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Part 4: Creating engaging content: A balance of interests

A hypothesis about influence on the web and the workplace

by Tom Johnson on Jan 26, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

In the previous post, I explained some web fundamentals, such as having a website, learning SEO, capturing subscribers to your newsletter, and so on. However, given that documentation reports and meeting notes failed to engage my readers, I wondered about the key ingredient to influence: engaging content. What types of content would readers find engaging? This turns out to be a complex question with no easy answer other than to focus on what engages you and hope that someone else has a mutual interest. The problem is that those with a mutual interest are likely outside the target business audience.

Create engaging content

The time-worn wisdom for content creation on the web is to create content you find engaging and let that audience who is also engaged by the same content naturally find you. Charles Lawrence pointed this principle out on a recent Linkedin thread from a post I shared. Charles says,

In considering whether you should write more for yourself, rather than for your established audience, maybe consider yourself a member of a new audience that you have yet to discover as you expand into other subjects.

In other words, in writing for yourself, you are also an audience member made up of like-minded people. You and your new audience just have to find each other.

For example, if you’re really fascinated by bubblegum, write about it. Maybe only .01% of the people online will share your same fascination, but that’s okay, you and the 300 people spread across remote parts of the globe will find you and you’ll come together to build a thriving bubblegum community. The connectedness of the web allows niche communities to find each other, regardless of how geographically separated they are.

But suppose you don’t want a niche audience consisting of .01% of people. You want your content to have an impact and be visible. And though you might be fascinated by bubblegum on a personal level, after extensive audience analysis, you find that your audience would be most interested in reading about puppies. But you hate puppies. Obviously, embracing a long-standing focus on puppy care, puppy training, and puppy walks isn’t going to work long-term (except perhaps as a parody or puppy-hating blog, which might actually work temporarily before making your life miserable).

As I said previously, online content creators/influencers need to find enjoyment and interest in the activity itself, without any overt goals for influence. This is because the amount of energy and effort required versus the potential “payoff” will be tremendously imbalanced. You might spend 1,000 hours creating content that only a few people respond to. Can you sustain this kind of effort very long (writing about topics that bore you) without feeling more sense of reward? I doubt it.

Echoes of similar patterns in the workplace

If these patterns are true on the web, would these patterns likewise be true in the workplace? What if my natural content direction isn’t toward writing about a particular product domain? What if I more naturally connect with other tech writers in the workplace, even though these connections will have little impact on my role and docs within my business group? Or what if my natural focus is even more niche, more irrelevant to any specific business application or knowledge, such as fascination with fonts, or file-naming patterns, or in bringing back the semicolon?

There’s a real risk that any efforts to influence or interact with a certain group of people — by writing about topics you think they’ll find relevant — might backfire. You might discover that these topics don’t interest them, don’t interest you, and ultimately aren’t worth spending time writing about. If you’re working all day in documentation, the topics you naturally write about will be documentation-related, right? And if this group of people at work aren’t interested in documentation, are you doomed to having only .01% of people at work read the content? Is that .01% worth it? I’m not sure.

Sponsored content

Workplace culture and natural interests

There’s real merit in focusing on what engages you. In “Google: a reflection of culture, leader, and management,” S.K. Tran explains that high-performing companies like Google and Zappos place a high value on culture at work as the key to employee productivity and success. Tran writes:

If an organization wants to hire talented people who cannot be recruited in cash, they must focus on building a great working culture. This includes working environment, meaningful work, and employees’ freedom (Meek 2015). Google is really touched by this philosophy, not just planning it out loud. They constantly experiment with it, then improve it because it is paramount to the success of the company. For whichever company, all things start with people. A great company needs great people. One way to attract and retain such people is to make their work interesting.

Find what interests you, and your work no longer becomes work. When I joined Google, I was surprised by how long it took to figure out what product area I would be documenting. It actually took about two months.

Contrast this culture with Amazon’s. In I took a job at Amazon, only to leave after 10 months, Ben Adam explains that as soon as he joined Amazon, he was met by a huge backlog of work and eager product managers asking when he would be able to deliver. Adam says,

When I onboarded, there was a huge backlog of work that needed to be done with PMs and engineers asking for commitments on when I could deliver things by — urgent to not block progress, but also ironic that they are asking a person who has no clue what they are doing to deliver critical work.

I realized over time that this was the norm. People come and go which has the net impact of making you feel like you are just a resource.

