Blog Writing Is Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master

I’ve been blogging since before it was called blogging. Since before there was software to even do it. I started out by publishing my newspaper humor column once a week on a website where I hand coded the html. In the intervening years, I’ve written over 900 articles and blog posts, so I’ve been asked a lot of questions about blogging.

“Think of blogging like you’re writing an email,” I tell aspiring bloggers. “Put ‘Dear Mom, Let me tell you about this cool thing I learned today. . .’ and then write about that cool thing. Then, go back and delete the salutation, and you’re done.”

All in all, it’s pretty easy. I can do it a typical blog post (350 – 450 words) in about 20 minutes. Add another 10 – 15 for editing, and I’m done.

Of course, I’ve been a writer for nearly 23 years, so I’ve got a few secrets and techniques. I’ve written marketing copy, newspaper columns, speeches, and anything else you care to name, so I actually know how to write something well in 20 minutes.

The problem is that most new writers figure, “Hey, Erik takes 20 minutes to write a post, I can write it in 20 minutes too.”

Yes you can take 20 minutes, but it sure shows.

Listen, writing is easy, writing well is hard. Just because you know how to construct a complete sentence doesn’t mean you are actually a writer. I know where Middle C is on a piano, but that doesn’t make me a concert pianist.

A good blog post on the part of a beginning writer should take about 1 – 2 hours each. That includes reading, researching, writing, editing, re-editing, and then editing some more. Notice that the actual writing is only one small part of that list.

Yet, these noobie writers will vomit something out in a few minutes, hit ‘Publish’ and think they’re done. Or worse, they study all the SEO writing blogs and come up with little gems like “For free writing tips, download this free writing tips article about free writing tips.” (And then wonder why no one is reading their stuff.)

I’ve been seeing this a lot lately in people who profess to be professional writers and content creators. They’re the ones who are advising clients on how to create content that will set them apart in their industry, make them thought leaders, and help them win searches in the search engines.

I don’t know how to say this, except to just say it: Some of your writing just sucks.

There, I said it. I’m sorry. I don’t know how else to say it. I feel like Simon Cowell, but without the Botox.

It’s not that you’re bad people or that you’re trying to trick people. It’s just that, well, you look like you spent 20 minutes writing your post. There’s missing and misused punctuation, bad grammar, egregious misspellings, and incomplete sentences.

“But it’s blogging!” you’re saying. “It’s supposed to be more informal, and not bound by the same rules of business writing.”

True, true. But if you claim to be a writer, then for God’s sake, act like one! Writers have at least a basic grasp of language, storytelling, and sentence structure. Admittedly not all of them do (American novelist Leon Uris is famous for not being able to spell or use punctuation properly), but if you’re a product of our public schools and universities, I would hope you have some understanding of these basic concepts.

It’s especially important as blogging is starting to see some legitimacy in the business setting, and the decision makers are still concerned that their writers don’t sound like complete boobs churning out electronic doggerel for the world to see.

The problem is that I’ve seen more and more so-called “content creators” who are putting up some of their own stuff that looks like it was written by a 10th grader. I believe you should put as much care and attention into your own stuff as you do your clients. The way you react to the small things is the way you will react to everything. And if you can’t be bothered to write your own stuff well, how can you be counted on to write others’ stuff well?

As a writer and teacher in spirit, nothing warms my heart more than someone who tells me they want to learn how to be a writer. I love teaching them some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past 23 years, and showing them how to express the ideas they want to share with the world.

Just be prepared to put in the time and energy it will take to make your writing successful. Don’t just throw something up and hope no one will notice all the problems and mistakes. If you want to be able to write something in 20 minutes, it’ll take you several years.

(For the record, this took me 22 minutes.)

5 People You Will Meet on Twitter

If you’re new to Twitter, you’ll run into several different types of people on the network. Some of them are worth following, some should be avoided, and some you’ll have to make up your mind about. Choose wisely and carefully, and you should have a useful, valuable, and enjoyable Twitter experience.

