Exploring the idea of advice

I’ve been giving a lot of people advice lately (Google Helpouts, lunches/coffee with people, and so on), which is weird for me because I hedge what I say when I’m writing on my own. My blog posts focus more on the “Here’s what I tried, and here’s how it’s working for me” rather than “You should do X, Y, Z.”  When someone asks me a question or describes a challenge they’re facing, though, I have no problems offering suggestions.

I thought about what advice is like and how I can give it more effectively. I realized that there are actually lots of different ways you can help people by talking to them, and it’s not all about saying “You should do X, Y, Z” with minimal understanding of the other person’s situation. Here’s what I came up with:

2013-11-20 Exploring the idea of advice

(Click on the image for a larger version)

I’ve read about and tried a lot of approaches, so I really like the “Have you thought about…” way of helping people. I do that after a few “Tell me about…” so I understand the person’s context and we can build on things they’ve already tried. Sometimes people ask me about how I make decisions too, so I’m happy to walk people through that. (Especially if I’ve already documented it!) On rare occasions, I can tell people the name of the thing they’re looking for (ex: spaced repetition! cloze deletion!) which unlocks all these resources for them. When I’m writing on my own, I like using “Don’t miss… / Watch out for…” to help people save time.

Giving advice still feels odd. I definitely don’t want to become an “I know better than you” sort of person. I like using questions more than declarations anyway. Maybe I’ll find an approach that works for me!

How do you share what you know? How do you help others learn?

Test what you know by sharing

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

In grade school, I discovered the power of testing what I knew, even at the risk of embarrassment. I was that kid who always had her hand raised in class—and I’d raise the other one when my hand got tired. Think Hermione without the restraint. (And often without the encyclopedic knowledge, but who’s counting?)

Later, after I caught on to the fact that the teacher wasn’t going to call me every time (even when mine was the only hand raised), I still kept doing it. I figured I might as well. After all, if other students didn’t want to take advantage of this part of the education that their tuition had already paid for, that was their loss. I wanted to see if I understood something well enough to explain it. (As a teacher, I winced slightly at recognizing my younger self in the eager hand-wavers who probably intimidated their classmates like all heck – but I sympathized, although I still prodded the quieter ones.)

There are no more teachers and no more exams, but I still share as much as I can. There’s a saying that goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Me, I’d rather know when I’m being a fool. How can you find bugs in your code unless you look for them? How can you find flaws in your understanding unless you test what you think you know?

Duncan Mortimer saw the following similarities between sharing and test-driven development:

  • Both provide you with tight feedback loops — the first person you’re sharing with when you write something up is yourself. I guess that’s a bit like getting a test to pass in TDD.
  • Both help you to avoid ‘regressions’ — if you’ve got a permanent record of what you’ve done, what’s worked, what hasn’t, then perhaps it’s easier to get a sense for when an action you’re considering will cause problems.
  • Both offer a form of ‘documentation’. Sharing, for your life: for your actions; for your situation. It shows what you were thinking at the time.

I like that. It’s why I blog. I get to find out whether I understand something enough to explain it, and if that explanation makes sense, and if I can answer the questions that other people might ask. I get a record that I can refer to and reminders of my fallability. Sharing helps me learn.

One of the tips that Timothy Kenny shares in Accelerated Learning for Entrepreneurs (e-book, $16.77) is assigning yourself a final project when you want to learn something well. Map the ideas, blog what you learn, create a checklist, write a report or a book, teach a class… create some kind of tangible proof  that you’ve learned something. With that final project in mind, you’ll find—as Duncan also points out—that you study more deeply and more effectively.

Duncan wraps up with this thought:

Perhaps deliberately sharing your life and reflecting on that experience ultimately helps you to live a life that’s worth sharing?

image… and I think there’s something to that. I’m learning a lot about life, and one of my ongoing projects is to have an amazing blog by the time I’m 60 or 90. That nudges me to learn things and do things that are worth sharing. It challenges me to share what I’m learning while I’m learning it, because later on the fuzziness of memory and the curse of expertise will make the details disappear.

How about you? What can you share, and how can sharing help you learn and live?

Series Navigation« Share while you learnPersonal blog? Don’t worry about your strategy »

The learning machine: How I turn what I learn into blog posts

This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series A No-Excuses Guide to Blogging

image

@gozes was curious about my workflow for transforming my notes and lessons learned into blog posts. Here’s what I’ve learned!

Why it’s worth taking the time to share

Many people struggle with sharing what they know. "I don’t have time to blog." "No one will read it anyway, so why bother." "I’m not an expert." "Knowledge is power, so I should keep it to myself – job security!"

