The clock icon here indicates After Previous, so this photo will start automatically when the slide displays, and each photo (see the subsequent effects that have the clock icon) will enter after it, one by one.

  2. The Descend effect, applied to the text. It's set to start With Previous, so it starts when the photo's effect starts, descending as the photo ascends into view.

For the slide that had the screen captures, there were fewer items on the slide, and Terberg created a great sequence with just three effects. These were chosen to make the transition between the pictures smooth and to help communicate their relationship to each other.

animation effects in task pane

  1. The first, larger image enters first, rising up with an Ascend effect.

  2. The second effect is also added to this image, and is an Emphasis effect called Transparency. There's a two-second delay added. So, the first image rises up, and after two seconds, a gray mask (the transparency) is applied to it. Importantly, this effect is given the duration Until End of Slide, so it won't disappear before you move to the next slide.

  3. At the very same time the transparency is applied, the second image, the capture of the video demo, enters using a Faded Zoom effect, which bolsters the suggestion that it opens from the first image.

For some background on how to use animation effects, see this demo and the video series, Going further with animations.

Finding the gold

In large part, we're on our own in PowerPoint, rooting around for just the right effects. And that's by design. The fun in the application is due to many things being easy as well as to making our own discoveries. What's also true, though, is that even when we find the gold, we may not be sure how to use it. We need a wizard like Julie Terberg to show us a vision and point the way — divining the rich details already within our grasp.

About the expert

Julie Terberg is a Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for PowerPoint who specializes in designing presentations for a broad range of industries. Julie enjoys sharing knowledge with other designers while conducting custom training workshops and speaking at conferences. Visit her company Web site for more information and articles.

About the author

As part of the Office Online Training and Demos team, Shellie Tucker has written about PowerPoint, Word, InfoPath, Office SharePoint Server, and other Office programs. She's happy any day she discovers treasures in PowerPoint.

Share Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Email Email

Was this information helpful?

Great! Any other feedback?

How can we improve it?

Thank you for your feedback!