PowerPoint Tip: Text formatting tips

Last Friday I did a web based training session for a consulting organization and one of the issues we discussed was formatting text on slides so that it was easy to understand.  Even though I try to help people use visuals instead of text, I know that text will still be an important part of our slides.  So today’s article gives a few tips on making that text easy to interpret.

Let’s start with a common issue I see on slides, improper use of hanging indents.  This happens when you want to have text on a slide that is not in bullet points, so you just click the bullet point format button to turn off bullet points in the default layout.  Unfortunately, PowerPoint removes the bullet, but does not remove the hanging indent, which causes the first line of text to hang off to the left of the rest of the text.  The audience wonders what is wrong.  One solution is to adjust the indent settings on the ruler to make the first line indent marker line up with the left indent marker.  An even better solution is to select the Title Only slide layout and add your own text box.  This way, PowerPoint won’t reformat the slide if you re-use it in another presentation.

When you use a text box to hold your text, an easy way to format the text into columns is to use the tabs that you can add on the text box ruler.  There are four types of tabs you can add, and the two most important in my mind are the left tab and the decimal tab.  The left tab allows you to line up text on the left edge at a certain spot.  This works best for a column of words because we are expecting words to be left-aligned.  The decimal tab lines up numbers at the decimal, regardless of how many numbers are on either side of the decimal.  This is the best way to line up financial amounts because it makes the numbers very easy to understand.  And is a much better approach than trying to use spaces to line up numbers (which never works perfectly anyways).

If you are forced to display a paragraph of text on a slide because you are quoting a person or a legal/regulatory document, you need a way to make the most important phrase or two stand out.  You can make those words bold, but I have found that, depending on the lighting or screen, bold doesn’t always stand out well in the middle of a paragraph of text.  Underlining was a good approach in the past, but today it has a different interpretation.  When people see underlined text, they assume it is a hyperlink because we have been conditioned by viewing web sites.  The best approach I have found is to highlight the words you want to emphasize.  Since there is no highlight tool in PowerPoint, you need to create a rectangle behind the words in a color that will be easily seen (yellow highlighting on a white background works well because it looks like a real highlighter on a page of paper).

Some of you already know the techniques to use in PowerPoint to implement the ideas I’ve shared in this article.  If you are looking for step-by-step videos, I demonstrated these techniques and many, many more of my most asked for “how-to” techniques in a webinar last year.  The recording is available here.