A blog for writers with tips on editing, proofreading and related tools.

How to look like an IT genius at work

Computers have become so prevalent in the workplace that we assume everyone knows what they're doing in front of a screen. However, it is surprisingly common for office workers to have no idea beyond the functions they use daily. Most people simply aren't motivated to look beyond what they use frequently, except when something goes wrong of course. Here is where you can make your mark.

Image courtesy of CollegeDegrees360.

Image courtesy of CollegeDegrees360.

I've encountered workers who believed they were advanced Word users, yet have used the space bar to create indents. People just don't know what they don't know. In this situation, anyone who can use the more advanced software features, and can solve problems within minutes, automatically becomes an IT genius in the eyes of their less-savvy colleagues.

So, if you're someone who enjoys saving time and solving problems, do what comes naturally to you and collect information that will make you indispensable around the office. Ultimately, there are few software problems that can't be solved with a Google search, but you might be the only one willing to invest your time in doing that search; you are the comparative IT genius.

You know enough to know you know nothing, but that's no reason to dispel your colleagues of this genius notion. There are many advantages to being considered as such, even though you know it isn't true.

Advantage 1

You have an additional means of getting to know your colleagues. If you're the one called upon to sort out a rouge Word table, you get a chance to form a relationship with that manager or worker. Forming stronger workplace relationships may be a great leg-up when it comes to understanding how the business runs, and will definitely come in handy when restructures occur, or when internal promotion opportunities come up.

Image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond.

Image courtesy of Nicolas Raymond.

Advantage 2

Being helpful tends to make people think of you as helpful. Instead of scoffing at someone's ignorance of section breaks, sort it out for them, explain it, and they will remember you as a committed team player, willing to spend your time to help. If your solution saves that person time, they will never forget you. (Of course, the way you provide help is important. Striding in arrogantly and administering a solution while tut-tutting over how badly the document has been put together is probably not going to win you any friends.)

Advantage 3

Involvement in quality control. Being the one who hands out the advice means you can advise everyone to work the same way. In a smaller organisation, you may even end up being invited to develop templates, or a style guide, so that everyone ends up producing more standardised documents. If you're interested in details, you'll love this.

If being the office go-to person for software-related problems seems like a nightmare, feel free to keep your knowledge to yourself. But if you don't mind helping out occasionally, there are benefits to your ill-earned title. Here are some MS Office areas of knowledge that have improved my standing in offices:

  • Tables—what can't go wrong with these? Rows breaking when they shouldn't, header rows not repeating, can't indent inside a cell, didn't know it was a table at all, embedded tables, cell padding and alignment issues...
  • List formattting—bulleted lists with different sized bullets, or different styles is a common one
  • Styles—usually only comes on the radar when someone tries to insert a table of contents, or make formatting changes that mysteriously affect the entire document
  • Tab stops—always amusing when the space bar has had a workout to align text
  • Page breaking—usually helps when headers or footers aren't doing what people want
  • Auto-fields—either not being able to update them, or being unable to insert them are the biggest issues
  • Macros (at least basics)—saving time with basic macros will make you a hero, even just find and replace on commonly misspelled words will be a winner
  • Formulas—Lookup and IF functions are pretty valuable time savers
  • Converting to PDF—getting those pesky hyperlinks to convert can be tricky
  • Importing and linking between files—saving time by linking files that show the same information

Anything above and beyond this can be Googled at the last minute and you'll know enough to fill in the blanks pretty quickly. The more I learn about MS Office, the more I realise there is to learn so I often feel like a fraud when I receive a round of accolades for sorting out a document. But everything is relative, and if my feeble IT 'skills' are helping others, why not accept the kind words?

The IT genius crown may still sit somewhat uncomfortably, but at least you can assuage yourself with the mild workplace benefits to your reputation.

If your workplace doesn't have an IT genius, you can always ask someone to come in and provide that service. You never know what you could learn to make things run more efficiently.

Are secret agents undermining your writing?

There are times when using the passive voice to obscure the agent, the 'do-er', in your writing is really useful. Say, when you're a politician, you've erred and you are desperately trying to skirt around it during a press interview. You'll probably lean on old weasel words like, "mistakes were made", "miscommunications occurred", or better yet, "lessons have been learned". Fantastic, job done. 

