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9 Quick Steps to Turn Shabby PowerPoint Tables into Neat and Crisp Ones

9 Quick Steps to Turn Shabby PowerPoint Tables into Neat and Crisp Ones

Ugly formatting, numbers crawling all over the slide, and haphazard structure are some obvious reasons that have given a Table (otherwise an orderly structure of rows and columns) a bad name in the PowerPoint and presentation world.


First of all, let us face the fact that tables are here to stay. Numbers are the most important facts that investors and decision makers are looking for in a presentation slide. A table, undisputedly, is an effectively way to show the numbers without much fuss. It’s not attention-grabbing but it’s not appalling too.


Some presenters, however, get a little excited while designing presentations. “Audience loves color. Let’s add some colors to our table.” No! Fancy decoration has no place on a slide showing a table of numbers. In the excitement to be creative, many presenters turn an okay table into a horrible one.


Compelled by an ugly table and inspired by a professional one, I am sharing 9 quick steps to turn a shabby table into a crisp one. Many of you won’t be guilty of making some of the blunders that you’ll see below but some of the tips will help you create a stunning table for your next presentation.  


Let’s work on this boring table (a recreation of what I came across in one of the presentations) and fix it step by step:



A table that instantly turns off the audience


Eye strain apart in reading the numbers, the table is nothing but loosely assembled information? There’s no story, no pattern that can be deciphered without going through each row (horizontal cells) and columns (vertical cells). Let us work on this table step by step and transform it into a crisp table like the one below:




Polished table that looks professional and is very easy to read


Let’s get started:


Steps to Polish a Dull Table in PowerPoint:


Steps 1- Remove All Formatting

If you have invested a lot of time in formatting your tables, we are sorry to play the spoilsport. But as we said before, you need not decorate your tables with colors and borders. Already, there is too much data to read and understand; on top of that heavy designing only adds to the cognitive overload and eye strain.


So, select your table, go to the Design tab and in the Table Styles group, click the More button (see the screenshot below):


Go to the Design tab and open the visual styles


Choose the “No Style No Grid” option (see the screenshot for reference):


Choose the No Style, No Grid option


All the formatting is erased with the click of a button. Don’t go for the Table Grid option just below that as it is (duh) boring to death. If you ever do wish to experiment with the table styles provided in PowerPoint, choose the ones under “Light” category. Don’t for the “Medium” and “Dark” designs as the table looks heavy and the color distracts audience from getting the message. Here’s how the table now looks without any makeup:


Step 1- Formatting removed from the table


Well, it appears a lot of ants crawling on a white sea. We’ll fix it now in the next few steps.


Step 2: Highlight the Header Row

What is the data in rows and columns about? The header row needs to be highlighted to help in easy reading of data. It’s not necessary, however, to give a different background color to the row. You can simply make the text bold and increase the font size a bit. If the data is in 18 point size, make the text in header row at least 20 or 22.


Second way to highlight the header row is to increase the row size so that the gap between the header row and the first row sets it apart from others. To increase the size of the header row, just move your mouse near the row boundary (invisible in our case since we removed all borders). At the boundary, a resize pointer will appear. Drag the pointer down to increase the gap. Check out the table below: while the space between all rows is distributed evenly, that below the header row is bigger.


Step 2- Highlight the Header Row


Step 3- Make Text Left-Aligned, Data Right-Aligned

There’s nothing technically wrong with centre alignment. However, when the length of the numbers fluctuates a lot, say from a 3-digit number to a 5-digit number, reading becomes a chore. A centre aligned table scores low on reading and functionality. Left or right aligned text and data is easier to read as the starting point or ending point remain the same. The eye movement is much less and relaxed in this case.


Therefore, select the table text (manufacturer names in this example) and make it left aligned. Select all the data, including the column titles, and make them right aligned.


Left versus Right Alignment of Rows in a Table


Your table will now look more in order:


Step 3- Make Names Left Aligned, Data Right Aligned


Step 4- Remove Dollars and Percentages

Time to remove the redundant elements from the table. Do we need the dollar symbol next to each sales figure? And a percentage below each column on percentage? Simply add the symbols in the column title and do it away from the data below. Subtle change but the table will look more cleaner.


P.S. Commas help us interpret big figures easily. It’s hardly redundant, instead necessary. So, we added commas in the numbers to make the table data-friendly.


Step 4- Remove Dollars and Percentages


Step 5- Arrange the Data in Descending Order

Speaking about data-friendly, what is the purpose of the slide? Review the target completion rates of manufacturers in the last quarter and compare the performance with last year’s, right? So, why not arrange the data according to the completion rate instead of alphabetical listing of manufacturer names.


If you have added a table in PowerPoint, you will have to manually arrange the data in order by inserting rows where needed. A little extra effort from your end, but the slide will make more sense to the reader.


Step 5- Arrange the data in order


Now, anybody who reads the data can come to know in a split second who the best performers and weak performers were! If your data talks about sales figures like the one above, shouldn’t the best performer deserve the top place in your table?


