Six great tips from "This isn’t Excel, it’s Magic!" by Bob Umlas

Book cover Recently, Bob Umlas, an Excel Most Valuable Professional (MVP), compiled a lifetime's worth of Excel tips and tricks in his book, "This isn’t Excel, it’s Magic!", from IIL Publishing, New York. Here are six great tips from that book that address common questions and issues from our Excel customers.

There are many more tips and tricks that Bob has up his sleeve and that you may find useful. His book is available from the IIL Bookstore.

In this article


Tip 12: Change dates like 20050923 to one Excel can "understand"

Suppose you are looking at a worksheet which contains dates which can't be formatted as "real" dates because of their structure:

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Select the date(s), and use Data tab, Text-to-Columns, [Excel2003:Data|Text to Columns]

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Which brings up the Text-to-Columns wizard:

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Even though the dates are fixed width, in this case you can simply click "Next" twice.

In step 3 of wizard Select Date, YMD:

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If you click Finish now, the result will replace the dates. You can select another destination cell:

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Here's the result:

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Tip 16: Using Pictographs

Anything in the clipboard can be pasted onto a chart

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Clicking on the coins, copy (ctrl/c), click on a series, Home/paste (or ctrl/v):

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Right-click on the series, use Format Data Series:

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Click these options: [Excel 2003:Patterns tab|Fill Effects]

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There are 3 format options:

  1. Stretch (default)
  2. Stack
  3. Stack and scale to

If we select Stack, we see:

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If we select Stack and scale, we can enter a number into the Unit/Picture box. Again, this is something you can experiment with.

You also may have noticed these options in this dialog:

  • Gradient fill
  • Picture or texture fill
  • And others

Here's the gradient option selected and the Preset colors dropdown:

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The new chart:

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On the picture tab there was a button to select a picture−you can use any picture you have on your computer! You can experiment with the other tabs as well.

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Tip 29: Formatting comments

When most people create a comment (Review Tab, New Comment, or Shift/F2), [Excel2003:Insert|Comment], they accept the shape and color and just enter the information they want. So most comments look something like this:

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But how about a comment like this?

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Or even this: (It's me!)

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Here's how you can do it:

When you first create a comment, the cursor is right after whatever you typed. You need to select the comment itself, not the text inside. So, select the border of the comment.

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You need the "Change Shape" tool. This can be placed on the Quick Access toolbar: [Excel 2003: View|Toolbars| Drawing|Draw Menu|Change AutoShape]

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When the comment is selected by the border, click the new Change Shape tool.

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From that, you can select basic shapes, block arrows, flowcharts, stars and banners, or callouts, each of which has yet another set of shapes to choose from. Shown here is the Cloud callout:

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Once you have the new shape, (cloud, here), right-click the border once again, and choose Format comment as shown, if you wish to format this comment even further:

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That will bring up yet another dialog, from which you can choose Fill Effects:

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From this dialog box you can select the Picture tab and import any picture (I chose me!).

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As you saw before.

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Tip 39: Selecting a random sample of data

If you have a database with many records and you want to take a random sample of that data, here are a few techniques you can use.

One way to get a random sample is to use a computed criteria and advanced filter.

Suppose you want to take a random 10% of the data. Enter the formula as shown in C2 (keep C1 blank). By entering the formula = RAND()<0.1, every time this worksheet calculates, the =RAND() will return another random number. So RAND()<0.1 will return true, about 10% of the time.

(Rand() returns a random value between 0 and 1, not including 1).

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Using the Advanced button from the Data tab: [Excel 2003:Date|Filter|Advanced Filter]

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You can filter like this:

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and that will create a random selection:

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This will be different each time. You may notice that there are only 9 items shown not 10, and that's because the values RAND returns are random! It's best to use this on larger databases!

A second way to select a random 10% of your data is to still use the RAND function, but not use filtering. Look at this:

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Cells B2 thru B101 contain = RAND(). All you need do is select A2:B101 and sort by column B! Take just the first 10 items, and you have your random 10% of the database!

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Tip 55: See all characters in font set

  1. Enter =CHAR(ROW()) in row 1
    1. =ROW() return the row you're in. =ROW() entered in cell G23 returns 23.
    2. =CHAR(97) returns the 97th character in the character set for that font, usually a lowercase "a" (picture fonts like Wingdings or Webdings return something else).
  2. Fill down to row 255.
  3. Easy to see things like ●, ¢, £:

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  1. When you see that "●" is in row 149, you can then know that holding Alt while typing 0149 on the numeric keypad will create this character as soon as you let go of the Alt key! And this holds true for all of Office, not just Excel! You can copy/paste special characters for the character(s) you want, and you can then copy the resulting character from the formula bar.

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Tip 74: Bringing the selection into view

It's possible you've selected some areas of cells and the scrolled away so you can't see it any more. CTRL/Backspace brings that selection into view, and shift/Backspace brings selection into view as well but reduces the selection to the active cell. So, if this is the before picture:

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Then shift/backspace will simply have cell B3 selected.

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Applies to:
Excel 2007