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

Everyone should have these techniques in their arsenal. Here's how they work in Microsoft PowerPoint for Mac 2011, Apple's Keynote 6.2, and Google Docs.

Whether you're a student preparing a class assignment or a rising executive trying to impress your CEO, you'll have to go beyond the basics if you want your computer-based slideshows to stand out. While teaching people how to use presentation software over the years, I've identified nine techniques that I think everyone should have in their arsenal--but which even some experienced presenters often seem to miss. Here's how those techniques work in Microsoft PowerPoint for Mac 2011, Apple's Keynote 6.2, and Google Docs.

1. Use master slides

You're on your way to the conference room when you suddenly realize that you used your company's old logo throughout your 120-slide presentation. If you were using slide masters, you'd be just a few clicks away from fixing them all. Think of masters as templates that apply to as many slides as you like. Any changes you make to a master slide--backgrounds, graphics, text, and more--are inherited by all the slides that are based on that master.

In Google Docs and PowerPoint, masters define the look for the slide's background and graphics, as well as for placeholders such as titles and body text; layouts specify the position of those elements on the slide. PowerPoint lets you define as many masters as you wish, each with its own set of layouts, while Google only allows one master for each presentation. Keynote takes a slightly different tack: masters and layouts are one and the same.

To view and edit the master slide in Google, go to View > Master. In PowerPoint, use View > Master > Slide Master, and in Keynote, View > Edit Master Slides. To apply a master layout to new or existing slides in Google or PowerPoint, click the Layout button (it's in the Home tab in PowerPoint) and choose a layout. To do the same in Keynote, select a master in the Slide Layout pane in the Format Inspector.

2. Choreograph motion

Used judiciously, build animations are an effective way to draw your audience's attention to text and other elements on the slide. But some effects change only the appearance of objects, not their position; even builds that incorporate action--flying into or out of the frame, for example--give you only partial control by letting you adjust only the speed and direction of movement.

Keynote and PowerPoint (but not Google) also support a powerful technique called path animation, which lets you precisely specify the trail that a moving object will follow on the slide. In Keynote, select the object you want to move, click Animate in the toolbar to open the Animate Inspector. Next, click Add an Effect in the Action tab, and choose Move. Keynote draws a red line to show the path and displays a ghosted duplicate of the object in its final position, which you can change by clicking and dragging it.

You can also define the path by drawing it directly on the slide. Click Shape, choose Draw With Pen, and draw the complete path. Next, select the object and the path shape, and choose Format > Shapes and Lines > Make Motion Path from Shape. Click the shape to make the object, which makes it follow the route that you just drew.

To apply the same effect in PowerPoint, select the object that you want to animate and click Motion Paths in the Animations ribbon to display the motion palette. PowerPoint offers three types of animation--basic, simple, and complex--and it also lets you change the motion path after you've drawn it. In Keynote, you have to start over again if you edit the path.

3. Edit pictures

Digital pictures are an essential part of almost any slideshow. Importing photographs with any of the presentation apps is as easy as dragging and dropping. But what if the picture is faded or has a background that detracts from the subject?

If you're using Google Docs, you have to edit the shot before you add it, since Google lets you alter only the size of imported images. Both PowerPoint and Keynote offer far more options than just size changes, providing controls to crop and mask images, as well as to fiddle with exposure, contrast, color, sharpness, and other settings. While neither application can compete with Photoshop or iPhoto, they're handy when you're in a hurry or don't have image-processing software available.

In PowerPoint, select the image you want to edit to display the Format Picture ribbon tab, and choose a tool from the Adjust toolbar. In Keynote, select the image and click Format. You'll find adjustment tools under the Image tab.

[31.06 Office presentations Instant Transparency]

A feature I rely on frequently lets you render background elements transparent so that only the objects that you want to appear on a slide actually do so. PowerPoint's Remove Background tool, in which you drag to indicate which parts of the image you want to keep or remove, is better for images with complex backgrounds. Keynote's Instant Alpha feature also works by dragging, but it's best suited for pictures with uniform backgrounds.

4. Add music

Music might be out of place in a scientific presentation, but it can enhance slideshows that are filled with images whose content doesn't require explanation.

To add a soundtrack in Keynote, go to the Audio tab in the Document Inspector, click the musical-note icon at the bottom right to display your iTunes library, and choose your tracks, one at a time. You can play the entire soundtrack just once or loop it, but you can't adjust its length. Alternatively, by clicking Media, you can select an audio file to play on the current slide and optionally trim its start and end points in the Format Inspector's Audio tab.

Unlike Keynote, PowerPoint doesn't let you add music to an entire presentation, but you can obtain the same result with even finer control by specifying how long each tune should last. Use the Media tool in the Home tab to choose the first song in the soundtrack. Next, in the Format Audio ribbon tab, select Start > Play Across Slides from the drop-down menu. Finish by clicking Reorder in the Animations toolbar to open the Custom Animation palette, and enter the number of slides you want the melody to play. Do the same with the next song until you've built up the soundtrack, and you're done. (Google Docs doesn't let you add audio, though you can play YouTube videos as a workaround.)

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.

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.

This story, "Nine things everyone should know how to do with a presentation app" was originally published by Macworld.

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