Introducing Super-BOSCARD: try this new technique for writing a kick-ass Terms of Reference.

WARNING: Don’t read this article if you’re just trying to pass an exam. I’m giving you the real-world view, from twenty years experience as an IT professional, rather than what a textbook will tell you.

When you’re doing a piece of work, do you ever feel like you’re floundering around without a clear sense of direction or purpose? That you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing, or why you’re doing it? That your boss hasn’t told you what’s going on? That the various people you’re working with don’t agree on what’s supposed to happen?

If so, the way to fix it is simple: you need a good Terms of Reference.

PART 1: Terms of Reference

What is a Terms of Reference? 

It simply tells you, for a piece of work, what you’re trying to do, and why you’re trying to do it. It can form an agreement between the stakeholders as to the Who, What, Why, When, and How of the work.

Over time, people can “forget” or change their mind over what they were asking for. The Terms of Reference lets you go back and see what you originally agreed, and then update it where necessary.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “What the heck am I trying to do here?”, then you need to take a step back and create a Terms of Reference.

Why use a Terms of Reference?

The TOR can give you a clear understanding of the work. Clarity is essential, to avoid wasted effort and wasted time. It lets you find out what is really needed and required. It also lets you communicate the work with the other people involved, and lets you know when you have finished.

Without a good TOR you’ll often be going around in circles, never really knowing where you’re supposed to be going.

Who should write the Terms of Reference?

It doesn’t matter too much who actually writes the Terms of Reference. It’s more important that it gets agreement between the senior stakeholders who will be involved in your project, to make sure everyone is happy with the final understanding. 

A Terms of Reference can be written by a Project Manager, a Business Analyst, a Product Owner, or anyone with a vested interest in the work being set.

In theory, a Project Manager or some kind of Product Owner or senior stakeholder should write the Terms of Reference. In practice, I’ve found that it’s often the Business Analyst that will write the Terms of Reference, and then present it for discussion and approval. 

The Terms of Reference can be quite detailed, so to be written well it needs a person who can see both the big picture and the detail.

If your manager gives you a piece of work that you don’t fully understand, you can create your own Terms of Reference—it can be small and concise—to help you clarify the work before you start.

How big does a piece of work need to be before you need a Terms of Reference?

Anything that’s going to take a day or more, or that isn’t completely clear, could often benefit from a good Terms of Reference. It’s much easier to do the work when you’re clear on exactly what the work should be!  

If the work is quite small, your Terms of Reference could just be a few key bullet points. If the work is a much larger project, you might end up with two or three pages to cover a full Terms of Reference.

How important is a Terms of Reference?

A good Terms of Reference is absolutely VITAL! Without it, you won’t agree on the work you’re doing, and you’ll probably end up wasting a lot of time, and producing work that doesn’t meet requirements, because you don’t know what the requirements actually are!

Without a Terms of Reference, you literally don’t know what you’re doing! There will be the huge tendency to jump towards a solution before you really understand what you’re solving.

Isn’t this planning in advance? I’m terrified of being accused of “doing waterfall”!

Don’t think of it as planning in advance, consider it thinking in advance. I’m arguing this is NOT waterfall. Agile is useful when things are changing, but not everything changes all the time! 

You need to distinguish between fundamental, earth-shattering change, and smaller changes you can live with. An airline will still be flying planes in five years time; an online clothing retailer will still be selling clothes in five years time. Often, change comes as a big step change, then only very small incremental and continuous improvements. 

The much bigger peril is that you “fail to plan, plan to fail!” Without a decent understanding of what you’re trying to do, your agile techniques won’t work, because you have nothing to aim for. You and your team will just end up confused, and you’ll waste a lot of time.

So step away from the JIRA, and set your epics and stories aside for a moment, and consider the big picture.

Summary: What is a Terms of Reference?

  • Lets you clarify and understand a piece of work before you start it.
  • Reveals areas where you are not yet clear, where you need to ask questions.
  • Tells you what the work needs to achieve to be successful.
  • Gives everyone on the team a clear understanding of your goals.
  • Lets you communicate and agree the shape of the work with senior people.

