PowerPoint Tip: Use these two techniques to get the exact shape you want in a diagram

PowerPoint has a wealth of drawing tools that allow presenters to create a vast array of diagrams to illustrate their points. It is clear from the questions I get in workshops that many presenters are under the mistaken impression that you need to use fancy graphics software or illustration package to draw diagrams. Not at all. PowerPoint has all the tools most presenters will ever need. In this article I want to share two techniques that can be helpful in creating the exact shape you want for an illustration.

The first situation is when you want to use shapes to illustrate the size of two items because you want the audience to see how much larger or smaller one item is compared to the other. Sometimes using proportional shapes is a better illustration than a graph. For example, you might want to show two rectangles that represent the size of a market in two different countries. You need the shapes to be properly proportioned because the illustration needs to be accurate.

You can create properly proportional shapes in PowerPoint by specifying the measurements for the shape. To do so, draw the shape first. Then select the shape and enter the exact dimensions (in PowerPoint 2003 you can enter exact dimensions in the Size tab of the Format Autoshape dialog box and in PowerPoint 2007 the dimensions are on the Drawing Tools Format ribbon). While you can enter the dimensions in inches, I have found that it is easier to do so in millimetres because you can scale the numbers more easily. For example, if I have one item that is 450 units and another that is 800 units, it is hard to convert those to inches that easily fit on a slide. But using millimetres that are a base 100 unit scale, I can easily divide by 10 and use 45 mm and 80 mm, which are good sizes for shapes on a slide. Just enter 45mm as the dimension and PowerPoint will convert the measurement to inches if that is your default unit of measure. Remember that if you are showing the area of a shape, you will need to go back to grade school math formulas to specify both height and width properly.

The second situation occurs when you are drawing a diagram that requires two or more shapes to fit together, like the pieces of a puzzle. One common example is using chevron shapes to illustrate a process. You want each chevron to fit together with the next one showing that the process flows smoothly from one step to the next. The problem with shapes that have angles or curves, is that PowerPoint uses default proportions that sometimes don’t allow your shapes to line up the way you need them to.

The secret is to use the yellow diamond handle on the shape. If you draw a chevron or a circular arrow shape, for example, you will see at least one yellow diamond handle. This yellow diamond handle allows you to drag it and alter the angle or curve of the shape. By doing so, you can make shapes fit exactly with the one next to them. I find it helpful to zoom in on the slide when making these adjustments to get the fit just right. What looks correct in the default zoom level sometimes is not actually correct when you display the slide on the large screen.

Instead of thinking that you need to learn a fancy graphics or illustration package, use these two tips to create diagrams that illustrate your point and make your presentation more effective.