My 2 Modes for Writing a Blog Post

I recently passed 2,000 blog posts so was pondering how they got written. Blog posts tend to get written in one of two modes, unfortunately I don’t know which one it’s going to be when I start, which I find highly frustrating.

Mode #1 – Easy: I sit I write, I review, I post

On most occasions a thought comes to me, or I read an article that sparks a thought, or someone says something and in that instant I know what it is that I want to say. I don’t always know the full content, but the outline of the story is there in my head, not just the concept.

The Office Speak posts are mostly great examples of this way of working. Someone says something that I think needs reflecting upon and off we go. One of the posts in this series is the all-time most visited post of this blog: Office Speak: “Sharpen Your Pencil”

Sometimes the inciting incident comes at an inconvenient time and I need to write it down before it gets lost, but generally I’m in a position to write something shortly after the idea arrives. Because of this the posts often need to be scheduled to be posted at a time when people are going to read it, but that’s normally the next day. So from idea to post is normally less than 24 hours.

I would like to have more posts like this, sadly there’s also Mode #2.

Mode #2 – Hard: I think, I sit, I start to write, I re-write…I post

Similar to the Mode #1 posts there’s normally an inciting incident of a thought, a conversation or something that I read which creates a spark of an idea.

“I should write something about the effects of technology on our mental health”

I think (as an example).

“Yes, but what’s the story?”

Is my immediate response.

“Well it could be…”

That’s where I move into the picture building business. I create a set of pieces, some of them collected from other people, others trying to portray an idea that I’ve had. There are snippets of personal encounters and stories that I’ve heard. There are also quotations that I’ve heard and longer form items that form the scaffolding of the idea. Sadly though, having the elements of the picture doesn’t mean that I have a narrative and I find that creating satisfactory rending can be incredibly hard.

Sometimes I try to just power through as if this was a Mode #1 post by sitting and writing, but it’s normally evident within a few minutes that the story needs more work than that. It feels a bit like riding a bike into a shallow river – it’s fine at the beginning but it’s quickly evident that you are going to grind to an abrupt halt and progress is going to require a different approach.

This may be the point in the article where you are saying to yourself “Give us your wisdom Graham, tell us how you overcome this conundrum.” Sadly, I have no wisdom for you. I don’t have a foolproof way of getting through the mire that is a Mode #2 post.

The only way that I know to get a Mode #2 post concluded is to wrestle it, sometimes I win the wrestle, but many times the wrestle defeats me. There have been numerous times when I have engaged in the struggle for far too long before concluding that it’s not worth it and regretting the time that I’ve spent trying to get to a winning position. I’m also sure that there are times when I gave up way too early and the results would have been amazing if only I’d persevered.

There’s no way of knowing which wrestling moves are going to work and which ones will just cause you pain. I find that creating a mind-map of the article ideas can be helpful, but that doesn’t always work. There are times when I write a set of paragraphs for each of the ideas and shuffle them around trying to find the narrative with limited success. At other times I pick a new beginning for the article and try to get Mode #1 going in a different direction which is fraught with frustration. Sometimes I rewrite the opening paragraph, then rewrite it, trying to find a different way out of it and into a whole new portrayal. The struggle is part of the joy of the endeavour, if you didn’t loose the joy in winning wouldn’t quite be the same, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I console myself with the thought that there are few things in life that are worth doing that come easily, but that’s meagre consolation.

Thankfully this was a Mode #1 article.

Do you have any wisdom for me?

Is it me? What is “an unusually high volume of calls”?

If you’ve not heard these exact words, you’ve heard something very similar to them:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

You are then tortured by some music that is completely inappropriate for the narrow frequency response capabilities of a phone until there’s a short pause, just long enough for you to think “ah, a person”, and then you are again greeted with:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

You continue this experience until your ears are number and your brain is craving to do something more intellectually taxing – like watching daytime TV.

