June 17, 2010

Notes about business communication

June 17, 2010 - Categories: blogging, business, communication, ibm, speaking, work

Don Cameron is working on a book about business communication, and I’ll be talking to him on Friday to share what I’m learning. In his initial e-mail, he said that he wants to learn more about my educational and career background, and my business communication insights. I figured I’d write about it here so that we can save time, use the interview for follow-up questions and interesting thoughts, and demonstrate the value of sharing. We can also translate this into printable quotes, just like I used my blog to draft informally-written sections of my thesis before I translated them into academese. <laugh>

Business communication insights

Share while you learn. This is probably the key thing that differentiates the way I work. Many people think they need to be experts before they can blog or share what they know. I think that being a beginner is fantastic for sharing, because you don’t take things for granted. Writing and drawing and giving presentations helps you think through complex topics more effectively. Along the way, you create these resources you can save for yourself and share with other people. If you can make it easier for other people to learn, they can build on what you’ve shared with them to learn even more, and you can learn from what they can do.

It’s like the difference between climbing a rope and building a staircase. Rope-climbing is hard. Not everyone can do it, and it can be difficult to get yourself up. But if you build a staircase, not only can you go up more easily and more safely, but you help other people go up too.

Share while you work. Here’s another big difference. Many people think about knowledge-sharing as something you do after you work, and they wonder where I find the time to blog and do all sorts of other things. The trick is to make sharing part of the way you work. Why?

Scale up. I think about scale a lot – getting more value for the time and energy I put into something. That’s why I share things as widely as I can. Presentations and blog posts reach more people than e-mail, which is more reusable than phone calls. Taking an extra couple of minutes to share something in a wider medium can mean reaching many more people and creating much more impact. For example, I almost never give a presentation without posting the presentation online, either on the Intranet or on our company intranet. One time, I prepared a presentation on Web 2.0 and education for about 90 people. That presentation has been viewed more than 26,000 times online.

Archiving your work is a great way to scale up. If someone likes one of my presentations, they often check out my other presentations, and that helps me get even more value without more effort. I have blog posts going back to 2002, and people often come across my old posts by searching or browsing – again, more value without more effort. I might have a great five-minute conversation with a new acquaintance, but if they check out my blog, they can learn so much more about me and our common ground than we can find out in hours of interaction. Social networking tools help me get to know and keep in touch with many more people than I might be able to meet or talk to, and they scale up the effort that I put into them. 

Be human. Sharing and archiving scares a lot of people. They’re afraid of making mistakes or changing their minds, and having the infinite memory of the Internet used against them. I think learning is one of the best parts of life, and you can’t learn unless you take risks. Sometimes my blog posts have typos or factual errors. Sometimes my code has bugs. Sometimes I change my mind. This is good. If I didn’t share things, I might have remained quietly ignorant. Life is too short to rely on just my ability to figure things out, or to let other people struggle through everything on their own.

Being human also means making that connection. Don’t hide behind jargon, passive sentences, and text-heavy bullet-points. Tell stories. Surprise people. Provoke them. Help them grow. Connect. If you need to make and communicate tough decisions, take responsibility and show empathy.

Work really changes when you bring your whole self to it. I bring my happiness and passion and enthusiasm to work. It’s amazing to hear from people around the world who get inspired by that – and who then inspire other people around them. There’s tremendous joy in doing great work, and you can have a lot of fun doing so. I started hand-drawing my slides because it was fun for me, and I continued doing it because other people found it fun and engaging, too. I learn and share because it’s fun and it builds on my strengths. I build tools because I love building tools and helping people save time. Find your strengths and share them with others.

So, how did I figure these things out? What’s my story?

Educational and career background

Blogging changed everything, I think. I wasn’t particularly interested in writing until I realized that I could do more than write essays for school.

In my third year of university, while taking computer science, I decided to challenge myself by contributing to open source. One of the projects I worked on was a personal information manager that had a good note-taking feature. I added the ability to publish a blog, and I used that to share my class notes and my notes on open source. I discovered that not only did people read my blog posts, they found them useful, and they gave me suggestions on how to do things better.

My passion for building tools and helping people improve the way they work also drove me to start giving presentations. Here’s what I shared in The Shy Presenter: Why conventional advice on learning public speaking sucks, and how to really get started:

True story. The only reason I got started in public speaking was because some friends of mine were organizing a conference. By the third call for speakers, they sounded pretty desperate. I said, hey, I’m just a student, but I can talk about this if you really can’t find anyone, and I’m playing with that as a hobby. They booked me for two talks. I learned that even as a beginner, you can help other people learn.

I discovered that public speaking was a fantastic way to start conversations with hundreds of people at a time. It was the perfect networking method for an introvert like me. I could write about what I was learning, refine those thoughts into a presentation, prepare and practice my talk, and rely on my passion for the topic to get me through the nervousness I felt about talking to hundreds of people. Afterwards, I didn’t have to awkwardly stand around trying to figure out how to start a conversation – people would just walk up to me and start talking! (This was so cool, I made it one of my key tips in The Shy Connector: How to get strangers to talk to you).

I continued to blog and give presentations as a teacher at the Ateneo de Manila University and as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Blogging about my IBM-sponsored research into using Web 2.0 to find expertise helped me meet a lot of people who were interested in social networking tools, and I learned about so many resources and tools that I would probably never have found on my own. When I decided that I wanted to continue working with such amazing people, I asked for their help in finding just the right position for me. I joined IBM in October 2007 in a role that was customized for me. Here’s how I got that awesome job.

Writing, presenting, and connecting have helped me learn from, and help lots of people. I still struggle with the idea of starting conversations in hallways or elevators, but I’ve figured out some things that work really well for me, and I look forward to trying more.