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Why you should become a development blogger. And some thoughts on how to enjoy it.

August 16, 2013
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I think it’s time for some new development bloggers. Lots of new voices to oxygenate a sphere that is starting to feel a little stale. Let’s see if I can persuade you to signmonkey-blog up (NGO types tend not to jump at the chance). First the benefits:

A blog is like a cumulative, realtime download of your brain – everything that you’ve read, said, or talked about for years. All in one place. There’s even a search engine – a blessing if your memory’s as bad as mine. When someone asks you for something, you can dig up the link in no time. If you’re writing longer papers you can start with a cut and paste of the relevant posts and take it from there.

It gives you a bit of soft power (let’s not exaggerate this, but check out slide 15 of this research presentation for some evidence). Blogs are now an established part of the chattersphere/public conversation, so you get a chance to put your favourite ideas out there, and spin those of others. People in your organization may well read your blogs and tweets even if they don’t read your emails.

And don’t forget the free books, also known as ‘review copies’. And the chance to publicly insult your enemies (not relevant in my case, obvs, as I don’t have any).

Downsides?

Time: this blog eats up about a third of my working time. There are ways round this – don’t post so much, or put together a blogging stable like Global Dashboard, but take care to try and ensure that there is some kind of coherent whole, rather than a cyberspace speakers’ corner.

blogging-out-loudSnark: Blogs are a unique way for individuals and organizations to have unmediated conversations about stuff that matters. The standard of comment and debate on this blog is amazing. But elsewhere be trolls – not everyone arrives looking for intelligent discussion. If you like conflict, blogging is definitely for you. But if you write something nasty, sleep on it before posting. And don’t dish out the abuse, if receiving it straight back upsets you. If you’re foolish enough to post anything on the Guardian Comment is Free site, which seems to offer free venting therapy, you might want to skip reading the comments.

Convinced? Then to start you off, here are ten fairly mediocre tips on blogging in NGOs:

  1. Manage (and respect) your organization. It is (on a good day) a fantastic source of ideas, guest bloggers, on-the-ground experience. But it’s also a potential nightmare of hassle if you screw up. So don’t. Consult in advance; avoid minefields; make it clear your voice is personal, not institutional. And grovel shamelessly if you do ruffle the odd feather (peanuts and monkeys anyone?). The less you screw up, the more leeway you can ask for to blog without a lot of deadening sign-off constraints.
  2. Stamina: blogs take years to get established. Don’t write a flurry of posts and then go dark. Develop ways to generate new content. Try new things out. Encourage guest posts. Cultivate the mini observer on your shoulder, spotting those morsels in the daily round of conversations, meetings, reading matter that might just make a tasty post.
  3. Tone: The blog has to be your voice, so write like you talk. Relax. Don’t be worthy, pompous or harangue. Don’t treat people as idiots or empty vessels. Admit doubt and complexity. Be funny (if that’s your bag). Ask questions even though (especially when) you don’t have answers. In fact, unlearn almost every bad habit of NGO communications.
  4. Spend time on the title: what will make people click on it, when it’s in a list of 50 other titles on their RSS feed? Be direct – people will skip over clever puns which don’t tell them what the post is about. Questions, ideas, not boring things like ‘Participation is insufficient in the Post 2015 process’. Would you click on that? (Apologies if your answer is yes, but you may need to get out more).
  5. Think about the reader: you need to earn their attention. Saving people time is always appreciated – summarize the key documents, review books. Give them content as well as spin. Lighten the load with visuals and videos. Lots of links in case they want to dig.
  6. Interact: blogs are conversations. Respond to comments. Ask people questions. Why don’t more blogs run polls? Use twitter to boost traffic and interaction.
  7. Be generous: credit everyone. For ideas, sources, guest posts etc – it’s only fair, and then they’ll come back with more! (So thanks to Al Kinley for comments on this post.)
  8. Don’t post at weekends (reader numbers halve on Saturday and Sunday)
  9. Find yourself a blogmaster/mistress, someone who is willing (sometimes for chocolate and/or beer) to iron out any glitches (as the wonderful Eddy Lambert did this morning). But do the graphicsdog_blog_cartoon yourself – it’s actually quite fun, a job for when your brain has seized up for anything more demanding.
  10. Enjoy yourself. Blogging shouldn’t be terrifying or burdensome. If it is, do something else. Go on, have fun – readers will notice and respond.

