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All Our Technology Tips

  • I know it can be done in Word (or Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote). I’ve done it before but I don’t remember how or where it is on the menu.
  • I know it is there, but I don’t have time to look. I need to get this done now.
  • The instructions say look for Picture Tools, look for format tab, and click…. Where is everything? Seriously…

If you have ever been in any of the above situations, read on. There is a great feature for you in Office 2016. “Tell me what you want to do” (also known as Tell Me Assistant) is a handy tool available in Microsoft Office 2016.

Context-sensitive help has been around for a very long time and most people are familiar with it. Tell Me Assistant takes it one step further. Simply type what you want to do in the Tell Me Assistant box. Instead of getting instructions on how to do something, Tell Me Assistant shows you the menu required to get the job done. As you type into the Tell Me box, Tell Me Assistant will provide a list of suggestions. Click on the one you need and you get the menu immediately. If the task requires further selection of options, they will be provided on a flyout menu. No more looking for menu items on the ribbon or following lengthy instructions.

Expert users of Office who know their keyboard shortcuts by heart may find the Tell Me Assistant redundant if not downright irritating like Clippy the Office Assistant (Office 97 to 2003). Admittedly typing Alt-Ctrl-c to insert a copyright symbol is a lot faster, if you remember the shortcuts. But for the rest of us, Tell Me Assistant is a time saver. And let’s not forget those times when you are on the road with a mobile device and no external keyboard.

Below are a few examples:

Insert £, €, ©, ®, and other symbols (Word)

Put your mouse where you want the symbol to appear. Type symbol into the Tell Me Assistant box. Pick the symbol you need and voilà, it’s done. By the way, I used Tell Me Assistant to insert the à in voilà.

Text Box (Word)

Highlight the text to be put in a text box, type text box in the Tell Me Assistant box.

Click and drag the handles to resize the text box and click on the Layout Option icon on the top right corner for text wrapping options.

Page Number (Word)

Type page number into the Tell Me Assistant box, choose the position and format of page number on the flyout menu.

Pivot Table (Excel)

Here’s my all-time favourite. Highlight table cells, type pivot table in the Tell Me Assistant box.

and here you are with a pivoted table:

Here are a few more of my favourites. Give it a try.

  • Footnote
  • Table of contents
  • Change case
  • Link
  • Bookmark
  • Cross-reference
  • Margin

[This tip by originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]


A question I have been asked numerous times is how to add personal notes, annotations, additional information or comments to an email that you have sent or received. There are numerous imperfect ways to add notes to email messages received or sent but no perfect method. For now, we can only pick one or two imperfect workarounds and hope that Microsoft will some day add this as a feature. There are third party plugins that facilitate adding notes to mail messages, but for this article I will limit the scope to Microsoft Office products.

Below are a few options you can try. I have used all of these at one time or another and I have eventually eliminated all but the last. The Outlook versions I use are Office 365 and Outlook 2010, but all options below should work with Outlook 2013 as well.

Use the custom flag box as a note field

I have used this workaround for a while but abandoned it because the note is limited to 255 characters, is not formattable, and is difficult to spot since it is wedged between the subject and the start/completion date and reply date. In addition, the notes entered in the “Flag to” box are not searchable.

Here’s how:

  1. Right click on the flag of the message on the message list column
  2. Select “Custom”
  3. Type your notes in the “Flag to” box

Forward the email to yourself

Forward the email to yourself and you can add lengthy notes and even attachments and links. This works well if the email thread is not too long. If the thread is long, your notes will be scattered over multiple forwarded emails. Using the subject line to help organize the “note messages” helps somewhat, but if the thread involves multiple recipients and lasts for more than a few weeks, it can get messy quickly, especially if you get lots of emails on a daily basis. So this is a feasible option but high-maintenance nonetheless.

Use the subject line

You can change or add to the subject line. Again, this will only work for short notes as you are limited to 255 characters, including spaces and punctuation.

Here’s how:

  1. Double click to open the email (you cannot change the subject in the preview pane)
  2. Type your notes in the subject box. You can type over the original subject or add your notes before or after the original subject.

Create a custom column

Again, this only works for short notes, even shorter than using the subject line or a custom flag. And being mildly anal retentive, I do not like the note column messing up the list column, even less than not eating my Smarties in colour order.

