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Get More Value from Blogging, part II: The Compounding Value of an Archive

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Get More Value from Blogging

Paul Gillin invited me to do a tweetchat on the professional and personal value of blogging on March 3, 2011 (2pm-3pm EST, #infoboom). When I brainstormed some of the things I’d like to talk about, I ended up with a big list: not just the value I get from blogging, but also tips for how you can build that too. I hope you enjoy this blog series!

Update: Added quote from Donald Knuth, thanks to Mohamed!

The value of blogging: Part II: Archive

Blogging provides value immediately and in the long run. Blog posts are saved in a chronological archive that can be browsed, searched, and organized into categories. The more you write, the more valuable this archive becomes.


1. Search

But men are men; the best sometimes forget.

Shakespeare

What did I ever do before writing? I’m not sure, but it probably involved reinventing the wheel again and again. My blog archive saves me time that I would’ve wasted re-solving problems. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched my blog for notes. I’ve even come across answers to things I’d completely forgotten solving.

It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than nothing. Sometimes I don’t remember the words I used. I have a sneaky suspicion that Google might not have indexed all of my blog’s pages, too. But I can usually turn up what I’m looking for, and that’s good enough to keep me writing.

Tips:

  • Whenever you solve problems that took you a lot of time to figure out, spend a few extra minutes to write up your notes.
  • When writing, think about whatever keywords you think you might use when searching. Use as many of them as you can, either including them in the text or using them as categories/tags for your post. That increases your chances of finding information again.

Examples:


2. Review

What is past is prologue.

Shakespeare

Where did all that time go? If you’ve ever asked yourself that question or struggled to fill in the boxes during annual performance reviews, you might find a blog useful.

I use my blog for weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews. My archived notes make it easy to remember what I was working on and what I achieved. As a result, annual reviews are more fun than painful. This helps set a rhythm for my life, too.

Regular reviews keep me on track. I can review my plans and see how I’m doing, or change them if my priorities have shifted. I can tell when I’ve been procrastinating something for a while (it shows up on multiple reviews!) and I can think about whether or not I really want to do it.

Tips:

  • Build a habit of weekly reviews, then include monthly and yearly reviews as you get the hang of it.
  • Use your review time to reflect on your past and plan your future.

3. Growth

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.

Benjamin Franklin

Writing about my decisions helps me review them later. For example, I wrote about limiting my blog posts to one a day. A year later, I revisited that decision to see if it still made sense for me. I’ve got notes about what I want to do with IBM and some of the reasons why I love my husband, and I add to those regularly. Being able to read through my blog archive makes it easier to remember the reasons for my decisions and to detect when things are changing.

Written accounts allow me to compare my past selves with the present. How have I improved my skills? How have I changed my mind? What have I lost and what have I gained? I can trace my stick-figure skills from my first such presentation in 2008 to my most-recent presentation through the evolution of my sketches. (I’ve gotten better at drawing quickly, but I don’t draw with many colours as I used to.)

Tips:

  • Write down your reasons for a decision. Set a reminder to review your decision and see if it’s worthwhile.
  • Write about your feelings and experiences to help you revisit them.

4. Overview

The very act of communicating one’s work clearly to other people will improve the work itself.

Donald Knuth

How do you know what you know? If you were to make a list of things you could teach other people, you’d probably be able to quickly list some recent items, but you might forget to mention things you learned several years ago. Blog archives can help you remember what you know so that you can build on it, combine it with other ideas, or share it with other people.

My archive helps me get a sense of what I know about a topic and how to organize that logically. I can see the gaps that I need to learn and document. As I revise, I improve my understanding.

By looking at what I tend to write about, I can get a sense of where I pay attention and how that attention changes over time. I can also use my archive to slowly build resources for summary posts with links to details.

Tips:

  • Use categories to organize your posts so that you can view them by topic.
  • Review your posts by category to see if you can write a better summary.
  • Plan what you want to learn, write about the details, and then review your archives for the overview.

Examples:


4. Value

A good blog archive’s value goes beyond the value of its individual posts. When people come to your blog because of a search result or a referral, they can explore your archives to learn more about the topics they’re interested in and about you as a person. This is the compounding value

Tips:

  • Make it easy for people to discover related posts. Use a plugin that lists similar posts, or include links to relevant posts when you write. Encourage people to use categories to browse your archive.
  • Keep writing, even if it’s one tip at a time. Over the years, your archive can become a valuable resource.