Let me tell you this: The time I take to share what I learn is the most valuable part of my learning process.

I can spend three hours solving a technical problem or learning more about a skill, but the thing that makes it really worth it is the 30 minutes I spend writing about what I learned. The biggest benefit is being able to refer back to my notes. If I don’t write it down, I forget, and I’ve wasted the time spent learning. If I don’t publish my notes, I’m probably going to lose them. It makes sense to invest a little time now so that I can save time later. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched for something and ended up at a blog post I’d completely forgotten I’d written.

There’s a more subtle benefit, too: Explaining things to other people exposes holes in my understanding. It’s easy to think that I know something. When I start writing about it, though, I stumble across things I don’t quite know how to explain. Filling in those gaps helps me learn even more. Even if I think no one’s going to find my explanation useful because I’m working on something so quirky or obscure, the process of explanation helps. (And the Internet being the Internet, I’m often surprised by people who turn out to be working on similar things.)

Sharing lets me help other people, even if I’m not an expert. In fact, the best time to write is when you’re a beginner, because you run into all the things that other people take for granted. More selfishly, sharing helps me learn from other people. People ask questions that help me learn more. They point out where I’ve made mistakes. They share better ways to do things. And because we’re building these connections, they also pass along professional and personal opportunities. Sharing is an excellent way to learn and grow.

When and what to write

Write early, write often. Don’t wait until you’ve figured everything out. I try to write a blog post as soon as possible instead of waiting until I can write a more comprehensive one. I try to keep my blog post focused on answering a single question or sharing one thought. This makes the post easier to link to, keeps it (relatively) short, and gets rid of any excuse that would let me procrastinate putting it out there.

Write enough to help you remember. When I write posts, I want to include enough details so that I can re-solve the problem if I run into it again, place myself back into the situation if I’m reflecting on how things worked out, or share what I’ve learned so that other people can figure things out (or at least ask follow-up questions). I don’t need to answer everything. Sometimes I’ll skip explaining things because people can always ask me to go deeper if they’re interested. You don’t have to write a complete guidebook to everything, you just have to add more guideposts to the trail.

How

I love it when other people have already done the hard work of writing something up. Then I can just link to what they’ve said, adding some thoughts of my own. If I can’t find a great explanation within the first few pages of a web search–or if I want to dig into something myself so that I understand it better–then I write my own post.

Sometimes I can start with just a question and I go from there. I write paragraph after paragraph as if I was e-mailing someone the answer or talking to them in person. I jump around here and there to edit the text or add links. I write quickly, and then I post.

Most times, I start with a rough outline or my technical notes. When I explore something I want to learn, I jump around an outline, gradually filling it in with what I come across. When I research, troubleshoot, or try to figure something out, I copy links and ideas into my notes. I’ve learned that it can be difficult to backtrack your steps to remember the things you tried, or remember the resources that were particularly helpful. It’s better to take notes and update them along the way, even if you find yourself sometimes going down dead ends.

In terms of tools, I really like Org mode for Emacs because of its great outlining support. My notes are in plain text, so I can search or work with my notes easily. I can collapse or expand parts of my outline, and I can easily reorganize items. I can organize my post ideas into a larger outline. I can export to HTML and share it with others, like I did with the outline for this post. My outline also supports TODOs and integrates with my other tasks, so I can set deadlines, track TODO states, or even clock in/out to see how long something takes.

When I’m happy with the outline, I start turning it into text. I write detailed outlines that include sections and the key points I want to make in paragraphs. (If you’re curious, the outline for this post can be found at http://sach.ac/outline#transform-notes .) When I’m happy with how the outline flows, I copy the outline and start transforming it into my blog post. It’s much less intimidating than working with a blank page, and I don’t have to flip back and forth between my outline and my blog post editor. Working with an outline gives me an overview of where I want to go with the post, and it can also hold my thoughts when I go on tangents.

The outline doesn’t always completely translate into the blog post, of course. Sometimes I cut out snippets and stash them in a different place in my larger outline, for use in a future blog post. Sometimes I move things around, or add more explanations to glue paragraphs together. I sometimes have a temporary title, but I usually don’t know what the title could be until I’ve written the post.

When I’m ready to post the entry, I add categories and sometimes tags to make posts easier to discover. See When I blog with Emacs and when I blog with something else for a more detailed discussion of the tools I use for publishing. I often add images because that’s good practice for developing my visual vocabulary, either drawing stick figures or picking stock photos. Besides, the images break up otherwise-intimidating text.

I’m learning a lot, but I don’t want to overwhelm people, so I try to keep it to at most one post a day. (Although sometimes I get excited and post anyway.) I schedule blog posts using the Editorial Calendar plugin for WordPress, and I use the Share A Draft plugin to give people a sneak preview. This lets me answer people’s questions with links to future blog posts. That way, they get the info they want, and everyone else will get it eventually.

Writing about what I learned and reading people’s feedback often gives me plenty of follow-up ideas. I put those ideas back into my outline or TODO list, and the cycle continues.

How I’m working on getting better (continuous improvement for the win!)

I really like the way sharing helps me learn more effectively, and I want to get even better at it. Here are some things that I think will help:

I’m working on getting better at tweaking the structure of my posts before writing them. As in programming, it makes sense to fix logical errors or flow issues earlier rather than later. Working with outlines can help me get better at thinking in terms of questions and the flow from one point to another, and it’s much easier to see and reorganize things there than when everything’s written up.

I’m working on making posts more "scannable" with illustrations, headings, and emphasis. One of the tips I picked up from Beyond Bullet Points is that when designing presentations, your slide titles should make sense in sequence. I remember reading similar advice applied to writing. Paragraphs should also make sense when you’re quickly scanning the starting sentences, and people who want more detail can read the rest of the paragraph or section. I’ve still got a long way to go here, but I think I’m getting better.

I’m working on organizing higher-level outlines. I’m getting more used to with outlining individual blog posts. The next step is to be able to explore and organize larger topics so that I can guide people through a series of chunks, perhaps with blog posts series or e-books. This will also help me plan my learning and build resources that guide people step by step.

I’m curious about delegation or outsourcing, but I haven’t really made the jump yet. Would it be worth learning how to work with other people to flesh out these blog posts? For example, working with an editor might help me find ways to make these posts clearer, more concise, or more approachable. Can article writers or blog researchers add other perspectives or resources to these posts so that we’re learning from more people’s experiences, not just mine? I have to work through a couple of my concerns before I can make the most of this, but I think it might be worth exploring.

Share your thoughts: What’s getting in your way when it comes to sharing what you learn? What could help?
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Things I’m learning about sharing other people’s knowledge, or why you should show me what you’ve been meaning to teach others

Many conferences don’t record sessions or share videos promptly, so I was delighted to find that the Emacs Conference 2013 was not only going to be recorded but also livestreamed. Jon (the venue contact) even brought a small camera for recording close-ups. Since the zero-budget conference didn’t have a professional videographer, I volunteered to process the videos and get them out there. I also took sketchnotes and shared them during the conference itself.

It’s important to me that people who weren’t able to make it to the conference can still learn from it. So much knowledge evaporates into nothingness if not shared. Besides, it  would be wonderful for people to get a sense of the people in the Emacs community, and that’s something that’s hard to pick up from just slides or transcripts. I had selfish reasons, too. I wanted to be able to go back and remember what being around a hundred Emacs geeks is like. (It was awesome!)

It took me 8.5 hours spread over a week to process and upload the videos from the conference. It was an excellent use of that time, and people have been super-appreciative. I’m planning to transcribe John Wiegley’s talk on Emacs Lisp development because it was full of great tips. I may transcribe the other talks (or coordinate with other people?) if that’s something people would find really, really useful too.

There’s a lot of good stuff in people’s heads, and most people are really bad at getting things out there where other people can learn from them. There’s the fear of writing or public speaking, of being wrong, of not being an expert, of embarrassing yourself. I write a ton, and I’m comfortable giving presentations. (Both skills are really useful introvert hacks.) It’s easy for me to share what I know, and I’m learning even more each day. So that’s good – but it might be even more interesting to pick other people’s brains and help them get their thoughts out there. I suspect that even if I spend the rest of my life sharing just what other people know, that would still be a great way to make life better.

I’m getting the hang of amplifying the good ideas that people have, helping them reach more people. Sketchnotes, videos, transcription, writing, podcasts and video chats, screencasts, blogging, visual book reviews… I get to indulge my curiosity, help other people learn, get conversations going.

This is good. This means I don’t have to stress out about being original or being an expert. I can be a conduit for other people’s ideas and lessons, while inevitably creating something of my own along the way. I’m sometimes divided on this. Shouldn’t I use my 5-year experiment time to pursue my own ideas instead of just channeling other people’s thoughts? But I learn so much by helping people share, and I get to see the interconnections among so many different things. And then ideas bubble up – things I haven’t read or heard, things that I do differently that I notice only when people ask – and these ideas demand to be created and shared. The choice isn’t one or the other. By helping people share what they know, I can get even better at making new things. =)

Anyway, on to lessons learned:

What worked well?

