What’s the old networking joke — it’s not what you know, it’s who you know?

Well, with tech questions, it’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask it.

It’s the same with asking Google, Jeeves, (or me, The Spreadsheet Whisperer), when you need help with data.  Here are some tried and true tips for asking good questions, so that you can get better, quicker answers.  Because chances are, you’re not the first person who’s come across that problem!  The real key is to find the a quick, accurate, actionable, digestible solution

1.  Be specific

Which question is easier to answer?  I think the answer is B!

a) SOS!  My subtotal is broken!

b) I used the SUM() function to add the values in 4 cells, but I am getting the wrong answer.

       c) Excel sum function wrong answer

If I was asking a real person, I would want to read or hear question B!  If I was asking Google, I would want to search C.  In fact, I tried it, and I found this awesome resource in my first page of Google results (although not my first hit).  If I heard A, I would probably ignore the question.  Subtotal?  Subtotal of what?  Broken?  How?  Is there an error?  Is the value wrong?  What function did you try?  Are the data numeric?

2.  Jot it down

If you can’t draw a diagram of what you want Excel to do, then you probably can’t implement it, explain the problem or search for a solution!  Start with a simple grid.  Add in your subtotals, your conditional formatting, your formulas, your validation rules, your graphs, etc.  Use colors, arrows, etc.  It doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective!  I will follow my own advice and provide some of these thumbnail sketches on the blog!

3.  Search by feature

Are you having trouble figuring out WHAT to even search for when you need help?  One tip is to narrow down by features.

For example, let’s say you need to divide City and State into two different cells instead of one.  The feature for that is called “delimiter” but you don’t need to know that.  You could search, “Excel + split text into two cells” and you will find helpful links right away.  Here are some other searches I’ve tried to help me make Excel/Google Sheets do something that it SHOULD be able to do.

  • Excel + text wrapping
  • Excel + text edit
  • Excel + common formula errors
  • Excel + unable to find ____
  • Excel + duplicate management
  • Excel + zip codes
  • Excel + phone number
  • Excel + character count
  • Google Sheets + make cell turn red
  • Excel + error (copy error into google)
  • Google Sheets + sort
  • Excel + pivot table menu disappeared

4.  The black hole of the internet

How do you know if you are getting good advice if you find that your question has already been answered?  Especially with discussion boards – anybody can say anything!!  Here’s the thought process that I go through (with the caveat that I’ve found most Excel help online to be overwhelmingly helpful and accurate — there are lots of good Samaritans out there who answer Excel questions just for fun!).

a) The Duck Test:  You probably already have enough knowledge (since you searched for your question!) to be a few clicks away from a solution.  Usually you can use the Duck Test (Does it sound like a duck?  Look like a duck?  Swim like a duck?  It’s probably a duck!) to figure out if the solution is reasonable.  Does it seem possible?  Is the explanation precise?  Does it seem logical?  Has it been up-voted by other users?

b) Look at the date of the post.  Is it within the last 2 years?  If it is older, I am less likely to trust it because Excel features improve over time.

c) Look at the website.  Is it recognizable?  Don’t use this as a litmus test all the time, though.  I’ve gotten some great, free advice from random people’s websites.  (And you’re getting free advice from MY website!)

5.  Don’t fear You Tube!

YouTube is a totally valid and very helpful way to learn tougher Excel concepts like VLOOKUPs, Index Match, Pivot Tables, and more.  Videos with a lot of views tend to be trustworthy.

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