From Bullets to Smart Art: You can make an interesting presentation easy

Have you ever seen a presentation like this:

There are several problems with this presentation. The first is simply that the outline for the presentation is actually written on the slide. There are times when you should do this. For instance, if you intend the presentation to be viewed online without narration. Otherwise, not only is it dull, it will encourage the speaker to look at the presentation screen or the presenter’s computer rather than engage with the audience.

Sure, you can mix it up with a little animation, and it might be that you don’t want to go too crazy with the images. While understandable, there is a better way.

This is essentially the same “outline” as the first slide. While again, you’ve just about written your talk on your slides, it is still an improvement because the slide now is a bit more dynamic.

So, that took me all afternoon to create the text boxes, align the images, layer the images over a background image, and choose the color scheme, right?

No, I didn’t. I’m no graphic artist. What I used was SmartArt. It took me one minute to create that.

But how?

  1. Select the text you want to turn into SmartArt. Notice, in this case, I have a bulleted list that has indented information. So we have Level 1 information and Level 2 information. This will be important later on.

  2. On the Home tab in the Paragraph group, select Convert to Smart Art.

  3. You will be able to select a SmartArt style that will help convey your message graphically. If you are trying to drill down to a specific detail in a topic, a target might be a good idea. If you are speeding to a goal, an arrow works well. If you are trying to indicate interlocking dependencies, there is a gear option from More SmartArt Graphics. The important point, however, is that you choose something that will help put your audience’s mind in the direction of your presentation’s main goal.

  4. Once you have converted your text to SmartArt, two contextual tabs will appear – Design and Format. From the Design tab, you can choose a color scheme for your smart art, change the layout if you find you like something better, and even convert your SmartArt into an image for use somewhere else. On the Format tab, you can format individual shapes. Want the dark green text box to be purple with an orange outline, but leave the rest the way they are? Easily done in the Shape Styles group. I’m not going to outline all of the options, as the best way to learn SmartArt is to play with it.

However, there is one point about SmartArt I do want to draw your attention to. That’s the text pane. You’ll notice that on the left of the SmartArt box, there is a small arrow. If you click on that, it will display the text box.

The text box retains the bulleted text and the indentations that you originally wrote. Each level of the bullets will drive the appearance of the SmartArt. Sometimes, adding a bullet point will add a shape. Sometimes changing the indentation will change how the shape appears. This is something else I strongly encourage you to play with. It’s quite intuitive, and it might give you some ideas for your presentation.


Note: I used the Dividend theme straight out of the box from PowerPoint 2016.

Optimize for Mobile Devices: A Heartfelt Plea

I have a bone to pick with you web developers, business owners, and bloggers out there.  Many of you don’t have mobile-friendly sites.  Why is this?

Even back when I was living in the dark ages and was not using a mobile device myself, I understood that there were plenty of people around who were.  My sites all have a mobile version.  Granted, I’m running WordPress-powered blogs for the most part, so getting the plug-in wasn’t exactly hard or anything.  I did it because I know that when you’re bored, reading short pieces appropriate to a blog is a common way for the wired to entertain themselves.

Don’t think it’s just for blogging, though.  More and more, people will be using mobile devices to search for information as they’re going about their day.

Who Needs a Mobile-Friendly Site?

  • Restaurants

Every one of us has looked around, at our friends and voiced that time-honored phrase, “Where do you want to go for dinner?”  We don’t always ask this question in front of a computer or phone book.  Make sure that you have a mobile-friendly page that shows your location, hours open, menu and a general idea of prices.  It’ll make it more likely for your customers to pick you.

  • Bloggers

Yes, that theme you designed is very pretty.  Guess what? I can’t see it on a screen smaller than the palm of my hand, and I’m not visiting your site because it’s pretty.  If I read a blog regularly, it’s because I find what you have to say entertaining, informative, or more likely both!   Have a mobile version.  And if you’re worried about ad revenue, don’t.  On your mobile version, you can set it so that the ads show interspersed with the text or at the bottom of the screen.

  • Anyone that sells things over the Internet

Amazon has a mobile-friendly site.  Big department stores do, too.  If you sell products online, you really want your potential customers to be able to make an impulse purchase from their mobile phones.  You don’t have to spend a fortune on a site that’ll be friendly to your mobile customers,  and you want to be able to make it easy for them to make that impulse purchase.