PART 2: The standard BOSCARD technique 

Use BOSCARD to create your Terms of Reference

One of the classic tools to create a Terms of Reference is called BOSCARD. It stands for Background, Objectives, Scope, Constraints, Assumptions, Risks, Deliverables. It’s really just an acronym to get you thinking through the most important things you need to consider. 

There’s also a similar, shorter form called OSCAR, which removes the Background and Deliverables, although I don’t recommend that you do this, because I’ve found in practice that both of those sections are important.

Where is most of the value in BOSCARD?

Most of the time, especially for smaller pieces of work, I’ve found that most of the value comes from the BOS-D, rather than the CAR. In other words, Background, Objectives, Scope, and Deliverables gives you most of the power of BOSCARD. The CAR section—Constraints, Assumptions, Risks—is more useful on larger projects.

It’s best to tackle the BOS before the CARD, because the information in the CARD section largely comes out of what you discover when producing the BOS.

PART 3: Super-BOSCARD – turbo-charge your Terms of Reference

What’s better than BOSCARD?

Although BOSCARD is a useful starting point, I’ve found that in practice it misses out a lot of key information that you often need to know. BOSCARD itself only does half a job. In this article I’ll show you a fuller and richer tool 

Introducing Super-BOSCARD

To overcome some of the real-world problems I was having with BOSCARD, leaving me with an incomplete Terms of Reference, I decided to beef it up! So I created Super-BOSCARD. It’s still basically BOSCARD, but it’s souped-up!

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t feel that you need to include every heading within your Terms of Reference. There’s nothing worse than reading a document that just repeats the same things over and over again because it’s been written to conform to a template.

So use your judgement. Super-BOSCARD is only there to help you produce a Terms of Reference. The Gods of Computer Science won’t come down on you like a ton of bricks if you leave some things out if they’re not relevant!

So pick and choose, to create something that’s right for you. Don’t create something too long and unwieldy. Feel free to combine categories, or ignore categories—whatever gets you the best end result.

As a general rule, the larger the piece of work, and the longer it will take, the more of these headings you should use, and the longer and more detailed your Terms of Reference should be.

See these headings as a starting point for discussion. Often, the discussion that you generate will be as useful as the conclusions that you eventually reach.

PART 4: The elements of Super-BOSCARD

Super-BOSCARD is made up of four parts: three sets of things to consider, and a set of filters to use afterwards to validate that your Terms of Reference is suitable.

The four parts of Super-BOSCARD are:

  1. The current world: where are we now?
  2. The perfect world: where would we like to be?
  3. The imperfect world: what might hold us back?
  4. Filters: is our Terms of Reference likely to be correct?

I’ve presented these items in the approximate order you will usually consider them.

The current world

This is a part that many people miss, but it’s important to set the scene, to understand how the work came to be requested. People will try to rush you here, and not define the problem accurately—you must resist this! They all want to skip straight to solutions, but this is a huge mistake.

BackgroundWhat brought you to where you are now?
ProblemWhat specific problems do you need to solve, and who is experiencing these problems?

The perfect world

This is the exciting part, for what we’re going to do!

VisionWhat’s the opportunity? What’s the big picture of the future state the work is trying to achieve. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
ObjectivesHow do you know you’ve met the vision? You could use SMART goals, OKR (currently fashionable), or just write some simple clear statements of what you need to achieve.
BenefitsWhat are the business benefits of the work? Increasing revenue? Cutting costs? Saving time? Can we quantify these benefits with figures? (Sometimes you can capture the benefits within the Objectives, if you are using a technique like OKR.)
ScopeWhat will you do, and what will you not do?
Enterprise ContextHow does your work fit into the wider goals of the whole organisation?
ReasonsWhy are you doing this work?
DeliverablesWhat will this work actually produce?
Roles and ResponsibilitiesWho is involved, and what will they do?
GovernanceWho will approve and sign-off on the work? How will it be governed?
ApproachHow will you tackle the work, as your high-level approach? Not essential, but it’s good to get general agreement before you start, especially if there are some quite different routes you could take. Make sure you don’t get bogged down in detail if you choose to discuss the approach.

