March 6, 2014

the six keys to a breakthrough business blog post

I don't read a lot of business blogs. Business blogs are like cable TV: content gets created solely to fill empty bandwidth. This results in posts like Being on time can be improve punctuality or Lunch is your employees' most important midday meal.

(Note to self: Write those posts.)

Unlike cable TV, however, business blogs occasionally feature some incredibly insightful and thought-provoking ideas. Most of these ideas drown pointlessly in a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and passive voice. (Too many businesspeople learned communication in business school.)

Most of you know that I write novels. With writing, I've put in my 10,000 hours and then some. Surprisingly, that doesn't diminish the respect I get in my day job, where I run some of the biggest and most complex workplace giving and corporate volunteer programs in the country.

Being #1 five years in a row puts a guy in demand. Thus, as co-chair of the advisory council for the Charities @Work conference, I've written a few blog posts about employee engagement and what the millennial generation are looking for. I was a little surprised when these posts got picked up by more than one CSR news feed, and each link was tweeted or retweeted to over 60,000 Twitter users.

What drove that response? I think it was these six things:

1. Be interesting

Don't talk yourself into thinking your topic is interesting if it really isn't. Has it been done a hundred times before? Does it just rephrase something that's already commonly understood? Then for the love of all that is Strunk and White (see item #3 below), don't post it.

Your idea probably is not revolutionary. Revolutionary ideas are as rare as a Tea Party candidate on the Berkeley City Council. But every good idea has a twist; grab that and twist it harder. If you want to get people's attention and make them think different, go against conventional wisdom. If possible, refute conventional wisdom. Tell the reader they're wrong about something. Then tell them why.

2. Be accountable

Don't hide behind weak writing
and buzzwords. (I took this photo
in Nepal, by the way.)
Corporate-speak was invented so cowards could hide in a cloud of meaninglessness. Don't be a coward. Own your words. Write in first person. Saying "I" a lot in your blog posts does two things: First, it makes you mean what you say. Second, it tells the reader you mean what you say.

Use active voice. If you don't know what active voice is, read this excerpt by Stephen King, then read the book it came from.

Eliminate jargon and buzzwords if at all possible. You can use jargon and buzzwords as convenient shorthand for well accepted concepts (like "employee engagement"), but like cliches they carry no weight. They're like the coworker who comes to lunch with the group but always seems to leave his wallet at the office. What a drag.

3. Be brief

Omit needless words.

4. Use data wisely

Remember back in #1 when you told the reader he was all wrong? Then you had to tell him why? Data is your answer.

Strip down data to its simplest form and display it in a way the reader can understand in a glance. In my intro I mentioned my workplace giving campaign has been #1 in the country five years in a row. Data, simplified and cited with a link. I could also present it as a graph (see the graph).

Make data understandable and clear.
Use bullet or numbered lists to present your most compelling points. People skim text, but they pay attention to lists, so use them wisely.

You can use your own data, as in my post on employee engagement where I cited research from my own programs, or other people's data. As long as it's real, true, and compelling, use it. Your own data is exclusive, and it tells the reader you not only know the topic but you research it in new and interesting ways. Using other people's data tells the reader you're an expert on the topic, up to date on current research. Always give proper credit if you use someone else's data, though, and get permission if you need it.

Finally, always be true to the data. Don't cherry-pick facts to make a point that isn't really provable. Then you're just lying to the reader, and that's morally and ethically wrong. If you don't have facts to back up what you're saying, you shouldn't say it. You probably shouldn't even believe it.

5. Focus
Don't throw everything into your
post. Focus on the job at hand.

I've found that someone with something really interesting to say often has a lot of interesting things to say. But no one will listen if they try to say it all at once. Writer's block hits me hardest when I'm trying to fit too much into a small space. Focus in on a single point and argue the hell out of it.

6. Be arrogant

There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance; what you're looking for is the voice of authority in your writing. Everything above supports this. If you're brief, write in first person, use active voice, stay focused, and back it all up with data, people will believe you, right? Maybe. But they want to know that you believe you. If you can't write a first draft full of arrogance, then you can't revise it to a final draft that sounds filled with confidence. If you can't write a first draft filled with arrogance, then perhaps you need to rethink your whole concept.

Do you have other tips for writing a good post for a business blog? I'd love to hear them in the comments... or you can join me at the Charities @Work conference in New York City April 3-4 to talk about this or my next blog post on the Charities @Work blog. Or tweet me at @dudleypj.