Let’s assume you’re convinced.

What makes a website mobile-friendly?

  • Vertical Design

Mobile devices generally have a screen that is narrower than it is wide.   The user will be scrolling down a great deal to get to content.  Make sure the most useful content is right at the top – rather like going for page rank on Google.

  • Minimized clicks

Make sure that your user doesn’t have to click on too many internal links for the site to be useful.  However, resist the temptation to put all of the content on one page.

  • Minimized textual input

Typing on a mobile is a pain.  Make sure you’re not forcing your user to fill out too many forms.

  • Minimized Image Use

Think icons here.  Don’t integrate the image into the usefulness of the site!

  • Good Content organization

Make sure you sit down and draw out not only a generalized design, but make some flow charts about how your user is likely to navigate the site.  Test this with people who are not web developers until you can get a usage flow that makes sense and is fairly intuitive.

Remember that your main site, the one that people will be browsing on larger screens, can be considerably more elaborate.  What you want here is a version of the site built specifically for your mobile user.  If you’re considering a new website, make sure that you get a designer that understands these principles.


Why I Hate Tips and Tricks in Software Instruction

I’m about to play the hypocrite a little here.

A vast majority of my blog posts here on Figart Consulting are little nuggets of information about software. Why? Because it’s easy. I can write a 500-1000-word piece on some little bit of productivity software knowledge that might be useful to you. It might save you a half an hour when you’re trying to accomplish something.

And it’s still not really as useful as it could be.

There’s a reason for that, and it’s why I hate these little classes in software applications. You know the ones, “How to manage your Inbox” or “How to Make Pivot Tables in Excel.” I’ve taught classes like that. Shoot, I’ve written classes like that. I don’t like them.*

Why are they taught? For the same reason I write the articles. They’re easy – both for the teacher and the student.

What Tips ‘n Tricks Are Good For

It’s not that these little classes are unilaterally useless. They’re not. It’s that they’re truly only worthwhile to a peculiar subset of the population. The Gee, I Didn’t Know That! Nifty Tip is really only good for someone who knows the software in the first place. When I say “knows,” I do not mean someone who can look at the interface and puzzle it out. I don’t even mean someone who can make the software do a single task or figure out something.

When I say “knows,” I am speaking of someone who understands the underlying logic behind the software, and how its features might integrate to perform multiple complex tasks. The reality? Most people don’t know the software they use very well. (And if you argue that you shouldn’t have to understand its underlying logic to use it, I have to ask is your task truly complex enough to require software?)

If you do understand the software you’re using, yeah, those little tips and tricks will be quite useful. It’ll save you some time and you’ll be able to apply them in a useful way.

Where Tips ‘n Tricks Fall Down

I’ve taught a lot of classes in Excel. The class I want desperately to teach, and have never had the opportunity to do so, is the How to Design a Spreadsheet class. There are reasons for this. Not only is course development expensive, this is not conducive to the one-day training most employers prefer. For it to work well, I’d have to teach it more like a college class – several days over a course of many weeks – including homework and a project.

This comes from an hour on the phone doing tech support that was really turning into a development class when a user inherits a workbook that no longer works properly because changes need to be made in how data is tracked.

This comes from helping someone update a presentation using the tools available in PowerPoint, only to find that they do not know how to structure an effective talk.

This comes from re-formatting articles that cross my desk for editing purposes because the user doesn’t understand format and text flow in a document.

None of these problems can be fixed by Tips ‘n Tricks, but by understanding what the software is supposed to accomplish and understanding what task you’re trying to accomplish. Too much of what we do with computers really does have a flavor of, “Don’t bend that wrench, get a bigger hammer!”

Don’t get me wrong. I know why we don’t do it. Learning the principles behind anything is hard.

We Need to Teach Principles Based Productivity

Even though principles-based learning is hard at first, we need to teach it. The sad reality is that most people are taught to be able to do well on standardized tests. In the real world, though, you do not have standard problems to solve. I don’t care what your job happens to be, if it’s complex enough to sit down in front of a computer to it (and that includes being a cashier), you need to be able to analyze what you see in front of you, and plan not only a solution, but a way to avoid the problem in the future.

