How to make the PowerPoint AI fit in with your business

How to make the PowerPoint AI fit in with your business

PowerPoint will soon be able to help you practice your presentation and stick to corporate guidelines even when it builds your slides for you.

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Microsoft has been adding AI to Office for a while, like the Excel Ideas that will automatically create PivotTables. PowerPoint Designer is proving popular: so far, users have picked a billion of the slide designs it suggests, which might be a timeline, smart art, icons or images that fit in with the text on your slides. You can even draw a slide layout with a digital pen and get a slick version of it.

The latest version of Designer can do that not just for a single slide, but the whole presentation, by suggesting theme styles and complementary colours as well as photographs that match the subject of the slide text (all of which are fully licensed for commercial use). It can also now suggest comparisons that put large numbers in perspective — for most people, knowing that commercial jets fly at the same height as Everest is more informative than just hearing that cruising altitude is 40,000 feet, and they’re more likely to remember it.

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PowerPoint Designer uses your text to guide the design and images for your slide.

Image: Microsoft

Popular as Designer is, so far, those designs haven’t necessarily fit in very well with company templates that have branding guidelines, so you could have either interesting slides or your company logo in the right place every time, but not necessarily both. Now Designer will use layouts in the Slide Master of a template as well as the slide content to pick layouts, suggest icons and images and crop pictures for the most impact.

When you create the Slide Master, you need to make sure that any background images (like your logo) are compressed, because they’ll be streamed up to the Designer service so large files would make the service slow for users. If you’re setting theme colours, make sure there’s enough contrast between them — check that for the main colours for light and dark variants, and for the accent colours against the main theme colours so that icons stand out. Use background styles rather than setting a background colour, so Designer can choose the right text colour. Remember that a picture might have a lot of white background if it’s showing a product, so avoid white text in placeholders that overlap an image (or create an alternative with dark text).

You need to have at least 15 layouts in a Slide Master for Designer to work with it, and at least three alternatives each layout to get suggestions (and if you only want light or dark suggestions for slide designs, then you’ll need to have separate light and dark slide masters with multiple layouts in). At least one layout needs to have a title and a large content placeholder for SmartArt and icons suggestions, and you’ll need examples for all the other layouts for which you want Designer suggestions. That means slides with just a title or with multiple images need layout examples with placeholders. Designer doesn’t yet work with slides that have charts or tables though. If you want slides to have footers, you’ll need a footer placeholder on every layout, or Designer won’t suggest a layout when a user adds a footer (in case it doesn’t work well with the design).

You can apply formatting to shape and picture placeholders, and you can switch from the default ‘Shrink text on overflow’ behaviour to ‘Resize shape to fit text’ as long as you do it on the text placeholders on the Slide Master itself, not the individual layouts. Either way, make sure to set the placeholder to the largest size you want to see, so Designer knows how much space it has to work with.

Designer can definitely help get your organisation to create more interesting slides, as well as saving users time, but creating custom templates to use with Designer is a fair amount of work. It’s best suited to organisations that have a design team and plenty of example presentations to test the templates on real content. Microsoft is planning to add options for rules like controlling image sizes (so your company logo can’t be cropped or shrunk until it’s illegible) but that’s more of a long-term roadmap. If you’re creating templates to work with Designer and want to suggest more controls like that, Microsoft would like to hear from you.

PowerPoint can also now use AI to help you present your slides better, by listening to you rehearse your presentation and giving you feedback — you see pop-ups while you practice and a full report at the end. The new Presenter Coach will track your pace (if you’re talking too slowly or much too fast), catch filler words like ‘basically’ and ‘actually’ as well as ‘ums’, ‘ers’, and ‘ahs’ if you want help toning those down. It will also warn you about ‘sensitive phrases’ such as swearing or gendered terms like ‘the best man for the job’.

Lots of people are nervous giving presentations, and this kind of coaching could be a big help. Audiences everywhere will be grateful if the warnings you get when you’re just reading out the slide discourage more presenters from doing that.

PowerPoint AI needs Office 365

The perspective engine is based on work done by the Microsoft Research New York lab on how to make numbers in the news more understandable. Some Bing searches in the US have been adding comparisons to put information in context — like Syria being about the same size as Florida, or how long you’d have to run to use up the calories in a doughnut — since late 2017. This is another good example of why Microsoft won’t be getting rid of its search engine: it’s the ideal place to prototype services like this.

Adding perspectives to PowerPoint is a big expansion of the service: it already covers more topics than the Bing results (which were originally handwritten, based on surveys of what comparisons made sense to people). It will also cover different geographies: if you’re in Europe, PowerPoint will suggest countries there rather than US states for size comparisons (which Bing still doesn’t do); it will also use the local currency, and kilometres if that’s the local standard. However, it’s only available in English to start with.

Both perspectives and custom template support are available in PowerPoint on Windows, Mac and via PowerPoint Online, as long as you have an Office 365 subscription. As usual, they’ll come to the Office Insider builds first and Designer for branded templates is already in the insider ring for Windows and Mac subscribers. Presenter Coach, however, will start out in PowerPoint Online later this summer (so sometime before September), “as a way of iterating on it and giving feedback,” according to Derek Johnson, who runs the PowerPoint AI team. That means you’ll need to save your slides into OneDrive, SharePoint Online, Dropbox or another location that PowerPoint Online can access to use it.

The coaching tool will be available in the Windows and Mac versions of PowerPoint in time, and in the mobile Android and iOS clients too, but you’ll always have to be online to use it, because it’s using Azure Cognitive Services to recognise speech and come up with its suggestions. You can’t customise Presenter Coach for your company to start with, but it would certainly be useful to have PowerPoint warn you if you’re using the internal codename for a product rather than the final name, if you’re mentioning a product that’s no longer on sale, talking about a competitor you maybe shouldn’t mention, or discussing sensitive financial information in your company’s quiet period.

Johnson suggested those kind of features might be available in the future. “We have a similar feature called ‘content level protection’ available in Word now, to protect things like social security and credit card numbers,” he pointed out.

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