Excel's Obsession with Objects
Virtually everyone we've ever asked is familiar with Russian Nesting Dolls (Matryoshka Dolls), which is why for years these have been the most relatable illustration we've found to help people understand the way desktop applications work.
Excel, along with every other Microsoft Office application you've used in the past decade, is what's referred to as an "Object-Oriented" application. Simply put, you're working with a virtual Matryoshka Doll that consists of concentric objects that all exist within one another and are assembled together to form the entire workspace.
Excel Application Objects
The subtitle is a bit misleading, because the application itself is an object. If we start at the highest level object, your operating system (Windows, MacOS, Linux), the next relevant user level is call the Application Object; for our purposes the Excel spreadsheet application.
Once you start Excel, you've opened a smaller File Object within the application know as a Workbook (Word calls it a Document, and PowerPoint calls it a Presentation). Since the Workbook is its own object, you can open multiple Workbooks in the same Excel application just as you might have more than one Document file in Word.
Workbooks, Worksheets, Cells
Now the trouble begins! For some strange reason, no one has any trouble finding the Excel application or opening a New Workbook, but the moment they see a blank Worksheet panic sets in. The sight of graph paper sends chills down their spines, and they haven't the first idea where to start. Take a calm breath, and notice that the Workbook usually opens with multiple Worksheet objects (usually 3 by default) named Sheet 1, Sheet 2, etc. You've already figured out where this was heading.
The operating system hosts multiple applications, each application can manage multiple files, and each file can have multiple other "nested" objects continuing on down the line. In Excel, the Worksheet is made up of about 12 Billion Cells which for the time being we'll treat as the smallest individual object you'll need to be familiar with.
Since you're already using applications and files all the time, you just need to learn how to work with Cells and then build your way back up! After all, that's what all developers do when they're trying to get computers to do more work for them; they assemble a lot of small objects together until they've built an entire application. In our case, we just need you to be able to build some basic worksheet models by getting a handful of cells to work together.
Methods and Attributes
One more seed we want to plant in your mind, is that just like every other object in your life, virtual objects have methods and attributes. All objects DO something, and so Methods are just the the ways in which virtual objects do things, and Attributes are the characteristics that are unique (or common) to objects.
Matryoshka Dolls have object methods that we might call "Stand","Roll", "Stack", etc. that describe the behaviors that they're likely to exhibit. In contrast, we wouldn't reasonably say that "Jump" or "Swim" are methods, although these might be methods for a real Russian girl. In addition, some of the attributes that describe their characteristics could include: "Smooth", "Rounded", "Tall", "Short", etc.
When you think of an Cell object, consider the Methods and Attributes that would apply. The most important Method for a cell is by far going to be "Calculate"! Workbook methods will also include "Save", "Print", "Open", "Close", etc.
The Attributes relate to the Row Height, Column Width, Background Color, Border, Font Style, along with dozens of others that visibly relate to formatting, but invisibly can relate to other characteristics of the object.
Formulas & Functions
Ok, so we didn't quite tell you everything -- if we had would you have kept reading? It turns our that the Cell isn't actually the smallest object after all; it's what you put INSIDE the Cell that really matters. The contents of the Cell are referred to as Data Objects, which can take the form of plain text/number data, formulas you enter to calculate answers, or the Excel functions that will do the heavy lifting for you.
Once users can relate to the objects, we've found that the panic passes and it becomes a whole lot easier to embrace the mysterious spreadsheet secrets that are tucked away beneath the surface of the cells. The good news is that there's really no secret at all. The ONLY way the Data can get INTO the Cells, IN the Worksheets, IN the Workbook, IN your Excel application -- is if YOU put it there in the first place.