And you’ll be able to find the link to that great paper you read last month (and even what you thought about it).

Other guides to blogging, especially for developmentistas?

13 comments

  1. Thanks for a great post, Duncan. I’d definitely like to see more development (& humanitarian) bloggers. Particularly those in the field. And now, right on cue, the plug…

    Over on the Oxfam Policy & Practice blog (http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/blog) we offer a space for Oxfam staff, partners and others in the sector to be able to blog without commiting to ‘being’ the blog. Our aim is to get more voices heard without people devoting a third of their time to it.

  2. Good points there Duncan. Another great reason for blogging is that it will give your substantive research much more impact by forcing you to get better at communicating bottom-line results and recommendations in clear language. A blog requires you to put the most important information in the first sentence, not leave it to the reader to find on page 48 of a 60 page report!

    Plus of course one pointer I’d add is “embrace your mistakes”. If questioned, be open and admit where things could still be developed or an error was made – your community will appreciate this transparency and engagement with you.

    CARE International UK has just started a development blog over at CARE Insights, and we’ve a put some more good reasons to start your development blog there: http://insights.careinternational.org.uk/development-blog/governance/welcome-not-another-development-blog

    Hope you find it of interest.

  3. All very useful pointers for someone who is a less than two years into his blogging career (like the others, I shall shamelessly self-promote: http://www.ccic.ca/blog/ and http://blogs.ottawacitizen.com/author/freillyking/).

    I like the idea of the realtime download of one’s brain, but at first it also terrified me – putting in stone my ideas at the time. But I of course now realize that as you say, ideas evolve as they bump up against new and other ideas and research. So one I might add to your list is “Don’t be afraid to rethink what you think”…something I know you do on your blog quite often.

  4. Duncan – great to see you still advocating to get more development workers blogging. Most of us can’t aspire to reach the same audeince size or influence as you, but blogging is still a valuable way to get ideas out there and to start a conversation.

    I write a similar post earlier this year that highlights my reasons for blogging as well as some of the tips and lessons I learned in my first few years http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/personal-professional-blogging-what-ive-learned/

  5. I think group blogs are super useful – less pressure to post all the time, a wider network of readers, a minimum group of engaged users who are more likely to comment/feedback to eachother.

  6. Really enjoyed reading this post! It was recommended by a friend as I just started my own development blog a couple of days ago! I’m not a development worker or connected to an organisation, but I’m a development student and also a finalist in a Guardian comp focused on development journalism. I wanted an online space to document the comp and also express thoughts about development. I’m literally just starting out but my address is http://www.discoveringintdev.wordpress.com if anyone’s interested.

  7. Thank you for the post,

    Wish I had stumbled upon it more recently as I would have included it in this stock-taking post on blogging ‘The art of blogging: Taking stock http://km4meu.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/the-art-of-blogging-taking-stock/

    Still, I referred to you anyway in that post as one of the bloggers to learn from :)

    Keep up the great work and passion, development work needs more Duncan Green’s, and blogging is certainly not the best way to make our own voice heard!

  8. Oops, sorry, I obviously meant it’s not the *worst* way to make our own voice heard, along engaging processes of all kinds (MSPs and all). It’s a very good thing indeed and the reason why I also blogged about blogging 😉

    While at that I also wanted to say that I actually disagree on not posting on Sunday.
    I think Sunday is a great day to post because:
    – Although perhaps fewer people are online, they if they are they have more mental time and space to read blog posts.
    – If they don’t, they will find those posts on Monday morning if they are subscribed to it.
    – It is thus better to go for qualitative reading rather than the quantity of people that might read. And in addition, content quality matters more than the timing. Good stuff, ‘wow’ stuff gets picked up, irremediably and passed on, regardless of when it was posted.

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