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

Posted: - Modified: | blogging, life, reflection, tips, web2.0

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:

 

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LinkedIn tip: Customize your profile URL

| connecting, tips, web2.0

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.

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Imagine success for social media

| blogging, connecting, kaizen, story, web2.0, writing

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?

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Risks, personal brands, and findability

Posted: - Modified: | connecting, social, web2.0

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.

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Exponential awesomeness

Posted: - Modified: | education, teaching, web2.0

 

@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?

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The problem with personal branding

| blogging, connecting, web2.0

One of the problems with personal branding is that we tell people that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We scare people with stories about college students posting inappropriate pictures, employees complaining about their bosses, and search engines remembering everything. Then we tell people that they need to be on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and their own blog if they’re going to have a chance in today’s job market.

And we wonder why people don’t make the most of these tools.

I think the cautionary tales we tell people are interesting. We tell people to remember that search engines have a long memory, so you shouldn’t post complaints about your work or drunken pictures of you at parties. I think that’s focusing on the surface and not the roots. It’s not about keeping rants offline. It’s about getting better at focusing on the good stuff and taking responsibility for shaping your life.

Here’s the difference:

Personal branding tip: Don’t gripe about your work on your blog.

Life tip: Figure out how to make your work better so that you don’t want to gripe all the time. Accept that there will be times when you want to gripe and being frustrated is part of learning. Focus on the positive.

Also:

I think people are getting stuck, not because the tools are hard to use, but because people don’t know what to share. We can talk about how personal branding and social networking are great ways to build your reputation and demonstrate your expertise, but many people don’t feel like they’re experts.

I care about this because thanks to connection and opportunity compounding, the gap between the people who get it and the people who don’t get it will get wider and wider unless we do something.

In my case, that something includes demonstrating that you don’t have to be an expert to create value. That you can admit you don’t know something and you want to learn. That you can make mistakes and deal with your weaknesses. That you can build on your strengths and interests, and that the path from mediocre to good is worthwhile. That you don’t have to have a “voice” right away and you don’t have to sound like a polished writer. That you can be human.

When we tell companies to be human, we don’t mean that companies should use toilet humor or lie. We mean the best part of being human – connecting authentically, being real. We should encourage people to be human, too. I don’t want people to think that they need to be these polished and carefully-controlled brands. (Particularly considering we’re telling companies that they don’t control their messages!) I want people to find and share their best – as well as the seeds of what could be great. I want to build a world where people don’t have to worry about the rough, unfinished parts of themselves. I want to build a world where people can learn out in the open if they want to.

I think under-sharing is more of a problem than over-sharing. Yes, it’s a good idea to think before you post, and there are plenty of examples of failure. There’s that occasional exhibitionistic streak—the rebel in us that likes to shock others—that we need to rein in. But the bigger and more interesting challenge is that people don’t know what would be good to share, what other people might find useful.

Sure, thinking about personal brands can help you figure out what you know that other people might find useful. Truth is, practically anything can help someone out there. I’m often surprised by what people pick up from what I do – even little things like the way I use [  ] and [X] and [-] in my weekly review. So there’s a ton of things you can share, and the fun challenge is prioritizing so that you can get more valuable things out first. When you think that way – starting from a position of abundance and opportunity, rather than from a position of fear and anxiety – things get much easier.

So: Stop worrying about personal branding. Focus on what matters. Share. Create value. Don’t worry about whether you’re on all the right social networks and you have a complete profile with lots of recommendations. Start figuring out who you are, what you know and do, why it matters, what you can share, and how you can share it. Don’t worry about whether you look good. Focus on how you can help others. Everything else flows from that.

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On getting started with collaboration

| ibm, web2.0

The hardest part of collaboration is getting started.

In the days and weeks and months before you have a critical mass of people on board, your progress can seem very slow. There’s a lot of resistance. People don’t trust your new initiative. They don’t see the value in changing their behaviour. They don’t see the value in working with you. I see that resistance a lot, whether I’m coaching groups on new collaborative tools or helping organizations learn more about changing business trends.

Building a new collaborative initiative is like making a big snowball. You start with a tiny core. You roll it around and around and around in the snow. Then suddenly it starts picking up new snow easily, and it gets bigger and bigger, and it gets easier and easier to roll. But in the beginning, you have to be very careful about using light snow and smoothening it into the right shape.

Here’s what I’ve learned from coaching individuals, teams, communities, and organizations on collaboration:

Find your champions. Don’t be discouraged if adoption is slow. In any group, you’ll find people who adopt new ideas earlier than others and people who influence other people’s opinions. Find those early adopters and influencers, help them make the most of your new tools, and collect and share their success stories. They will inspire other people to explore, and their examples will help other people learn.

For example, when I help a team learn more about wikis so that they can easily create a web-based knowledge repository, I don’t expect that everyone will contribute to the wiki right away. I look for the one or two people who already organize and share information for the group, and I work with them so that they can use the wiki to organize what they know. If other people find it handy, that’s a bonus. These early adopters and influencers help us convince the rest of the team to read the wiki. Over time, others may be inspired to edit and contribute to the wiki themselves.

Focus on immediate personal benefits. As much as possible, show people why your initiative is worth their time and effort. If you conduct a survey, share the results. If you build a discussion forum, make sure someone is responsible for answering questions. If you want people to read your blog, focus on sharing things of value to them. Help people get value from their participation as quickly as possible.

For example, when people start blogging, they often feel discouraged because they don’t get comments from other readers. That’s the kind of social benefit that comes later, after you’ve developed your network. I help people focus on saving time by using a blog as a professional notebook for remembering solutions and ideas, and I help them see that the practice of writing helps them improve their communication skills. Without that immediate personal benefit, many collective initiatives fizzle out.

Make sure you build compelling personal benefits into your initiative. Personal benefits will motivate people to participate, and then they’ll be able to take advantage of the collective value of their participation.

Fully participate in the conversation. Make it easy to give feedback, and show people that you’re listening. Keep people up to date as you act on their suggestions. Ask questions and reach out.

For example, IBM regularly runs large-scale Jams, which are brainstorming discussions across all of IBM. Seeing decision-makers participate in, respond to, and act on the suggestions raised not only energizes the discussion, but lays the groundwork for even more discussion and action in the future. On the other hand, traditional suggestion boxes that stay locked and unacknowledged can sap morale. As you collaborate with others, show people your progress and the results of that collaboration.

Find your champions, focus on people’s immediate personal benefits, and fully participate in the discussion. Good luck!

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