Personal professional blogging – what I’ve learned
Last week I was invited to share my experience with personal/professional bogging to a group of knowledge management focal points in UNDP who had expressed an interest in learning more, and I hope putting it into practice.
I’ve only been blogging publicly since 2010, but have been blogging inside the “inside the firewall” since 2006. I’m far from being an expert – but I probably do have more experience in blogging than most other UN staff and so I’m sharing here some of the tips and issues that I presented last week.
First of all it’s good to think distinguish a few different types of professional blogging:
1. Official corporate blogging – such as on UNDP’s “Our Perspective”. Many organizations have this type of blog which is essentially part of an organizations communication or public relations set up – but allows corporate communication to be bit more personal and also in timely bite sized chunks. But it is usually polished and “on message”. Many organizations have guidelines on this, and a lot has been written about how to do this well – so I’m not going to say much about this type of blog.
2. Internal personal/professional blogging – this is what a lot of organizations start out with and what we had in UNICEF and what UNDP has with UN Teamworks. It’s a good introduction to get staff to share their experiences with each other, and doesn’t require editing or training. It’s a good “safe” starting place to get people comfortable with blogging – but it isn’t as good as blogging to the outside world – here’s why.
3. External personal/professional blogging – writing a blog about your work, your expertise and your experiences – but in a personal capacity and with your own point of view. Like this blog, and many other aid bloggers.
4. Organizational personal/professional blogs. These are real blog posts of opinions and experiences written by professionals, but written on behalf of, or at least under the banner of the organization where they work. Examples include World Bank blogs, DFID bloggers and UNDP’s Voices of Eurasia. Perhaps a bit more cautious and on message than personal blogs – but still a lot more “real” than a public relations blog with a more critical take on what the aid world is doing and the challenges faced. A gold standard for these might be Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog.
So why blog in the first place?
1. Finding your network – blogging can be a great way to connect with other professionals working in your field. It’s a way of finding people on similar journeys tackling similar issues that you don’t yet know. It’s a way of getting feedback and expert commentary on your ideas, and possibly making longer standing professional relationships which might benefit your work.
2. Testing your ideas – in addition to the feedback on your ideas you might get from commenters, the act of writing a blog is a great way to help clarify and test your thoughts. Writing itself is a great discipline in that it requires you to think through your ideas and figure out how to explain them simply to others. Because blogging is immediate and continuous you can also test incomplete ideas and evolve them over time rather than trying to develop a definitive thesis all by yourself.
3. Self-promotion – Let’s face it we all want recognition. If your blog is interesting and useful it can be a great way to build your professional reputation and give people a sense of who you are, and whether they might want to work with you or even hire you.
4. Promoting your work and your organization – even if you are not explicitly trying to market your organization or work, your blogging can help explain and communicate your work and build the brand of your organization, and in a more authentic way than official marketing.
5. Sharing your knowledge and making a difference – assuming that you know what you are taking about, blogging can help inform others and share ideas and knowledge with them, and might help them do their work o influence how they do something in the future.
6. Keeping a record – blogging is also kind of like a diary. Looking back it can be a great way to view your professional and intellectual progression – or even remind you of the ideas and ideals you once had and help you reevaluate or rekindle them.
A few random blogging tips based on my own experience:
- Read a lot of blogs. Reading is good both to get topic ideas and to start a conversation, but also to see what good, engaging blogging looks like. Keep a note of the other blogs you like and why you like them – they can be a great inspiration for your own blogging.
- Have a point of view – blogs are best when they express the personality and view of the writer. It doesn’t mean you need to be an opinionated jerk – but a blog is a means of self-expression and your perspective is unique whereas “balanced reporting” is not.
- Write in a personal chatty style, in short simple sentences avoiding too much jargon and detachment. But stay professional. Also remember that metaphors, humour and pop culture references can spice up your writing, but they also don’t travel well, especially if you are aiming at an international audience, so use them judiciously.
- Write about what you know and what you care about. Passion and expertise will show in your writing, as will its absence.
