Digital Communication: The Practice of Poetry

Digital communications can benefit from the lessons and practice of poetry.

In May 1991, Dana Gioia wrote an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called ‘Can Poetry Matter?’  The article was a major contribution to a long-running debate on the relevance of poetry in a modern world that appears to run on prose. Gioia’s conclusion to this long running debate on the cultural significance of poetry and its practice was clear in his summary:

If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more*

In 1991, digital had only just begun its progress to its current pervasive state. Gioia does not even reference digital journals and blogs which now reinforce his point on the niche audience for much modern poetry. We have learned a great deal since then on the practices of digital business and digital communication. Two decades of lessons in digital communication is still a small fraction of the lessons learned across the centuries of history of poetry.

Why Learn from Poetry? Isn’t it Dead?

Modern digital communication can benefit from a deeper understanding of the practices and art of poetry. In many ways, poetry has been practising to refine approaches that align to current challenges facing digital communication.

Capturing The Essence: Gioia gives a strong clue to one rationale when he defines his first rationale for poetry in his essay:

Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.

Digital communication always faces a poverty of attention. Extracting the highest value from expression and conveying as much meaning as attention will allow is essential.

Expressing the Experience: The mobility of digital communication means that messages no longer sit apart from any experience. Digital communications must help express, support and enrich the experience. Poetry has long battled with this same challenge of capturing, enhancing and enriching the human experience.  There are lessons to be drawn in the relationship between poetry and the experiences that it captures and supports.

Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them – Charles Simic

The use of poetry in ritual in human history is a sign to its power in experiences.

Leveraging Reflection: The practice of writing poetry requires observation of the experiences of life and reflection. Wordsworth described poetry as:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

Similarly, Robert Frost wrote:

Poetry is when an emotion has found a thought and the thought has found words

Digital communicators can provide an important outlet from the busy pace of work. They can write from and help provoke a deeper reflection on the daily experience of work and life.

Engaging through Rythm & Rhyme: The first poets had no written poetry. Jorge Luis Borges once said

Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.

Homer was a bard who told his tales from memory and they were passed on in memory. Many of our literary techniques are echoes of ideas that go back beyond the Ancient Greeks to master poetry and rhetoric. Sections of Shakespeare’s plays on the page can be a struggle for a modern reader but put them in the hands of an actor who can work the structure and they sing with new meaning. Read poetry and you realise the power of the rhythm of words and rhyme structures to engage others and to support your own efforts to share the work. When much digital communication struggles to hold attention, leveraging rhythm and rhyme for engagement remains relevant.

Memorable & Memetic: Great poems and great lines of poetry are memorable. This memorability is often based in universality of the ideas. Keats said

Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.

The English language is filled with phrases from the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or the poetry of the King James Bible. They are so common now we barely can trace their origins. The potential of digital communication is to find that central, shared, memorable idea, phrase or aphorism that can live beyond one reading and spread through your networks as its own meme.

Open to Experimentation: Since the beginning of human history, poetry has experimented with forms, rhythms, rhymes, assonance, visual and verbal representations of messages. The most successful forms like the sonnet, the haiku, rap or the spoken word jam were tested and refined before spreading around the languages of the world. Digital communicators have learned to measure their effectiveness using the new tools available. A breadth of experimentation will help ensure that digital communication does not become trapped in local maximums of performance like the listicle.

Bringing in the Whole Human: Communication is not just a process of the human brain. Poetry shows the ways we can communicate beyond recitation of facts and logic. We have already seen digital communicators begin to leverage visual imagery in new ways to reinforce messages. Poetry also earns its attention by reaching for a deeper meaning in what is often a brief form:

Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves. – TS Eliot

Emotion, experience, spirituality, beauty and more are opportunities for experimentation for effective digital communicators as well. Finding richer ways to connect with human meaning is always an effective approach to communication.

Change: In the Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ His point was that poetry is a way in which communities share and develop norms. Digital communication must play the same role in networks reinforcing the values and creating shared connection as new communities come together. Poetry has exploited its marginal place to push boundaries as Thomas Hardy pointed out:

If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.

Equally importantly, Salman Rushdie laid out the challenge for the poet as follows:

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep

No challenge is more relevant to digital communicators when the virality of a message now outweighs its accuracy or usefulness.

Adapting: Paul Valery once said ‘a poem is never finished only abandoned’. The same holds true of digital communications. The work should be adapted continuously based on feedback, performance and changing circumstances. The goal is enhanced effectiveness and continued relevance.  Communication that is static is dead and abandoned.

The lessons above are but a few of thousands of years of the practice of poetry to engage the human mind and soul. Any digital communicator can learn from that collective experience. If applying poetry in digital communications seems unlikely, you can at least consider what poetry can do to improve your prose:

Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Virginia Woolf

Always be a poet, even in prose – Charles Baudelaire


* This insight has an echo in Steve Blank’s startup maxim ‘there are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside’


Last year there were over 200 posts to this blog. I have been blogging almost daily for more than eight years now, first internally for five years at NAB and then for the last three years on this blog. I write on many of the days I don’t publish, leaving some ideas for future research and development. The near daily process of working out loud on ideas has been amazingly productive and a wonderful source of new relationships and opportunities.