  1. The “I Had a Bagel for Breakfast” Guy:These are the people most Twitter haters point to as their reason for, well, hating Twitter. And can you blame them?@PayAttention2Me: Walking the dog. BRB
    @PayAttention2Me: Have to visit the little Twitterer’s room.
    @PayAttention2Me: Late for a meeting.
    @PayAttention2Me: Gawd, this meeting is so BORRRING!

    And that’s just before frigging lunchtime.

    @PayAttention2Me: I tweet more boring shit before 9 am than most people do all day.

    Recommendation: It’s up to you. Some people like this kind of thing.

  2. The Internet Marketer:The bane of the Twitter existence. First they screwed up email with their magic pills, counterfeit watches, and deposed royalty from far-off countries with millions of dollars. Then they cluttered up the Internet with videos of naked people doing stuff naked people like to do. And now they’re on Twitter, offering to teach me how to make money online, find more Twitter followers, and then bug the crap out of those followers so I can make more money while I sleep.”Tell your friends,” they say.

    “No thanks, I’d like to keep them,” I say, and then hit the Block/Spam button. Then I DM @Spam (Twitter’s Spam reporting account) with their user name for good measure. Then I create little effigies and set fire to them.

    To these people, I have one thing to say: We freaking hate you!!!

    Nobody likes you, nobody is paying attention to you, nobody wants to follow you, except for the other 30,000 people in your “Sign up here and get 2,000 followers per day” network. And you people have created such an obnoxious echo chamber that none of you are paying the slightest bit of attention to the fact that you’re only talking to a bunch of other spammers, none of whom are going to sign up for your services. You are beneath my contempt.

    Recommendation: Avoid them, block them, @Spam them.

  3. The Thought Leader:These are people who are either trying to make a big name for themselves or have already done so. We often advise people trying to become thought leaders to use Twitter as part of their social media efforts. They try extra hard to add value to those they connect with, so they won’t pester you with a lot of pap. They’ll give you useful information and are someone worth paying attention to.Recommendation: It’s up to you, but if they’re in your industry, follow them.
  4. Quote Generators:All these people do is send out motivational quotes like you’ve just grabbed a handful of fortune cookies at a Zig Ziglar seminar. And I have to tell you, I’m not a fan. I don’t mind the occasional motivational quote to help me kickstart my day. Just not seven times a day, every day This isn’t that valuable. If I want to be bombarded by motivational platitudes, I’ll create a Tony Robbins playlist on Pandora.Recommendation: Follow or don’t follow. There is no try.
  5. Your Industry Colleagues and Community Members: These may be people you already know, people you only know by reputation, or people in your same field or industry. You want to be in contact with these people, because they can help you find solutions to problems, answer questions, and maybe even help you network your way to your next job. Use sites like Twitterment.com and NearbyTweets.comas a way to find the people you should connect with.Recommendation: Follow. Without hesitation.

By the way, you should always follow your friends. You’re already friends with them on Facebook and LinkedIn. Now is not the time to start questioning whether they add value to your lives.

Entrepreneurs, Support Your Local Coffee Shops So We’ll Support You

I was at a Rainmakers meeting last night, when my friend Lorraine Ball was the guest speaker. She spoke about the local business economy and the importance of supporting local businesses, especially if you’re in a small business yourself.

Karla & Ashley at Hubbard & CravensLorraine talked about when Rainmakers first started, they had their favorite local special coffee shop at the corner of 86th & Keystone. The owner, Malcolm, was even a Rainmaker, so it made sense that they would all meet there. Since they didn’t have offices, that became their de facto office. If you wanted to find Tony Scelzo, Lorraine, or any of the other Rainmakers, you didn’t call them, you drove there. Until one day, Lorraine showed up at the shop, and found that it was closed down.

