Zenebe Uraguchi of Helvetas is the author of a blog on inclusive systems. Why does he invest his time in writing? Is it easy? How to write well? He shared his ideas with Masha Scholl in an interview.
#1 Why do we write?
Development cooperation is being challenged. People question whether development works – in Switzerland, UK, US, worldwide.
There are people in the development community, including Helvetas, who have a rich experience that provides answers to the critical questions that society raises. But their knowledge is tacit. It is only available to themselves and perhaps a narrow circle of their colleagues.
Knowledge must be accessible. It is our responsibility to tell the story of our work.
#2 Your personal brand
Whenever I attend a conference, I usually only know 10-20% of the people. But when I introduce myself to new people, I often hear: "Oh, the blog guy". I used to have 500 followers on Linkedin, now I have over 15 thousand.
It’s my personal brand. I’m very happy that I’m being recognized. I’m also contributing to the organizational brand.
#3 From a blog to a book
Blogging is documentation. You can use your blogs to produce longer pieces of content later. Maybe someday I’ll bring different pieces together and write a book.
#4 Internal reflection
When we document, we reflect. If we can write it, we know that we understand it. Internal reflection is a great side-benefit of writing.
#5 Passion is the starting point
Writing is like studying a language. You have to start. For that, you need to have a passion. If you continue, you improve. If you improve, you develop confidence. When you develop confidence, you improve your passion. I got this kind of thinking from the Japanese culture.
#6 We need to come out of our shell
We must come out of the shell of our fear.
Yes, writing is difficult. But we need to go out and taste it. You can cure your fear of writing.
Many people think they can’t draw. Maybe we can’t become a Picasso or famous overnight. But you can learn to draw if you practice. It’s the same with writing.
#7 About "registering hours"
Writing is time-consuming. Sometimes our colleagues wonder: which line should I use to register my time for blogging?
You need passion to overcome these constraints. At first, I only used my personal time for writing.
We can’t think of communication as an add-on. It’s part and parcel of our work, which directly contributes to our main goals. We need to build the culture of documenting, of communicating, of sharing our lessons.
We can continually talk about improving the culture of knowledge management and learning. Yet often this is fuzzy. It has to be accompanied by institutional measures. For example, job descriptions must be very explicit that knowledge sharing is part of our work. Contributions to communication should also be a point in the appraisal of staff. This has to be complemented by conducive enabling environment – skills development, infrastructure, incentives, etc.
#8 How to choose a topic?
Our daily life is full of stories. Once I was flying and read the onboard magazine about women in Sri Lanka gathering tea. And I came up with a blog idea.
#9 Start small
Start at a small, manageable level. Start with one paragraph. Sleep over it. Then re-write it. Write the next one. Someday you will have a great text!
Blogging is not only about writing paragraphs after paragraphs. You can also have a chat with a colleague or partner on a topic that you find exciting, record it on your phone, and edit it a little bit. And your blog post is ready!
#10 The main secret of writing
I used to be a very bad writer.
My favorite book is by William Zinsser «On writing well». He says that writing is difficult, writing is lonely, writing is boring. He doesn’t want to build wrong expectations. The main takeaway from this book is “the essence of writing is re-writing.”
The more I wrote, the more I was able to express myself. Now I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed when I re-read my first blog posts.
#11 Write as you talk
My first articles were high-flying, abstract, too academic.
Write as you talk. Don’t have a special language for writing. We sometimes think that if we use jargon, we are very sophisticated. I learned over time to use short sentences, add anecdotal evidence, start with teasers.
#12 Delete those words
Here’s a tip from William Zinsser. Write a sentence. Put parenthesis around a few words. Read the sentence without the words in the parentheses. Does it still make sense? Then delete those words.
#13 The big picture
My first posts were very much at a micro-level: what we did in a project. Now I’m trying to talk about the bigger picture, and then linking to the micro-level. People are not so interested in our activities per se. It’s the big picture that is the main takeaway for the readers.
#14 About being sensitive
I can use humor as an entry point. But I also try to be sensitive, for example, careful about the words that I pick. I hesitate to use "foreign aid". I use "development cooperation". "Foreign aid" sounds like a hand-out, makes people sound passive.
#15 Personal opinions VS corporate position
Sometimes there is a clash of personal opinions with the official position of the organization. Are you just saying what you personally think in the blog or does your post represent the organization?
There is no hard and fast rule. Have people around you who can have a look and give you feedback. For example, I wrote about working with the private sector, a very sensitive topic. And I showed it to different people before publishing. They agreed that what I said in the blog did not contradict strongly the official position of the organization, even though it did contain my personal opinions.
#16 About engaging others
I talk to people. Some call it "aggressively friendly". Here at Helvetas when we have our lunch in the kitchen I listen to conversations and engage people. For example, I hear someone comment on the weather: "It’s climate change!" and I ask, "Why do you think it is climate change?" and then the person tells me about their experiences, how they have observed climate change impact in Madagascar or Bangladesh. And then I say: "Let’s write a story about that". And that person is surprised: "Is that really interesting?" "That’s exactly what readers find interesting!"
That’s how I got many people on board. But if I just send them an email offering to write a blog, they are more reluctant because they see it as a cumbersome activity. I show them that writing a blog is fun and doable.