Category Archives: Tools We Use

Make Your Email Notifications More Relevant By Skipping the Inbox

Word association time:

  • Email
  • Telephone
  • Inbox
  • Voice Mail

EscapingOverwhelmingEmailIf the first and third words conjured slogging through innumerous messages, you’re not alone. Email has long been identified as that sucking sound that you hear as soon as you start your work day.  In my work, that flashing red light that used to indicate I had a voice mail has long ago been replaced by Outlook’s pop-up email notification.

Not only has email been identified as a detriment to productivity, so has that email notifier. Clicking this link will show numerous productivity experts telling you to turn the darn thing off. It’s a tip on page 35 of Franklin Covey’s Time Management for Outlook Toolkit. However, this email desktop alert was designed to serve a purpose: letting you know when emails important to you have arrived.*

So how can you use the email notification tool without derailing your productivity every time an “FYI email” or free whitepaper pops up in your Inbox? By not putting those emails in your Inbox in the first place.

Here’s a technique I developed a while ago that routes all emails to a folder that’s not tracked by the email notification tool, then pushes the stuff I want** back into my Inbox.

emailRulesFirst: create a special folder to receive all your emails. I call mine: “Inbox Manager.”

Second: create an Outlook rule that applies to all messages, with the action: “Move to the following folder.” Specify the folder you just created.

Third: provide exceptions to the rule. Mine are:

    • If it was received from members of my immediate team, my boss, my boss’ boss, and project managers for the projects I’m working on.
    • It was marked with High importance
    • It’s a type of Meeting Request
    • It’s flagged as “Call.”

You may not find all these exceptions useful for you. For example, perhaps these settings will not be as exclusionary if you’ve got people who mark every email “important.” Hopefully, this small selection of exculsions gives you an idea of how robust your Outlook rules can be.


There is a catch:

You’ll have two “Inboxes” to check.  And this second environment, quite frankly, runs the risk of accruing a balance, as it will be easier not to apply the “zero Inbox”/”Getting Things Done” methodologies that you may use to manage your “primary” Inbox.

Weigh your options. Will you benefit from allowing Outlook to help you prioritize the emails you address first? Will your productivity rise as your email distractions decrease? If so, activate those organizational skills you’ve resolved to apply, and give this a try.



* That request for information from your boss’ boss for today’s meeting? Yeah, you’ll want to get that.
** A much smaller list, n’est ce pas?

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What’s That Behind You?

Distracting Background - Office

Just what DO they put in those botanical shampoos?

In last night’s “Facilitating Over the Web” session, the discussion migrated to best use of webcams. While I was extolling the virtues of using webcams, someone in the chat box piped up: “I’d have to clean up the disaster area that’s behind me first.” Which was a very astute observation. I had taken a few moments to clean up my office space a little before the webinar began.  It’s likely the first time in months that my desk has had that much open space.

Even after a little tidying up, it’s valuable to check your background to make sure that what your learners see doesn’t distract from you, and your message. The image to the left, of course, is an example that’s easily fixed. Move the vase, or move yourself.

But what if your entire background is distracting, and something that you cannot move? And what if you don’t have the option of going elsewhere? How can you ensure that the webinar you’re facilitating remains professional, and your learners stay on task?

These folks came up with a solution:

It’s pretty basic, and reminiscent of those pop-up car screen shades. But they do a remarkable job of blocking out the background, allowing you to facilitate from wherever you may have placed your home office: the kitchen, a corner of your garage, wherever you’ve got a desk and a chair.

The WebAround comes in three colours, and frankly, I’m eyeing the green one, wondering if I can treat it as a “green screen” for my eLearning video recordings.

If you find yourself facilitating webinars, but are concerned about the professional image you’ll project if folks can see the space behind your smiling face, this product may be a decent investment.

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Enhance Virtual Training Engagement With Hashtags

“Oh, my goodness, I think there’s a chat box blowout going on here!”


Image from, #hashtagyourlife

I can hear David H. through the thin walls of our offices, and can’t help but smile. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d shared with a group of Total Trainer participants a technique for engaging his virtual audience that he just stumbled upon one day – hashtags.

A hashtag is a word or phrase, preceded by the “#” symbol, used to “tag” a longer comment – a form of metadata. It was popularized in Twitter to help users of that social media tool to search for comments by a specific topic. #learning, for example. Or #FF.

“I was watching the chat during one of my webinars and noticed that a lot of folks were talking about the same topic,” David shared. “So I said: ‘Looks like there’s a topic trending in the chat box.’ and typed #listen (that was the trending topic). And the chat box just blew up.” He splayed his hands out to illustrate.  “I thought that was pretty cool, so I tried it again.”

Now, the #chatboxblowout, as David calls the practice, is a standard facilitation technique for his webinars.

Sometimes David will comment: “I see a topic trending in the chat box…” and participants will start adding hashtags to their comments.  Sometimes the participants – particularly the Millenials – will add hashtags without any prompting. Either way, adding hashtags to the chat spurs conversation and engagement with the majority of those on the call.