  • Sketchnoting and sharing during the conference itself: Great way to help people in person and online. Because there were lots of abstract topics to cover and I was helping with technical issues as well, my live notes were pretty text-heavy. I edited the sketchnotes after the event in order to add highlights and extra information. Tech-wise, I used WinSCP to upload the images in the background, and then used NextGen Gallery’s rescan folder feature to pull them in. This meant that I didn’t have to fuss with web server errors.
  • Using multiple tools for recording my presentation: I remembered to set up recording audio on my phone, recording video on my tablet, and recording my screen using Camtasia Studio. The audio recording worked, and both video recording and screenrecording failed. (Sigh.) But at least there’s audio of the keynote! I might recreate the presentations if people think that’s valuable.
  • Copying the conference videos before leaving the venue: Soooooo much faster than downloading them over the Internet
  • Volunteering to handle the videos: Because otherwise it could take forever (or it might not have happened). Besides, I really like Emacs, and helping out with this is a good way to build the community.
  • Setting aside time to follow up: It was great to have the space to work on this here and there instead of getting caught up in other work.
  • Splicing in secondary video: Jon took close-up videos of many of the presentations, which I added using Camtasia. This was great because the screen was difficult or impossible to read over the livestream.
  • Separating rendering from publishing: In the beginning, I used Camtasia Studio’s YouTube support to publish videos directly to the Internet. This broke after the first few videos, so I used to save the videos from the error dialog and then upload them myself. When I switched to producing the MP4s directly, then uploading them to YouTube using my browser, uploading was around five times faster. Uploading videos through my browser also allowed me to process the next video instead of tying up Camtasia Studio during the publishing process.

What would make this even better in terms of sharing knowledge from conferences?

  • Doing a livestream tech check and having guidance for speakers: The keynote wasn’t livestreamed because we had technical issues, and many of the presentations were unreadable because of the glare from a white background. Coordinating with the venue to do a technology check beforehand might help us avoid these issues in the future, and it’ll also tell us what we need to work around when we prepare our presentations.
  • Asking the venue organizer which files had the livestream video: The livestream videos were confusingly named with a .ps extension, but Alex found them by using the file command.
  • Bringing a personal video camera and a tripod: That might make travel a little more difficult, but it’s good to have more video backups, and the quality might be better too.
  • Editing the videos using a proper video editing tool instead of Camtasia Studio and Windows Movie Maker: Might be more reliable, as Camtasia occasionally crashed.
  • More hard disk space: I can move processed videos to secondary storage knowing that I have YouTube or Vimeo as a backup.
  • Bringing a large USB drive to conferences: Great for efficiently transferring files between computers. (Good old-fashioned sneakernet!)
  • Making sure Camtasia Studio doesn’t crash next time I want to record my presentation: This probably had something to do with not having audio sources. If I can reliably reproduce this and figure out how not to reproduce it, that should be good.
  • Learning how to cut: Editing to pick out highlights or make things flow more smoothly can help me save other people time and make information more accessible to people who can’t sit down and listen to something for an hour. I’ve done a little audio editing to remove ums and ahs before, but it might be interesting to do more radical cuts. I don’t particularly enjoy doing this yet because I vastly prefer visual/verbal learning over auditory learning (and used to regularly fall asleep in class, although I managed to graduate somehow!), but maybe that’s just a matter of practice, familiarity, and material. We’ll see. After I learn how to cut, maybe I can learn how to make audio and video even more engaging with music and effects. Someday!

I love it when evolving skills and interests come together coherently and become a platform for going from strength to strength. I started blogging almost eleven years ago as a way to learn more effectively, and now I see how I can scale that up even further. I wonder what this will look like in a decade.

Here are a few ways you can help me get even better at sharing what you and other people know:

  • Ask me questions. =)
  • Teach me what I should ask you so that I can learn a lot from you.
  • Suggest ways I can organize or share things even more effectively.
  • Tell me where I’m on the right track, and what “even better” might look like.

This is fun!

Related:

Understanding analytics for personal blogs

Dan Zarrella’s talk on the science of blogging (#blogsci; my sketchnotes) was an interesting data-backed analysis of what kinds of behaviour were correlated with views, comments, Facebook shares, and Twitter retweets. It inspired me to take a look at my Google Analytics. Here are some highlights, what I think about them, and what you might look at when you’re reviewing your own statistics.

