writing

Regaining My Brain: A Journey Through My Education, Career and Beyond

10 years ago, I was halfway through my Masters in Business Administration program.  It was challenging, especially since I was in school full-time, working full-time as well as a part-time job and attempting to maintain somewhat of a social life as a young 20-something.

But I was brilliant, at least in my own mind.  I started school a year earlier than most, excelled in high school, with a 3.86 cumulative GPA, taken honors classes and even achieved the National Math Scholar Award, and this was with minimal effort as I had never really mastered the art of studying.  I didn’t fare such high grades in college, graduating with about a 3.4 GPA, but I was enrolled in the honors program, worked and had a social life.  I was anxious for what the world had for me and earned an internship at the Washington News Council through winning a mock trial I had participated in, in my media ethics course.

But the world wasn’t offering what I was expecting.  Growing up, we were always told that if we went to college and participated in extracurricular activities, we’d get a great job, but by the time I got out of college, I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.

My internship was amazing, but it wasn’t enough to pay a living.  I had several interviews, but I was naive and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life so I failed at making a good impression.  My interests were working with animals and writing, but neither panned out much of a career for me.  I was ready to make it big time in some field, I just didn’t know where.  After several months, my internship ended and I ended up taking a job at a pet grooming salon.

It was hard work, physically, but not mentally stimulating for my fresh from college brain.  There were days when I would spend 8 or 9 hours just drying dogs, unable to talk to anyone over all the noise and not requiring much thought.  I felt like my brain was slowly dying.  The hours were long, the work was physically demanding and I ended up not having much energy to do anything once I got home and showered my day off.

That’s when I decided my degree wasn’t enough.  I had tried, working hard every day to land my dream job, whatever it happened to be.  I was a bit insecure, never having had worked anywhere for more than a few months, which had been my strategy through my early career.  While in college, I never kept a job longer than a semester so I could experience a variety of jobs.  It was a smart move in my opinion, because it gave me the variety of abilities I still hold to this day.  It got to the point where I’d just go to the job board, scout out the highest paying job and apply for it.

I spent my first year of college doing web design for different departments.  My second year was spent as a freelance writer, radio dee-jay and paid note-taker.  My third year working in the barns and at the vet school, and my senior year as a waitress.  During the summers, I would work at a local chain of pet stores, giving me retail experience.  In just 4 years, I’d had almost a dozen different jobs in a variety of fields.

I felt well-rounded as an employee, ready to tackle whatever a job brought my way.  I just needed a job.  Or something.  Anything.

While working at the grooming salon, I decided I needed additional education so I could finally land a really good real job.  I started looking into getting certified to teach and one night, my dad suggested I look into the University of Phoenix program one of his coworkers had told him about.  I looked up the Masters in Business Administration program and it seemed right up my alley.  I wanted to work in a business, right?  And having a Masters degree would definitely earn me even more money than a Bachelors, right?

I started the MBA program in January of 2003, having taken a semester off  college.  I was actually too young for the program, but had enough work experience; I just had to have a note from my employer.

I came in to the program thinking I was hot stuff.  I’d just come out of college less than a year ago, was very familiar with current software and the internet.  Most of my classmates were a minimum of 10 years older than me and some old enough to be my parents.  They came with decades of experience, yet somehow I thought I was going to school them in how things are done since I was so freshly educated.

They were very respectful of me, more so than I had expected.  I came into the program defensive, thinking they were going to take one look at my youthful face and wonder what on earth I was doing in the program.  They took time to listen to me and were thankful that I could teach them how to use the software that didn’t exist when they had been in college.  Many had been limited to typewriters and a library versus my computer and world wide web of resources, albeit even I didn’t have nearly what is available now.

The beginning was rough.  I couldn’t handle criticism well and hated to be bossed around by anyone.  I was smart and I was right.  Wrong.

We worked in teams and mine had a great mix of members that evolved throughout the course—a couple 30-somethings, a couple 40-somethings, one of the oldest people in our program and me, the youngest.  I remember specifically during one of my early courses how one team’s presentation was being criticized by our instructor and the team members were feverishly taking notes on what was being said.  Feverishly!  I couldn’t believe the weakness they were showing.  They did a great job, why should they be criticized?