Here’s how:

  1. Right click on the header row (where it says “All | Unread | Mentions…” if you haven’t changed the default) on the list column.
  2. Select “View Settings…”, then “Columns…”, then “New Column…”.
  3. Name your column and move your new column up or down to where you want it to appear. Usually it is easier to spot and read the notes if it is the first column. Click “OK” to save.
  4. Next you have to change the settings so you can enter notes in the new column. Go to “View Settings…” again and click “Other Settings…”
  5. In the “Other Settings…” box, check the box marked “Allow in-cell editing”. Click “OK”. Now you can type in the new column. You are limited to 70 characters, including spaces and punctuation.
  6. To adjust the display width of the column, go to “View Settings…”, then “Format Columns” and “Specific width”. The maximum characters you can choose is 50.

Use Outlook Notes

It baffles me to no end why Microsoft would create a Notes feature in Outlook and yet stop short of providing a way to bind a note to a message in the Inbox or Sent box. That said, Outlook Notes is a handy utility to keep your personal notes on various matters and can certainly be used to keep simple notes on emails as long as you enter enough information in the note so you can locate the emails if you need to re-read, reply or forward the messages. Notes are searchable, sortable, and colour-coded, but the contents are not formattable since it is a plain old text file.

Here’s how:

  1. Click the icon with 3 dots on the bottom of the Navigation Column (also referred to as Folder column) in Outlook and click “Notes”.
  2. Click “New Note”.
  3. A yellow sticky note window will open up. You can drag the corner of the sticky note window to enlarge the window. To change the colour of the sticky note, click the note symbol on the top left corner and choose “Category”. You can also change the colour and category anytime after the note is created by clicking the note icon in either the icon view of list view.
  4. Type your note in the window. The first line will appear as the subject of the note so it is a good practice to create a meaningful short title. When you finish typing, click away from the sticky note window and your note will be automatically saved.
  5. You can sort your sticky notes by subject, date created, or the category.

 Save to OneNote

I save the best for last. Using OneNote is by far my favourite way to add notes to email. This works especially well for lengthy threads in which you need to add personal notes at different stages. Since the notes are kept in OneNote, you have great flexibility in organization using OneNote’s architecture: Notebook, Section, and Page. You can add links, attachments, insert screen captures, hand-drawn pictures, embed video and audio clips, and create checklists. You can also share your notes (or not) with other OneNote users, invite collaboration, or export the notes to PDF or Microsoft Word and share by email if needed.

OneNote is a powerful note-keeping application in the Microsoft Office family. It can do a lot more than keeping notes for email. But that is for another blog post.

Here’s how:

  1. Select the email you want to save to OneNote, click the OneNote icon on the “Move” section of the ribbon.
  2. You have the option of choosing which Notebooks and Section you want the email to be saved to. For example, you can have an Emails Section in a Notebook created for a specific project. Sections appear as tabs in a Notebook, and each email you save will be a new page under the Emails tab.
  3. OneNote will open automatically to the page with your entire email saved fulltext. Here you can add your notes, links, attachments, etc.
  4. The one thing I find missing is a link back to the email, in case I need to reply or forward the email. To add a link back to the Outlook email, open Outlook and OneNote side by side, drag and drop the email from Outlook’s item list to OneNote. It is as simple as that. You can drag as many email links to one page as you want. So you can use one page to keep track of an entire thread of emails and make notes pertinent to each email in the thread.

These are just a few different methods I have tried. I am sure there are other workarounds—such as using a simple Word document. It is just a matter of finding one that work best for your own workflow and habits.

[This tip originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]


Maybe it was you that installed your small firm’s Wi-Fi. Perhaps it was a contractor. Do you remember what year that was? Perhaps your cable company put in a router when you moved into your home.  Or a friend helped you put it in place for your home office.

For whatever reason, your Wi-Fi router is there and has worked reliably for years. It’s dependable and no one is complaining about it.

There seem to be an infinite number of reasons as to why someone’s Wi-Fi router can become old and ignored, but it happens. So if your router hasn’t been considered in more than five years, it’s probably time to review the situation — both the router itself and your data provider’s contract.

For technology reasons alone, you should upgrade to maximize the value you’re getting from your data line. If you’re paying for 15, 30 or 150 MB of throughput, it’s silly to have an older router that doesn’t take advantage. As an example, if your older router doesn’t operate on the “5G  band”, you’re using old technology and won’t see the higher speeds that are possible.

Your data provider may also help you ‘acquire’ a new router. If you use a cable modem, you may have an older one that doesn’t have a Wi-Fi router built in. The newer ones DO have embedded router technology, and the throughput can be impressive.