As is often the case, the person that you eventually get to talk to sounds plausible, and makes you believe that they have resolved your problem, so eventually you hang-up. You say to yourself, again, that there’s another hour of your life that you aren’t going to get back, but there at the back of your mind is a question, what constitutes “an unusually high volume of calls”?

You leave it a few days before you check on the progress of the thing you wanted sorted only to discover that it hasn’t and submit yourself to the inevitable second phone call to the service centre. It’s a completely different time of day, it’s a completely different day, and yet, there it is, ready to greet you like the smell of a dog that has been playing in a stagnant pond:

We are currently experiencing an unusually high volume of calls, please hold and a member of our team will be with you as soon as one becomes available.

Another hour later you still have that question, what constitutes “an unusually high volume of calls”?

What is the measure? Is this statement made on the basis of the average across a day? Or a week? Is it based on a model that factors in seasonal and regional differences? Has some significant national or global event happened that I haven’t been aware of meant that everyone needs to phone right now? Or, as I suspect it is, the definition of “unusually high” is one more than the number of service personnel that the organisation decided to roster for that time, on that day, and that the staff scheduling has little do with customer demand. The volume of service staff is almost certainly governed by the finance team with little relevance to the poor individual wanting to get a refund on their overcharged insurance bill. (Anyone guess what’s happened in my house today?)

I have wondered about setting up a web site where people can see the times and days when an organisation is normally experiencing “an unusually high volume of calls” based on crowd sourced input from people. My hope would be that people could then phone in during the non-unusual times with a high probability of speaking to an actual person, but I suspect that for some organisations there are no non-unusual times. And there is my problem, if there are no non-unusual times then sitting waiting for a service person is normal and that shows utter contempt for customers and we should all leave such organisations. Who’s with me?

(No, we won’t be using that insurance company again).

Belated Blogging Birthday – Keeping Steady

On the 4th April 2005 I started this blog. Since then I’ve written nearly 2000 posts, I’m not the most prolific of writers, I regard myself as steady.

It’s interesting down the years how some posts come and some posts go, but some posts keep their interest. Some of the current long runners are:

Perhaps I should do some more Office Speak posts?

QUOTE: “But algorithms can go wrong, even have deeply destructive effects…

“But algorithms can go wrong, even have deeply destructive effects with good intentions. And whereas an airplane that’s designed badly crashes to the earth and everyone sees it, an algorithm designed badly can go on for a long time, silently wreaking havoc.”

Cathy O’Neill

From:

"It’s the Demography, Stupid" – Understanding the impact of population surge and shifts.

I don’t think that a day goes by without me hearing, or seeing, the word Millennials. Sometimes it feels like it is everywhere. Whilst the level of exposure seems to be reaching a crescendo I fist started writing about the generation in 2010 and have written a number of articles since:

The term Millennials refers to a generation which is, itself, loosely defined by demography. Some terms transcend their first meaning and that is what has recently happened to Millennials. It only really applies to the population in western countries and to people with a birth year in the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s, but seems to have become a term for anyone of the younger generations globally.

The Millennial generation is most regularly contrasted with the Baby Boomers who were born in the period after the Second World War through to 1964. The Baby Boomer generation was a huge cohort following the low birth rate during the wartime period of the early to mid-1900’s. This resulted in much younger average ages in the western countries and a huge explosion in the workforce which then facilitated significant economic growth. Those Baby Boomers are now moving into retirement and starting to become dependent on the generations younger than them, generations with much smaller cohorts.

The title of this post isn’t mine, it’s the name of a recent programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 which looks at the shifts in population such as that of the Baby Boomer generation, but also the impact of the One Child policy in China and the slow down of population growth across Africa. The programme gives a really great view of the impact of these population shifts within and between the generations, with a particular UK perspective. If you are a member of the Baby Boomer generation, Generation-X or the Millennial generation you should listen to this programme.

How is population change transforming our world? Think of a python swallowing a pig: a big bulge makes its way slowly down the snake from the head end to the other end. That’s a bit like what’s happened to the UK demographically. The baby boom generation – which has changed Britain politically, culturally and economically – is now retiring. That means a large bulge of pensioners with big implications for the generations that come behind them.