5. Rediscovery

I’ve written enough that I don’t remember what I’ve written, and I enjoy rediscovering myself. It’s weird, isn’t it, getting to know yourself like that. I enjoy flipping through my past posts and hearing my past self. She’s very much like me: perhaps a bit deeper into open source (time and the ability to freely participate), less confident in the kitchen, but cheery and reflective all the same. I don’t flip through my archive frequently, but it’s fun to bump into my old self through random posts or “On this Day” posts.

Tips:

  • Write. Yes, even about the everyday things, the little memories. You never know what might make you smile in the future.
  • When you have more posts, try plugins like Random Posts or On This Day to help you bump into older posts.
  • Consider printing out a paper copy of your posts for easier flipping through. I do this every year.

Get More Value from Blogging, part I: The Immediate Benefits of Thought

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Get More Value from Blogging

Paul Gillin invited me to do an #infoboom tweetchat on the professional and personal value of blogging on March 3, 2011 (2pm-3pm EST). When I brainstormed some of the things I’d like to talk about, I ended up with a big list: not just the value I get from blogging, but also tips for how you can build that too. I hope you enjoy this blog series!

People often ask me: Why do you blog? Where do you find the time to do it? How can you find all these things to write about?

I tell people I don’t have the time to not blog. It’s a tremendously valuable practice. Life-changing, even. In this blog series, I’m going to explain how blogging helps me both personally and professionally, and I’m going to share tips on how you can get that kind of value too.

Part I: The Immediate Benefits of Thought

I write for selfish reasons, among which are the benefits of the process of writing. Even if no one read my blog, it would already be worth the time. Here are four ways to get immediate value from writing about life.


1. Clarity

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

Joan Didion, author

Writing helps me think more clearly. When I struggled with homesickness and doubt, I wrote down what I was thinking, what I was afraid of, what I hoped for, and what I wanted to do. When I puzzled through a bug in my code, I wrote down the symptoms, the approaches I tried, and the solution I found. Writing forces me to slow down and find words to express myself. Strand by strand, I can untangle the mental mess and turn it into something coherent.

Tips: Next time you’re thinking about something complicated…

  • Use mindmaps to write down key ideas in a loose structure. See if that helps you understand your reasons and your alternatives.
  • Use lists, tables, and other idea organizers to think through a problem. For example, you might make a list of pros and cons for alternatives.
  • Write your thoughts down in a journal (private, if necessary) so that you can take a step back and understand them.

Examples:


2. Recognition

The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.

Albert Einstein, physicist

When you can name a thing, you understand it better. If I spend an hour getting to the roots of my procrastination and realize that it’s because I don’t value the results enough, I can recognize that feeling when I encounter it in life, and I can do something about it. Writing helps me get a grip on strong emotions or confusing puzzles. Understanding something lets me work with it.

Reading voraciously helps me with writing and with life. Books and blog posts help me learn how other people describe their experiences and find words that resonate. Other people’s phrases and metaphors can be launching pads for your own.

Writing about life also helps me appreciate it better. When I write about the things that make me happy, I pay more attention to them in life, and grow even happier. When I write about things I can improve, I get better at recognizing opportunities to do so. Like the way that sewing helps me see clothes in a new light and woodworking teaches me more about furniture, writing helps me learn about life.

Tips: Next time you struggle to describe something…

  • Give it a try, even if you don’t feel your description is adequate. You can go back and revise or build on your previous notes.
  • Read what other people have shared and look for words or phrases that get you closer to the idea.
  • Try a metaphor. Sometimes they can lead to surprising insights.
  • Use writing to learn about life, and use life to improve your writing.

Examples:


3. Size

Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.

Albert Einstein

The brain can hold only so much in thought at a time. It’s like a computer with limited memory. This limitation frustrates me. I might be thinking of interesting things while walking around or while doing dishes, but my mind flits from thing to thing without depth, and that the older thoughts fade quickly and are hard to recall.

Writing gets ideas and information out of my head. This external memory allows me to not only work with bigger things, but to work without the fear of forgetfulness or loss. This also allows me to “chunk”, improving both my memory and my ability to work with ideas. By moving complex ideas out of my head and into a form where I can get a handle on them, I can work with larger combinations. It’s like the way that a pianist playing from memory doesn’t think of individual notes but of patterns, and the way that chess grandmasters don’t think of individual pieces, but of configurations of attack and defense. Writing these detailed posts on the value of blogging allows me to use the high-level summaries as building blocks for other thoughts.

Tips: Next time you’re working with a large, complex idea…

  • Write down parts of the idea, then summarize your thoughts and use the summaries to build the next level of thinking. Repeat as needed.
  • Try using an outline to break the idea down into smaller ideas, and continue until you get to the level of detail you want.

