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Spreadsheets: What's Your Best Excel Rookie Mistake Story?

Bill Jelen is collecting your best tales of Excel woe perpetrated by users claiming to have mastered the spreadsheet software. Tell us your tale.
Bill Jelen, | US
September 14, 2011

There are 750 million people using Excel worldwide. Some, like you, are quite proficient. Others will say that they are using Excel, and maybe even spend hours a day in the program, yet they are never using even simple features, such as formulas. This fall, I'll be working on a new book called Don't Fear the Spreadsheet. The  book is aimed at the estimated 40% of people who "use Excel" but have never entered a formula.

I've been collecting stories of people who are not using Excel to its full potential. Below, you will read one such story. My question to you is: Do you have a better story? If so, e-mail it to me at or by clicking on my byline link at the top of this article. The three best stories will win a copy of the world's most advanced Excel book, Excel Outside the Box.

Fig. 1

MrExcel 9-14 Fig1


Today's story is sent in by someone I will call "K". K has a real name, but I don't want to use it, in case K's coworkers recognize the story.

K works at the IT support desk. He gets a call from an outside contractor who has been assigned to help with a budget process. The contractor asks, "Can you come over and give me a brush-up lesson on using VLOOKUP? These people are really good at Excel over here, and it has been a while since I've used VLOOKUP..."

Fig. 2

MrExcel 9-14 Fig2


K arrives at the contractor's desk who is just finishing up some totals, and sees something that he has never seen before in Excel. The contractor was totaling the cells from B3:B7 and putting the final total in E5.

Fig. 3

MrExcel 9-14 Fig3


The contractor was selecting B3:B7, and as expected, the total of the cells appeared in the lower right corner of the Excel window.

Fig. 4

MrExcel 9-14 Fig4


But then the contractor launchee into what K dubbed the "Read Aloud Method." Quietly, but with his lips moving, the contractor repeated the number three times to himself. This was in an apparent attempt to make the number stick in his head, because when it was time to select cell E5, the total would disappear.

Fig. 5

MrExcel 9-14 Fig5


The contractor continued: He selected cell E5 and typed in the number from memory. As you can see in Figure 6, the contractor would have done a better job if he repeated the number five or six times, rather than just three.

Fig. 6

MrExcel 9-14 Fig6


The story's hero, K, comes to the rescue, and shows the contractor how to use the =SUM formula. That is:
     Start in E5
     Type =SUM(.
     Using the mouse, select the cells that you want to sum.
     Type the closing parentheses.

Fig. 7

MrExcel 9-14 Fig7


The contractor was amazed when K pressed enter and the total appeared in the cell. From the contractor's perspective, K had discovered a bizarre feature hidden within Excel. Of course K viewed the episode as a case of the contractor never fully grasping the fundamentals of Excel.

Fig. 8

MrExcel 9-14 Fig8


Unfortunately, the contractor never did get the hang of the "formula trick" and went back to his tried-and-true read aloud method. K reports that the contractor left three months later with the budget project unfinished.

That's the kind of "stranger than fiction" true tale I am searching for. So I'm asking readers: do you have a better story of someone who allegedly  "knows Excel"? Send it in to, and we'll select the three best stories, and send you a copy of Excel Outside the Box as a thank you.

Bill Jelen is the author of 33 (soon to be 34) books about Microsoft Excel. You can win one of his books if you submit a question for Bill to answer, and he selects your question as the topic of an upcoming column. Email your questions to: