Tik Tok star Miss Excel explains the fundamentals of teaching tech to laymen
Since finding a fun way to teach people how to use spreadsheet software, Kat Norton has needed to widen her own ‘income’ column. She offers CIOs her winning formula for learner engagement
Kat Norton wants to shake up the way we feel about learning. Better known to her audiences on TikTok and Instagram by her user name, Miss Excel, Norton has been adding her distinctive brand of youthful exuberance to Microsoft’s venerable spreadsheet program since she started posting usage tips on the video-sharing networks in June 2020. Short videos such as Scrub Data, Time Trick and Heat Map Magic, set to popular R&B tunes and accompanied by a beaming Norton dancing to the beat, have helped her to attract well over 1.3 million followers to date.
This product of a pandemic lockdown has turned into a successful enterprise for the 27-year-old Long Islander, providing the springboard for her online academy, which she opened in November 2020. This offers video-based learning for businesses and individuals who want to improve their understanding of Microsoft packages and selected Google applications too. More than 10,000 people have enrolled so far on courses ranging from Word with Miss Excel, priced at $297 (£220), to Complete Microsoft Office Suite at $997.
The idea for Miss Excel sprang from Norton’s genuine passion for the program. Having started using it as a primary school pupil, she began to get “really good” at Excel while studying for her MBA at Binghamton University in upstate New York. She was then able to “put the dots together” while conducting securitisation reviews for banks as an employee of California-based global consultancy Protiviti.
“I used spreadsheets daily in my work and would constantly be combining tricks in innovative ways to solve problems in my capacity as the company’s Excel ‘subject-matter expert’,” Norton recalls. “As a passion project, I developed an internal training programme. I went on to spend years hosting Excel courses around the US.”
With the national Covid lockdown putting paid to her work travel plans, Norton suddenly had more time on her hands. She realised that the power of social media could enable her to help so many more people feel “more comfortable and empowered” in their use of the software.
There’s a simple principle underpinning Norton’s way of teaching a topic that’s widely viewed as difficult and dull: make it memorable.
When Norton describes her courses as “so successful”, she’s not exaggerating. Since she uploaded her first video to TikTok (in which she showcased Excel’s left/right function while dancing to Drake’s Toosie Slide), Miss Excel has become a seven-figure business. Sales of her B2C courses alone have generated more than $1m.
While female white-collar workers aged under 35 comprise the biggest customer base for Norton’s courses, she firmly believes that anybody, regardless of demographic, can get the most from this sort of material as long as they’re open to it and confident enough in their ability to pick up new tech skills.
“With the right type of teaching, anyone can learn anything,” she says. “But self-belief from the learner is critical. It’s why I work hard to empower my students and keep them engaged.”
Norton believes that creativity is crucial for any CIO seeking ways to inform colleagues in other functions about important tech-related matters that may seem arcane and/or arid. The dangers of phishing, say, can be made more fathomable if they’re conveyed in a way that extends beyond the standard company-wide warning email, which is likely to be deleted and forgotten quickly by many recipients. You needn’t start throwing shapes on MS Teams (unless you want to, of course), but your message will have far more impact if you can make it an engaging learning experience that your target audience can relate to.
Whether you’re trying to school your CEO on ransomware or educate the wider business on the merits of Trello, consider beforehand what approach is likely to resonate with the recipients. How did you originally learn about the topic? What, if anything, would you change about that experience to make it more appropriate for an audience of non-experts?
While creating a sense of energy and excitement around topics will make them instantly more appealing, keeping things simple and to the point will also help. So-called micro-learning is another increasingly popular approach that CIOs should look to tap into, according to Norton. Bite-sized training sessions – as opposed to, say, a three-hour marathon on a Friday afternoon – allow for heightened focus and better knowledge retention.
“If your classes are too long, they’ll tend to drag. People will zone out,” she warns.
From a teacher’s perspective, Norton recommends analysing all the material you want to share and working out how it can be split into chunks, before “infusing each piece with as much creativity and fun as possible”. This approach enables bigger topics to be broken down into more digestible sub-topics, with each matched to a creative idea.
Remember that your colleagues are only human – which means that making a connection with them is essential, she stresses.
“In all of my courses, you will always see me on the screen,” Norton says. “It’s as if you and I are having a conversation, one on one.”