That’s when I started to truly learn constructive criticism and the power it has in making us better people.  They took notes so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again in the future.  It’s important to use every chance we get as a learning experience to continually learn and improve ourselves.  A successful person will never be done learning.

As the courses went by, I also started taking notes about what I could improve and our team grew and improved substantially.  I’ll never forget the look on our Marketing instructor’s face when we blew him away with one of the most exceptional presentations I’ve ever been a part of.  That was why it was important to learn and continually strive for improvement.

As my brain grew to be more mature and educated, my desire to move on professionally did as well.  In May of 2003, I took a job as an Administrative Assistant in the office of a cold storage warehouse.  It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was a step in the right direction.  I didn’t enjoy the job all that much, especially when I was cut to part time the day after I signed my very first lease on my own apartment in an expensive county.  After paying all my bills, I was left with about $20 a month to live off.  I took on a part time job, but it was difficult to get many hours in while working and going to school full-time.  It was rough, but thankfully I had student loan money to live off (and get to pay back after I graduated).  But it got me through for the time being.

In December of 2004, I had completed my Masters program.  I wasn’t instantly promoted as I thought might happen.  Just slightly acknowledged that I had completed a huge feat in addition to working full-time and how proud I must be.  The reality was, the company expected me to quit when I got my MBA so they didn’t bother considering a future for me there.

I worked that job for exactly one year before starting a sales job at a Uniform Company.  It was a great place to work and I have so many fond memories working there.  It was a smart company, starting all employees in operations, shipping & receiving inventory to learn the back end work that was done.  We had a great team, great customers and it was an enjoyable place to work.  I was excelling and making a name for myself, even having a position created to use my knowledge of sales and operations to make things run smoothly for our 5 locations.

Unfortunately, several devastating things happened in my personal life while I worked there and I got to a point where I couldn’t handle things as well as normal.  I was stressed out and difficult to be around.  Working in my position was great for me at the time because I got to do my own thing, but I didn’t like who I had become and I needed to get out of my funk.  A position in purchasing at the main office in Seattle opened up, so I applied and got it.  I missed my team and my amazing manager, but I wanted to move up, and felt this was the perfect opportunity.

I quickly found out that I hated commuting 60 miles a day, especially when it often took longer than an hour to go just one way, and sometimes up to 3 hours to travel 30 miles.  I also found out that I was not cut out to work in an accounting position, even though the math and analysis sparked my brain cells, it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

I ended up finding a job just 2 miles from my apartment and accepted it.  The day I gave my notice, the entire region froze over and I spent 7 hours driving the 30 miles home.  I was fried and ready to move on.  I finished my two weeks and started at my new company as a sales assistant.

The company I moved to was a sports ball manufacturer.  It was a fun environment, although fairly stressful at times.  After just a few months there, I moved into operations working with an amazing manager.  He was such an optimist and our brains worked similarly.  We took on implementing lean manufacturing practices into the entire company.  I was tasked with writing procedures for multiple departments, analyzing the processes and cutting out any unnecessary steps to make our processes flow together as smoothly and logically as possible.  It was great, like a huge puzzle.

With any change comes resistance and I was met with plenty.  I was involved in training seminars and enforcing proper flow at times.  In dealing with resistance from those who felt there was nothing wrong with the way things had been done in the past, I learned how to work better with people and get them excited and accepting of the changes.  It was challenging and a great learning experience as well as a position that reinforced my habit of documenting all the procedures involved in my jobs.

A position in the nearly non-existent marketing department opened and I jumped at the chance.  With lean processes implemented, there wasn’t much left of my job and I wanted to move in the direction of my BA.  I wasn’t too sure of the person leading the department, as he was my age and newer to the company than myself, but even if I only held the position for a year, it would give me the experience I needed to move on.

The department grew immensely during the 5 years I was in it.  I learned new things every day and was forced to find solutions on a small or non-existent budget.  I’ve always been resourceful, so I took it as a challenge.  It was an overwhelming position to be in, as I retained several responsibilities from my previous positions in addition to my new responsibilities.  It was oftentimes difficult to get help because the person in the company who would be best to help me was myself.

I was proud of how well I knew the company and its functions.  I could assist in nearly every department and did my best to serve as a resource to anyone who needed help.  When things got stressful, I’d stop and take a breather.  It got to the point where I’d even spend my lunches at the gym to take a break from the mental challenges and work on physical challenges.

After 5 years there, word started to spread that a move may be in the future.  The current location was almost 20 miles from me, but not too terrible of a commute, but a move to the north would make my commute a nightmare again.  Finally, a location to the north had been chosen for the relocation and there was no feasible way for me to get there without dealing with daily traffic jams.  It wasn’t going to work for me and I would not be compensated for the additional mileage and travel time incurred.  It was time to take what I had learned and move on.

In the fall of 2012, I found a position at a dealership where I had purchased a vehicle earlier that year after my husband had totaled mine in a bad accident.  Although I had been under a lot of stress while buying my vehicle due to my husband being off work and badly injured, the experience had been quick and pleasant.  The staff was friendly and the dealership had been around as long as I could remember, a place with a good reputation and potential for professional growth.

I started in October of 2012.  It was a fun environment to work in, always something new going on and really great staff.  My work was a bit different than I had expected—while at my previous company, I was used to doing everything myself, the design, planning, everything—and here we actually had a marketing budget so we could outsource at times.

It took a few months to learn how things worked and I slowly gained more responsibilities as I learned.  After a year, I was doing things easily that had been a big challenge to take on initially.  I felt confident and optimistic.

The only problem is after changing companies multiple times through my career and not necessarily moving up any ladders, I felt my degrees hadn’t been as beneficial as I once thought.  They hadn’t earned me any special privileges or massive pay, they were just a few years of my life and some black text on my resume.

I realized I hadn’t really been using much of what I had learned in grad school, and all these years, I had talked about what a great education it was and how I would recommend it to anyone wanting to better themselves.  I wasn’t so sure I would say that after all these years.

The thing is, I’m still paying every month for my Masters degree.  Each month, Sallie Mae sends me a reminder of the time I spend trying to improve myself for an exciting future that I thought would make earning the degree easier to afford.  And every month, I realize I’ve fallen into a pattern of learning just what I need to know to complete my work each day and maybe a few new things to keep on top of my profession.

Right after Christmas in 2013, I started feeling very ill.  I felt really bloated, although I hadn’t eaten much and I was nauseated.  I started getting a high fever and couldn’t keep anything in.  I ended up spending New Year’s Eve day in the ER, getting fluids and trying to stay alive.  I felt awful.  I spent almost a whole week dealing with a terrible stomach virus and focusing only on getting healthy.  Nothing else mattered to me at the time.

While I was couch-bound during that week, I had a lot of time to think about where I was going and what I was doing with myself.  When you’re that sick, everything gets put into perspective.  I was no longer going to make unhealthy choices and waste my time being average, I was going to do everything I could to make the most of my life.  Because you never know how long your life is going to last.

I started planning out my goals for 2014.  Not just the generic goals most of us come up with, but specific goals.  My first goal came about from staring at the same book for over 6 months, knowing I needed to read it.  My boss wanted everyone in our department to read it and I had been chosen to start.  While I read daily, it was more articles and fun stuff like on cracked.com, not books.  I enjoyed reading books when I did, I just didn’t read them often.  So that was the first thing I was going to change.

When I finally started feeling better, I sat down with the book and started to read it.  It wasn’t one I would have chosen for myself, but I didn’t have a choice, I needed to read it. (Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead)

Part of my problem with reading is my tendency to not retain what I read because my mind wanders off.  As part of the new me, I decided that I was not going to let that happen to me anymore.  So I grabbed a notepad and started taking notes on everything I read.  I finished the book in one night with pages of notes to refresh my memory.

Reading that first book set me on fire with a passion to learn more.  I was on a mission to get smart again.

