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 JelenSeptember 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 never use even simple features, such as formulas. The situation is more common than you might think, which led me to my next book project. This fall I’ll be working on a new volume 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.

As part of my book-writing process, I’ve been collecting stories of people who are not using Excel to its full potential. One such story is retold in this column. However, before moving on to that tale of woe, my question to you is this: Do you have a better story? If so, e-mail it to me at [email protected] or simply click on my byline link at the top of this article to pull up a comment form. The three best stories will win a copy of the world’s most advanced Excel book, Excel Outside the Box (below).

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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 of a corporation. As he tells it, he receives 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…” (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2

When K arrives at the contractor’s desk, he notices that the contractor is  finishing up some totals. Then K witnesses something he has never before seen from someone using Excel. The series of steps went like this: The contractor was totaling the cells from B3:B7 and putting the final total in E5, as shown in Figure 3.

Fig. 3

The contractor selected B3:B7, and as expected, the total of the cells appeared in the lower right corner of the Excel window (see Figure 4).

Fig. 4

But then the contractor launched 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, he knew the total would disappear (see Figure 5).

Fig. 5

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

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. (See Figure 7.)

Fig. 7

The contractor was amazed when K pressed enter and the total appeared in the cell (see Figure 8). 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

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” tale I am searching for. So I’m asking readers if they have stories that top this one — stories of someone who allegedly  “knows Excel.” If so, send them to me via e-mail, addressed to [email protected]. We’ll select the three best stories, and send those story authors 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. E-mail your question to [email protected]

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