An added benefit:  just as hashtags were created as a grouping/search tool in Twitter, so can David search for content in his webinar chat, by topic, should he later want to refer to a specific comment someone had made.  Being able to recognize a participant’s comments as relevant to a subsequent topic can boost morale as well as engagement, indicating to the learners that the facilitator is actually paying attention to their contributions, and prompting more meaningful dialogue.

Back in today’s training session, David is narrating the comments that are filling up his chatbox with the fervor of a soccer announcer. There’s no denying that a simple “#” has provided a great deal of excitement in his classes.  #somethingtoconsider

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Practice facilitating webinars – for free

In a week, I’ll be facilitating an ASTD-Orange County Total Trainer session on distance learning. It will be my second time doing so; the last time I actually conducted the session virtually. This time I’ll be standing up in the front of the classroom.

The focus of the session is on how to design for distance learning. My premise is that one should design a web course no differently than one would design a course to be facilitated in a physical classroom. Yes, there’s the problem that the tool you’re using may be limited to a computer screen. But that shouldn’t limit how you engage your participants.

When it comes to Total Trainer, or any course that teaches others to facilitate over the web, there’s a problem of application. The two webinar powerhouses, Adobe Connect and WebEx, aren’t free.*

Enter AnyMeeting.

The name aptly indicates that the tools available in the program are geared towards meetings rather than training. For practice, and for the “real world,” AnyMeeting still creates an opportunity for experiential application of hosting webinars.


AnyMeeting tools


Chat is the staple of web meeting participation, and anyone who is familiar with Instant Messaging (or even texting) should find chat to be a comfortable method of engagement in a virtual meeting. AnyMeeting allows you to hide and resume chat throughout your webinar. It also allows for private chatting, which can be a handy tool for 1:1 discussions between participants.


Polling allows you to ask a question and get responses from everyone. It’s a great tool for quickly measuring what the learner knows, and engages everyone (not just the eager “hand-raiser”). In AnyMeeting, polling is done one question at a time. Questions are automatically stored in a bank, so you’re able to create your polling questions in advance.

Note: always create your polling questions in advance. It’s handy to be able to create questions on an as-needed basis, but nobody wants to wait for you to type your question and answers. Fire your ad-hoc questions verbally, plan your polling engagements.

Mood AnyMeetingMood

The name’s deceptive. “Mood” is a facile way to quickly understand where your participants are. Want people to ask questions? “Mood” has a “Raise Hand” prompt.  Get the sense that they don’t quite grasp a point you’ve just made? Ask a yes/no question, and tell them to respond using a mood option. Participants clear their mood by selecting “I’m Fine.”


Share PowerPoint  AnyMeetingShare

Yup. You can share your PowerPoint files.
AnyMeeting also allows you to share PDF files, and your desktop.

Share YouTube

It can be effective to include short videos in your webinars, so being able to share YouTube videos is helpful.



A frequent concern about web-facilitated meetings is that there’s no connection with the instructor. This is especially true if the camera’s turned off. Go back to that adage about how people understand what we say. How much from tone? How much from the words we choose? How much from body language? The camera allows the web facilitator to use that crucial method of communication (body language) in delivering content to the participants.

In AnyMeeting, an active web camera will dominate the screen until something else is shared, which I think is a nice touch.

Note: I may not leave my camera on ALL the time. For videos and demonstrations/simulations, I turn the thing off. Too many moving pictures. For introductions, conclusions, and active discussion with participants, my webcam is on.

There you have it: if you’re a budding trainer who wants to get some experience facilitating webinars, AnyMeeting is a great tool for you.


* True, WebEx does offer a free trial. as does Adobe. So if you’re going to try designing on those platforms, be quick!

Sharpening the Saw: Notes in the Cloud Addendum

A few posts back I discussed using OneNote as a document curation and note-taking tool. The features I described were primarily associated with the work I do for CCi, on the computer. But what note-taking tool do I use when I’m away from my desk – in meetings, or struck suddenly with inspiration?

OneNote does have a mobile application. I’ve tried using it on my iPad, but ran across some difficulties. The program works well when you sync your existing notebooks through Microsoft’s Skydrive*. My challenge: IT won’t let us do that.

So: with OneNote Mobile effectively rendered useless, what other mobile-ready note-taking resources exist?


Back when I was reveling in the novelty of using an iPad, I was reading about apps that were trying to improve on the functionality of the iPad Notepad. The Notepad is a pretty good tool, and I was making decent use of it, but the idea of “notes in the cloud” appealed to me. I elected to attend a conference armed with an app called SpringPad.


SpringPad provides several templates for their cloud-based notes.

SpringPad allows me to create robust notes that can include audio recordings and pictures to enhance my recall. I’m able to organize these notes into separate notebooks. This was my first foray into the cloud, so I was intrigued that all the stuff I captured while out and about would be synced to a SpringPad app in my Google Chrome browser, making it easier to retain and review those thoughts at a later date. Additionally, I would be able to share my notes with anyone who also had SpringPad. And since I was going to a conference that many of my co-workers were interested in, well, that made sense to me. Let them see my notes.