I went through our book shelves to find my next book.  I went on Amazon and loaded up my Kindle account with every inspiring book I could find.  I gathered notebooks and created my own reading areas where I could just sit, drink tea and take notes.  I felt my brain growing and my intelligence increasing.

My vocabulary started opening up.  The appropriate words came to my mind much quicker, I started speaking more eloquently.

I decided to make additional changes in my life to continue along this path.  I stopped listening to brainless, garbage radio programs in the morning and instead listen to NPR or instrumental music.  I opt to read my books and take notes rather than rot in front of the TV watching Dexter marathons.  I started talking to others about the improvements I was making and started acting more professionally to match my self-improvements.  I finally subscribed to Fast Company magazine.

As part of my goal setting, I decided vague goals weren’t going to cut it for the new me.  Read more books is a nice idea, but read 1 book a week is a goal that can be measured and achieved.  Write in my blog more is vague, but publish a post once a week is measurable and achievable.

It’s hard to reach goals if you don’t make them reachable.  By putting a number and a time frame to your goals, you will be much more likely to achieve them.

While we’ve just started the third week of the year, already, I am starting to feel the fire that pushed me so many years ago.  My brain is recharging and I’m eager to continue learning and improving myself.  I’m making reachable goals and feel rewarded each time I accomplish one.

I’m honestly not sure where I’m going and I haven’t quite figured out what it is I want to do when I grow up.  I don’t have a career path planned out just yet and I’m not sure what the future holds for me.

I do know that with these changes I’m making, I’m actively taking control of my life and my learning to become the best person I can be.  I’m keeping it fun and exciting so reaching my goals will be that much more rewarding as I reach them.  I’m also doing my best to inspire others to challenge themselves to make improvements and live fulfilling lives so they can feel the passion for life I’m experiencing.

Never stop learning.  Never stop growing.  There is always something new and exciting to achieve if you make self-improvement part of your daily ritual.

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5 Ways to Simplify Common Responses Using Email Signatures

Generally when we think about email signatures, we think of our name, title and contact information.  How easy it is to click a button and have everything added to the bottom of our emails!  But email signatures can be used for much more than just basic contact information; they can be used to more efficiently send common responses.

There are some email messages I need to send out periodically, such as our ftp site log-in info, request forms, or form letters.  At one point in time, I had each saved to its own file in a different location and would have to track it down each time I needed to send it.

Then I got wise.

I opened my Outlook (my default work email program) and created a signature for each correspondence or request that I needed to send out on a regular basis.  That way, each time I need to send that request, everything is already written and in a convenient location so all I need to do is fill in any blanks.

Here are some examples:

  1. Forms: Periodically, I have to make a request to get products printed.  The printing department has a specific Excel form they like pasted into the body of the email.  So I copied the form, pasted it into the signature and added my contact info at the bottom.  This way, whenever I need to send the request, I just create a new email message, add my Print Request signature and fill in the blanks.
  2. Letters: If you receive requests on a regular basis that receive a somewhat generic response, why not save that response as a signature?  Perhaps you have a form that needs to be completed or specific information required; by using a form letter in your email signature, you have everything right there and can quickly respond.
  3. Directions: Perhaps you are in charge of providing driving directions to a location or website log-in information.  This can be typed each time, but save yourself the time by entering it as a signature.
  4. Requests: Maybe part of your job is sending out requests for invoices or other information.  By scripting a request letter and saving it as an email signature, you can quickly make your requests.
  5. Data Entry: If you receive requests for data or setup, the requester may often omit necessary information.  By saving a checklist of information as an email signature, you can send the checklist to the requester to allow him/her to ensure they have provided all the necessary information.

Best Practices

I think it is important to include your contact information in your email signature.  Have you ever tried to get in contact with someone you email regularly only to realize you can’t find their phone number when you want to give them a call?  By automatically including your contact information at the bottom of your email, you allow your contacts to have multiple ways of contacting you.

