What is Cortana? A guide to Microsoft’s virtual assistant, and how you can use it to improve your productivity

Cortana on background
Microsoft’s Cortana assistant can handle a wide range of tasks on compatible devices and apps.

  • Cortana is Microsoft’s virtual assistant available for use across various devices and Microsoft 365’s suite of services and products.
  • To use Cortana, you must have the AI-powered assistant enabled through your Microsoft account and on relevant devices and services before saying the wake phrase “Hey Cortana,” followed by a prompt.
  • Cortana’s current iteration is geared towards productivity, focusing predominantly on saving you time and increasing your focus with tools like Briefing emails and Play My Emails.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Microsoft’s Cortana is a cloud-based personal assistant that operates outside the realm of standard voice-enabled AI.

Cortana doesn’t just understand voice commands and carry out tasks but is integrated for use across Microsoft’s 365 suite of products and all Windows 10 operating systems, version 2004 and later.

If you or your team rely on Microsoft 365, here’s everything you need to know about how to harness Cortana to improve your productivity.

What is Cortana?

First launched in 2014, this virtual voice assistant’s name and concept were inspired by a 26th-century artificial intelligence character of the same name from the popular “Halo” video game series. Designed to integrate with the Windows Phone – and by 2015, Windows 10 PCs – Cortana’s capabilities included organizing and managing your daily meetings, reminders, and more alongside traditional web searches – all through typed text or voice prompts.

Everything you turned to Cortana for was then stored in a virtual “Notebook,” an approach to the virtual assistant that was based on the work of actual human assistants who spoke to Microsoft during Cortana’s development process, according to a 2014 Verge report.

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Cortana is integrated across Microsoft 365 products to keep your work and life synced.

From there, Cortana’s presence grew as Microsoft integrated it everywhere from Xbox and smart speakers to Apple and Android apps and third-party skills for Fitbit, Spotify, and more. But in the years since its launch, Microsoft users’ needs have changed, and the company’s vision for its digital assistant has evolved along with it.

What can Cortana do?

Nowadays, Cortana’s focus puts it in a different space than other voice-enabled AI assistants. Cortana primarily connects Microsoft 365 users to every element of their product suites and helps you track, organize, and manage your daily work.

Still available on Windows 10 and client applications like Outlook for iOS and Android, users can now go hands- and worry-free when it comes to managing their personal and professional work.

Included with any Microsoft 365 price plan, you can use Cortana with Windows 10 computers, the Edge browser, and Bing search engine; apps like Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote; email and calendar services Outlook and Exchange; as well as file services like OneDrive and Forms; and finally, social and meeting products like Teams and Yammer.

With Cortana enabled, using the assistant’s waking phrase followed by a command prompt can open apps, fetch the news and weather, add to your lists in Microsoft To-Do, schedule calendar event reminders, locate a file in OneDrive, join meetings, or navigate through presentations in Teams.

Voice assistant on phone

But Cortana can go one step further with personalized and interactive tools like Briefings and Play My Emails, both designed to ensure you’re at your most productive each day.

  • Briefing emails: Set up through Outlook, these briefs are sent within two hours of your workday to help you stay on top of the day ahead of you. Expect notes about outstanding commitments, requests, and follow-ups that you may have forgotten, documents relevant to the day’s meetings so you can review before you attend, and suggested focus times to help you get the most out of your unscheduled hours.
  • Play My Emails: If you need to go hands-free, this Outlook Cortana feature reads out your emails, so you don’t have to slow down to keep up. Best used with Bluetooth-enabled wireless or wired audio devices like headphones or your car audio, you can use simple voice commands for a touch-free inbox search and response experience.

How does Cortana work?

Regardless of the device, service, or program you’re using Cortana in, the Microsoft voice assistant helps users quickly get information using typed or spoken queries that connect you with other people, your work, and your plans. And with a stricter focus on assisting you with Microsoft products, Cortana can work more like an actual assistant than ever before.

While signed in to your Microsoft account and with the app or service you’re using open, just say “Cortana” or “Hey Cortana.” Cortana then responds to your requests and queries before completing relevant tasks. Simultaneously, it’s collecting certain data about you, such as your searches, calendar, contacts, and location, to help make future experiences with Cortana more personalized.

There are several ways you can prompt Cortana once enabled. These include clicking or tapping the microphone icon in Cortana-integrated products and services, executing the keyboard command “Shift + Windows Key + C,” or by saying “Hey Cortana,” followed by a vocal command. If you haven’t enabled Cortana on your PC, you’ll need to do so.

Cortana command prompts

Once Cortana is activated, you can use it for just about anything. Commands span basic requests about the weather, making calls and sending emails or messages, scheduling meetings, reminders, and alarms, as well as updating your device settings.

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Cortana keeps track of your past commands in one easy to read scrolling chat window.

