The Sudden School of Zen: The Essence of Business Blogging
In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept known as the sudden school: that it is possible to become enlightened in a single moment, without years of training, based on even a single interaction with the right teacher. Bam! One well-pitched Zen Koan — “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” — and you are shaken to your core, and the world never seems the same again.
I think the same thunderstrike of insight can happen — in a much more modest way — when someone “gets” what blogs are, and sees what they can do for a solo practitioner or small business. I don’t mean to suggest that in a single moment all of the labor and love involved in blogging gets compressed to zero, but that it is possible to grasp the dynamics of social media and its benefits in just one exposure to the right description. Which I am setting about to do, here, after blogging for six years or so.
A Journey Of Discovery
What is it that is common across all users of the Web? Obviously, it is not demographics, or geography, or even the proximal motivation for being on line: some are old, some young; some are here, some there; some are looking at car reviews, others are reading about Indonesian tsunamis. But everyone online is looking for something. An answer to a problem, a local tapas bar, or a date. Everyone online is involved in a journey of discovery.
Don’t get me wrong. That journey may last only a few minutes and lead be just around the corner to a neighborhood taqueria, but in some cases it could be a trip of a lifetime, reaching into all aspects of the traveler’s life.
So the core insight I want to offer to the novice business blogger is that people are online to find guidance for decisions they need to make. What kind of cell phone should I get? Where are the best tulips in Minneapolis? What does Web 2.0 mean for my company? And in every niche in every industry or interest, there are people who are looking for advice on the entire spectrum of human experience. And if you have an interest in claiming a place in some industry as a knowledgeable expert, a blog can be the single best way to help others and, as a consequence, be in a position to sought out as an expert guide.
Whether you are a caterer, an accountant, a lawyer, interior decorator, or a landscape architect, you can validate your knowledge and insights on a blog. But, you might say, I’m not a great writer, and I am pressed for time — how can I do that?
Not all good bloggers have to be Shakespeare, although good writing — clear, concise, and grammatical — does help. And you don’t have to write seven hours a day to provide help. Consider these examples:
- A landscape architect that takes before and after picture of her projects, and others, and describes — in perhaps only a few paragraphs — the design trade-offs involved in the decisions made. She might also include an ongoing series of book reviews, critiqueing gardening and lanscaping books.
- A caterer could collate links from various online sources to help people have better parties and events, simply annotating other writers’ work and providing a great starting point for others. Especially helpful when localized.
- A technology oriented law firm could comment on legal and policy issues that confront excutives of technology firms, and provide best practices that lead to decreasing risks and costs for prospective clients.
- A headhunter could develop an ongoing series about hiring the best people, and how to retain great talent, interspersed with news about executive promotions and new positions.
Note that all of these examples hinge on a seeming paradox: The experts are passing along their expertise for free, apparently helping their target market to make decisions on their own, without their involvement. However, this disinterested attitude is… well, not a ploy, but something like Mrs Field’s staff handing out free samples in front of their store. You are giving a taste, and letting the market make a decision about whether they want to buy a bag to take home.
The Five Principles
So, I offer the five principles that form the pillars of good business blogging, and that will lead to success, although like in all things, it may take time:
- Focus: Pick a well-defined area of focus, an area in which you have an abiding interest and an area where you at least have the desire to become an expert, if you are not already. Don’t stray into politics on your caterer’s blog, or talk about your kids on your legal blog. Focus.
- Consistency: Writing frequently is better than infrequently, but whatever frequency seems doable after some experimentation, stick with it. If you have a restaurant review every Thursday, people will start to look for that. If you post a legal case study near the first of every month, it will become an institution for readers. People like and admire consistent behavior, and it seems the side effect of a well-ordered and professional mind.
- Look Outward: There’s a lot of stuff out there on nearly every topic. As you are on your own personal journey of discovery, collect the signposts and recommendations you discover, and share them. If you are designer and you discover great designs, post them. If you are a chef and discover great writing about food, link to it. Don’t thiink that everything has to come from within, and that you are the only creative force in the world.
- Look Within: What you think and feel matters. We should all recall the scene in the movie Sideways when Maya (played so well by Virginia Madsen) tells Miles (Paul Giamatti) why she loves wine so much:
Miles Raymond: What about you?
Maya: What about me?
Miles Raymond: I don’t know. Why are you into wine?
Maya: Oh I… I think I… I originally got in to wine through my ex-husband.
Miles Raymond: Ah.
Maya: You know, he had this big, sort of show-off cellar, you know.
Miles Raymond: Right.
Maya: But then I discovered that I had a really sharp palate.
Miles Raymond: Uh-huh.
Maya: And the more I drank, the more I liked what it made me think about.
Miles Raymond: Like what?
Maya: Like what a fraud he was.
[Miles laughs softly]
Maya: No, I- I like to think about the life of wine.
Miles Raymond: Yeah.
Maya: How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.
Miles Raymond: Hmm.
Maya: And it tastes so fucking good.
Getting across why you, personally, care deeply about some topic — wine, patent law, deck gardens, or DJing — is the single most important way to connect with people on a personal level. We are, in some important way, what we care about.
- Conversation: And once you connect with people, they will want to connect with you. They will want to comment on your posts, so make that possible. They will ask you questions, or challange your assumptions and conclusions. Get into the mix and respond. It’s a conversation. Sure, you start by having the conversation with yourself, or with your partners that may be blogging with you, but over time it will open up, and hundreds or thousands of people may be interacting with you through your blog. That’s the definition of success, in this world.
I was recently interviewed by Sean Wise, who asked me at one point what was the single most important recommendation I had received. I answered “Start a blog,” although at the time I started the term blog wasn’t in general use. Someone suggested I start an “e-zine” — and the rest is history.
Aside from the utilitarian goal of driving more consulting business to me — which has played out handsomely, by the way — blogging has become the centerpoint of my professional and personal life. It’s not so much that I am defined as a blogger but the fact that the great majority of my professional and personal relationships have grown out of the connections that blogging has created for me. I am not saying that will become the norm for anyone that starts blogging for business, but some part of that rich social context that now defines my life is available to anyone.
It’s not easy, but it isn’t rocket science either. Sometimes it feels like drudgery, but, a the Nobel laureate Paderewski said, “Before I was a genius I was a drudge.” Keep to the Five Principles, and you’ll do fine.