A couple things to keep in mind are:

  • Keep it short.  There are no rules stating your signature must be all vertical so try putting your info horizontally, divided with a | (pipe) or other basic punctuation point.  That way, if there is a long chain, your paragraph of contact info is shortened to a sentence. i.e. Your Name | Your Title | Your Company | (800) 555-1234 | Fax: (123) 555-1234 | you@youremail.com
  • Keep it simple.  I used to think it was so clever when people had cute little phone and fax icons, however you’re better off just spelling out fax, etc; so others can quickly find what they are looking for.  The last thing you want is for your contact to feel dumb because s/he can’t figure out which little icon represents a fax machine.
  • Keep it plain.  Not everyone has html emails enabled so all those links and images that might look great to some can look terrible to others.  A link reading “Like us on Facebook!” may look fun to someone viewing an html email, but may appear very bossy to someone viewing in plain text.  Signature images can also show up as attachments and confuse your recipient.
  • Mind formatting changes. It’s okay to send generic letters, however if you make some changes and notice the font or color change, make sure you go back to make sure everything is uniform.  Recipients can accept receiving form letters, but do your best to make it look like it isn’t one.

Do you have creative ways of using email signatures?  How do you automate responses and save time with email?

7 Steps to Increase Usability

Whether you are sending an e-mail, designing a website or setting up a store, the easier you make the experience for your customer, the more likely they are to be a repeat customer and refer your company.  This also goes for anyone with a website they want others to view.

Using the following steps, you can create increased usability and a more positive customer experience:

  1. Determine the call to action and create a clear pathway to the end result.  What do you want your customer to do?  Whatever end goal you are intending, make it as easy as possible for your customer to get there.  If you’re sending an e-blast and you want them to purchase a particular item, link directly to a place where they can purchase the item.  If you want customers to request a quote from your website, place links in very visible places.
  2. Create a layout prior to designing. Sketch a basic layout of everything you want to include, create category headers that make sense and start designing from there.  That way, you have a clear idea of how everything should fit together and it will make sense to your audience as well.
  3. Keep it clean and concise. Use short paragraphs, bullet points and limited words so viewers can easily skim to find what they are looking for.
  4.  Break sections into chunks with headers. There are times when you need to have a lot of information on a page, but you can make it easier on your viewers by breaking it down.  For example, on a health website, perhaps someone has been diagnosed with a condition and only wants to know about treatment.  By breaking the condition article into smaller sections, the viewer can quickly skip to the treatment section.
  5. Test and observe. The best way to determine usability is to give it a test run.  If you are getting ready to launch a new website, get a group comparative to your target audience and have them test it and provide usability feedback.  Adjust as needed to make the website easy to navigate.  Another option is to use a website heatmap to see precisely where your viewers are clicking.  Integrating Google Analytics is also an excellent way to track trends, clicks and time spent on your website.
  6. Use bullet points and text formatting. Rather than write a paragraph that will likely be skimmed, try breaking the information into a bulleted list for easier reading.  Bold important keywords that your viewers may be looking for.
  7. Make links (and non-links) obvious. It may look cleaner to not underline links, but we have been conditioned to understand that underlined text is usually a link.  That being said, be cautious when underlining non-linked texts because it can be confusing to the viewer.

By making your website, e-blast, store or whatever easier for others to navigate, you are increasing your chances of them returning.  What other ways have you found to increase usability?

Ocean Marketing: A Public Relations Nightmare and How to Avoid it

If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s the importance of getting things in writing as well as being courteous to your customers—the lifeblood of any business. Getting things in writing not only serves as a helpful reminder of what needs to be done, it can also help trace the cause and lead-up to both successes and failures to help you succeed in the future.

Email chains serve as a timeline between multiple parties and since everything is in writing, there’s no confusion about what details were spelled out, unlike remembering chicken scratch notes from a meeting. Have you ever been in a long meeting and left remembering only a few vital points and some humorous commentary that didn’t have anything to do with the main topic? This is a time when getting things in writing can help you succeed.

Now, imagine that same meeting with a written agenda with room for note taking then receiving a summary of what was discussed with a plan of action laid out? This way of thinking follows the basic presentation training of “I’m going to tell you what I’m going to talk about, I’m going to talk about it, then I’m going to tell you what I talked about.” Three chances to get the information in your head.

