Outlook 2007's Fancy Formatting: A Quick How-To

As an IT pro, does it sometimes fall to you to send out company-wide email messages? You know, communications about scheduled (or unscheduled!) downtime, information about software upgrades, or changes to password policies. Do these messages ever make you feel like you're the only one who knows what's going on at your company?

You're probably right, of course. And with just a bit of poking about in Outlook 2007, you can drive that point home even better by using the native tools in the email composer to include graphs, tables, and other graphics in your communiqués—just the sorts of things those business people and executives need to understand even the most basic concepts. And if you want to be popular with your users, give them a copy of these instructions so they can get these benefits as well.

Take a look at the email message represented in "Outlook 2007 HTML: A Response and Demonstration." Now, let's take a walkthrough of the Outlook 2007 interface and see how each of those elements was created.

The first graphical element is a fairly subtle one—those horizontal lines surrounding a block of text. The quickest, easiest way to achieve that is simply to type three hyphens (-) in a row, then hit Enter. By default, AutoFormat creates a horizontal line that runs the width of the message window, resizing if the window is resized. You can also achieve this by going to the Format Text tab of the ribbon and clicking the down arrow for the Borders and Shading command (part of the Paragraphs group). There's a default Horizontal Line choice on that dropdown menu, or you can find more predefined options to choose from by going into Borders and Shading and selecting Horizontal Line.

If you're feeling a bit more adventurous—and you know you are—you can get a lot more control over the appearance of that line by inserting it as a graphic. On the ribbon's Insert tab, click Shapes, then select the first line tool under Lines.

Your cursor will now be in drawing mode. Start approximately where you want the line to appear above the text, then hold the Shift key down while dragging across to get a perfectly horizontal line. Next, you'll get a new tab in the ribbon, Drawing Tools Format, and your fun begins. Play with the formatting options until you've found the line with just the impact you're hoping for.

I won't say much about the standard formatting options—bold, italics, and so forth—as I'm sure everyone can figure those out. However, if like many of my coworkers, the Word 2007 floating Mini Toolbar annoys you, you can easily get rid of it. To do so, click the Office button on your New Mail window, select Editor Options, then clear the check box for Show Mini Toolbar on selection. You can do the same thing in Word, of course.

Inserting a standard image is also fairly straightforward. Place the cursor where you want the image to appear, then, on the Insert tab, click Picture in the Illustrations group and browse to the file you want to insert. The Picture Tool Format tab appears in the ribbon when the image is selected; if you wish, you can create a border around the image, set text wrapping, and apply other special effects.

To include a table in your email, you'll once again be on the Insert tab of the ribbon. Click the Table button, then either select Insert Table to input your requirements or simply drag across the graph to determine your table's layout. As you select squares, you'll see your table created in real-time in the message window.

With the table selected, you'll see the Table Tools Design tab in the ribbon, should you wish to apply any fancy formatting to this feature. Add your text, data, or whatever it is you wish to hold in your table, and you're ready for the next challenge.

The next element is what Microsoft likes to call SmartArt. You'll find the option in the Illustrations group on the Insert tab. Click the SmartArt button to open the Choose a SmartArt Graphic dialog box. You'll find many options to choose from, each of them customizable after you select them. In this instance, we're looking at a Closed Chevron Process graphic, so select Process in the left pane and find the appropriate image.

When you click any image in the center pane, you'll see detailed information about it in the right pane. Click OK when you've got the one you want, and the graphic appears in your email message, ready to edit. The SmartArt Tools Design tab appears in the ribbon, which lets you choose a different graphic, add shapes to the one you have, changes its color, and so forth.

To add text, simply click \[Text\] and type away. Your text resizes automatically as you type to stay within a given shape, but you can also return to the Message tab and apply text formatting in the typical fashion. You can resize the graphic or just its frame by dragging any of the frame's borders.

The caption beneath the SmartArt is just a bit of colored text. You can change text color from the Basic Text group on the Message tab. Or use your Mini Toolbar if you haven't turned it off.

Finally, let's look at inserting a graph. You can actually create your graph on the fly, provided you have the data available. On the Insert tab, click the Chart button in the Illustrations group to open the Insert Chart dialog box. You can choose from all the standard chart options—and some pretty funky ones as well. When you pick the one you want and click OK—surprise, surprise!—you suddenly find yourself in Microsoft Excel.

Now, if you're already familiar with creating charts in Excel, this part is no challenge. Actually, it's not really tough in any case. You just customize the data in the cells to your liking, expanding or shrinking the data range as necessary. You can switch back and forth to your open email message to see what effect your changes have on the chart as you develop it. When you've got it where you want it, you can close out of Excel, and your chart remains in your email message.

The Chart Tools Design tab gives you the full range of formatting options for charts, including the ability to completely change the type of chart you've chosen. If you find you need to alter your data and you didn't save the Excel spreadsheet—so what? Click the Edit Data button in the Data group to bring the spreadsheet right back up again—a really handy feature.

In the example email message, the simplest options are chosen in each case, but you don't have to limit yourself that way. Take a few minutes to play with some of these features and you'll see there's a tremendous amount of built-in beauty—and some really gaudy, ugly stuff as well. You might think you don't have time to mess with this stuff, but a minimal time investment can create some really sharp, persuasive messages.

Until I received that message from Ben M. Schorr, I didn't know how to do any of these things. But about five minutes of looking around uncovered a wealth of formatting options built in to the Outlook 2007 interface. Sure, I don't really have much use for charts or graphics in email—but you can bet I'm going to be looking for opportunities to use them to impress somebody.

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