This means teaching people to sketch out what they want on a whiteboard before they sit down to create a spreadsheet. This means making an outline before starting a document. This means brainstorming a talk, maybe even writing an outline, before creating presentation slides.

To the computer professional, the expression, “Never skip the design phase” might be common. The thing is, that skill is necessary for more than just the programmers. You need to know where you are going. You need to know what you want to accomplish. You need to know what your tools can do. Without that, tips-n-tricks are pretty useless.

* This is not a secret to anyone who has asked me to write such a class, by the way. They’ve gotten this earful more than once.

Zero and Zip Codes in Excel

Once upon a time, there was a completely random and fictional person who had to convert a mailing list from an Excel spreadsheet to a series of mailing labels via Mail Merge in Word. This completely random and fictional person truly was pretty good with MS Office, but had gotten a bit cocky and wasn’t quite as good as she thought.

This (honest!) completely random and fictional person had a client in Northern New England. The location will become important to the story later.

The spreadsheet had a list of ten thousand addresses. But the completely random and fictional person was undaunted. After all, the source spreadsheet looked wonderful – as well, laid-out and sensible a table as one could wish for when creating an address list:

Beautiful, right? It was going to be an easy mail merge.

(Y’all’ve guessed it wasn’t, I am sure.)

So the completely random and fictional person set up the mail merge and did something pretty stupid regarding printing out ten thousand labels. This completely random and fictional person neglected to do a print preview, set that bad boy to print and went for a cup of coffee and chat with the client before going back to the printer.

At the printer, the completely random and fictional person found ten thousand labels with addresses like this:

Can you spot the error? Check out those ZIP codes. ZIP codes in the US have a minimum of five characters. So why in the world didn’t the beautiful (and correct!) zip codes in the spreadsheet translate to the mail merge?

When you do a mail merge, what Word actually does is take the characters in the cell (or the results of a formula) from the spreadsheet and copies them to the proper field in the document.

Take a look at the actual contents of the zip code cell for Boris Badenov:

Even though the cell is set to display as a five-digit ZIP code, the value in cell F2 is Three Thousand Seven Hundred Sixty-six, not Zero-Three-Seven-Six-Six.

So, what’s the numeric difference between those two numbers? None at all. It is only as a string of characters, the actual Arabic numeric symbols, that this becomes important. When you enter a string of Arabic numeric characters into a cell in Excel, it immediately formats that string as a number and will strip out the numerically meaningless preceding zero.

When you format cells as a ZIP code, it will take that string of four characters, and add a zero for you to see in Excel, but it does not store that zero as an actual character.


Instead of formatting the cells as numbers and a ZIP code, you format those cells as text. Then you can keep the preceding zero just fine.

The problem comes in when you hand someone an assignment to enter a bunch of addresses (including some New England addresses) into a spreadsheet. Unless the person doing data entry is thinking regarding data transfer to other applications, they’re not going to bother to think about doing anything other than just formatting the zip code as a zip code. They won’t give it another second’s thought.

If you’re going to be using Excel to store data that has a preceding zero that you will be using in mail merges or transferring to other programs, be sure to select that column of information, and format it as Text. (I don’t recommend the trick of the preceding apostrophe, i.e. ‘03766. While it does, indeed, cause Excel to format the data as text and only display the numbers, it plays hob with data transfers like mail merges!)

Nifty Tip: Using the CONCATENATE Formula

The CONCATENATE formula allows one to combine text from multiple cells into a single cell. The CONCATENATE formula is in the Text category in the Insert Function dialog box.

To add a blank character between words, type a space between quotation marks. This adds a blank character between the separated text. Whatever is between the quotes, be it a space, text or characters, it will show up in the concatenation.

So, if you were trying to create an email address at Dartmouth College, the formula would be:


Which would yield:

Tables in Excel and Why They Rock

Quick, when someone mentions the word “table” with reference to Excel, what do you think of?

Probably an array of some sort organizing rows and columns of data. While that’s not incorrect, necessarily, tables are object in Excel that can do so much more.

What are Tables?