Examples:

  • This series!

4. Reflection and improvement

There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge… observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.

Denis Diderot, philosopher

Writing is a way of having a conversation with yourself. Through that conversation, you can look at what you’re doing, why you do it, and how you can do things better. You can talk about what you feel, why you feel it, and whether that helps or hinders you. This reflective practice helps you understand yourself better and improve the way you work and live.

I find it very useful to observe myself and ask questions. After giving a presentation, I think about how I did it and how I can improve. When feeling strong emotions, I ask myself why I feel that way and what that reveals about me. I think about how I want to spend my time and how that matches up with reality. Writing reinforces that routine of reflection.

Writing helps me identify things I want to build on, either when I read it back or when other people share their insights. Writing helps me work around the temptation to lie to myself or to gloss over factors. When I write things down, I have a better chance of figuring out when I don’t make sense, and when I do.

Tips: Build some time into your schedule for regular reflection so that you can…

  • Ask yourself: What am I doing well? How can I do things even better? Write your thoughts in a private journal or on a blog.
  • Review your reflections occasionally to see what else you can learn from them.

Examples:

 

LinkedIn tip: Customize your profile URL

This tip’s for Mike Nurse and other people who are looking for small things that could make LinkedIn more useful for them… =)

Did you know that you can customize your LinkedIn URL to make it more memorable, writable, and professional?

  1. Log on to linkedin.com.
  2. Click on Profile – Edit Profile.
  3. Click on Edit next to your Public Profile URL.
  4. Click on Edit next to Your Public Profile URL. Choose a short, memorable URL. Click on Set Address.
  5. Optionally customize what people see on your public profile.
  6. Click on Save Changes.

If you want to make it easier for people to connect with you on LinkedIn, put your new URL on your business card, your e-mail signature, your website, and other social network profiles. Little things like that help make it easier for other people to connect with you.

Imagine success for social media

I was talking to an independent consultant who wanted to get better at using social media to expand his network. I suggested that he put together articles and presentations that he can share with his contacts (mostly executives) that are useful and that they would probably share with the right people in their companies.

Thinking about this, I realized that imagining the ideal scenarios can help people recognize the value of investing in sharing knowledge or building a social media presence. You can say that sharing is important, or you can imagine a story that goes like this:


CEO of small business: Oh! It’s an e-mail from __. He always sends me useful information, so I’ll take a look at this one. Hmm, this whitepaper looks like something our company could learn from. Let me send it to the director in charge of that.

Director: Hmm, an e-mail from the VP, I better read it. Ah, an article that looks like it will help with one of the challenges I’m currently working on. Hey, this guy has some great tips. I wonder… Oh, he has a website with other articles and presentations! Great. I’m going to flip through the presentations that look immediately useful. I should probably bookmark this site so I can come back to it later. Hey, he’s on Twitter. Let me check out what he posts… He’s got an upcoming seminar – that looks interesting, maybe I’ll attend. I think I’ll follow him on Twitter so that I can hear about other updates. Hmm, maybe he can do some consulting for us for this project – that would save me a lot of time, help me get the results I need… (and if he’s as good as he seems to be, I’ll look like a star).

Someone else searching on the Net: Hmm, I need to learn more about ___ if I’m going to be able to deliver those results. Oh, here’s an article that might be useful. Those are good points. Let me save this. I wonder… ah, he has other articles and presentations. Those are useful too. Let me read them… I wonder if he’s available to do some consulting. Oh, look, he’s in Toronto too. That makes it easier. I should give him a call.


Think about what success looks like. Tell yourself a story about what could happen. It’s probably less about just increasing the number of your followers or posting at least one blog post a week, and more about actions and results. What’s that story? Walk through it in your head, check if it’s plausible, and identify the pieces you need to build in order to make it happen. Doesn’t investing in those pieces make more sense now that you can see how they’re related to your end goals?

That led me to think about the ideal stories I tell myself. When I write for my blog, this is what I hope will happen:


Me: “Ah! Now I understand things a little better. Let me go try that and see what happens. … Yup, that works, and here’s how I can make it even better.”

Someone: “I need to figure out something. Let me search… Hmm, that look interesting, let me try that. Hey, that works. Oh, that looks useful too. And that one! And that one! I’m going to add this to my feed reader. … Oh look, another post from Sacha. She reminds me that it’s possible to be cheerful and have fun doing awesome things. =) Hmm, I know someone who might find this useful too…”

Someone: “Can you help me with __?” Me: “I could’ve sworn I’ve written about that around here… Ah, there it is! Here’s the link.” Someone: “Awesome. Thanks!”