So this week’s tip is to upgrade (or at least review) your Wi-Fi router.  I did so at home recently, and went from 15 MB/second on “speed tests”, to over 170 MB!

— Steve Matthews


Conditional Formatting is a largely underused and undervalued feature in Excel. Very often I see people re-sort the entire spreadsheet or use the search feature to find specific values. These can be easily done instead with Conditional Formatting.


Instead of re-sorting your spreadsheet, try selecting the data cells you wish to rank, then click “Conditional Formatting” on the command ribbon and select “Data Bars”. Hover your mouse over the fills and watch the data bars appearing on your spreadsheet where you can easily locate the high and low values.


Colour Scales

If you keep track of workflow, transactions, cashflow, etc., this trick is great for getting a quick visual of your busy/normal/slow periods. Highlight your data cells, click “Conditional Formatting” and select “Color Scales”.


Top/Bottom Values

The “Top/Bottom Rules” allow you to quickly identify the top and bottom values, top and bottom percentages, above-average and below-average values.


This is just the beginning of all the cool things you can do with Conditional Formatting.

[This tip originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]



Passwords are a necessary evil if you use a computer and the Internet for almost anything these days. A typical user has to remember 19 passwords on average, and a whopping 80% of us use the same password for multiple online accounts. Password-cracking technology has changed over the years and the definition of a “strong password” evolves over time. Some years ago, a strong password required about 8 characters, with mixed cases, at least one number and one special character, and could not contain words found in the dictionary – something like this: j6tLwFJ!.

Here’s the good news. Security experts are now saying that a very long password, even if it is made up of words found in the dictionary, is more secure than a short, complex password.

In an offline attack scenario (100 billion guesses per second) it will take only three days to crack j6tLwFJ! but 203 billion years to crack Pop!GoesTheWeasel. Which of these two passwords would you rather memorize? This is not to say we should use passwordpassword as a password. The calculation above is based on the time required to mathematically run through the permutations of the characters used. In practice, no hacker will attempt to break a password this way. Hacking programs will first try the most popular words used as a password, such as password, iloveyou, monkey, football, baseball, dragon, abc123, 12345 (up to 9), qwerty, letmein, superman, batman, and common names such as Michael, Thomas, Jennifer, Jordan, and Charlie.

My favourite way to pick a password is to use the first character of each word in a sentence of about 14 words and add a special character or two:

MhgfpiMM90Y!49 = My holy grail fountain pen is MontBlanc Meisterstuck 90 Years 149

The time required to crack this password in an offline attack scenario is two billion years.

If you are not sure whether your password is strong enough, there are online password strength checkers you can use. Here are a few examples:

So now you have a super secure password. You have a perfect sentence that you can remember well and you can fit in numbers and special characters nicely. It is tempting to reuse this on all your online accounts.  You may argue that you only go to reputable websites of big companies. It should be safe, shouldn’t it? Remember the Heartbleed bug in 2014? This bug exploits the OpenSSL cryptography library which is used by two-thirds of the websites on the Internet. The compromised or vulnerable websites include Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Amazon Web Services, Tumblr, Google, Yahoo, Etsy, GoDaddy, Flickr, Netflix, SoundCloud, YouTube, and Dropbox. Still not convinced? Have a look at this interactive infographic.

Even if you have a very good memory, remembering 19 sentences (and which one is for which online account) is still quite challenging. This is where password managers come in handy. For a nominal annual fee, password managers keep track of all your passwords in encrypted format so you need to remember just one master password to unlock your password manager. Most of them allow you to sync across multiple devices so you will always have access. You can also use a password manager to generate strong, difficult-to-break passwords.

You might ask whether password managers are safe. After all, two well-known password managers, Dashlane and LastPass, were both affected by the Heartbleed bug. Password managers keep track of all your passwords and “safe notes” such as credit cards and bank accounts. You have a lot riding on the password manager’s integrity as a strong gatekeeper. There have been debates and studies detailing web flaws, authorization flaws, user interface flaws, and, last but not least, the bookmarklet flaw. There is a calculated risk in everything, and security is often a trade-off with convenience. Password managers automatically fill in your user name and password for you to save you the trouble of manually entering a random string of characters, and it turns out that this is something not easy to do securely. That said, it is still better to use difficult-to-guess passwords and password managers than using an easy-to-guess password over multiple websites, and until wearable authentication technology matures, this is as painless as it gets.