The imperfect world

This is the boring part, with all the difficulties we might face.

ConstraintsWhat existing problems do we have to live with?
AssumptionsWhat do we assume is true, which we will validate and question later?
RisksWhat could go wrong, and how could we deal with it?
DependenciesWhich other people, systems, departments, projects, and organisations, are we relying on?
FinancialWhat’s the budget, and do we have enough money?
TimescalesHow long do we have? Are there dates we need to hit for legal or regulatory reasons? Can we break this down into milestones?
Legal and RegulatoryAre there any legal or regulatory hurdles to clear, or things that would stand in our way?
EthicsIs our work fully above board? Are we causing any harm?

Filters and Checks

This makes sure you’re on the right trajectory. These aren’t usually headings to write down; they’re checks you can do on your work when you’ve got a good first draft. It’s a validation of your Terms of Reference.

ConsistencyDoes anything in this Terms of Reference contradict itself?
AlignmentDoes your work match to the strategy of the company, your department, and your manager?
SimplicityAre you using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut? Are you making things harder than they need to be? Could you get the same results with less work?
Sanity CheckIf you showed your Terms of Reference to an intelligent friend, would it make sense? Or have you gone crazy?
AgreementDoes everyone who needs to agree with what you’re doing actually agree? Do you need formal sign-off or approval?

PART 5: Running a meeting, interview, call, or workshop to build a Terms of Reference using Super-BOSCARD

You need to make sure that the senior people with an interest in your work are able to give you their views on what you need to do. They will help you to build a holistic Terms of Reference that sees things from all the appropriate angles.

Sometimes this is easy, and other times it’s a bit like getting blood from a stone! Quite often you find that people only have a vague notion of the work, and when you try to actually pin them down on details they become very waffly and evasive, and lack any real clarity. That’s actually a good sign, because it tells you that something is wrong, and it really makes the case for why you need the Terms of Reference.

Set a formal agenda before the meeting

I recommend setting a formal agenda for your meeting or call, and publishing it in advance (put it in the meeting invitation). Some people might then start to prepare some more structured thoughts in advance, if they know they’re going to be grilled!

I usually start with a 1 hour meeting. These days, if you go for anything longer than an hour it’s very difficult to actually schedule a time when everyone can attend. Also, people will switch off after an hour or so, and lose concentration. Once the hour is up, you can go away and start to write up what you’ve got so far, make sense of it, and the gaps and further questions will become more obvious. You can then have another meeting to clarify those areas.

Meeting agenda for a Terms of Reference meeting

You can remove any agenda items that you don’t think are relevant for your particular piece of work. Copy and paste this into your meeting invitation:


The purpose of this meeting is to understand exactly what this piece of work involves, and exactly why we are doing it.

Here is the agenda for our 1 hour meeting. Time is quite tight, so please be on time!

  • Welcome and Introduction (5 minutes)
  • The Current World (10 minutes)
    • Background to where we are now
    • Problems we need to solve – we need to understand this thoroughly
  • The Perfect World – where we want to get to (25 minutes)
    • Vision
    • Objectives
    • Scope: in scope and out of scope
    • Enterprise context for where this work sits in the wider company
    • Reasons for doing this work
    • Deliverables
    • Roles and Responsibilities
    • Approach (if time): the high level way we will tackle the work
  • The Imperfect World – things that could hold us back (15 minutes)
    • Constraints
    • Assumptions
    • Risks
    • Dependencies on other people, systems, departments, projects, and organisations
    • Financials and budgets
    • Timescales
    • Legal and regulatory
    • Any ethical concerns?
  • Wrap up, actions, and next steps (5 minutes)

PART 6: Questions to ask during the meeting

Here are some questions that you can ask, for each heading, to get the discussion started.

You don’t need to ask all of these questions, but they will give you a good starting point. Pick and choose the most appropriate questions for your situation. Don’t ask every single question, or you’ll be there for hours!

Background

  • Tell me why you decided to start this piece of work?
  • Where did the idea for this work come from?

Problem

  • What sort of problems have you found that led you to kick off this piece of work?
  • Who is experiencing these problems?
  • Can you put on a figure on how much time or cost these problems are causing us?
  • How much more revenue could we make if we could fix these problems?
  • Who is asking you to fix these problems?
  • Has anyone tried to solve these problems before? How did it go?

Vision

  • What the vision for how things will look when this work is completed?
  • What’s the big picture for how you want this work to turn out?
  • What do you want to have achieved when we’re done with this work?
  • If you could wave a magic wand, what would thinks be like when we’re done?
  • Where would you like this work to be in 12 months time?

Objectives

  • Can we make a bullet-point list of the high-level objectives for this work?
  • What are the 3-5 main big things you’d like this work to accomplish?
  • Which of these objectives are the most important?
  • Can we prioritise these objectives?

Benefits

  • What are the benefits of doing this work?
  • Are we aiming to make more money, or cut costs, or save time?
  • Can we assign benefits to each of the objectives we identified?
  • Can we put numbers on any of these benefits?

Scope

  • Which parts of the business do you think will be affected by this work?
  • Which areas do you think we’ll need to look at?
  • Which systems do you think this work will affect?
  • Are there any specific areas we should take out of scope and not look at?
  • Is there anything we can take out of scope for now, to reduce the amount of work we need to do?

Enterprise Context

  • Where does this work fit into the bigger picture for the company as a whole?
  • Which strategies are we aligning with when we do this work?
  • Is there anyone else here working on something similar?

Reasons

  • Why is it important that we reach these objectives?
  • What are the big reasons that you want to do this work?
  • Can we list a reason for each of the objectives we identified?

Deliverables

  • What would you like this work to actually deliver?
  • What format should the deliverables take, e.g. Word documents, software?
  • Who will use the deliverables, and what will they do with them?

Roles and Responsibilities

  • Who will we be working with on this?
  • Who are the senior people involved?
  • Who will we be working with day-to-day?
  • Who is the overall decision maker?
  • Are there any specific stakeholders we need to identify now?
  • Who will accept the deliverables when we’re finished?

Governance

  • Who needs to approve or sign off on things, and what will they want to see from us?
  • How will we govern the work to keep it on track?
  • Do we need a Steering Committee or Project Board?
  • Do we need regular status updates?

Approach

  • What general approach do you think we should take with this work?
  • How do you think we should start? 
  • What are the first steps we need to take?
  • How do you think we should break this work down?
  • Where do you think we should start with this work?
  • What do you think will be the main workstreams involved?
  • What project management methodology do you want to use?

Constraints

  • Are there any problems you can see we’re going to face?
  • Is there anything that’s going to stand in our way?
  • Are there any constraints or things we’re going to have to work around.

Assumptions

  • What are we assuming here when we do this piece of work?
  • Is there anything we’re assuming in our definition of the problems that might not be true, or that we need to check and validate?

Risks

  • How risky do you think this piece of work is?
  • What risks are we facing here?
  • What could go wrong with this work?
  • Is there anything that could happen that would send us off-track?
  • Have you thought about how we could handle these risks?

Dependencies

  • Who else are we depending on to get this work done?
  • Are we going to need time from any other team or department to be able to do this work?
  • Do we have any people, systems, departments, projects, and organisations, that we’re depending on to be able to do this work?

Financial

  • What’s the budget for this work?
  • When does the budget start and end?
  • Does anyone need to sign off on the financials?

Timescales

  • When does the work need to be completed by?
  • Do we have any hard deadlines that we absolutely have to meet?
  • Can we break the work down into phased deliveries?

Legal and Regulatory

  • Are there any laws or regulations that we’ll specifically need to be aware of?
  • Who can we check the legal position with?
  • Who will sign off on the legal and regulatory side of things?
  • Does this work comply with the company’s internal policies?

Ethics

  • Are there any ethical concerns about this work?
  • Would we be causing anyone any harm by this work?
  • Does this work inadvertently discriminate against anyone?
  • Would we be comfortable if this work became public knowledge?