- Keep posts short – usually less than 1000 words (some even say 500). Attention spans are short.
- Have a good title – either something informative that lets the reader know exactly what they are getting, or something catchy or funny that will catch the attention.
- Include keywords (for better search) and/or a summary in your first paragraph so your blogs will be more easily found and so those that find a post can quickly decide if it’s worth reading.
- Use images, videos, embedded presentations etc. to make posts more visually appealing – but only if they are relevant. I usually try to put something on 50% of my posts.
- Link generously, especially to other blogs and give credit/cite sources or inspirations for your writing. Bloggers are a community so cross linking helps make connections and might also get people to link back to you. Also link back to your own earlier posts if that helps improve your argument. It also gives readers a chance to discover your earlier posts.
- Engage constructively and civilly with commenters. Admit if you make a mistake and correct it (same if you cause offense), respond to criticisms and disagreements even if you agree to differ. But at the same time you should not feed the trolls – i.e. those people who are deliberately spoiling for an online fight without tending to move the discussion forward. How do you know which is which? – experience, especially getting it wrong a few times
- Remember to stay professional no matter how strongly you feel about something. Use facts to back up your arguments. Include a disclaimer that protects your employer and you. If you are in the UN (or a similar organization) remember your official code of conduct and don’t compromise it – that generally means no flame wars, no overt politics, avoid causing offence or even something that might be interpreted negatively even if you don’t mean it that way.
- Try to blog regularly – both to develop the discipline of writing and also to maintain an audience. I aim to blog every week or so. If you do short updates then you might blog more frequently.
- Jot down ideas for blog posts then flesh them out when you have time or are inspired. I usually am writing several posts at one time – that way I have a pipeline of things to write and don’t get stuck for ideas or feel I’m blocked by needing to finish one thing before starting another.
- Step back – reread – spell check before you make your post live (yes, I’m bad at this one).
- Promote your posts – I share everything to twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google plus. You can also create a Facebook page for your blog once you have been going for a while. Also make sure that you have share widgets enabled on your blog so people can easily share posts on their favourite networks or by e-mail. You should also post links to your blog or cross-post it on internal networks or communities you are a member of.
- Comment on other people’s blogs – and if appropriate include a link back to your own blog. Commenting can be a good introduction to blogging as well as a way to make connections with other bloggers.
- To paraphrase George Orwell’s 5 rules of writing “Break any of these rules sooner than blogging anything outright barbarous.” His other writing tips are pretty good for blogging too.
In terms of tools for blogging – there are many out there, but I’d strongly recommend WordPress as the best option to start your own blog that is easy to use, reliable, but with some flexibility to manage the blog the way you want. This can be hosted for free on WordPress.com like mine is, or you can pay extra to get your own domain name, or you can install the WordPress software (it’s open source) on your own server if you have one, which gives you many more options and add-ons to customize your blog (but for advanced users only).
And what can you blog about? How can you find ideas? Here are a few different types of blog post you might try:
1. News update – write about something topical generally, or in your field of work.
2. Meeting report – Write your personal impressions from a meeting or conference – here your own point of view is what makes it interesting rather than just a factual accounting of the event.
3. Reviews - Write a review of a book, article or research paper you read recently.
4. Working out loud – Narrating your work as you go (but only the interesting bits please). Write updates on interesting developments in your work as they happen rather than waiting until the end of a project to write it up. That way it will also make a good record of how the project evolved when you look back.
5. Tell a story about something that happened to you. Make your work personal.
6. Opinion piece – write what you are thinking about. What bugs you about the aid world and how you would fix it. You might also write a response blog to someone else’s blog post.
7. Educational piece – share and explain something you know. Share your tips and experience (kind of like this post)
And to finish, here are a few great links from other aid bloggers with their blogging tips – check them out - they’re probably more useful than mine!
1. Wayan Vota – How to blog for professional success
2. Dave Algoso – I’m an international development blogger and you can be too
3. Marc Bellemare – What I’ve learned from a year of blogging