Tables are specific objects. When you format a range of cells as a table, you’re telling Excel that you’re going to treat this range as a unit to display and manipulate your data.

So, let’s say you take a range with some data in it that looks like this:

We’re listing students, their Hogwarts houses, their favorite candies, and how Ordinary Wizarding Levels they achieved. We’re going to be doing market research on a new candy flavor, and we will be taking this sample data to try to decide how to target different demographics based on the information we have.

Why Use Tables?

We can manipulate the data in this step by step if we want to – apply color, borders, fill, filters, and so on. But there is an easier way.


A nice-looking array with banded rows and different formatting for the header isn’t just about the “pretty.” Differences in format, color and shade make the table easier and faster to read. That’s why your supervisor gets excited at well-formatted tables. The data is easier to analyze.

Let’s make this array a table.

  1. Select the range of cells you want to format as a table. In this case, it will be cells A1:E6
  2. On the Home tab in the Styles group, click on the Format as Table button.

  3. The table style gallery will appear. Choose a layout you like.
  4. A popup will appear asking if your table has headers and to verify the range of cells you want to make a table. Most of the time, it will have headers, so make sure you have checked it.

  5. Click OK.

You now have your table. Isn’t it pretty?

The pretty might be enough for you. After all, this is a decent layout, quick to do and easy to add to. Any time you add another record to this table, the range of the table automatically expands to include it, and you’ll notice the banded rows continue. It looks good automatically.

However, while this is nicely laid-out and easy to read, there’s more to tables than just looking good easily. There are some other functions that can be important.

Structured Referencing

For our example, we’re trying to analyze how important someone’s opinion might be based on two things – their Hogwarts House, and how many OWLs they’ve achieved.*

With tables, we can easily create this equation, then apply it to a large table.

For this example, we’re going to be listing the houses with Slytherin being the most influential with a score of 4, then Gryffindor with a score of 3, Ravenclaw 2 and Hufflepuff 1.

We’ll add column to our table called Influence. Then we write this equation in the first cell of the Influence column.

=IF([House]=”Slytherin”, 4, IF([House]=”Gryffindor”, 3, IF([House]=”Ravenclaw”, 2, IF([House]=”Hufflepuff”, 1, 0))))

Looks rather like a monster, doesn’t it?

What this is doing is a series of evaluations that will assign an influence integer based on the House name. Instead of referring to a specific cell in Column C (i.e. C3), it instead goes by the Structure of the table and just refers to the House field. Structured referencing means that we can perform calculations easily based on structure.

Now that nested IF equation is a bit of a pain in the butt to write, and I only want to do it once. Because I write the equation in the first cell of the Influence column in the table, it will automatically copy that equation down to each of the cells in the Influence column.

Now we are going to create our Influence Score based on the number of OWLs achieved times the Influence a particular entry has.

We will again create another column calling it InfluenceScore. We write our equation as =[OWLS]*[Influence], not as =SUM(E2*F2). This is where structured referencing comes in. We’re doing calculations based on the field names, not the specific cells.

You will also note that the field names are not case sensitive. When we press Enter, the equation will copy down the entire column. For eight records, this is not a particularly big deal. Autofill might serve as well. But if you have thousands of records, you might find that this comes in handy. (I sure do!)

Once we have our InfluenceScore, we can then click on one of the AutoFilter buttons on the right of InfluenceScore header to sort the table from highest score to lowest.

From there we can see that Albus Dumbledore is probably the most influential person to approach about candy marketing in the Wizarding World.


As you can see, formatting a range as a table can make sorting, filtering and evaluating date much easier. While this example only has a few records, if you need computer enhancement, you’re probably dealing with hundreds or thousands of data points. When you’re doing so, formatting data in tables for evaluation can make your job much, much easier!

* For the non-Harry Potter fan, an OWL is a test passed in a particular subject. The more OWLs you’ve achieved, the better student you probably are and more likely to have an influential job.

Guidelines for Blog Authors

Congratulations. You’ve been asked to submit an article for online content. Once you’ve settled the remuneration, schedule, and deadlines, you might want to ask for the format in which you should submit an article.