PART 7: Presenting your Terms of Reference

It’s perfectly acceptable, and often desirable, to create a Terms of Reference for pieces of work you’re doing on your own.

However, once you’ve done your analysis you’ll often need to present it to other people, to communicate what you’re doing and to seek senior approval.

The options for your presentation are usually:

Directly in an emailGood if the Terms of Reference is short, and the piece of work is quite small.
PowerPoint slidesA good middle ground when you don’t want to be too formal. People seem to like PowerPoint because they think it gives them an excuse to be vague and woolly, and not have to think too hard!
But you’re going to lull them into a false sense of security, then whammy them with the good stuff!
Careful you don’t get bogged down in making it look pretty, rather than spending your time on the actual analysis.
A Word documentMany people seem to think that a Word doc is too formal, or they might actually have to think and concentrate! But if you’re doing a larger piece of work, a Word document is usually easier to annotate, add reviewer comments, and print out for easy reference.

Conclusion on using Super-BOSCARD to write your Terms of Reference

Having a great Terms of Reference is vital if you want to do great work. It builds agreement and clarity on the big picture for what you’re trying to achieve.

Using Super-BOSCARD makes it easy to build a comprehensive and bullet-proof Terms of Reference.

Give it a try on your next project, and let me know in the comments below how it works for you!


References you might find useful:

BOSCARD article at Project Smart.

BOSCARD article at BA Guru.

Wikipedia article on Terms of Reference.

O’Reilly publishing: introduction to OKRs (37 page free PDF)

Unicef donation from marketing exercise

I recently did a small, highly-focussed marketing exercise with owners of service businesses. To encourage participation, I promised to make a donation to Unicef for each person who took part, and to post the proof of my donation here on this blog.

Unicef is the United Nations Children’s Fund. I chose it because it is a well-known large and respected charity in the UK and the USA, the two main regions where my clients are based. From their website: “Unicef makes sure more of the world’s children are fed, vaccinated, educated and protected than any other organisation.”

As a result of this work, I have now made a donation to Unicef of £102 (representing $130 US dollars).

The Unicef donation page states that “Your £14 could help protect 100 children from polio”. On that basis, together we have helped to protect 723 children from this killer disease. Alternatively, they say that “£75 could buy exercise books for 180 children and pencils for a whole school”.

Thank you to everyone who took part.

£102 ($130) donation to Unicef.

Cessna 172 Passenger Safety Briefing

Download my two-page checklist as a PDF or as a Word Document.

If you are going on a flight with passengers, the law states that you must give them a safety briefing.

Since I couldn’t find anything that fully met my needs, for a Cessna 172, I put together my own safety briefing. In case anyone else finds it useful, I have published it here.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert, or a qualified flight instructor, I am just a PPL. Nothing here is official, and some or all of it might be incorrect! You completely use this at your own risk, and must use your own intelligence and judgement at all times when flying and when speaking to your passengers! If in any doubt, seek the advice of a qualified flight instructor.

You can download my two-page checklist as a PDF or as a Word Document:

Passenger Safety Briefing – Cessna 172 – IH v4.pdf

Passenger Safety Briefing – Cessna 172 – IH v4.docx

How to find and delete large files on a PC

A friend of mine has written to me:

I keep getting message ‘delete some files’ as there’s a memory [disk space] problem with my laptop. Which files would you delete?

I would delete the biggest files first! Don’t delete anything in your Windows directory though, or Windows might stop working.
You can bring up Windows Explorer and sort by file size.
I’d look in your downloads folder first. Any video is likely to be large. Sounds files can also be quite large.
There are free utilities that can search your whole disk and show you the biggest files. Have a look here, and probably start by downloading the first one, Treesize Free:

 

Inspirational words from Steve Davis, world champion snooker player

As a pundit during a snooker match at the Masters 2017, six-times world champion Steve Davis, one of the game’s most successful ever players, said something interesting:

“It’s absolute rubbish that Ronnie O’Sullivan says the rest of them [the lower-ranked players] shouldn’t be professionals. You’ve got aspirations as a young player coming through. OK, you might not be good enough at the moment, but you practice hard, do like Mark Selby has done, like Stuart Bingham has done, and all of a sudden you improve your standard, you could be one of the players who gets through and makes the money.