What are the stories you imagine, and what do those stories help you learn about what you can do to make them happen?

Risks, personal brands, and findability

I started the day with an interview for a course on social media education. The team sent me a list of follow-up questions an hour and a half before the call. They were surprised when I quickly posted an entry answering their questions. I figured that if I jotted a few thoughts down, they could use that to dig deeper during the follow-up call and it could be raw material for a future blog post. From experience, I know that it can take a while to think of great follow-up questions. The more cycles we can have in an interview, the better.

I was particularly interested in the discussions around risks, personal brands, and findability. The interviewers asked me what I thought the biggest risk was given our social media guidelines. Instead of naming, say, information leakage or corporate embarrassment—although there are plenty of stories like the ill-conceived prank at Domino’s that went viral—I told them that the biggest risk I see is that people might not participate enough. I think it’s a huge risk. First, lots of people are intimidated by the idea of sharing publicly, and they don’t want to risk embarrassment. This might lead to a widening gap between the people who can take that first step to share (and who grow more comfortable and more connected by doing so), and people who don’t take that step (and who get less connected in the process).

That intimidation and fear is often because of all the emphasis we put on personal brands. People think that they need to package themselves and present a perfect face. I’d rather focus on content: exploring new experiences, deepening my understanding, and figuring out how I can help other people learn. I pay a little attention to “branding” in the sense of consciously choosing parts of my online identity – a good picture that I can reuse no matter what hairstyle I have, and no Comic Sans MS anywhere ;) – but I don’t worry about being perfect. I have typos. I’m learning. I change my mind. It’s okay. It’s much more effective to focus on learning more and helping people more than it is to focus on how I want people to remember me. My parents always say, “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”* For personal branding, it’s also like that: do good stuff, and your reputation will follow.” (* Of course, you still need common sense and good habits, like frugality.)

Besides, a brand is about a consistent, enduring experience, and you don’t have that at the beginning. You get there eventually. It’s like startups: you can come up with your positioning on day 1, but all the posturing about being the best in the world won’t do you any good until you deliver on that promise enough for people to trust you. You have to have history, and you can’t have history unless you start.

Which brings me to findability. One of the questions the team asked me was how people should tag themselves so that they’re more findable. It’s like search-engine optimization for people, I guess. It’s useful in a crowded marketplace, but you’re better off focusing on other things when you’re starting out. If you focus on doing good stuff and helping people find out how you can help them, that leads to you becoming the go-to person for all sorts of things. It’s not about you tagging yourself “web2.0 social awesome”, it’s about other people and how you help them. Don’t worry about being findable. Focus on being worth finding.

If you do want to get more networking value for your time, think about the connectors in your network. You probably have at least one. You know, the people who are always introducing people to other people? Help them get to know you and how you can help other people. This is good because connectors frequently answer requests for introductions, and if they can connect someone with you so that you can solve that someone’s problem, everyone wins.

Anyway. Social media education. Your biggest challenges are fear, apathy, and inertia. Focus on encouraging people with role models, stories, coaching. Tell people and show them by example that it’s okay to learn, to experiment, to try things out.

Exponential awesomeness

 

@smeech I recently built an entire workshop around Sacha Chua‘s Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0: http://ow.ly/160X0 Watch/Do/Teach was our mantra

@sachac Sacha! Your presentation provided a perfect, low-stress, socratic & fun contextual frame for my day-long workshop. We had a ball!

 

kjarrett on Twitter

@sachac LOVE your stuff! I use a couple of your slideshares for an online Web 2.0 class I facilitate. GR8 job! Keep em coming!

jdornberg on Twitter

This is why sharing is so cool. Even if I don’t have the time, ability, or network to explore the opportunities opened up by what I’ve learned, I can share those thoughts with other people, and they can go and do something awesome.

I put together the Teacher’s Guide to Web 2.0 at School because I needed to make a presentation to kick off the school year for 90 teachers. Since then, it’s been viewed over 20,000 times. More than 150 people have shared it on their blogs. I haven’t explored it further. I haven’t even posted any notes. In particular, slide #25 probably needs more explanation than the few keywords I put on there to help people remember after my talk. But it’s enough to tickle people’s imaginations, and the simplicity lets them fill in their own insights.

I like this. The more I share, the more awesome things I get to see, and the more inspired I am to share.

What can you share so that other people can build on it?