Browser Visits Percentage Worldwide usage share (Nov 2010)
1. Firefox 5,812 44% 23%
2. Chrome 3,396 26% 9%
3. Safari 1,620 12% 6%
4. Internet Explorer 1,414 11% 58%

Browsers and operating systems can give you a clue about what people are like. For the top four browsers people use, non-mainstream browsers are twice as popular as they would be considering the whole Internet. We’re definitely geeky over here.  I used to see a lot of browsing from Emacs w3m, which is why I looked into source-ordered stylesheets and I minimized the need for Javascript. Looks like people have shifted (or have changed their user agents).

49% of visits came from people on Microsoft Windows, 24% from Linux, and 19% from Macs. Hi to the iPhone, iPad, Android, iPod, SunOS (really? cool!), Blackberry, *BSD, UNIX, and Symbian, and Playstation users, too!

Take a look at your visitor statistics to see what people are using. Then you can decide if the average screen resolution will let you play with a wider layout, if you can take advantage of Flash, and so on.

Looking at your most popular pages can tell you what people want to read about. The most popular pages in November were my blog homepage, a blog post from 2008 on outlining your notes with Org, my Emacs-related posts, and a post on recording ledger entries with org-capture. Orgmode.org is the top referring site, beating Twitter, Facebook, EmacsWiki, and Drupal.org. Emacs rules. ;)

Use your popular pages list to learn more about what you’re currently doing well, and do even better at it. If you’re surprised by the results because your favourite pages aren’t on it, look for ways to make it easier for people to find and link to your content.

Your traffic sources tell you if you should focus on links, searches, or direct traffic. On my blog people come in fairly evenly from referring sites, search engines, and direct traffic (28-31% each). Aside from my name, other keyword searches tend to be fairly technical: error messages I’ve written about, and Emacs and Drupal-related questions. Some people come looking for visual notes, though, so that’s fun. =) Other people might get different results.

If you see more searches, you might consider writing more about that topic and working on being easier to link to. If you don’t see a lot of direct traffic to your blog homepage, think about whether your domain is easy to spell. I registered LivingAnAwesomeLife.com and sashachua.com to make it easier for people to get to me, as my name is hard to spell. Domain names are not free, but I think of it as an investment in potential conversations.

Do people return regularly? 40% of visitors in the last month have been to this site before, and they spend twice as long on the site than new visitors do (3 minutes instead of 1.5 minutes). I think that’s encouraging. 112 people have been to this site more than 200 times. (Hi mom!) 20% of visits were after another visit on the same day, so I might look into increasing my posting frequency from once a day to twice a day.

Do you have regular readers, or do people leave and never come back? Think about whether you meet the promise your site makes. All the search engine optimization tricks in the world don’t matter if people come, get disappointed, and leave. Do people come more often than you post? Consider posting more often, so there’s something fresh for people when they come.

Even if you’re writing a personal blog and not doing it as a business, you can learn interesting things from your statistics. Don’t let the numbers stop you from writing about whatever you’re interested in, though. Get that knowledge out of your head and into a form you can work with. And if you’re just starting out and your numbers are small, don’t worry. Everyone starts somewhere. =) Being boring, making missteps, and experimenting with doing  better are all part of the process. Add analytics to your blog, and then start using the data to help you experiment!

What if sharing knowledge could make a difference between life and death?

Are there types of organizations where knowledge sharing is a matter of life and death, and what can we learn from them?

Travis Cord and Harold Jarche write about the social components of military training. Travis shares:

The formal pilot training course consists mainly of an instructor and student flying a specific lesson which the student learned as much as he could in the 1 hour flight.  It is expected that you take the lessons you learned in the air and share it with all your classmates, because there is no way to learn everything in the 1 hour flight.  It was never a good thing if one student knew a critical piece of information and the rest of the class didn’t.  The saying was always “Cooperate and graduate”.

This kind of knowledge sharing is critical in the field, too. It may be a struggle to get people in conservative organizations to share, but there are clear situations where sharing helps others and helps you.

Medicine is similar. Sharing knowledge and effective practices can save lives. In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande writes :

… the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people—consistently, correctly, safely.

He describes how distilling shared knowledge into checklists (that include quick conversations between the surgeon, nurses, and anaesthetists!) can prevent missed steps and coordination errors that might have fatal results.

You might think that if you share what you know through a presentation or blog post, you still won’t save a life or make a big difference.

I think of it this way: sharing can help me make a bigger difference than I can on my own. Sharing also helps me helps other people make a bigger difference than they can on their own. Who knows, maybe through the magic of compounding knowledge, I can fit two or more “lives” into this one life that I have. Not as dramatic as saving a life, but it can still help build a better world.

So my question is: what if sharing knowledge could make a difference between a bigger life and a smaller life? My answer is yes, so I do.