“You can’t say the player who’s ranked 120th is wasting his time, because the player ranked 120th is NOT wasting his time: he’s got a dream. Ronnie O’Sullivan doesn’t have any dreams any more, he prefers to do other things; his dream is not snooker.

“But all the young kids coming through, even if there’s not a pot of gold at the end of their personal rainbow, doesn’t mean it’s not worth achieving and worth chasing.

Emphasis is mine. BBC Television, 15th January 2017.

Uber safety tips: staying safe with Uber / Lyft / any taxi

I assembled the following list of Uber safety tips for an article that didn’t get used. The tips are still useful, so here they are:

Remember that you’re getting into a car with a stranger. While millions of trips have been successfully completed on Uber, and I don’t want to sound too negative about what is a very useful service, it pays to bear the following points in mind:

Before you get in the car:

  • Try not to travel alone. It’s safer with a friend.
    Wait for the Uber in a safe place. This is likely to be indoors, or in a well-lit public place, not on a dark street. Ask to be dropped off in a public place too, if possible.
  • Check the driver’s star rating. If the driver assigned to you has a bad rating, you can cancel before they arrive, and choose another option.
  • Verify the identity of the Uber driver. The app gives you the driver’s first name, a photo of them, and a photo of the vehicle and its number plate.
  • Make sure you get into the right car! If you don’t feel comfortable with the driver, don’t get in the car.
  • Check the condition of the car. If there are flat tyres, funny engine noises, or something doesn’t feel right, don’t get in.
  • Take a photo of the car, showing its number plate, and send it to a friend before you get in. If you don’t have any friends on with you on holiday, send it to somebody back home.
  • Tell people where you are going. If you are meeting friends, the app lets you share your trip details and time of arrival. Your friend can then track your car along its route.

While you are in the car

  • Don’t sit in the front passenger seat. This makes physical contact between you and the driver more difficult.
  • Put your seatbelt on, just in case you are in an accident.
  • Tell the driver that you are meeting somebody at the other end. Knowing that someone is expecting you to arrive could make them think twice about causing trouble.
  • Prepare for an easy escape. Make sure your car door is unlocked, and keep all your belongings (including your phone) close at hand.
  • Keep your phone in your hand, in case you need to send a message asking for help.
  • Keep it friendly. Don’t discuss contentious topics or get into an argument with the driver.
  • Keep an eye on where you are going. Look out for landmarks, places, and look at a map on your phone to check you are heading in the right direction.
  • In case of emergency, dial the emergency services. Calls are always free. In the UK dial, and in Europe dial 112. (Little-known fact: 112 works in the UK as well, and calls are handled by 999 operators.)

Here is the Uber safety statement.

 

How to use Readability Scores

 

Readability score resultsIf you need to make sure your writing is clear, the website Readability Score can help.

I’m not connected or affiliated to this website or its creator in any way, I just find it very useful, and wanted to share it with you.

Much of my working life involves writing, so to all intents and purposes I am a professional writer.

I want to show you why I find this site useful, and give you some recommendations on how to use it.

What is a readability score? What is a readability index?

The concept of a readability score (also known as a readability index) goes back many years, really hitting its stride in 1975, when Rudolf Flesch and J. Peter Kincaid built their Flesch–Kincaid readability tests for the US Navy.

The idea is that by looking at your writing, and making some calculations, we can figure out roughly how easy it is for somebody to understand what you’ve written.

It’s an automated calculation, so of course it’s not perfect, but it’s a very useful guide. The most common measures that these scores look at is sentence length, word length, number of syllables in your words, and the number of characters (letters) that you use.

Sometimes it’s difficult for a computer to count syllables accurately, so the measures are sometimes not 100% precise, but from a practical point of view that doesn’t matter.

There are two basic types of measures. The first is just a score, which doesn’t mean much by itself, but can be used to compare one piece of writing to another.