Although there are a lot of reasons and suppositions about why it happened, the simple fact is that Malcolm just wasn’t getting enough local support from local customers. The Rainmakers made up about 40% of his business, but at the time, they only numbered about 100. You can’t run a successful coffee shop on 250 people.

Now, Rainmakers has reached 1600 members. They’re having one-on-ones and entrepreneur meetings galore, at a variety of coffee shops all over the city. Unfortunately, most of these places tend to be at a nearby Starbucks, and not a local coffee shop like Malcolm’s.

Our local economy is built on local business, not on national business. Local coffee shops, local supermarkets, local hardware stores bring in money to our city and state; Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Lowe’s don’t.

In fact, out of every dollar you spend at a local business, 40 cents of it stays in the community. When you spend a dollar at the big chain stores, 13 cents stays in the local economy. And that’s usually in the form of salaries, which are then spent on coffee, food, and home items. . . from Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Lowes.

In other words, if you want to grow your local economy, patronize local restaurants, coffee shops, and stores whenever possible.

As a small business owner and networking fiend, I have had more than my share of one-on-ones in coffee shops. I’ve personally drunk enough copy to float a battleship and put Juan Valdez’s kids through Harvard Business School. And I’ve tried to do it whenever possible at any of my favorite local shops. I avoid Starbucks whenever possible (although there are times it’s just unavoidable).

I have my favorites, and I often tell people about “the two best coffees in the city,” both of which roast their beans locally, rather than buying them from somewhere else. I visit Hubbard & Cravens in Broad Ripple several times a week, and can often count on bumping into people I know, including several Rainmakers, fellow writers, and other social media luminaries. It’s sort of like Cheers for the networking set.

Now, one of my own favorites (and Doug Karr’s home away from home), the Bean Cup, is closing down. It’s the fourth or fifth closing that I can think of since I moved here three-and-a-half years ago. Why? Because more people are concerned about buying coffee with an image, not supporting their local shops.

Here’s the bottom line: if you’re a local business owner or entrepreneur, and you expect people to support your business, it’s important that you support your local community. If you’re a local entrepreneur, and hold most of your meetings in a Starbucks, then does that mean I don’t have to support you? It seems rather odd that people who depend on a local customer base do their business in a national chain that only gives $.13 back to our community.

“Until Starbucks starts sending me checks from Seattle,” said Lorraine, “I’m not going to patronize them.”

Here’s my challenge: if you meet with clients, partners, and vendors at coffee shops, forgo Big Corporate Coffee and visit a local shop instead. Be brave, be bold, be daring. Try something new for once, try something that’s not bitter and over-roasted, and see if you can find a new favorite coffee shop. And if you’re in the leadership of a networking organization geared toward local businesses, I think it’s especially important that you be a role model in this. Stop visiting coffee shops that don’t support our mission of “Be more, serve more” and “SHARE” and hold your meetings in the ones that do.

If you’re not sure where to find one, check out the Indy Indie Coffee shop map Doug Karr and I created. It’s an up-to-date Google map of all the local coffee shops in Central Indiana. Visit the map, zoom in to your neighborhood, and pick a shop in your area. Start holding your meetings at these locations and become a regular. Take advantage of their free wifi, better tasting coffee, and strong sense of community.

If we’re going to rebuild our local economy, it’s not going to happen by eating at big chain restaurants, drinking big chain coffee, or buying big chain groceries. It’s going to happen by visiting local coffee shops, buying from a local hardware store, and even going to local supermarkets and farmers markets.

And if you want to know what the two best coffees in Indianapolis are, send me an email and I’ll share my favorites with you. I’ll also tell you where to find the best brownies, best atmosphere, and best owners.

Photo: Me. That’s Karla & Ashley, two of the fine baristas at one of my favorite coffee shops.