Another great reason for emailing information is it enables you to search for it at a later time in the event you need to obtain information or follow-up. I’ve made a point of including order or model numbers in emails so if I want to trace the lead-up to an order or follow-up on a particular order, all I have to do is search for the order number.

There are times, however, when getting things in writing can be negative. As with anything digital, it is important to understand how easily information, photos, videos or even sound clips can be spread. While the intent may not always be malicious, it can quickly turn that way, especially if emotions get involved.

Take for example, the recent case of Paul Chrisoforo from Ocean Marketing. If you haven’t heard of him yet, he is a public relations professional who forgot his manners and how easy it is to forward an email. What started out as a simple inquiry from a customer regarding the delivery date of a pre-ordered a video game controller, quickly turned into a career train wreck for Paul. Instead of just giving the customer a straight answer, he was vague, got irritated with the customer, then completely insulted and spoke inappropriately to the customer.

In his tirade of insulting the customer, he, in return, let the customer know just how important he was, how many powerful people he knew, and how many gaming expos his company would be attending. When he mentioned PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo, the customer decided that it was time to inform Mike Krahulik, creator of popular comic and blog Penny Arcade, as well as head of the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX).

When Mike read the disastrous email chain, he let Paul know he wouldn’t be getting a booth at the expo. Rather than calm down or even look into who this Mr. Krahulik was, Paul continued the insults, power trip and name dropping. By that point, Mike decided he’d had enough of the drama, and informed Paul that he would be featured on his blog Penny Arcade the next day. Paul was still excited for the feature and PR until he realized who he was dealing with. Now he’s begging for the publicity to stop and has written an apology to both the customer and to Mike, but at this point, he’s completely damaged his reputation as a PR professional.

Although this put Paul and his company in a very negative light, I would say that this could actually help his career, similarly to the way the E. coli scare at Jack-In-The-Box helped their sales.  At the time, no one wanted to eat there, but shortly thereafter, it was regarded as one of the safest places to eat because the restaurant chain was taking extra precautions to ensure no one else got sick from their food.

Could this be the same case with Mr. Christoforo? Could he really be a brilliant enough PR professional to swing his career into a successful one or has he ruined his career in public relations forever?

I’m sure there are times when it might feel good to really let a customer know what you think, but in the long run, it’s not good for anyone. And worse, as Paul Christoforo so clearly demonstrated, giving a customer that kind of ammunition can be extremely damaging, not just for the person who sent it, but for the reputation of the company as well. Even if you aren’t intending to be insulting or short with someone, because it is in writing and not spoken, it can sometimes come off that way.

So keep your customers happy and your reputation safe with a few tips:

  • Write every correspondence with the knowledge that it only takes one click to forward your message. If you wouldn’t want someone else reading it, you probably shouldn’t write it.
  • If the person you’re communicating seems unclear about what you have written or seems to be getting frustrated, call the person or allow them to “please call” you so you can ensure you are on the same page. If you want to keep that record in writing, it is perfectly acceptable to write a follow-up email “per our conversation” to reiterate your points.
  • Always be courteous and polite, opting to close the email with “thank you” or “best regards” rather than “thanks…” or just your email signature. Make them feel special.
  • If you’re not sure how your email will be taken, have someone else read it. Don’t read it to them because they need to read it as your customer would—without your tone of voice.

The customer may not always be right, but no one likes to be told they are wrong and if someone is paying for a product or service, they want the respect they deserve from that company. Treat them well and you will prosper. Treat them poorly and you will damage your and your company’s reputations.

Penny Arcade Blog Post: http://penny-arcade.com/resources/just-wow1.html

13 Keyboard Shortcuts Everyone Should Know That Will Make You More Efficient

I don’t work in the IT department, but I’m tech-savvy enough to know more about computer stuff than a lot of my coworkers.  Because I’ve worked so much with software programs and strive to always find the most efficient way to complete tasks, I’ve realized there are shortcuts I’ve taken for granted that everyone using a computer knows.