Personally I sit in Generation-X, between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials. As a I look to my parents generation I see the promises that were made to them regarding their retirement and understand their desire to see those promises delivered. Likewise I look at my children and see the financial and social burdens that those promises are resulting in. It’s a huge demographic challenge that has been masked by a significant volume of immigration, in the UK at least. But that immigration has, itself, created other cultural challenges which the Baby Boomers have found particularly difficult to handle. Recent elections in the UK and the US have demonstrated these challenges.

One of the factors that has been on a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the last 50 years has been the UK dependency ratio, this is the ratio between those working and those being supported by those working. This seems to be a pretty good indicator of the burden I described above:

http://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.POP.DPND&locations=GB

The higher the ratio the higher the burden on those working, the lower the ratio, the lower the burden. The last few years have seen a significant shift upwards.

This is the year of the 70th birthday, the year when more people in the UK celebrate their 70th birthday than ever before. It won’t be long before we are celebrating their 80th birthday, I wonder what our dependency ratio will be when that happens? I wonder how long it will be before the percentage of the population aged over 65 will pass 20%?

http://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.POP.65UP.TO.ZS&locations=GB

Numbers give us insight, how we respond to those insights is what defines the future. My concern is that we are currently making decisions that will impact our future, but without the insights.

This isn’t just a UK challenge though, at a global level it looks like the dependency ratio has reached the low point and is expected to start rising driven by a growth in China:

http://data.worldbank.org/share/widget?indicators=SP.POP.DPND

Data from the World Bank, this site is a great place to get insights.

Concept of the Day: Digital Exhaust

You’re walking down a street in your local town. You have your phone in your pocket with Bluetooth and the GPS turned on. Every second you are exhausting digital information about the location of that phone.

As you walk you get a notification about a Facebook message from a friend – of course you’re available to meet later. Even more digital exhaust is emitted about who you are, where you are and how quickly you respond to messages.

This is a regular route to get your car out of a car park. As you approach your vehicle Google Maps tells you that it’s a 30 minute journey home. How did Google Maps know where your home was and that you were heading that way? More digital exhaust.

Earlier Apple Maps had told you that it had recorded where your car was parked and could help you find it later. How did it know that you had parked up? It used the digital exhaust from your phone to know that you had stopped alongside your phone disconnecting from the car Bluetooth system.

While you were out you’d been to the local store to look at some new clothes, they didn’t have your size available so you checked the store’s online store to see if they had different sizes in stock, they did, but you decided to keep looking in other stores. Next time you go to a news website there are adverts being displayed for the clothes that you didn’t buy. More digital exhaust.

Your exhausting all over the place.

As carbon-dioxide and water is the exhaust of a combustion engine – data is the exhaust of your Internet interactions.

Things I did not miss on my holiday

Today I returned to work after two weeks away on holiday.

I’m now a few hours in to my first day back and I thought I would reflect on the things that I didn’t miss whilst I was away.

Here are a few of the things I hadn’t missed:

  • Forgetting things – there’s something about a holiday return that means that I always forget something.
  • Corporate reorganisation emails – yes multiple ones.
  • Conference calls – way too many things to mention.
  • People putting a conference call on hold – listening to that wonderful beep tone is such a treat.
  • Sitting – when I’m on holiday I rarely sit, work is all about sitting.
  • The roller-coaster – coming back to work involves a roller-coaster of emotions as you read something, think about the required actions, read something else, think about other actions, read something else and realise that you don’t need to do anything.
  • Multiple streams – on holiday there’s normally only one stream of information that I need to concern myself with. If I’m walking, I’m walking. If I’m talking, I’m talking. At work there are always multiple streams that need attention. This all leads to a lack of focus that isn’t good for anyone.
  • A lack of control – on holiday I have much more control than I do at work, that’s the reality of work but it doesn’t mean that I like it.

If this sounds to you like a list of complaints, it isn’t, I’m just reflecting on things I’ve observed.