The second measure, which Flesch and Kincaid developed, and several others have followed, is more useful to us. It shows the average American school reading grade needed to understand your writing.

What are the most popular readability scores?

There are several readability tests that ultimately boil down to a US reading grade. This means that we can run several tests, compare them, and take the average.

Here are the big guns of the readability index world. They all work in different ways, and the links below take you to Wikipedia articles so you can find out more. They produce results of a US reading grade that are usually no more than two or three grades apart.

(Readability Score gives you these links when you see your results, which is nice.)

How does readability-score.com work?

This website was built and maintained by Dave Child, who’s based in the UK. I don’t know him personally, but he’s very friendly and responsive to email, if you have feature requests, etc.

The site is nice and easy to use, and looks good. You can either paste some text directly into the site (which is what I do), or upload files, or point the site to a URL web link that contains your text. The site can even monitor your links, such as your homepage, and alert you when certain readability thresholds are breached.

The results are very clear and easy to see, and I’m sure you’ll find it very useful.

You get to see the various reading grade levels for your writing, and an average.

You also get keyword density, ie how often certain words or two-word phrases appear. Personally I don’t need this, but if you write with SEO in mind it can be helpful.

Word count, sentence count, and average words per sentence are useful. I’ll give you some recommendations below for how you could use this.

The longest sentence is a crucial metric, and one that I asked the site author to add for me. (Impressively he added it within a day!) You also get the longest word, which can be helpful too.

If you are more than a casual user, there are very reasonably-priced subscription options, which help support the site.

A note on security and privacy: With sites like this, we always have to think about security and privacy. I’ve no idea whether this site (or any other similar site) stores your text, or does anything else with it. It probably doesn’t, but of course it could. (They do have a Privacy Policy.) So as always on the internet, it’s always best to assume the worst case scenario: don’t go pasting highly confidential documents into any kind of site like this, just to be safe!

How to use readability scores in your writing

Even highly intelligent and/or educated people (not always the same thing!) find it easier to read and comprehend writing that is at a lower reading grade. So no matter who you are writing for, whether it’s doctors and lawyers, manual workers, or the fabled “high-school dropouts”, a lower score is usually better.

The excellent book “Write everything right”, by Denny Hatch, (a long-time marketing man), is well worth a read. (Amazon UK  Amazon US)

It contains these facts from the Literacy Project Foundation, relating to American readers:

 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an 8th grade level

45 million are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level

In other words, the average reading grade in America is 8th grade level. I have no particular reason to doubt that the UK is very similar.

The advice of Denny Hatch, which I agree with, is:

  • Keep sentences to 29 words or fewer
  • Write at 8th grade level or even lower if you can

Conclusion: an essential site for all writers

Here’s a screenshot showing the readability scores for this very article you’re reading now. (Click the image to see a larger version.) What do you reckon? Must try harder!

Readability score screenshot

Excel: How to find and count duplicate values in two lists

Use COUNTIF in Excel to quickly count how many values in one list appear in another.

I recently had a Master List of email addresses, and another list of Reject email addresses that needed to be excluded from this (because we no longer wanted to email these people).

Before I removed them from the mailing software, I wanted to see how many duplicates were in the list. (I didn’t want to accidentally wipe out the list by being over-zealous with the rejects!)

To do this, I used the COUNTIF function in Excel. (I’m using Excel 2016 for Mac, but this should work in any modern version of Excel.) This is much safer than a VLOOKUP for simple work. (See this article for the dangers of VLOOKUP.)

The screenshot below shows my spreadsheet. I replaced the email addresses with simple letters here, to make it clearer to see what’s going on.

Find duplicate values in Excel
Find duplicate values in Excel

I created three columns, for my Master List, my Reject List, and whether this row in the Reject List contains a duplicate.

The basic formula, as you can see in the screenshot below, is then:

COUNTIF(Master-List-Range, Row-From-Reject_List)

At the bottom I just did an Auto-sum. In this example, 3 rows are duplicates.

 

How to fix conflicting changes in Evernote

Do you see something like this in your Evernote note?

