Monday, January 29, 2007

College students: get good at Excel and Powerpoint

If you're in college and looking to climb your way up the corporate ladder when you graduate, I have one small piece of advice that is yet another way to set yourself apart from the pack: learn MS Excel and PowerPoint inside-out.

When you start your first job, you're not going to be given a ton of responsibility. But, your goal should be to get noticed for how well you can do what you are asked to do. If a manger asks you to put together a spreadsheet or a presentation for them, you don't want it to take you three days and have it come out looking like a piece of junk.

It's easy not to pick these things up in college. I know presentations in school are often done in a group format, and the group will often settle on the Excel or PowerPoint expert to do up the spreadsheet and the presentation. In the short run, that's a nice way to do well on the project, but in the long run, if you are never that expert, you might go through college without learning what are without a doubt two of the biggest skills a new college grad can have.

A student with a business degree will have more opportunities in their first year to impress a boss with a well put-together presentation (deck, slideshow, or whatever else you might call it) than with their knowledge of Michael Porter's 5 Forces.

I admit this is low-level stuff, but this is a piece of advice I wish someone would have given me in college when there were so many learning resources around me.

I'm not saying you fall asleep in your competitive strategy class, but don't expect the CEO to ask your opinion on which markets to enter during your first year working at a Fortune 500 company.

Chances are if you make a name for yourself as someone good with these programs, many of the more senior workers who never learned how to use them properly will come to you to ask for your assistance. You will be seen as smart and competent, and you can get to know people you might otherwise not have come in contact with.

I'm not going to go over all of the things you need to know. You can read about those in a how-to book, or learn about them in any class worth its salt.

A few things I believe would set you apart in excel would be: using the TABLE function, using pivot tables, creating custom charts to standardize the way you show pie/line graphs (if your company does not already have a standard), learning how to get quick with keyboard shortcuts (quick tip on this: go to Wall Street Training's website and download the WST macros as well as the excel shortcuts pdf file), being able to create and format financial statements, mastering print settings (such as rows to repeat at top, set print area etc.) so your work looks good when you show it to someone, and using VLOOKUP/HLOOKUP. This is not an exhaustive list but a place for you to start.

When it comes to powerpoint, I'd say some of the key things are learning formatting, proper spacing for bullets and heights for letters (there's a lot more to this than you would think), standardizing layouts/templates, using the align functions to make sure pictures/shapes are perfectly lined up, getting colors perfect (a neat tool I like here is Color Cop which is free), pasting in tables etc. from excel, and in general just creating simple, pleasing formats. For practice, look for powerpoint presentations that may be posted on company websites and see if you can duplicate them from scratch. If you're going into finance, pay specific attention to the investor relations websites of public companies for good examples.

None of the above applies to anyone in visual/graphic arts. The kinds of presentations you'll create in these areas are likely much different from general business presentations.

If you cant figure out how to do something in MS office products, remember GOOGLE IS YOUR FRIEND. You can just google pretty much anything and find an answer very quickly. For example, google "how to shade every other row Excel 2007" and look at how many answers/tutorials you find.

If you really want to get fancy, you can also check out The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Tufte. This is an intensive study on how human beings process data, and the best way to present it in a visual format. It is very theoretical, but I highly recommend reading the book and studying it a little because people often create ridiculous charts for no reason when something simpler and more elegant would do a better job of conveying a message. The book is not specific to Excel, but you can definitely use the info in it to help you to create better looking and more informative charts, graphs, and data tables in Excel.

For what I think is a great take on big picture PowerPoint theory, check out Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint. Of course, you're often at your boss's whim when putting together a PowerPoint presentation, but I think Guy makes some great points about how to put together a great presentation. I'm getting a bit off-topic here, but he also wrote a post about how to get a standing ovation when you make a presentation. If you have the ambition and the nerve... try for a standing ovation during your next presentation.

Anyway, just my thoughts on a couple of high-value skills college students sometimes overlook.


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