However, there are most definitely times when it is not appropriate to use the passive voice. Writing standards is one of those times, whether it be for service, job performance or training.

The active voice is clear and frank. It exposes the subject (the do-er), and thereby facilitates understanding, which is pretty important when writing standards.

The following example is a standard written for some HR training. When you read the passive version, it is not clear who is intended to manage the grievances. Are they just checking to ensure that someone, anyone, has managed it? Or, are they managing the grievance themselves?

Passive voice: Grievances and complaints are managed promptly and in a manner which maximises the likelihood of a positive outcome.

After the standard is converted into active voice, the action required becomes much clearer; the individual themselves is required to manage grievances and complaints.

Active voice: Manage grievances and complaints in a manner that optimises the likelihood of a positive outcome.

NB: I made some additional changes to improve the standard. Managing complaints 'promptly' would constitute part of 'maximising likelihood of a positive outcome', so it has been removed. Also, I prefer to use optimise rather than maximise because it is hard to define a single best outcome for all complaints, so achieving the greatest possible outcome would be impossible. Finally, I switched out 'which' for 'that' because what follows is a defining clause.

Imagine the performance review. A worker is supposed to empty the bin every day, but their job description says 'ensure bins are emptied'. Their co-worker actually emptied the bin, but the worker certainly 'ensured' it was empty by watching their co-worker haul it out.

Technically, the worker is ticking off their KPI. Using the active voice removes the reliance on poor, overused 'ensure', and articulates the required action clearly, 'Empty bins.'

Sure, the above example is a case that few would actually bother to argue (depending on your workplace, I suppose), but closing up these ambiguities in your standards mitigates risk and the reduces potential for misinterpretation. Always a good thing, right?

When writing standards, whether it is for training or in a job description, the active voice is superior because it highlights the agent. In these contexts, knowing who is doing the action is quite important! Save the 007 stuff for working your way out of hot water.

Getting your just deserts

We often use phrases and terms we have learned from oral language tradition without really giving them much thought. One of those that is frequently mixed up is a person getting their "just deserts". Many have blithely uttered this schadenfreude-laden term under the misunderstanding that if they did write the phrase down it would be "just desserts".

Eating this is just what I deserve.

Eating this is just what I deserve.

I know, as children many of us were often told there would be no dessert unless we finished the main course. So perhaps one could construe that getting dessert is getting what you deserve, having met the eligibility criteria by stuffing those Brussels sprouts down the hatch (blurgh). And in Australian English, desert and dessert are homonyms, so one could be excused for getting it wrong.

From now on though, if you have ever cause to write the phrase down, be sure to use one s because the word's root is the verb to deserve. The saying applies to someone receiving just what they deserve. It seems to have a negative connotation in modern use. Let's put it this way, I have never heard anyone say "Well, she certainly got her just deserts" after seeing an athlete win a gold medal.

Check out this list of common phrases that people frequently get wrong. Are any of them surprises to you?

i.e. vs e.g.

I find these two little abbreviations are mixed up more than they deserve, especially given they have zero overlap in meaning. They both stem from Latin, but that's about where the resemblance ends.

Some made up stats about i.e. use

E.g. (Latin: exempli gratia) means for example. Use e.g. to introduce an example of what you have just described. Let's see it in action:

"Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form or other characteristics to beings other than humans e.g. Peppa Pig."

I.e. (Latin: id est) means that is, or in other words. Use i.e. to provide further explanation of what you have just described, using a different approach. What does that look like?

"Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human form or other characteristics to beings other than humans i.e. giving an animal a voice,  dressing it in clothes and having it walk on two legs like a human."

Use of i.e. should be sparing because it is re-phrasing something already stated. There are some cases where this could be required, e.g. due to a combined expert/lay person audience, but generally your first explanation should drive the point home well enough that further explanation is not required. However, i.e. can be put to good use when writing for comedic effect.

"Phoning Centrelink with anything less than 100% battery life is like breathing under water i.e. not recommended."