Don’t freak, however, if you get the email equivalent of a blank stare. The author wrangler may not be the content manager, nor are they necessarily the person in charge of cleaning up and posting the article. If it happens that you don’t get specific rules, these guidelines will make things simple for the person who posts your article.

  1. If at all possible, use a standard word processing program.

    MS Word, in its more modern versions, does an adequate job of cleaning out junk code and even has the option to post to several content management systems. But if you don’t have Word, OpenOffice or Google Docs is just fine, as long as you don’t try to get too specific with the layout.

  2. Don’t get cute with fonts. Just use the program defaults.

    I know you love Papyrus, or think that Times New Roman gives your work such a professional air. You may even have Views about appropriate fonts for the Internet. Don’t try to force this, as the person who posts your article needs to follow the blog stylesheet (they have them, even if your contact doesn’t realize it). There are exceptions to this. For instance, when you’re writing an article that requires you to show programming code. Courier New is a good basic font for this. (Why is beyond the scope of this article, but it has to do with ease of spacing). In general, however, there is little reason to be specific with fonts. For your article, run with your word processor’s default, even if you have to hold your nose to do it.

  3. Headings are important but use the heading styles rather than change the font sizes.

    Headings in blog posts are more than subtitles or ways to organize a longer article. Yes, that’s part of it, but search engines also give greater weight to text in headings. It is very important that if your word processing program has the Heading 1, Heading 2 (and so on) styles available that you use them as section headings in your article. Again, go with the defaults. Yes, that blue that MS Word uses for its standard template might make you wrinkle your nose. But it’s not going to matter when the content manager uploads the article to the blog’s CMS. The blogging software will translate those fonts and colors to whatever template and stylesheet that the blog’s web developer uses.

  4. Forget headers, footers, page numbers or forcing page breaks.

    That’s for print. It’s needless work on your part that the person posting your article will remove anyway.

  5. If layout is important, and you force it with a table, please explain to the webmaster why this might be.

    They might have ways to fix it that don’t use tables. Most blogs need to be mobile friendly, and if you force layout with a table, it may not translate well from a computer screen to a phone or tablet. If it’s too much of a pain to read, many people just won’t bother. You want people to read your work, yes?

  6. Don’t get fancy with image layout, either. Have each image on its own line.

    The same principle applies to images as tables. Forcing a layout that would be pleasing in print may translate very poorly to the varying screen sizes in which people will be reading your article. The friendlier your webmaster can make it for more screen sizes; the more people will read and love your work!

What Are Master Slides and Why Are They Beautiful

While I do not think a PowerPoint presentation is a substitute for learning to speak well, I do think that if you have that presentation down pat, visual aids can help.

For me, Master Slide are like formatting a Word document in Styles. It streamlines the creation process, helps with consistent formatting, and allows the designer to apply universal changes to large presentations both quickly and globally.

What is a Master Slide?

A Master Slide is a series of slides and sub-slides that control the layout and appearance of a PowerPoint presentation. From here you can control themes, colors, fonts, and individual slide layouts.

Master Slides Save Time

Have you ever created a presentation and had a colleague or supervisor praise it to the skies…

… except they didn’t like the font, and thought the color scheme was juuust the wrong shade of fuchsia?

If you have not formatted your presentation using the Master Slide options, but instead have formatted slide by slide, that 80 slide presentation is going to take forever to update!

If you have formatted using Master Slides, you’ll make the corrections on one Master Slide, then have those corrections populate throughout your presentation.

How Do I Use a Master Slide?

Here’s a little secret. All presentations have Master Slides. It’s just that so many of us don’t use them.

To access the slide master:

  1. Activate the View tab.
  2. Click Slide Master.

From here, you will access a Master Slide and various layouts available in your presentation. If you can do it to a slide, you can do it to a Master Slide, so this is where you can get creative. You can apply headers and footers to the slide globally, add a background image to all slides, control the font, color and layout of each slide.

The Right Tool for the Right Job


Excel is a powerful program, no doubt.  When you need hard-core data analysis it’s a great tool.  Sadly, this is not how I often see Excel used in my professional life.

I see Excel used as a table creation tool for printed schedules — no calculations being performed at all.  I see Excel being used as a database.   This is forgiveable.  If you know what you’re doing, you can make a decent flat database with Excel. 