19% of Internet Users Are on Twitter

Want proof that Twitter is not just a flash in the pan? Check out the latest research from Susannah Fox, Kathryn Zickuhr, and Aaron Smith at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

According to their most recent report, 19% of all Internet Users are now using Twitter or some other micro-blogging service. This has grown from December 2008 and April 2009, when only 11% of Internet users said they used a micro-blogging service. This report follows 10 months after Pew Internet reported that 35% of all adult Internet users have a profile on at least one social network.

In other words, not only are the adult populations on social networks growing, but Twitter and micro-blogging usage is growing as well.

There are three populations who are responsible for this growth: social network users, mobile Internet users, and younger (under 44 years) Internet users.

(Let me first take this opportunity to thank the Pew Internet & American Life Project for recognizing that 42 is still young.)

I was particularly interested in these findings, and the idea that people who are on Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn are 35% more likely to use Twitter, as compared to the 6% of Twitter users who don’t use anything else.

The message to marketers, public relations flaks, and crisis communicators is that while you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one social media basket, you are more likely to reach people if you stick with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, because they’ll be on more than one network.

Find the two or three networks they’re likely to be on, and focus most of your energies on them creating deep and wide networks, rather than spreading yourself out to 8 – 10 different networks and keeping a shallow presence on each of them.

(Hat tip to my good friend Lalita Amos for turning me on to Pew Internet & American Life. These guys are a font of information!)

36% of Under-35s Have Tweeted or ‘Status-Updated’ Their Sex Lives

Are you under 35? After sex, have you ever raced to your laptop or grabbed your iPhone and tweeted “SCOOOORE!” (or yelled “FIFTY!”)?

You’re not alone. According to a recent study, the consumer electronics review site, 36 percent of you Millennials have not only tweeted or given status updates after sex, they were updates that you’d just had sex.

Look, I’m all for honesty and transparency online, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell us everything.

What’s surprising about the findings is the post-coital communications broke down by age group:

  • 40-somethings called their friends.
  • People over 60 wrote thank you notes

Okay, none of that was true. But the whole post-coital tweeting thing still is.

Maybe I’m an old prude, but I really don’t want to hear about people’s sex lives. I’m still trying to fathom why people would want to tweet that they’re walking the dog, are going shopping, or had a bagel for breakfast.

We’re not sure if people are actually tweeting more about their sex lives, or they were always this open and honest, and now Twitter has enabled them to do it more efficiently. That is, Twitter has turned your social network into one giant locker room.

This is also why reputation management is important. You need to make sure that the information you’re putting out there is appropriate for public consumption. There are three very good reasons why you need to make sure you’re not tweeting inappropriate stuff.

  • Your tweets are now searchable on Google and Bing in real time.
  • Your Facebook page will show up on Google search results. Or you could be like one lucky guy I found, whose photo on “My friends are getting married, I’m just getting drunk” was at the very top of the search results. Results a possible employer might find.
  • Your mom is on Facebook and Twitter, and is reading what you say. Reading “He just left. I hope he calls me. I forgot his name.” is probably not one of her prouder moments.

(Special thanks to my friend, Lalita Amos, for the heads up. And then laughing with me as we cracked several bad jokes about this.)

Using Social Media for Public Health: Some Proof

I’ve been beating the drum lately about how public health and crisis communication folks can and should be using social media. (Also here and here.)

The problem is most decision makers think this is still just a bunch of kids and out-of-work job hunters playing on FaceSpace and “twittering, twuttering, whatever the hell you call it.” (Note: Playing dumb as a way to denigrate something you don’t understand? Not endearing. Are you that confused, or just trying to be funny?)

But the Pew Internet & Life Project (official motto: “we’re smart, and we can prove it with a ±2% error margin”) is backing this idea as well. Susannah Fox recently spoke at the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing & Media, sponsored by the National Center for Health Marketing, Coordinating Center for Health Information and Service, and the Office of Enterprise Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the National Public Health Information Coalition.

In other words, people who don’t take this stuff lightly. I used to be in the same field, and I know if the CDC and NPHIC are paying attention, then other people need to be paying attention as well.