Adam explains that the constant turnover at Amazon resulted in the remaining employees being shorthanded and overloaded. Being shorthanded and overloaded then led to more turnover, continuing the downward cycle.

When I onboarded at Amazon (back in 2013), there was a lot of emphasis on getting employees productive and contributing within a short amount of time (like a week to making their first contribution). While I appreciated the immediate tasks, which helped put the work into focus and helped me feel like I was contributing value (an essential milestone as a new employee), I did eventually experience what Adam explains — it seemed we were always trying to backfill an open position. It would take months to find a qualified candidate, and by the time you trained the new hire on the toolset and products (several months at least), another writer would leave, starting the backfill cycle all over again.

In contrast, although I’ve seen turnover in my short time at Google, the writers mostly moved to other internal teams, and there’s more emphasis on ensuring that employees find meaning in the work and that teams are appropriately staffed. Many employees even engage in 20% projects where they can supplement their core work with hobby efforts they might be more passionate about. Keeping this sense of employee enthusiasm translates to higher productivity. Tran explains:

Of course, every company wants to hire talented people to work for them. However, being talented is an art in which there must be voluntary work and enthusiasm for the work of the devotees…. Google, Apple, Netflix, and Dell are 40% more productive than the average company which attracts top-tier employees and high performers (Vozza 2017)

That’s apparently the secret behind top-performing companies — if employees are enthusiastic about a particular space, they tend to be more productive working in it. So if a company wants employees to achieve maximum productivity, they have to find those spaces where the employees are most engaged. At Google, the process of finding the right space doesn’t just begin when you onboard — it begins during the hiring process. After you get hired, you begin the process of team matching. I met with the leaders of five different teams before choosing the team I wanted to work on (and also relocating to Seattle in the process).

After joining the team, I spent a good month just onboarding and learning about various groups and products within the business unit. Then a writer I was working with transitioned to another group, leaving a clear gap where she’d been previously working. This gap involved documentation for external partners and was organized in a developer portal — two qualities I realized I really enjoyed in docs (in contrast to internal docs, which were more fragmented, didn’t have release windows, and sometimes lacked a clearly defined audience).

Additionally, the product domain was with auto, which is undergoing a major industry disruption as cars transition to software-driven and operated components. I liked working in disruptive spaces, especially with hands-on products (using hardware interfaces where you flash builds). This is part of why I’d liked working in the devices group at Amazon, installing builds onto Fire TV and other devices, like Echo Show, and then seeing apps and services work on those devices. It took a while to recognize it, but things soon snapped into focus at Google. I’d found a place I felt comfortable and could tap into more of my natural interests and curiosities.

Aligning employees with their natural interests to improve productivity isn’t a new idea. For example, Christopher Reina et al argue that managers who use inspirational appeals help encourage a sense of meaningfulness with the work, which reduces the number of employees who quit. In contrast, pressure tactics, such as “threats and intimidation,” lead to high employee turnover. Reina et al explain:

The first precondition for emotional engagement is meaningfulness, which is the sense that one’s efforts are directed toward fruitful endeavors and likely to reap high returns. … [T]hrough the use of inspirational appeals, managers can create a sense of meaningfulness, while the use of pressure tactics decreases employees’ perceived meaningfulness of work.

The focus of Reina et al’s research is to understand the triggers that lead to employee turnover. The fundamental reason deals with motivation at work. But rather than thinking about employee retention, instead consider an employee’s engagement with any work, such as content creation on an internal company site, especially an effort that is not entirely mandatory. What causes one to abandon the effort? If you don’t find the work meaningful nor engage with it emotionally, chances are you’ll quit the work before too long. Reina et al write:

As Kahn (1992) explains, when employees fail to emotionally engage, they become pessimistic, unhappy, and cynical about their work roles. In addition, because they feel less safe and less emotionally available, they struggle to connect with others, thereby experiencing a lack of fit in their roles (Kahn, 1990). The idea that employee emotional engagement predates or culminates in turnover is consistent with various viewpoints on job detachment, withdrawal progression, and conservation of resources. In particular, Burris, Detert, and Chiaburu (2008) maintain that employees who are psychologically detached from organizations increasingly shed “their personal engagement with, or psychologically separate themselves from their involvement in, the organization” (p. 914). They become emotionally disengaged and “psychologically quit” before physically leaving the job (Greenhalgh, 1980). … On the other hand, when work replenishes emotional resources (Kahn, 1990), individuals feel the opposite emotions, such as enthusiasm and excitement (i.e., emotional engagement; Rich et al., 2010), making them less quitprone. (“Quitting the boss? The role of manager influence tactics and employee emotional engagement in voluntary turnover.”)

