This is the 2,500th article published on Commsrisk. The first article, entitled ‘The RA Truck Stop’, dates back to 22nd October 2006 and is about instigating conversations between strangers. I could hardly have anticipated all the exchanges that would follow, and all the people I would meet. That is the joy of conversation: we do not know what other people will say, who we might be introduced to, or where the conversation will lead. We talk to each other because we want to learn, we want to give, and we want to be surprised by the places that conversations take us. So here are a few thoughts on what I have learned from the first 2,500 articles on Commsrisk.
The Commsrisk authors have collectively written 1.7 million words, of which I contributed 1.2 million. There is a widely-held misconception that I write long articles, but my average of 658 words per article is slightly below the average for the whole site, which is 672 words per article. Though they write less often, authors like David Morrow contribute more detailed analyses of specific issues, and that is why David’s average is 1,026 words per article. Other authors have even higher averages. However, those who have submitted the fewest articles tend to write much longer pieces that include everything they are thinking about, whilst those who anticipate writing more articles in future are relaxed about saving some of their ideas and observations for later submissions.
The longest single article on Commsrisk is Joseph Nderitu’s account of being wrongfully imprisoned on trumped-up charges of telecoms fraud. His 11,000-word exposé was also serialized in three parts to encourage the maximum number of readers to reflect on the dangers of government corruption and media bias. The shortest article was published in 2009, with just 19 words confirming that shareholders of RAFM vendor ECtel had approved a merger with fellow Israeli vendor cVidya.
Do What It Says on the Tin
There is a long-running British marketing slogan where a manufacturer of varnishes and paints advertises their products by saying each one ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’. This has become my guiding principle when writing titles for Commsrisk articles. I used to have the same fault as many new authors, giving my articles clever but mysterious titles, often based on a pun. It made me feel proud to devise humorous titles like “The Beta Generation” and “The Phantom Traffic Menace”. There is only problem with titles like these: nobody can tell what the article will be about, so relatively few make the effort to read it.
Now I give every article a straightforward title so people immediately apprehend the subject. This is vital to effective communication and has had a profound impact on the size of the audience. But it also begs a question about the approach that many take to their work. We should always strive to use plain language that demystifies what we do and helps the largest possible audience to learn from our experiences. I am glad that we are all concerned by the rise in wangiri, but do we really need to start every conversation by explaining it is Japanese for ‘one cut’, especially when nobody recounts the Japanese origins of this fraud?
On the other hand, at least putting the word ‘wangiri’ in the title of an article will ensure readers know what the article is about. I despair at the actions of regulators like the FCC who talk about raising consumer awareness of fraud but then refuse to acknowledge there is already a word that has crossed all language barriers and can be found in newspapers everywhere. The FCC only ever talks about the ‘one-ring scam’, whilst the word ‘wangiri’ cannot be found in any of their output. The same criticism can be leveled at all the so-called experts who refused to talk about SIM swaps because they prefer a different label. If you know which labels have been widely adopted then you should use them also. We should question how anyone can be considered an authority on a subject if they are ignorant of the terms used by most professionals and show no interest in educating themselves.
Answer Your Own Questions
Editing thousands of articles also led me to notice another stylistic flaw that is common amongst new and occasional writers: they often finish an article by asking a question of the audience. This is a mistake. They obviously hope that their question will prompt a flood of comments in response. In reality, it is like a comedian asking the audience to laugh at the end of a joke. The audience might have laughed if the comedian simply stopped talking; they will never laugh if asked to.
There are several reasons why ending an article with a question never leads to the desired response from the audience. One of the simplest explanations is that only a tiny proportion of any audience is prepared to provide direct feedback. This should be obvious to most people if they consider how rarely they leave a comment to something they have just read. The people who often leave comments are relatively unusual, and I pay particular attention to these individuals because they have potential leadership qualities that we need in this field.
Those of you who remember ECtel may also remember they created a social network for professionals like us. But you probably do not remember because it was a total disaster. The so-called network was just a glorified blog and nobody ever wrote anything for it. It failed despite ECtel spending several months flying around and attending conferences to trumpet their creation as if it was their most important new product. I have more reason to recall this period because one ECtel spokeswoman would routinely go on stage and tell everyone that I would write content for their social network although I never gave her any reason to believe that. ECtel’s mistake was to think they could own an empty vessel and then other people would rush to fill it with something valuable. However, people are not interested in empty vessels. Any fool can create a website with nothing on it. What matters is having something worthwhile to say, so if you are going to discuss a question in front of an audience then you should answer it too.
Less than a year passed between the launch of ECtel’s social network and the beginnings of negotiations to merge their business with cVidya. The eventual deal saw ECtel hand over a pile of cash so they could dump their brand and use cVidya’s name instead. That should make the value of an empty vessel even more apparent.
The Long Run May Be Longer Than You Think
In the early days of my career I would bemoan professionals who kept their methods and successes secret. They thought they were furthering their career because they were able to do things that others could not replicate. I considered it futile to market secret successes that cannot be independently verified. In contrast, being an acknowledged leader is eminently marketable. In practice it soon became apparent that whatever information I gave away was more than matched by new information I received from readers, many of whom I had never met in real life. At this time I started thinking about the modern military concepts of information advantage and information superiority. Even if the gains made by actively giving and receiving new information were small when compared to simply retaining existing information then the scale of the advantage would accumulate as the network grows in size.
The theory about building an information advantage has proven correct; I have learned a tremendous amount I would never have gained by waiting for somebody else to devise and deliver a formal training course. However, it is easier to use information when there is a large and established market for it. What good is accomplished by knowing how to save money for telcos if those same telcos are unwilling to pay for new insights? I suspect the answer to that question explains why the many competitors to Commsrisk have disappeared so soon after they were launched. The difference with Commsrisk was that making money was never the goal; building a network and gaining information were the raisons d’être, not the means to an end.
The learning points mentioned above are also pertinent. People who want to write for an audience are unusual; you have to appreciate their special qualities if you hope to obtain 0.5 million words from them. Of those who want to write, the number who have something to say are even fewer in number. There are some fools who can fill a website with unanswered questions but nobody would read it for long. Writing in plain language is vital to communication, and that includes using simple words to explain if you agree or disagree with somebody else’s argument. Some calculate that the route to popularity is to agree with everybody and to disagree with nobody, but that is hard to sustain for any length of time and becomes boring even sooner. There are many people who are both inoffensive and unknown beyond a small circle of friends and colleagues, but nothing is gained by wrongly telling everyone that everything they think is always correct. Disagreements inevitably lead to offense, especially amongst professionals, because nobody likes being wrong and some feel embarrassment about it. But disagreements also lead to change and improvement, because the only way to avoid all disagreement is to endorse the fiction that everything is already as good as it can be.
All of these factors mean the battle for information can only be won by adding together many tiny gains. There are no short cuts to success. It is safe to assume that if there was a quick, cheap and easy way to change the world or to amass a huge audience then somebody else will think of it and implement it before you. In this fight it is best to think of each word as an inch. The most finely-crafted, most cleverly chosen words might be worth an inch-and-a-half. The wrong choice can set you backwards. The distance to be covered is a marathon, not a sprint, and the only way to develop the ability to run faster is by choosing to run further. Join the relay if you like, but nobody is going to carry you on their shoulders. And even if we never reach the destination, the exercise makes us stronger.