[This tip originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]


Have you ever had to create a simple interactive presentation in a hurry and PowerPoint seems too daunting when you are in crunch mode? Give Microsoft Sway a try. In a few easy steps, you can create an online interactive presentation that you can make public, keep private, or share with people who are given a link. Best of all, Sway is free, and you can’t argue with free.

Sway and PowerPoint are both Microsoft products. While PowerPoint gives you full control of animation, sound, layout, design and branding, Sway is for you to whip up a presentation (even if you only have your cellphone or tablet available) when the ominous deadline is staring at you and you are willing to give up some design control.

Once you log in to Sway, creating a presentation takes just a few steps. First you select a theme, then a navigation style (horizontal or vertical, for now). After this, you just add heading, text, and insert photos or videos directly from OneDrive, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Internet, or upload from your computer. Here is a quick presentation I made in under 15 minutes. It doesn’t give you a lot of creative freedom, but it gets the work done.

Start using Sway here, or check out this official video by Microsoft on YouTube.sway

[This tip originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]



If you have signed up for online accounts, newsletters, or even just to download a white paper that you want to read, you will know that a valid email address is usually required. As you are filling in the online sign-up form, a little voice inside your head may be telling you that you will be getting a whole new pile of daily notifications and junk mail cluttering up your inbox. Is there a way to deal with this? You bet.

If you have a Gmail account, Google allows you to create an infinite number of variations with your Gmail address that is still linked to your original address. You can add anything preceded by a + sign between your name and the @ sign and Gmail will consider this the same address. For example, if your Gmail address is, you can use:

How can you take advantage of this? You can sign up for an account at Pinterest, for example, using and set up filtering rules within your Gmail account to route all emails to this address to a low-priority mailbox and mark them as read, or even to the trash folder or spam mail folder. Then your inbox will not be cluttered with notification emails.

The other variation of your Gmail address is to add periods to the address. For example: is the same as

If nothing else, it certainly makes your email address easier to read.

If you have another email address, send a test email to your Gmail account using these variations to see how it works!

[This tip originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]


Many of us have sent angry or nasty comments in a Gmail email, only to regret it moments after hitting Send – or you remember that you didn’t attach the attachment you referenced in the email (hate with that happens!). If you have ever found yourself in either of these situations, rejoice, because Gmail’s Undo Send feature will help prevent them from happening again. GmailIcon
This handy feature delays the sending of your messages by 5, 10, 20, or 30 seconds, thereby giving you a small window during which you can hit an “undo” button to prevent your message from going out.
To enable Undo Send, go into your Gmail Settings and hit the Labs tab. Scroll down and enable Undo Send, then hit the Save button (and while you are in there, you can peruse some of the other cool features that the people at Google Labs have created). Next, go to the General tab and set your “cancellation period” in the Undo Send section. Hit the Save button and exit Settings.
Better to never say anything snarky in an email message, but nice to have Undo Send if you are having a bad day.


iPads and iPhones have a Shift key, which is handy when you need to type a capital letter.ipad But what if you want to type something in all caps? Pressing Shift for each letter is a pain. No worries though, a simple double-tap on either Shift key will lock them down so you will get all caps as you type. Just tap either Shift key again to turn all caps off.


When adding a picture or clipart to your PowerPoint or Word document, you may run into a situation where you don’t want its background to appear. This happens most frequently to me when I place a logo or symbol onto a PowerPoint slide and its background is a different colour than the background of the slide.
There is no need for a fancy photo editing tool like Photoshop. In Word, PowerPoint and Excel 2010 and later versions you can use the Background Removal tool to easily remove a background from a picture. (Older versions of Office may have the more simplified option of selecting Format – Background – No Fill.) This is how the Background Removal tool works:
First, click on the picture that you want to remove the background from. Next, under Picture Tools, on the Format tab, click Background Removal. backremoveDrag the handles on the marquee lines so they contain just the portion of the picture that you wish to keep. The program will try to intuitively remove areas around the selected portion of your picture.
You can them manually customize what goes or stays by using Mark Areas to Keep or Mark Areas to Remove (click on one or the other and click on elements of your picture), or by drawing lines with your mouse to indicate the buttonsapproximate area you’re interested in keeping or removing. Use Delete Mark to get rid of any drawn indicator lines you decide against or Discard All Changes to start over. When you have removed all the parts you don’t want, click Keep Changes to return to your document and see the results. If you don’t like the result, remember that Undo (Ctrl+Z) will undo your changes.
Tip: Expand your image before starting the Removal Tool to make it easier to see what you are selecting. This is especially helpful if your image has tiny details.