But that is exactly the problem.  A well-designed database is one that can be used by someone who does not necessarily know what they’re doing, but can enter data and pull reports easily.  This is where Excel falls down badly.  Hand this tool to someone who does not know what they’re doing, and you’d better be locking down a lot of functions on the user end, or you’re going to wind up with destroyed data.

I encourage people who use Excel for data tracking to look carefully at their data before making a decision about what application to use when doing it.  The two biggest criteria I see are record count and report complexity.

If your data is going to be involving millions of records, you want a database.  Excel will choke.  If you want complex data reporting across several data tables and records, you want a database, not Excel.

If you’re dealing with a few thousand records and need to display that data graphically to explain in a presentation, yeah, Excel is your tool and it works great.

The Top Three Reasons to Use Styles When Formatting a Document

Do you use styles in formatting your MS Word doc?

Do you even know what styles are?

At its simplest, a style is a collection of formatting – font face, font size, font color. And when you hear that, you think, “So what? Why should I go to the trouble of using those presets to format my document when I can think of something so much cooler?”

Styles Help You Write

I’m going to go back about thirty years when I was first learning to write. My fifth-grade teacher, like many in the US, taught us something called a Five-Paragraph Essay. This project takes the student through the writing process by teaching them to create an outline, coming up with supporting points for their topic, and then using that to start writing the actual essay.

When you use styles, you can integrate the outline and the writing process easily. Come up with the main points you want to cover in your document format them as headers, and then, voila! You have a ready-made outline in your navigation pane.

But let’s say that you’re writing something that has some sub-points to make:

Outlining helps to organize thoughts

When you outline, you’re organizing your piece into units of thought that go together logically. Maybe you’re writing an instruction manual, and you want to divide by topic or sub-topic. Maybe you’re writing a speech, and you need to make sure that your points go together into a coherent group. Formatting your points into headings and subheadings means that you can do this on the fly as you’re in the brainstorming stage of your piece.

Outlining makes text flow easier

But using headings and subheadings to outline your document isn’t just for the writer. A document that uses them makes it easier for the reader to follow. If you’ve ever tried to read a wall o’ text explaining something, you’ll agree that formatting documents in headings and subheadings mean that you can digest the material more quickly.

Styles Make Document Structure Automatic

Once you have the outline for your document using styles, the structure of the outline can drive the structure of the document.

Have you ever collaborated on a piece with someone, only to find that your perfectly-paginated and laid out document is now completely messed up because one of your co-authors has added a few paragraphs of material somewhere?

It can be frustrating until you realize you can edit a style that makes this sort of thing unnecessary.

Let’s say that you’re formatting a document so that anything that is a Heading 1 in your work would be analogous to a new chapter in a book. Therefore, it always needs to start on a new page. Sure, sure, you could add a page break before the Heading 1 manually. But why bother when Word can do that for you?

  1. Right-click on the style you wish to change (in this example, Heading 1)
  2. Click on the Format button in the lower-right corner.
  3. Then click on Paragraph.
  4. Click on the Page and Line Breaks tab.
  5. Check Page Break Before.
  6. Click OK on each dialog box until you get to your document again.

Now the wordiest of co-authors can’t mess up pagination!

There are many more features that can be style-driven if you want them to, and I encourage you to explore Using Styles in Word from Microsoft. Styles can control tables of contents, headers and footers and other types of formatting that make the document easily-readable.

Styles are Easy to Change

The biggest reason to use styles, in my opinion, is that they are easy to change. If you’ve ever been in a meeting and had someone hung up on the color or size of text in a document, you’ll understand why styles make this easy.

Debbie and Bill might be at each other’s throats in the design meeting going back and forth on whether or not to use the purple (because it’s a strong color) or the green (because it implies calm and good resource stewardship). And there you are chewing your nails because you know that this 800-page document has fifty headings and subheadings. They could come to an agreement only to have Corey over in Marketing put the kibosh on their choice for an aqua when you’re three-quarters through implementing the green on each heading one by one.

If you’d used styles, all you have to do is edit the styles themselves and the change is global.

I hope you’ll consider using styles for your next MS Word document to see how much easier the writing and formatting goes.