How do you maintain emotional engagement and a sense of meaningfulness if you’re producing content for which you have little interest and which you see as low-value and low-impact? You can’t. The effort will fizzle. This is why efforts to create content in the long-term must connect with something that you engage with emotionally and perceive as meaningful.

I started blogging in 2006. Whereas many blogs fizzled after a few years, I’ve nevertheless continued to blog for the past 16 years. Why? Because I find the act of writing, especially about my current experiences, to be meaningful. I emotionally engage with the activity. This is key to prolonged and sustained content creation, which is essential for the endless publishing required in online endeavors.

In contrast, my foray with podcasting started more as an experiment, one that I started because I liked listening to podcasts myself, but ultimately I didn’t emotionally engage with creating voice-based content like I do with written content. My podcast fizzled.

Flipping the perspective: the writing/thinking process versus the subject

Although finding the right product domain is important, one could also argue that the subject matters less than your approach. Regardless of the product domain, I’m interested in the writing process itself, which is what I find most meaningful. As a kid, when I would come home from school and my dad would ask me about my day, if I said a class was boring, he always replied, “Tommy, it’s not the subject that’s boring — it’s the teacher!” He said this so many times that I learned to avoid saying that any class was boring.

No matter the subject, an insightful, curious writer can bring that subject to life. The topic is less important than the act of inquiry — asking questions, researching what’s been written, laying out a hypothesis, testing it out, iterating on what works, reflecting on what doesn’t, etc. Francis Bacon’s most important discovery wasn’t any scientific principle; it was the scientific method (which ironically proved more valuable than his scientific conclusions).

I took my father’s lesson to heart as a grad student composition teacher at Columbia. During one class, I remember telling my students a similar line of thought, and one outspoken student challenged me to demonstrate it. He picked up a half-broken walnut on the ground and asked how that walnut could be interesting. I looked at the walnut for about 5 seconds, saw the partial ink imprint of a logo, and soon started asking whether the feeding of nuts to squirrels on campus should be allowed, as many people believed squirrels to be pests similar to rats. Squirrels and rats are, in fact, both rodents, and you wouldn’t tolerate feeding of rats on campus, would you? In five minutes, the whole class was fiercely debating the feeding of campus squirrels. (This was probably the greatest moment of my brief composition teaching career.)

At some layer or perspective, most topics can be interesting, even puppies. (Think about the psychological phenomenon of including puppy images in slide decks, for example. Apparently, it’s an easy way to win sympathy from any audience.) Part of the task of writing is to identify the facets of subjects that are interesting, controversial, and in need of analysis. That critical inquiry is the valuable activity here, not the subject itself. It’s the mind thinking that’s interesting, not the thoughts themselves. Think about Descartes’s Meditations. As intricate (and convoluted) as the arguments are, that’s not what makes the work a masterpiece. It’s the way he captures a mind thinking, and how that portrayal of the thinking mind reinforces his actual cogito, ergo sum argument (“I think, therefore I am”).

The knowledge you possess

In thinking about subjects to write about, one final factor might decide the topic: your knowledge. It’s hard to write about something you don’t have much knowledge about. Sure, you have tremendous research skills and learning ability, but workplace knowledge might require more learning time than you want to devote to the activity. It’s probably most time-efficient to leverage the learning from the documentation topics you’re already addressing. If you’re meeting with subject matter experts at [X], reading up about [X], writing documentation for [X], then chances are, the content you share online should probably leverage some of that knowledge. That said, sometimes learning is what people find engaging, so choosing a topic that requires you to sink in time reading and learning about it might be the whole point.

Conclusion

Finding the right focus might be a balance of all of the above, not too unlike the advice often given to students about careers: Find something that interests you but which can also pay the bills. The same might be said for content focus — find something that interests you but which also has enough dividends for the effort to be worth it.

References

Adam, Ben. I took a job at Amazon, only to leave after 10 months. https://benadam.me/. Dec 3, 2021

Reina, Christopher S., et al. “Quitting the boss? The role of manager influence tactics and employee emotional engagement in voluntary turnover.” Journal of leadership & organizational studies 25.1 (2018): 5-18.

Tran, S.K. Google: a reflection of culture, leader, and management. Int J Corporate Soc Responsibility 2, 10 (2017).

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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