Saturday, February 16, 2008

What's the Word

At an advisory board meeting this week we got onto the topic of introductory computing classes and the perceived expertise of students with computers and office productivity tools (Office, OpenOffice, etc). I've heard several times from high school instructors that they are concerned that, in general, their students don't have the computer skills that they and their parents think they have.

I started to ponder the things someone heading to college and/or the professional world ought to be able to do with Office. Most people don't need Access, and use it incorrectly when they do, so let's skip that one. PowerPoint is evil, so no sense covering that. I could probably use some classes in Excel myself, so I won't be passing judgment on anyone's Excel skills. Which leaves us Word. Everyone creates documents - proposals, user guides and the not-so-great American novel. So here is my list of Word features that everyone should at least be familiar with:
  1. Style sheets and Templates - Don't re-invent wheel if you don't have to. The combination of style sheets and templates simplifies formatting and layout tasks; creates a consistent look within and across documents; and saves a lot of time. It also helps people to separate formatting and content. Did you know that Word allows you to have two separate template directories - one for your templates and one for team, department or company templates?
  2. Tables - Nothing screams rookie more that turning on the formating to see a gazillion tabs. What are people thinking? Tables are so easy to build and you can format them to break across the pages. They allow you to type in your text and sort it later. You can also use simple macros, like summing a column of numbers. You can convert text formatted with tabs to a table so quickly. Works great with form fields too (more below).
  3. Bullets and numbering - There are times when you really want to make a handful of points really standout and bullets allow you to do that. I customize them, bringing in different images from the Webdings and Wingdings character set. Nothing like a check mark, airplane or smiley face to add emphasis. Same with customized numbering schemes. I'm not sure people realize how much formatting control is available with custom numbering, including indentation and leading characters inherited from the previous line.
  4. Table of Contents - I remember when I couldn't imaging how I would ever fill two whole pages with text. Now I can't image keeping a requirements document to less than forty (with graphs, tables and appendix, of course). Wait until you do a request for proposal (RFP) on an enterprise software package. If you use the proper headings your table of contents builds itself. Makes you look like a pro.
  5. Section Breaks - It's pretty common for me to generate an analysis document that mixes portrait 8 1/2 x 11 paper with landscape 11 x 17 paper (flowcharts and data models just need more room). The only way to do it, without manual collation, is to use section breaks. Section breaks are also useful at chapter breaks so you can reset header and footer information (like chapter title or page numbering).
  6. Forms - I know, everything is suppose to be electronic, but guess what, it ain't. Sooner or later you need to create a form with check boxes and Word form fields are the way to go (use a table for alignment). Even when you stay electronic you can lock the document fields so the drop-down boxes, check boxes and text fields are interactive. Yes, InfoPath does replace it, but it still good to know form fields.
  7. Versions and Tracking Changes - Tracking changes allows you to keep a record of the changes you or others are making to your document and then accept or reject individual changes to create a final document. It is essential for multiple editors but useful for just one person too. Along the same lines, you should be able to use the compare file/merge (merging two versions of the document into one) and the commenting (commenting is different than editing) features.
  8. Mail Merge - I use it a lot less than I use to, but it is really handy to know it. You can pull data from a database or spreadsheet and merge it into a template to create a form letter, mailing labels, name tags, etc.
  9. Drawing Tools - It's really handy on user documentation to draw a big red circle on top of a screen shot with a couple of arrows and callout text that says "look here". For simple graphics I'll use the drawing tools instead of jumping out to a graphics program or Visio.
  10. Cross-referencing - It is really helpful to be able to reference a section, page, appendix and/or figure in the text of a document. The problem is that as you build the document the name or location of the referenced material will change. If you use the cross-referencing feature then your reference to "The War of 1813 on page 75" will be automatically updated when you correct the section title to "The War of 1812" and push it to page 78.
Bonus Non-Word Tip: Lorem Ipsum is the text that looks like Latin, but isn't. I've recently started using Lorem Ipsum when building styles, templates and prototypes. The text "looks" real so it flows, but it isn't real so you don't get into discussions about the content. See Lorem Ipsum - All the Facts for the history and a Lorem Ipsum generator.

That's my top ten. If a student can't do these I don't think they should be skipping any classes (and if you aren't teaching this stuff, why not?). What are your top "gotta know" tricks in Word? The ones that got you noticed or saved you time. College instructors, what would high school students benefit from knowing before they arrived on campus?



lgrt said...

The Word is "Blue". It is always blue.

I know senior techies who can write amazing software that filets, chops, dices, slices, never stops, lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn and picks up the kids from school, gets rid of unwanted facial hair; gets rid of embarrassing age spots, delivers pizza, it lengthens, and it strengthens; and finds that slipper that's been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks! But they cannot build a document using any of the features you describe as mandatory.

This is not to say that you have set the bar too high. In fact after using offshore outsourcing for over a decade, I will tell you that any kid coming out of school who is not an office software package guru, should start learning how to say, with authority and a little condescending indignation: "Would you like fries with that order".

Staying above the outsourcing tide is all about metal capital and an individual’s ability to demonstrate intellectual value in their chosen field. Demonstrating that value to a boss who is overwhelmed, understaffed and not nearly as bright as the people working under them requires presentation superpowers. And as you pointed out the key to these superpowers is having the ability to use bullets, style sheets or tables appropriately. The goal is written analysis that uses formatting correctly which allows others to quickly glance over the major points and flow to a well organized eye catching recommendation that goes beyond the data. This is opposed to putting dozens of bullet points into a table where each word seems to have its own font effect in order to highlight its importance over nothing in praticular. The latter screams like a date in a Halloween 13 movie with so much visual noise that it is immediately filed to the draw… regardless of how brilliant the point being made.
The value is not in knowing how to make a bullet list or table. I believe the value that must be taught is in the best use of these features, guidelines around them for correct emphasis and the capacity to eliminate unneeded sentences, formatting, and data. Being effective is about communicating more with less.

Corey Smith said...


You are on the mark to say that a student could know all these features and still be ineffective in their communication. This post was really about challenging the idea that kids can skip intro classes just because they "grew up with a computer". Another post on the topic of effective communication would be a pretty good idea.

Anyone out there interested in doing a guest blog post on the topic? I'd be happy to post your thoughts as a separate entry here (that way you don't have to create a blog site). Comment here if you are interested.


Eva Smith said...

I cannot tell you how valuable the mastery of these MS Word skills has been in my career. I think that students not only need to learn these features, but also how to use the "Help" menu find features as they need them. As a systems analyst and a manager I've had to write many many long and complex documents, and have discovered all kinds of tricks through "Help." In fact, I'm currently embroiled in a 250 page report, and just found that the "Master Document" feature is a useful tool for splitting a large document into subdocuments and farming them out to multiple authors, then consolidating them back together into a single view for indexing and creating a table of contents.