I have come to a point where this website has grown so rapidly that I am unable to answer all the Excel questions that get emailed to me every day. While it is awesome to have so many amazing followers who are excited to learn and improve, the unbelievable growth has caused me to cut back on the time I spend personally consulting with individual questions. Because of this, I decided to write down every strategy I use to answer questions I don't know the answer to. If I'm being completely honest with you, in the past I have had to spend quite a bit of time researching and testing to provide suitable answers to many questions that have come in.
Below I have listed my strategies in the order you should try to implement them when attempting to find an answer to your question. I whole-heartedly believe if you use these strategies, you will be able to start answering your own questions much faster than it would be to write me (or anyone else for that matter) a detailed email. Good luck on your quest!
I'll let you in on a little secret on how to become an expert.....experts know how to research! There's simply just too much knowledge out there for any one person to know it all in a particular subject. Personally, I would hire someone who could research extremely well over a person with a high IQ any day of the week! I don't claim to know all the answers, but 9 times out of 10 I will be able to come up with some sort of answer for you, and that is extremely valuable in today's marketplace. So take some time to acquaint yourself with a great friend of mine: Google!
Google by far is the best search engine I have used over the years in terms of getting me to articles and resources that answer my questions. But there is a strategy that I have developed when it comes to searching via Google I would like to share with you.
- Before you begin typing in your query, try to determine the keywords that may trigger more accurate results. I always start my searches by using the application name of the Office program I am trying to research. So I might begin my search with "Excel" or "PowerPoint".
The next word (or phrase) I type in, is the broadest word I can think of that would encompass my question. Some examples of my second word or phrase could be:
- Pivot Tables
- The third and last part of my search provides the specifics of my inquiry. With these next words, you are going to want to try and use the developers language as opposed to your own. Microsoft has official names for everything inside of Excel. Your search results are going to be much better if you use the words "Formula Bar" instead of "White box where I type in formulas". Most of the time you can just hover your mouse over an object that you want to know the official name for and it will be displayed in the screentip box. Knowing the terminology can save you tons of time while searching and I have had scenarios where I search Google for the proper name of a feature before perform my original search.
Don't Be That Guy! I can't begin to count how many times I've seen a question asked in a forum and if the person would have taken 5 seconds to do a quick online search they would have found at least 10 different articles providing them with a step by step solution. It pains me to see questions like this one:
Save the internet some space and do a little research on your own first before posting to a forum. Plus you'll probably remember the solution better if you figure the answer out on your own!
It's funny how conversing with someone can lead to easy answers, better solutions, and completely different directions. I can recall a number of times I had come to someone with a question and left completely redesigning my spreadsheet or streamlining it into a more simplistic layout. Knowing who you can go to within your company (or personal network) to ask questions or receive input about your projects is unbelievably important to an aspiring professional. Even if you don't think they have your answer, that person may surprise you or even be able to direct you to someone you didn't think to ask.
I always recommend asking someone a question in-person if at all possible (followed by phone call, and as a last resort via email). The fact is, it is much more efficient to voice your problem than going back and forth through written messages. I will admit, I am extremely bad at fighting my urge to initially write an email and it is something I am really trying hard to change!
Forums are AMAZING! I've learned 80% of what I know today about Excel through interacting in forums and I highly recommend you at least join two online communities (I'll provide some of my favorites in a bit). The Excel forums really do thrive and I haven't seen any other forum genre provide the responsiveness that I have received through Excel-focused forums. I could name many occasions where I would receive answers to my questions within 5 minutes of posting them! It's really unbelievable.
Writing Your Post
After asking and answering thousands of questions on forums and social media, I have a pretty good idea of what separates a question that will get answered quickly and one which will never get a second look. The most frequent mishap I see when looking for people to help is the amount of detail given to get a solution. Look at this question below:
All the user asks is "Please Help" and attaches a spreadsheet. First, I as a potential person willing to help have no idea what the subject matter is from the posted question. He could be needing help over something I am really familiar with or something I have no idea about. Secondly, most of the time with these sorts of posts I will have to have a long back and forth exchange with the person because for some reason they don't like to give the necessary details to solve their problem (it's like pulling teeth out). So what should a forum post look like? Here are my tips for getting the quickest and most accurate responses:
- Provide details about what you are needing help with
- Visualizations are better than words (try to add screenshots, data tables, etc.. along with your post)
- For calculations, provide hypothetical examples with the desired outputs
- Post the VBA code, data, or workbook you are working with
- Do not write an essay. If you need to write more than two paragraphs, try breaking your question down into pieces and get the pieces answered one at a time (piece-meal approach)
- Post links to web articles that may describe what you are trying to do
- Always thank the person for helping or trying to help (this will make them want to help you in the future)
I reached out to Mike Benstead, who often answers questions on the many created Excel Facebook groups (similar to forums), about his thoughts on how to get your questions answered in the most efficient way. Here are some of the things he recommends in addition to what I already listed:
- Make sure your question is relevant to group or forum you are posting to
- Don't post a new question on an existing thread or conversation. Always make a new posting
- Post to a forum where there is a large quantity of active participants. This will give you a greater chance of getting your question(s) answered
- Familiarize yourself with the group or forum posting rules before joining one
If you follow these simple guidelines, you will have great success at using online forums or message boards.
Which Forum To Use?
In the past, I had joined quite a few Excel forums, but now really only participate in two on a regular basis. Below I will provide the names of the forums and why I like these particular forums. I will also provide you with some links to other major Excel forums that are currently thriving.
MrExcel Forums (Link)
This was the very first forum I ever join, and man did I get lucky with my choice! This is mainly an Excel-centric forum, but there are areas to post Power BI and Microsoft Access questions (however these threads do not have a large number of participants). The Excel forum easily has a couple thousand participants at any given time and this is great when you want to get your questions answered quickly. The only downfall to this forum is that you cannot directly attach your workbook or a screenshot to your posting, instead you are required to textually describe your question (or use HTML code to create something visual - yuck!). Overall, this is my first recommendation to anyone who would consider themselves to be in the beginner to intermediate levels of Excel knowledge.
VBA Express Forums (Link)
I stumbled across the VBA Express forums in early 2014 and I wish it hadn't taken me so long to find them! I love this forum for a couple of reasons. First, a bunch of Microsoft MVPs frequent this forum, so if you have a more technical question you'll likely be able to find help here. Also, there are forum areas dedicated to Word and PowerPoint VBA questions (which is pretty rare). Lastly, this forum allows you to to attach files along with your question, which can be extremely helpful in certain cases.
VBA Express has also added trophies and levels that you can achieve based on your interactions on the forum. This helps build community and gives a sense of reward for frequently helping others. Overall, I would recommend this forum for all levels of Excel (from beginner to advanced) but would highly recommend it to those who need advanced help, especially with VBA projects.
Other Large Forums
There are so many great reference books out there and they tend to provide in-depth explanations about the subject matter at hand. If you want to learn all the details about Pivot Tables, pick up a book that cover's pivot tables and their capabilities. It will save you so much time by not having to scrape the internet for 50 different blog post articles because the authors of these books have done that for you and placed all this knowledge in one, centralized place! Here are a few of my favorites, that I have personally read and refer to on a regular basis (click image to view book descriptions and reviews):
Now Go Ask Your Question
Well, there you have it, you now know all my tips and tricks to solving any Office application problem you may come across. When you get really efficient, you will be able to answer your boss' questions within minutes and take credit for it. Having the ability to research and find solutions will get you well on your way to being known as a guru around the office. I really hope this resource is useful to you and please leave any feedback or tips of your own in the comments section below. Good luck!