Some interesting statistics from Susannah’s slide deck:

  • 79% of adults in the U.S. use the Internet. Of those people, how many have stopped getting their news from newspapers, radio, and TV? We had an LP tanker explosion at a major Interstate intersection. I heard about it on Twitter, not TV. And a newspaper would have been useless for up-to-date news.
  • 48% of African Americans and 47% of Latinos go online with a handheld device; only 27% for whites. Since African-Americans also have a very high occurrence of chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes, handhelds could be a great way to have them access important public health information.
  • Did you know there’s a website called PatientsLikeMe.com? Yeah, me either. But it’s for people who have “life changing conditions.” They’re talking to each other and learning from each other. (Know who that’s going to inconvenience? Doctors. They’re suddenly not the smartest ones in the room, the patients are.)

I could go on and on, but, well, there are only 7 slides in the deck (Rule #1 of good PowerPoint: Don’t use a lot of slides.)

But the moral of the story is that if you’re in public health, look at social media as a way to get your message out. Quit relying on the traditional media. Get out of 1987 and join us up here in the 21st century. A vast majority of the public is, but you’re still putting all your eggs in a newspaper-lined basket. Keep old school media in your toolbox, but quit reaching for it first.

How Health Departments and First Response Agencies Can Use Twitter to Monitor Emergencies, Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about how local health departments (LHDs) can use Twitter to communicate about and monitor public health emergencies. I also talked about how to set up your own Twitter account. For nearly a year-and-a-half, I was the Risk Communication Director for the Indiana State Department of Health. I dealt with the media during public health emergencies, and took part in several incidents and training exercises.

A tool like Twitter would have been invaluable, and saved a lot of time and energy in getting valuable information to other first responders, the Incident Command structure, and even the media and public.

Be sure to visit yesterday’s post to see how to set up a Twitter account and what applications will make this extremely useful.

Today, I want to show what a Twitter exchange would look like.

A few more issues to take care of first:

1. GroupTweet.com. GroupTweet is a web-based service that lets you send messages to an entire group, rather than sending something to all of your followers, or typing in their names one at a time. If you need to speak to, say, an entire POD or the entire EOC, set up a group in advance, and assign all the members of that group. Then, when you need to send a message to only those people, follow GroupTweet’s instructions.

2. For training exercises and real emergencies, it’s helpful to set up accounts for the different NIMS roles (e.g. ISDH_INCMD is the Incident Commander for the Indiana State Department of Health). As the shifts change, make sure the new people have the username and password to the Twitter account.

3. If you are using a special term or keyword during the incident, like “ISDH” or “anthrax,” you can use a program like Tweetfeed to monitor Twitter traffic. This will pick up all traffic with that keyword, so you may be inundated with more traffic than just your group.

4. Set up a laptop running TweetDeck or Twhirl (or both), with an LCD projector to show the message windows on the wall. Make sure everyone can see it, but try to squeeze as many tweets on the wall as you can. (Use the display settings in the Control Panel.) Everyone working in the EOC is using the EOC software, as well as their own Twitter account, but they will be able to see the Twitter stream on the wall. They will also be able to respond to the messages from their own station.

5. Have the PIO could have a separate, public Twitter account that he or she can use to contact the media and public directly, rather than waiting for the TV news and newspapers. Updates are immediate and can be made as needed. Information given to a TV station could be obsolete 15 minutes after the news van has left.

Also, use the # hashtag if you’re talking about a more common term AND your timeline is public. This will let other people, like the media and concerned citizens, also monitor what you’re doing. Anyone who is using the #hashtag will show up in the general Twitter timeline through Twitter’s search function at search.Twitter.com or TweetFeed (they show the same feed. There are not separate feeds for each program). This is an important way for the PIO to monitor Twitter traffic on the incident.

Here’s how Twitter can work during an emergency.