But you can also use it for more complex things like math, translations, and definitions; food and travel recommendations; music and entertainment app control; personal health and fitness updates; technical support for connected devices; and fun or factual conversation.

Here are a few common prompts you can try:

  • “What’s the weather like?”
  • “Go to / Open [app name / website].”
  • “What’s [percentage] of [dollar amount]?”
  • “Where is my package?”
  • “Find photos from [date / time].”
  • “Find restaurants near me.”
  • “What is this song?”
  • “What was my step count yesterday?”
  • “Turn on/off Bluetooth.”
  • “Set an alarm for [date and time].”
  • “When is my [event name]?”
  • “Send email to (contact): (message).”
  • “Show me public transportation directions to [location / address].”
  • “Track flight [flight number].”
  • “Call (contact) at home/work.”
  • “Who’s my next meeting with?”
  • “How do I change default apps?”

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What is Microsoft Sway? How to use the powerful presentation program, and how it differs from PowerPoint

business professional giving presentation
Microsoft Sway can help you create more professional-looking presentations.

  • Microsoft Sway is a presentation program that lets you create slideshows, newsletters, resumes, blogs, and more.
  • You can also share your Microsoft Sway projects online with friends or co-workers.
  • Sway has templates you can use to start your projects, but you aren’t limited to those.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Microsoft has spent decades as both a hardware and software juggernaut. And when you look at their products, it’s not hard to see why – nearly every PC user on Earth has used Microsoft Office or Microsoft 365 at some point.

And although we tend to think of Office as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, there are actually a lot more programs out there.

One of the most useful is Microsoft Sway. Sway is a presentation making app that can can be accessed at sway.office.com for free as long as the user has a Microsoft account. For those with a Microsoft 365 subscription, Sway offers more features than the free version.

What is Microsoft Sway?

Microsoft Sway is similar to PowerPoint in that both can be used to create eye-catching and informative presentations. But while PowerPoint centers around the slideshow format, Sway’s applications are more varied.

With Sway, you can create anything from newsletters and resumes to portfolios and blogs. You can start from scratch if you have a specific design in mind, or you can upload images, documents, and YouTube videos, and Sway will design something for you around that.

Additionally, Microsoft Sway is hosted entirely online, making it easy to access and share your finished work anywhere with an internet connection.

How to use Microsoft Sway

To get started on Microsoft Sway, you need to choose one of three options from the application:

  • “Create New” will enable you to create a Sway project from scratch.
  • “Start from a topic” will let you search specific topics and create an outline for your presentation based on that topic.
  • “Start from a document” will prompt you to upload a document, which Sway will adapt into a presentation draft.
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Sway lets you choose from various templates, start from scratch, or upload a pre-existing document.

You can also click on one of the available templates for an instant outline.

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There are a number of pre-designed templates to choose from.

There are two main components to Sway’s interface: the Storyline tab and the Design tab. The Storyline is your dashboard for organizing the presentation’s content, while the Design is where you’ll see how the presentation actually looks. To put it more simply, you create the presentation in the Storyline tab, and people who view it will see the Design tab.

If you’ve ever created a blog using WordPress, that’s a good reference point for how Sway’s Storyline works. The Storyline breaks up individual paragraphs, images, and videos into “cards” so that they’re easy to keep organized, move around, and tell the story you’re trying to communicate with your presentation. As you move items around on your Storyline, the Design tab will reflect those changes.

Once you’re ready to share your Sway, click the “Play” button in the upper-right corner to see how it looks, then click “Share” to send the finished Sway to whoever you want.

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Click “Play” to view your finished Sway.

As with most creative endeavors, the easiest way to start putting together amazing Sways is to play around with it and see what works best for what you’re trying to do.

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How to give better PowerPoint presentations and improve your slides to keep an audience engaged

powerpoint presentation to coworkers in office space
It’s important to know how to create well-designed PowerPoint presentations to help your audience follow along and stay engaged.

  • You can improve your PowerPoint presentations by both improving your presentation skills and making better use of the program. 
  • To create a more compelling PowerPoint presentation, you can use tricks like animated charts, a background soundtrack, or embedded fonts. 
  • Here are 17 tips for making cleaner slides, speaking more effectively, and using little-known PowerPoint tools for smarter presentations.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Microsoft PowerPoint remains the most common platform to create and deliver presentations. 

No matter what your content, you can make a more compelling presentation when you’ve toned some common presentation skills and also mastered some of PowerPoint’s lesser-known features.

How to make a better PowerPoint presentation

Here are nine ways to get more out of PowerPoint and create a killer presentation. 

Start your presentation instantly 

Few things look as unprofessional as fumbling around trying to start your presentation in the PowerPoint app. But you can skip all that by setting your presentation to start instantly.

1. When your PowerPoint deck is complete, click “File” and “Save As.”

2. In the Save As dialog box, change the “Save as” type to “PowerPoint Show” and store it somewhere easy to find, like your desktop. 

