Seeing the Forest and the Trees

I need to ask you a big favor:

if you ever see me using too much technical Excel-speak and not explaining enough in plain English, then PLEASE call me out on it. When I’m talking to a software developer or data scientist or database nerd, then sure I’ll try to show-off with big technical words. But when it is you and me, or anyone else who has better things to do than become fluent in “Excelese,” let’s keep it simple and straightforward.

Check out the first sentence of an email I got from one of my favorite Excel sources on the web: “Data labels are a flexible system in Excel's charting engine made to display source data directly in a chart.”

If you got it right away, that’s awesome!! But maybe, like I did when I first read it, you felt confused by the language and couldn’t picture what it was trying to explain. Data labels are a system? Excel has a charting engine? What is source data? What is a chart?

As you already know, everything you need to know about the technical parts of Excel is already on the internet (and don’t forget, it’s free!). But the way that it is presented and talked about can be a whole other layer of challenging, and sometimes requires you to know more “Excelese” then we should really be expecting from someone who has to use Excel, but it isn’t the main part of their job.

The problem that a lot of my friends, family and clients have with this kind of technical explanation from an Excel guru is that it is doing its best to speak English about Excel, but it is still mired in Excel language.

So what was this sentence really saying? Here it is in English: In Excel, when you make a graph (also called a chart) it can sometimes be hard to know what the exact information is being presented - whether it is the bars in a bar chart or the slices in a pie chart. For example, if you have a pie chart with 4 slices, all different sizes, what percentage of the pie is each? What actual number does that percentage come from? You can have that information on the chart itself, and Excel calls that Data Labels. Without these little labels in the picture, you’d see bars and slices, but you wouldn’t know exactly what numbers they are supposed to be telling you:


Now, did that make any more sense?

One of the first mindset approaches that I teach for Excel is all about “visioning.” This is basically the process of thinking about, speaking out loud, writing down, and getting specific and detailed about the thing that you want to do or accomplish in your work. You are probably already be doing this in some capacity either for your work in Excel or elsewhere in your life, and you already speak your first language (mine is English). So learning and practicing how to do visioning for Excel work can be a quick and easy win that can yield incredible results.

Nobody sits down to a spreadsheet and says “I want to change the data labels system in the Excel charting engine.” No, you sit down and you say - Hey, I need to see the actual numbers of my information in my graph. And while we are at it, can it be in the font, size, and color that brings me to my happy place?

Nearly every time you start working in Excel or google sheets, the first thing you should do is…Stop! Don’t work in the sheet just yet. Open up Word, or Docs, or break out the pen and paper, and start envisioning and capturing what it is you want to do or have in the end. Write a little story about it in English. The translation from your vision to functions, formulas, and formatting in Excel/sheets will go so much faster! Here are some sample questions you should ask yourself when you start:

  • What is my vision / end-goal?
  • Can I break it down into smaller, specific pieces?
  • Do I have everything I need in one place?
  • What do I know how to do?
  • What am I unsure of?

You might find yourself starting out pretty big, with something like “I want to be able to be a guru in Excel and use a lot of cool formulas.” OK, that is great! But, it isn’t specific enough to help guide you to success. Start big, but break it down and get as specific as possible. Get down to something like “I need the information that is in Column F in my first worksheet and Column B in my second worksheet to be in one place, and in alphabetical order.” Once you get to that point, then you can break it down into smaller pieces.

Here is my challenge to you: Open up a google doc, call it “Excel Vision Freewrite” and just start typing. Don’t delete anything, don’t slow down, just get down everything that you are thinking about related to your Excel project. And if you want any advice or suggestions from me about how to accomplish what you want to do - hit Reply and share the link to your document!

Want to learn even more about writing your vision / end-goal statement and getting from there to learning the technical skills to make Excel work for you? Head over to my contact page and let’s find a time to connect about how I can help out!