Excel Screen: A Beginners Tour

AUTHOR:  JASON MORRELL 

Jason Morrell

Excel is a powerful (and huge) program used by individuals, small businesses and large companies all across the globe. It essentially crunches numbers but can also extract, manipulate and analyse data to create reports, charts and dashboards.

The purpose of this post is to get you started. It will provide a solid foundation to build on, some great tools you can work with and a much-needed boost to your confidence.

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Beginners Guide: How to save an Excel spreadsheet and everything else you need to know about working with files

1. A tour of the Excel screen

A tour of excel

2. Workbooks & spreadsheets: Differences

Excel 'workbooks' and 'spreadsheets' are synonymous. 

They are the same thing.

Technically, a spreadsheet is the generic term for a file generated by any program that crunches numbers such as Microsoft Excel, Numbers (Mac), Sheets (Google) or Calc (OpenOffice).

A workbook is the term coined and used by Microsoft, but most other spreadsheet programs also use it.

3. Quick Access Toolbar (QAT)

The Quick Access Toolbar sits in the top-left corner of the Excel screen. It contains one-click access to features that YOU might use often and avoids the need to hunt down a tool.

The default icons are Autosave (on or off), Save, Undo and Redo, but you can add your own icons to suit the way you work.

Quick access toolbar (QAT)

4. The Command Centre

At the top of the Microsoft Excel screen is the command centre, a large array of tools that give you access to everything Microsoft Excel has to offer.

The command centre comprises tabs, ribbons, command groups and commands (icons).

a) Tabs and ribbons

Every Excel tool is organised into TABS and RIBBONS. Each ribbon can be selected by clicking its tab.

Each ribbon has groups of related tools that follow a particular theme or purpose.

The HOME RIBBON contains the most commonly used tools, whatever level you're at. This is true of every program.

Tabs & ribbons

The next tab, INSERT contains commands for inserting different elements into the workbook, such as tables, pictures, shapes, charts, sparklines and pivot tables. (You don’t need most of this as a beginner).

Tabs & ribbons

Another tab, PAGE LAYOUT, contains commands for setting up the printed page, such as the paper size, margin sizes and page orientation.

Tabs & ribbons

You get the idea. You’ll learn how to use some of these commands as you go through this course. As a beginner, most of what you need is on the HOME TAB/RIBBON.

b) Command groups and commands (icons)

Command groups are collections of related tools (icons) WITHIN a ribbon.

If you look at the HOME RIBBON, you'll see command groups called Clipboard, Font, Alignment, Number, Styles, Cells and Editing.

Faint vertical dividers are used to separate each command group.

On the HOME ribbon, the FONT group contains options to change the font, font size and colour, set bold, italic and underline, and more.

Command groups & commands (icons)

5. How screen size affects the commands you see

Icons can be different sizes and may (or may not) have a text description next to them.

For example, the PASTE icon (below) is an example of a large icon, while the CUT, COPY and FORMAT PAINTER icons are small.

How screen size affects the commands you see

Microsoft Excel uses smart technology to detect what size screen you are using and adapts the icons to best fit the size of your screen.

If you are using a big screen (e.g. a 32" monitor), then there is adequate space to display icons at their full size.

However, if you are using a laptop or tablet device which has a small screen then the icons will be compacted to fit the space, and some may also lose their text descriptor.

6. Screen tips

A screen tip is a floating box that appears when you hover over a command icon.

Screen tips

It tells you the function of the icon, i.e. what will happen when you click the icon.

7. Status bar

At the bottom of the Excel screen is the STATUS BAR which displays all kinds of information about your workbook.

Status bar

8. Three ways to view the spreadsheet

On the right side of the status bar, there are 3 icons, each of which displays the workbook in a different way for different reasons.

3 view icons

The first icon shows the workbook in NORMAL view. This is the view you’ll use most of the time.

3 view icons

The second icon shows the workbook in PAGE LAYOUT view which presents the workbook like a Word document. This is how the workbook will look when it is printed.

  • You can see the edges of the page and the margins.
  • It helps you to get your bearings so you can position and size your content correctly.
3 view icons

The third icon shows the workbook in PAGE BREAK PREVIEW.

  • The workbook layout is continuous like the NORMAL view but there are thick solid blue lines (col M and row 6) marking the boundary where your data ends and thick dashed blue lines (between col K and L) marking where each page starts and finishes. In a later chapter you’ll learn how to move these boundaries to better manage your spreadsheet.
  • The page numbers are superimposed.
3 view icons

9. Zoom and magnification

In the bottom-right corner of the Excel window is the ZOOM control.

To change the magnification of your workbook

Zoom / magnification
  • Either single-left-click the  or + at each end of the slider, or …
  • Click-and-drag the slider left or right.

Changing the zoom percentage DOES NOT change the size of the text when you print out your workbook. It simply allows you to get a closer look or pull out for a bird's eye view.

10. Sign in

In the top-right corner of your Excel window is a SIGN IN button. This will sign you into your Office 365 account so you can change your settings, if needed.

Sign in

Once you are signed in your name will be shown here instead.

11. Ribbon display options

Also, in the top-right-corner  of your Excel window are the RIBBON DISPLAY OPTIONS icon.

Single-left-click the icon to display 3 options.

Ribbon display options

The default option is option 3: SHOW TABS AND COMMANDS. You can see all the tabs and the currently selected ribbon.

Ribbon display options

The second option, SHOW TABS, only hides the RIBBON while you are editing your workbook.

To display the ribbon again, single-left-click a TAB. But remember, when you click back on your workbook, the ribbon will be hidden again.