SpringPad uses templates to support your note-taking efforts. In other words, you don’t necessarily start with a blank page and fiddle with it to create what you need. Looking at the image on the right, you can see that it allows you to create a note or paste a link. Below that are options for creating a checklist, a task, or an event. You can create notes for books, music, and movies. Select one of these latter options, and you’ll be linked to databases that connect you to readily-available information about that media. In other words, if I want to record a fascinating insight gleaned from “Road-Tested Activities,” I won’t need to first record title, author, and ISBN – SpringPad will make all those connections for me.

Additionally, SpringPad comes with two features that support ease-of-use on my iPad: a quick shortcut to create a note directly from my desktop (rather than open the software and then select what I’m trying to create), and a Safari web page clipper that sits in my iPad browser’s shortcut bar. This is a handy way to take a snapshot of something that I can’t readily link to. An error message, perhaps. Or an online receipt.

Unfortunately, I haven’t utilized many of the cloud-based and co-authoring features available in SpringPad since the conference. My co-workers weren’t interested in learning another bit of software just so they could read my notes, which tend to be cryptic when they’re not rambling. Plus, I had other note-taking mechanisms in place. SpringPad quickly became an under-utilized app on my iPad.


When I started this Sharpening the Saw exercise, I decided I’d check out EverNote. Why? While EverNote and SpringPad do practically the same thing, like, everyone has EverNote. I actually know people who are using it. It’s number 12 on Jane’s list of Top 100 tools..

At its heart, EverNote is that blank notebook on which you can record a great many things and arrange them to remind and prompt you into action. You can include pictures and audio, manually create checklists, etc. Just as in OneNote and SpringPad, you can group your notes into notebooks for easier access to the information you’ve stored.

But EverNote aspires to be more than just digital notepaper. With one account, you get access to a great many tools to support your activities while on-the-go. There’s an EverNote Web Clipper, which allows you to save a web page (from your PC’s browser) into a notebook. There’s EverNote Clearly, which allows you to save blog posts or articles into a notebook for reading later, without all the web distractions. There’s Skitch, which allows you to annotate pictures that you’ve saved in EverNote. EverNote appears to work well with third party vendors; there are a slew of programmers out there creating apps to make your EverNote experience easier. This is important, for it appears that these sorts of note-taking programs are best when you use them for all the stuff you take note of, not just a select group of things. I recall a blog post once suggesting that Evernote works best when you use it, gosh darn it, for everything.

One EverNote tool that I was quite interested in was Penultimate, an app that lets you write with a “pen” on your iPad. It’s a cool feature, once you get the hang of writing on a digital surface. If you’ve ever seen my signature scrawl when I sign for my credit card purchases at the grocery store, you know I need more practice.

Unfortunately, Penultimate ultimately didn’t pan out. My Penultimate notes had to be kept in a separate EverNote notebook, meaning: if I wanted to revisit what I drew, I wouldn’t be able to find them in the binder where I’d kept all my other (typed) notes on the topic.

One neat EverNote feature: audio recording that lets you type your notes while recording the conversation. SpringPad does record audio, but it doesn’t appear to let you type at the same time. This is a feature I wouldn’t readily use, given people’s reticence for being recorded, and state law requiring consent be made before I make any recordings, but it could be handy for future conferences.

What I’m Using

For now, it appears that OneNote will be my document curation tool of choice. Why? It’s integrated with all my work products. EverNote does work with Outlook to allow you to post emails into your notebooks, but that’s it. Although EverNote appears to be ubiquitous on the web, it’s just not as available where I need it to be.

For my mobile devices, I’m leaning towards SpringPad. It allows me to store my notes in the cloud for easy access and transfer to my OneNote notebooks (or wherever I decide they ought to go).
But I mostly use SpringPad to create checklists of action items when I’m in meetings. SpringPad’s checklist and task list templates make this much easier than fiddling around in EverNote. I imagine someone out there has created an easy-to-use app that works with EverNote, but I’m not motivated to search for it. Plus, I like how SpringPad itself integrates with my iPad, rather than rely upon a bunch of third party vendors to get the job done. Mind you, I might have a different opinion were I using an Android tablet.

A bit of advice, whatever you decide: it’s important to keep your notes with one tool. We’re all familiar with the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, but equally important is our tendency not to bother searching for content (unless we really have to) if we’re not exactly sure of where it is in the first place. For nearly a year I hadn’t paid attention to my conference notes because I’d stopped using SpringPad. Now I’ve got some test notes in EverNote that I need to import into either OneNote or SpringPad, lest I forget them.

After my OneNote Sharpening the Saw post, several of you indicated you might try the program. If you have, and have used OneNote Mobile successfully for your on-the-go note-taking efforts, let me know in the comments!

*Skydrive is Microsoft’s version of cloud-based document storage. Like DropBox. Or Google Drive.

(This was a high-level overview of two popular and powerful cloud-based note-taking tools. For a deeper look, check out this article: EverNote vs. SpringPad.)