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Save a finished presentation as a PowerPoint Show so it’ll launch directly into Slide Show mode.

3. When you’re ready to start the presentation, double-click this icon, and the deck will launch instantly in presentation mode, without needing to open the PowerPoint application. 

Create an animated chart

You can format any kind of chart so each segment animates individually. This can help you call attention to specific parts of the chart as you discuss it. Add a chart in the usual way, then:

1. Click the “Animations” tab in the ribbon and then click “Animation Pane.”

2. In the ribbon, click “Add Animation.”

3. Choose the kind of animation you want to apply to the chart. 

4. Right-click the effect in the Animation Pane and then, in the menu, choose “Effect Options.”

5. In the Properties box, choose the “Chart Animation” tab and then change “Group chart” to “By Category” and click “OK.”

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You can make each part of a chart or graph animate individually.

Align your graphics

PowerPoint lets you add objects – shapes, lines, arrows, text boxes, and other elements – to the screen, but getting them aligned can be tricky. You might appreciate knowing you can perfectly align any elements on the screen with just a couple of clicks. 

1. Press and hold the Shift key.

2. While continuing to hold Shift, click each item on the screen that you want to align. If you click an element by accident, click it again to de-select it. Release the Shift key when they’re all selected.

3. Click the “Home” tab in the ribbon.

4. In the ribbon, click “Arrange” and then, in the “Position Objects” section, choose an alignment to arrange or distribute the objects neatly on the screen. 

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The “Arrange” menu lets you easily align and format items on the screen so they line up perfectly.

Embed your fonts for portability

If you’re using special fonts in your presentation and you try to open the deck on a computer that doesn’t have those fonts installed, PowerPoint will substitute a local font, sometimes with disastrous results. You can avoid that problem by embedding the font in the deck, making the presentation fully portable (and possible for other people to share and edit the deck as well).

1. Click the “File” tab in the ribbon and then choose “Options.”

2. In the PowerPoint Options dialog box, choose “Save” in the navigation pane on the left.

3. In the section called “Preserve fidelity when sharing this presentation,” click “Embed fonts in the file” and then select “Embed all characters.”

Blank the screen to keep all eyes on you

It seems inevitable: For whatever reason, you find yourself needing to discuss a topic that’s not directly related to the slide on the screen. That’s when the deck can become a distraction, with your audience’s eyes focused on a pie chart when you’re answering an unrelated question. PowerPoint has an easy solution: Press the B key to blank the screen – it’ll turn black until you press B again or move to the next slide. If you prefer, press W to turn the screen white. 

Easily jump between sections of your deck

Not every presentation is linear, and you might prefer to jump back and forth from sections of your deck to a common “table of contents,” so you can tackle the presentation in any order. This can be handy, for example, if you’re using a deck for training or education. PowerPoint’s Zoom feature is ideal for this.

1. Create a presentation and be sure to organize it into sections, ideally with title slides dividing each part of the deck.

2. Click the “Insert” tab in the ribbon.

3. Click “Zoom” and then click “Summary Zoom.”

4. In the “Insert Summary Zoom” window, select the title slide or start of each section and then click “Insert.”

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Use the Zoom tool to jump back and forth between the presentation and a table of contents slide.

PowerPoint will add a summary page to your deck. Now you can start your presentation here and click a section to go there. When that section is complete, PowerPoint will return you to the summary page. 

Preserve the presentation as a PDF

If you want to share your presentation with your audience, a PDF file is an easy way to preserve the formatting, make it easily printable, and prevent anyone from modifying your content. Just click the “File” tab in the ribbon, choose “Save As,” and then select “PDF” as the “Save as” type. You can now share this PDF file quickly and easily. 

Zoom in for a closer look

During a presentation, you might realize that the audience can’t clearly see a detail you want to focus on. That’s ok – PowerPoint lets you zoom in with a couple clicks. 

First, make sure your presentation is set to Slide Show view. To zoom in, click on the magnifying glass in the lower-left corner of the presenter view. You’ll see a zoom box appear – position it where you want to zoom, and click. Now the presentation will be zoomed in on the part of the screen you want to focus on. You can even click and drag to move around the screen while zoomed in. 

When you’re done and want to zoom back out, either press the Escape key or the magnifying glass icon again. 

Add a musical soundtrack

You can easily add a musical score that plays in the background across all your slides. This is especially handy for “kiosk” presentations that run autonomously. 

1. Go to the slide where you want the music to begin and then click the “Insert” tab in the ribbon.

2. Click “Audio” and then click “Audio on my PC…”

3. Choose the track you want to play. 

4. In the ribbon, click “Play in Background.”

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Select “Play in Background” to ensure the music doesn’t stop when the slides are advanced.

Now, when you reach this slide, the music will start to play automatically and it will continue playing across slides until the track is over, then loop and play again.

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