Ribbon display options

The third option: AUTO-HIDE RIBBON hides the tab row and the ribbon as well as the title bar and the status bar at the bottom of the screen to give you the most possible screen space for your spreadsheet data.

This is useful is you are working on a small screen

Ribbon display options

To redisplay the tabs and ribbons:

1.  Move the mouse pointer to the top edge of the screen until the green Excel title bar appears.

2.  Single-left-click the green bar.

3.  Single-left-click either SHOW TABS or SHOW TABS AND COMMANDS.

12. Workbooks, worksheets, rows, columns and cells

A workbook is also referred to as the spreadsheet or the file. The workbook name is displayed in the title bar.

Workbooks, worksheets, rows, columns and cells
  • A brand-new workbook is given the name Book 1 but can be saved using any name you like.
  • Subsequent new workbooks will be called Book2, Book3 etc. until they are renamed.

In the same way that a normal book contains pages, a workbook contains worksheets. Each worksheet is assigned a tab which can be found on the bottom-left of the screen.

Workbooks, worksheets, rows, columns and cells
  • To move to a different sheet, simply click the appropriate worksheet tab.
  • To add a new sheet, click the + symbol to the right of the existing sheet tabs.

A worksheet is made up of lots of cells. These form the grid that you see on the main part of the screen.

Workbooks, worksheets, rows, columns and cells
  • Column letters are displayed in grey blocks along the top of the worksheet.
  • Row numbers are displayed in grey blocks down the left of the worksheet.
  • Each cell is identified by a column letter and a row number (e.g. A1, J20).
Workbooks, worksheets, rows, columns and cells

The current cell reference is displayed in the NAME BOX. This is found above the worksheet on the left side of the screen.

Workbooks, worksheets, rows, columns and cells

Scroll bars are displayed on the bottom and right of the worksheet. Scroll bars allow you to move further across or down a worksheet.

13. Moving, resizing and positioning windows

At the top-right corner of the screen you’ll find the three standard Windows icons

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Restore / Maximise. Clicking this button toggles between showing the workbook at the full screen size and displaying it as a resizable window.

Close. Closes the workbook. If there is only one workbook open, Excel itself will also close.

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Minimise. This will remove the workbook window from the screen, but it remains open. Click the button on the Windows taskbar to re-display the workbook.

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Restore / Maximise. Clicking this button toggles between showing the workbook at the full screen size and displaying it as a resizable window.

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Close. Closes the workbook. If there is only one workbook open, Excel itself will also close.

You can also use these keyboard combinations to positioning windows on the screen

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Display the window at full screen size.

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Resize the window to half the screen width, then lock to the right side of the screen.

Moving, resizing & positioning windows

Resize the window to half the screen width, then lock to the left side of the screen.

15. Undo and redo

Undo might just become your ne best friend!

Every action you take in Excel from things you type, icons you click or keyboard shortcuts you activate is recorded on a timeline. Undo lets you move backwards through the timeline to undo the last step, or if you wish, multiple previous steps.

1.  The Undo button is found on the Quick Access Toolbar (pictured right), which sits above or below the ribbon.

Un-do and re-do

2.  Each click of the XXX button undoes one action at a time

3.  If you undid too many actions, each click of the XXX button redoes an action.

4.  To un-do or re-do several actions in one hit, click the drop-down arrow on the Undo or Redo icons, then select the actions as necessary.

Un-do and re-do

Handy keyboard shortcuts

  • Ctrl Z = Undo
  • Ctrl Y = Redo

16. Context menu

Also known as the Shortcut menu, this menu appears when the right mouse button is clicked.

You may right-click any cell or any object. It displays options which are useful in the context. and is often quicker than searching through the ribbons at the top of the screen to find a tool or feature.

The context menu

17. Context toolbar

When you right-click any cell, a context toolbar appears with the most commonly used formatting options such as fonts, colours and number formatting.

The context toolbar

18. Key Takeaways

  • Excel is a program that specialises in numeric data.
  • At thee top of the screen is he command centre, Commands are placed into groups. Excel will adapt the size of the commands and command groups to fit  the screen width available.
  • There are a number of ribbons that contain related groups of commands. Each ribbon has a specific purpose or theme. Each ribbon has a tab which you can click to select the ribbon.
  • The STATUS BAR at the bottom of the Excel window provides information about the workbook, 3 different view icons and the zoom/magnification slider.
  • A workbook is made up of one or more worksheets. A worksheet has rows that are numbered and columns that are lettered. A cell is referenced with a letter and a number, e.g. A1
  • Press Ctrl Z to Undo the last action. Press Ctrl Y to Re-do (cancel an undo)
  • Right-click on any cell to display a context menu and a context toolbar.
  • The Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) provides one-click access to the tools you need most.
  • At the top-right of the Excel window is the SIGN IN button (for Office 365) and the RIBBON DISPLAY OPTIONS icons which has 3 display settings – Hide Tabs and CommandsShow Tabs and Show Tabs and Commands. The last option is the default setting.

Please feel free to post any questions you have into the comments below. And before you leave this page, I want to give you one quick little action item! 

ACTION ITEM: Comment below with ONE thing you picked up from this post and share how it has helped, or will help, you. It's good to share your successes because it encourages others and provides an instant boost.

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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About Jason Morrell

About the author

Jason Morrell


Jason loves to simplify the hard stuff, cut the fluff and share what actually works. Things that make a difference. Things that slash hours from your daily work tasks. He runs a software training business in Queensland, Australia, lives on the Gold Coast with his wife and 4 kids and often talks about himself in the third person!

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