P.S. If you insert a table through the Excel Spreadsheet option, then the data can be arranged with click of a button. Simply select the column data on the basis of which you wish to arrange the data. Go to the Sort and Filter menu and click Sort Largest to Smallest (see the screenshot below):


Sort the data in Excel


Step 6- Highlight the Negatives

As a sales manager, you need to focus on the low performers and find the reasons for the performance dip. Even if their target completion rate was good, it could have been better. Discussing these issues is necessary to help them improve their performance in the next quarter. So, highlight the negatives by giving it a different color (obvious choice being red for its connotation of danger).


Step 6- Highlight the Low Performers


Step 7 (Optional)- Round Off the Numbers

What is better to read- 750,000 or .75M? Definitely, the latter. If every dollar and penny matters to you so much, then skip this step. Otherwise, round off the numbers. Follow the simple round off rule: That equal to .50 or greater can be rounded to the next number. So, 707,695 becomes .71M and 363,574 becomes .36M.


You will have to put extra effort and time to do all this but it saves that much time and effort for the audience to understand the data. No eye strain, no cognitive load whatsoever! Trust me, your audience will bless you for making it so simple for them!


Step 7- Round off the numbers


Step 8- Divide Data into Chunks

Now that the data is arranged in the right order, we can make the table more visually appealing. No fancy decoration. Just divide the large data set into digestible chunks. Rather than having a border below each row, have it after a chunk of data. Since we have 12 rows in the table, have a line separator after every 4 rows.


You can keep the border line below the Header Row a bit thick and darker to make the data below stand out as a separate element. How to add these lines? Simply go to the Insert menu in PowerPoint Ribbon and choose a Line from the Shapes menu. Press Shift to draw a straight line- a handy tip for all presentations where you need to draw a line. Customize the color and thickness of the line by right clicking on the shape > Format Shape.



Step 8- Divide Data into Digestible Chunks


Step 9- Add a Visual Element

Who says a table is not visually appealing? Add a visual element, for instance an icon or a data visualization to shut the mouth of detractors. How do you know which visualization to add? Well, if it’s percentages then you can show donuts, progress bars, speedometers and so on. If it’s numbers, use a bar chart.


No space to add that on your slide? You need just a little space. There is plenty of white space between each column that can be sacrificed without making the table look cramped. The way to reduce the column width is same- hover near the column boundaries till the cursor becomes a resize cursor. Manually drag the pointer a little for each column till you are left with a little space to the right of the table.


Check out how we added the “progress bar” visualization to show the target completion rate. Simply, add a rectangle of light gray color of same length next to each row. This light gray rectangle represents 100%. Now, superimpose another rectangle of same dimension (but a darker shade) over the previous rectangle. Using your best judgement, vary the length of the dark gray rectangle as per the target completion rate:



Step 9- Add Data Visualization next to the Table


That’s it! Your data-friendly table is ready with just a few minor alterations!


Tables do not have to be boring. They do not have to be very colorful. Strike the right balance of design and function to get your message across in the shortest time.


How do you design your PowerPoint tables? And how did you like the transformation we showed in this article? We would love to know your opinion in the comments below.

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20 thoughts on “9 Quick Steps to Turn Shabby PowerPoint Tables into Neat and Crisp Ones”
  1. Warren Mansur
    Nice tutorial. The after table does look much better and is easier to quickly glean information from.
    1. slideteam
      Thanks Warren! :)
  2. Lisa Callahan
    Wonderful, wonderful tips on tables and formatting them. I will definitely incorporate into my daily items.
    1. slideteam
      Thank you so much for the lovely compliment, Lisa! :)
  3. Nati Vazquez
    excellent tips on tables, will definitely apply it on my work
    Thank you.
    1. slideteam
      Glad to hear that, Nati! and our pleasure. :)
  4. RK Mundoli
    Nice .well presented
    1. slideteam
      Thank you!!!
  5. Spencer Tepper
    Really great tips...Universally applicable.
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Spencer!!
  6. Alex Lee
    Thanks. Great work.
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Alex! :)
  7. Andrea
    I absolutely love the "no-clutter" straight up tutorials, thank you so much!
    1. slideteam
      Thank you so much Andrea! :)
  8. chee leng
    Love it. So practical for presentation. Who knows tables can be made so useful an interesting
    1. slideteam
      Thank you Chee Leng! Glad you loved this article. :)
  9. Simon
    Truly helpful tips. Well done.
    1. slideteam
      Thanks Simon!!
  10. Darie
    Great tips, thank you!
    I do not fully understand Step 8- Divide Data Into Chunks, it made me think that the chunks meant something, like the manufacturers from each chunk are related in some way, but they are not. I feel that these division lines are a bit misleading.
    1. slideteam
      Hi Darie, your point is right too. One might assume that each chunk is exclusive and different from others. These division lines are simply to provide the advantage of eye relief. You can do away with it if you want.
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