Conflicting modification on 28 January 2016 at 12:30:23

It means that you were using more than one device to edit your note, and you made changes before Evernote was able to synchronise the change.

Here’s a couple of ways you might go about fixing this.

DISCLAIMER: Although this has worked for me, you use it at your own risk! Take a backup copy of your note if you are concerned.

How to fix Evernote conflicting changes – Method 1: Quick and Simple

If, like me, most of your notes are just lists of things, such as ideas for my next book, then this will probably work well for you.

1. Copy your entire note to the clipboard.

2. Paste the note into this site:
http://textmechanic.com/text-tools/basic-text-tools/remove-duplicate-lines/

3. Click the button “Remove duplicate lines”

4. Copy the new text into your clipboard. This now has exact duplicate lines removed.

5. Paste the new text into your note, overwriting the old text. (Or paste into a new note if you want to be extra-careful.)

WARNING 1: This will remove any formatting that you were using in the note.

WARNING 2: Although this process doesn’t reorder your lines of text, because duplicate lines are removed you might find that lines lower down are no longer right next to the line they used to be next to. Personally, when I get a conflicting modification I just keep adding to the note at the bottom, and in practice this has never been a problem for me.

PRIVACY: I didn’t write this site that I linked to, and I’m not connected with it in any way, I just found it online. I don’t know it stores your note text (theoretically it could), so you might not want to paste anything too confidential in there.

So how does it know which lines to delete? Is it safe? Here’s an example:

If you are worried that you might lose text for some reason, you could always just copy all the text from your old note into a new note (ie duplicate the note) and just perform this procedure on the new note, so you’ve still got the old note as a backup.

This procedure will only delete lines that are identical to lines it has previously seen. So, in the following simple example, lines a and b are duplicated in the conflicting note, and the second instance of them is deleted:

BEFORE:

a
b
c
Conflicting modification on 28 January 2016 at 12:30:23
a
b
d

AFTER:

a
b
c
Conflicting modification on 28 January 2016 at 12:30:23
d

You’ll see that the “Conflicting modifications” notice is still in place; you’ll have to delete that manually.

How to fix Evernote conflicting changes – Method 2: Difference and Merge Tool

Thanks to reader JMichaelTX for making the following observation:

[The procedure above, which deletes duplicate lines] does not really help resolve the conflict, and conflicting lines may be physically separated.

A much better method is to copy each section (that is from an original note) to separate files, and then use one of the many tools that show differences and allow merges.

But what we really need is for Evernote to (1) prevent as many conflicts as possible; and (2) provide a tool to resolve the conflicts.

He is of course correct on all counts. The procedure he describes is more suitable if your note is more detailed. It would likely take longer to perform than the simple method I showed above, and requires a little more technical skill, but could provide better results for you, depending on the content of your notes.

So there’s a couple of choices, and I hope this helps you.

TextMechanic tool

How to speed up online video playback

If you watch a lot of online video, as I do in order to stay up to date on the latest technologies, you might find it useful to speed up the video so that you can get through everything more quickly and save yourself some time.

To do this, I use a free extension for the Google Chrome web browser called Video Speed Controller.

I find I can easily watch videos at 1.7x speed. This extension lets you go up in steps of 0.1x, so you can quickly speed up, slow down, and rewind 10 seconds when you need to.

Particularly useful are the keyboard shortcuts. As the presenter of the video speeds up, slows down, or covers something less interesting, you can use the keybaord shortcuts to very easily and quickly change the speed:

  • A = Rewind 10 seconds (very useful!)
  • S = Slow down 0.1x
  • D = Speed up 0.1x
  • R = Reset to normal 1x speed

A little wrinkle: it only works on HTML 5 videos, not Flash videos. Still, it will serve you well most of the time, since Flash video is old now, and on its way out (arguably!).

If you want to speed up Flash video as well as HTML 5 video, then try Enounce MySpeed. It costs $29.99, but it works well. It also has shortcut keys, and a nice slider that can appear to control video speed. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a way to quickly rewind video by 10 seconds. Still,