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But not everyone knows all the incredibly useful shortcuts that could save them loads of time when working on just about anything that requires a keyboard.  You may even have these shortcuts printed on the front side of the keys on your keyboard (“Oh, that’s what those are for!”)

So here is my list of useful keyboard shortcuts everyone should know :

NOTE: you do not need to type the “+” in these.

  1. Ctrl + a – select all.  This is handy if you want to select the entire contents of a document or website and would usually click and hold the mouse button, scrolling down the page and hoping you didn’t miss anything.
  2. Ctrl + c – copy whatever you have highlighted.  Instead of clicking Edit – copy (or however your method may be depending on your program), two buttons, when pressed together do the work for you.
  3. Ctrl + x – cut whatever you have highlighted.  If you want to remove words or an image, but keep it on your “clipboard” for later use, this would be the option for you.  Just don’t wait too long and forget that it’s waiting there to be pasted or you might copy or cut something else and lose it.
  4. Ctrl + v – paste whatever you’ve copied or cut.  Just click where you want it to go, press the magic keys and you’re in business!  Just remember that while it may seem logical to use Ctrl + p for pasting (that’s reserved for printing), notice that x, c and v are lined up across your keyboard, so sequentially, it makes sense.
  5. Ctrl + p – as we just learned, this is for print, not paste.  If you’re on a website and only want to print a selection, highlight the section you want to print, press Ctrl + p and when the print window pops up, make sure “Selection” is selected as the Page Range.  Otherwise you will print the whole page.
  6. Ctrl + s – save whatever you’re working on.  If you are neurotic as I am about making sure you don’t lose your work, this should be well-programmed into your brain.  I also set the auto save to 2 or 3 minutes, down from the default of 10 minutes (hey, I can type a lot in 10 minutes!) but if I’ve done some exceptionally detailed work, I often use this shortcut just to ensure I’ve saved my work.  This will also bring up a save dialog box in case you haven’t selected a filename and save location already.
  7. Ctrl + b – bolds the highlighted text or if no text is highlighted, bolds subsequent typed text.
  8. Ctrl + u – underlines the highlighted or subsequently typed text.
  9. Ctrl + I – italicizes highlighted or subsequently typed text.
  10. Ctrl + f – brings up a search box to find text within a document or web page.
  11. Ctrl + h – find’s ultra-helpful older brother who will find text then replace it with text you specify.  Very helpful if you find out you’re misspelled a name or referred to an incorrect location multiple times in a document and want to be sure you’ve fixed all occurrences.
  12. Ctrl + n – usually creates a new document or workbook.  To create a new slide in PowerPoint, use ctrl + m.
  13. F2 – allows editing in an Excel cell or when text is highlighted.  It’s a bit difficult to explain the awesome functionality of this, but here goes: especially when working in Excel, if you copy a cell, then paste in a document or elsewhere, you may notice a box around the text or strange box characters at the end of the pasted text.  You may also find that if you are editing a cell, sometimes all the contents get highlighted and you write over it.  By pressing F2 while on a highlighted cell, you can easily edit without writing over the text already in the cell.

Once you learn these shortcuts, you will find you are saving loads of time and working much more efficiently.  You can even often create your own shortcuts and learn even more not listed here that will help speed up your work.

Click here for more Microsoft Office shortcuts

The Importance of Testing Your Own Instructions

Today I received an e-blast instructing me to click on a link to go to the company’s website then to click a link on the website to complete some information. Not sure why they couldn’t just send me the direct link, but that’s fine, I’m savvy, I’ll navigate my way there. The problem was the link I was instructed to click on didn’t exist.

I browsed through the smattering of images and links on the site, making multiple attempts to find this page, but after so many clicks, I stopped and the following thoughts went through my head:

  • I’ve spent way too much time trying to find this link
  • If it was that important for me to go to this link, the sender would have made a much clearer path for me to follow
  • If it’s really that important for me to perform an action on this site, they will contact me again

Then I have to choose: do I reply and explain I can’t find the link or do I ignore it and hope they contact me again if it’s really that important?

These two questions are important for you to consider because if your customers choose the latter, you have failed in your marketing attempt and could lose your customers to someone who has enabled direct links to what your customers want.