Scenario: During a POD deployment in Clark County, you’ve got too many volunteers in one POD, you’re running out of medication at another, and a TV news crew is on site, but the Clark County PIO is not available.

Normally to handle this, the Operations Officer from Pod#1 would have to call the EOC to find out if they need to redeploy the volunteers. Someone else would call to get more medicine. A third person would frantically be trying to track down the PIO, and running around to find her. I’ve been in the scenarios where all these things are playing out simultaneously, and it’s often hard to get an answer because everyone is searching for their own answer, or working on their own part of the incident, and can’t be found.

While Twitter won’t eliminate this problem, it can help alleviate some of this chaos by making information more readily available. Here’s how:

The volunteer supervisor sends a Tweet, followed by a response from the EOC Incident Commander

Clark_VOLSUP: Clark County POD #1 has 12 too many volunteers? Send home or send elsewhere?

ISDH_INCMD: POD #3, First Haven Church, needs new volunteers. Send 8 there. Rest can go home.

Clark_VOLSUP: They’re on their way.

POD#1_OPS:We’re running low on doxycyclin. Will be out in 2 hours. Does anyone have more?

POD#3_OPS:We have plenty. Will send volunteer with 5 cases.

POD#2_OPS:Sorry, we’ve got just enough. Might run short near end of day.

POD#1_OPS:Channel 4 from Louisville is on site. Can’t find @Clark_PIO. Does anyone know where she is?

ISDH_PIO:@Clark_PIO is caught in traffic. I’m on site, and can handle.

POD#1_OPS:We’ve just sent processed our 10,000th person. How’s everyone else doing?

POD#2_OPS:We’ve had 8,000.

POD#3_OPS:We’ve had 12,000.

ISDH_PIO:Can I share this with the media? Any talking points I should give?

EOC_OPS:@ISDH_INCMD says Yes. 30,000 people through PODs, everything running smooth, enough meds for all. All PODs should finish by 10 pm today.

ISDH_PIO:Understood. Will contact @ISDH_INCMD when interview is done.

This short exchange has accomplished a number of things:

  1. They saved a bunch of phone calls, and chasing down different people to get an answer.
  2. It allowed for flexibility of someone else answering for the Incident Commander. The IC could have been standing nearby, unable to type out an answer, so someone else was able to do it for them. By using the @ reply feature, the IC can also see that someone has done this. It’s not lost in the shuffle.
  3. Using the @ symbol also delivered messages to the intended people, but publicly, so others can answer. The person who received a reply answer (@IDSH_PIO) was able to get the information they needed, but so did everyone else. Now, if someone needs to know where the PIO is, they have that information, instead of racing around again, trying to find out.
  4. It creates a record of what happened, which will help write the After Action Report (AAR), plus it gives a written transcript of the conversation, if needed. Just copy and paste all the Tweets into an index as part of the AAR.
  5. Each POD Ops director was able to share the number of people processed through POD with everyone. Best of all, they did it without sending an email. The information was immediately accessible, visible, and available to everyone. Emails tend to get buried and forgotten.
  6. The ISDH PIO was able to pick up some useful information – the number of people through each POD – just by following the general timeline. He would not have found this out otherwise, because the Operations.
  7. The Incident Commander was able to give the most important talking points to the PIO in a matter of seconds, not minutes on the phone. Or worse, the PIO never being able to reach the Incident Commander on the phone.

There are many more ways health departments and first responders can use Twitter. In fact, there are several social media technologies that health departments can use:

  • Ning social network engine to create a closed social network for all local health departments;
  • create a blog to give the public quick news updates, post press releases, address any rumors, and serve as a news source to the media. (Blogging can also help you keep the public updated without waiting for news channels;
  • and, using a a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki_software”>wikito create and share information (password-protected, of course) among health departments concerning large scale events, such as pan flu.

I’ll write about these technologies in future posts. In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions, or stories about how you’ve used these technologies, leave a comment.