Before ever sending any type of instructions to anyone, take the following steps to ensure success:

  1. Read through the complete steps to make sure they make sense
  2. Remove excess words to make the instructions as concise as possible
  3. Perform the steps you have written to ensure you haven’t left anything out. If you have, add it.
  4. Have someone else read the instructions to make sure they make sense. It is helpful to get someone from a different department who is unfamiliar with what you are instructing.
  5. Have that person perform the steps to ensure they can do so or if they have trouble following, they can pinpoint where the problem is
  6. Finalize the instructions, ensuring all questions have been covered, writing is simple and concise and the end-user can easily follow

Another project I worked on was writing the setup and rules for a series of backyard games my company manufactured. Because the products were designed and sourced by our product developer, I had no part in the design or parts included so my knowledge of each was minor, where the developer knew the products inside and out. This made it a wise choice for me, an outside source, to write the instructions.

I had photos of all the parts and the end product, so I started writing instructions based on how I thought it all went together. I reviewed and edited multiple times, then consulted with the designer. She helped me understand the importance of each step as well as the order of the steps.

For example, it was important to slide the sleeve of the volleyball net onto one pole section before fitting the 3 pieces of the poles together because a bolt would have prevented ease of sliding. Had I not known that, the end-user could have found out the hard way and already been frustrated with the product prior to even using it!

This peer review is incredibly helpful even for the most seasoned writer because it allows for an outside source, a regular person to serve from the point of view of a potential customer and let you know ahead of time whether or not your instructions are clear enough. In the end, a few extra steps can save you, your customers and customer service time spent trying to decipher otherwise unclear instruction.

What have been your experiences with instruction writing? Any horror stories of unclear writing or a catch that could have been a disaster?

Overcoming Creative Blocks

If you’ve ever been tasked with creating something, whether it is a product, design or copy, you’ve probably hit a mental roadblock at least a couple times. In my experience, it seems I hit a roadblock when I have a lot of different things to do and am trying to create something new and different from my usual style.

While it can be tempting to just shove the project aside and forget it exists, that should never be an option and giving up on projects won’t help you get ahead in your career. Instead, it is important to take a few breaths, and find a way to complete the project.

Here’s what works for me:

  • Stick to familiarity: If you are pressed for time and it is acceptable to do so, follow a design you have previously successfully used. If using a particular design layout and color scheme works for what you are doing, use it as a template for your project. Having a basic template can save you time and sanity when deadlines are quickly approaching.  Templates can also help maintain a brand image.
  • Ask for opinions: And don’t limit it to those in your creative department. I’ve received incredible feedback from colleagues in accounting and sales because they can look at things with fresh eyes. Just remember to trust your instincts on the final product to ensure the quality deserves your name on it.
  • Sketch out ideas: It can be hard to see the framework of a project when it is covered in images and colors. Try sketching out three or four basic layouts on a sheet of paper and go from there. Sometimes laying out the basic skeleton of a project is all you need to build your ideas on.
  • Take a break: When was the last time you were away from your desk? If you are feeling fried, take a walk outside or to the water cooler to refresh your mind and reset the panic alarm that has been going off in your mind. If you can clear the scatter in your brain, it will be easier to focus on your project.
  • Write a to-do list: When I have multiple projects to complete at once, I can get very overwhelmed and it affects my concentration. By writing a list of what needs to be done, I can tackle each project as it is listed and feel a sense of accomplishment each time I cross something off my list.
  • Focus on the end project: What are you trying to achieve? Instead of getting overwhelmed with all the details, imagine the final product in its entirety. Sometimes the feeling of calm this imaging brings is enough to help you clearly see what you need to do to complete the task.

If you can’t tell, I’m in the middle of a block right now, so this is me stepping aside for a moment to calm my stress level and find the best way to complete my projects. It is much less daunting now when I can see two projects are complete pending final approval and the remaining projects are intertwined, so I will be complete soon. This makes things much easier on me and I know I have a greater chance of completing my work if I take the time to focus on completing one thing at a time.