Last week I needed to put together two different talks on working out loud, one for the AITD Conference and another for Intranets2016. As I sat down to work through those talks I discovered I was able to draw on a reservoir of ideas that I had thought through, blogged and turned into images. Having a ready source of my thoughts helped me to see new connections and new opportunities:


Blogging has also become a deeply ingrained habit over time. When I began trying to blog daily I used BJ Fogg’s tiny habit approach to get me started. My blog post each day was the work I did while I drank my first coffee. I would never have forecast when I began that thinking out loud would become the way I work through so many challenges. When I have an idea or a challenge to consider my first thought is to start working through how I would blog it. Now I am much more alert each day to the insights and the opportunities. I am always looking for connections and querying how what I read relates to past and future blogposts. I have learned to be much more concise in my thinking and expression. Most importantly I have learned to let more of myself out in the process. The latter has played a key role in creating and deepening relationships.

Last week I was explaining my blogging process to a friend and I found myself saying ‘It’s just like breathing’. I surprised myself with how casually I referred to the process, but it was true. Persistent practice moved me forward to a different relationship to my working out loud. Because the habits are deeply engrained the stress and anxiety of writing slips away a little more. What is left is the joy of thinking, sharing and making new connections.


ICYMI: 2015 Top 10 Posts by Popularity

The over 10,000 people who have visited this blog in 2015 enables us to review 2015 by popularity of each post. This blog has covered a lot of ground in 2015 in 206 posts so it is interesting to see what rises to the top of the social sharing. The practice of learning, leadership and collaboration for the future of work top the lists as they are the focus of my work and my interests:

  • Competency or Capability Mindsets Matter: I am a little surprised to see this post do so well. When I wrote it I thought of it as more of a technical post dealing with a key HR and management issue. Clearly the need in the future of work to focus on capability and move from strict competency resonates deeply.
  • The Last Thing We Need is an Enterprise Social Network:  This rant of a post from 2014 continues to circulate, educate and amuse
  • Working Out Loud 3 Tiny Habits: The growth of Working Out Loud in 2015 with the release of John Stepper’s book and two Working Out Loud Weeks has made this post from 2014 (and its various forms of content: posters and videos) enduringly popular
  • Big Learning: I see this post as another pillar of this blog ongoing. The idea of organisations needing to arrange systems to accelerate learning and capability development remains as urgent as ever. Big Learning is the next big challenge. In 2016, I am looking to bring Big Learning further to light with clients.
  • Beyond Adoption to Value Creation: The foundational post of my work in collaboration and probably the most linked post within this blog. Also widely used by others to explain the development of collaboration in organisations.
  • Why Hierarchical Management Survives: Institutional Filter Failure Struck me in a flash. Still surprises. As long as our organisations are deliberately dumbed down we will miss out.
  • The Growth Mindsets of Collaboration: I love Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets. Let’s hope more managers are inspired to consider & encourage them.
  • Double Loop Learning of Working Out Loud: This world has got to complex for single loops. Let’s help people to reflect on whether they are doing things right and even in a triple loop whether they are doing the right things. Working out loud will continue to be a key focus of my work in 2016
  • The Lean Startup of Me: If the circulation that this post received on Linkedin was added to its stats, this likely would have been #1 post of the year. It is certainly the post I get most questions about. This is still the way I approach my practice and life.  It has been invaluable to me and to those I coach on following the independent path.
  • The Future of Work is the Future of Leadership: Another foundational post from 2014 that benefited from a lot of links in 2015. Leadership work will be a big part of 2016. We need change and we need leaders at every level to get us there.

If I take out the 2014 posts, the next most popular 2015 additions would be:

This list of posts is a wonderful encapsulation of the focus of my work in 2015 and the areas that I will be focusing on growing in 2016. There are a few much beloved posts that failed to make these lists.  There are also many posts on the blog that probably should never have been written. That’s the journey of blogging consistently and working out loud on your practice and learning.

Thanks for your support in 2015 and I look forward to sharing more posts in 2016 and being involved in the great conversations that they inspire.

The Purpose of Procrastiwork

Procrastiwork is a term coined by Jessica Hische to describe the work you do when you are avoiding the work you should be doing. This blog often forms a part of my procrastiwork. I love the opportunity to work out loud, to clarify my ideas and the conversations that are spun up from these blog posts. I learn so much from my procrastination that it can be quite addictive.

Jessica Hische’s point in coining the phrase is to point out that procrastiwork is a great hint to the work you should be doing. If you choose that work, it speaks to you. I’ve experienced the power of finding purpose in the work. This blog is a big part of my personal purpose of making work more human and it was through posts here that those ideas were surfaced from my work.

Procrastination can be purposeful if you ask yourself the right questions. Work out loud on the work you do to avoid work. The repeated process of transparency and reflection will help you find insights as to purpose.

Written to A Recipe or Written to Help?

Writing this blog has made me particularly susceptible to the many posts floating around social realms with advice on writing blogs. I love advice and I am always interested to learn from others. I have found some gems. I have found a lot of dross. 

Write to a Recipe

However, I am surprised how many recommend the same recipe in their advice:

  • choose one single narrow topic for the blog
  • intensively research the SEO keywords for that topic and similar blogs
  • write posts that heavily use the keywords and link to the other successful blogs, ideally with an arrangement for reciprocal links
  • when a post is successful write similar posts over and over again and promote them heavily
  • write headings that are catchy, use lots of images, use lists, numbers, write to an ideal word length, and a thousand other pieces of technical writing advice that are about as definitive as a horoscope
  • write a fixed number of posts per period (the numbers and periods always vary)
  • there is lots of advice on how to make the post a marketing piece but never any advice on how to have an insight worth sharing or how to make sure that your post is useful to anyone else.

These posts, which mostly follow their own advice, are often lightweight and usually impossible to finish. They may attract shares and organic attention but they are dull and they are all the same. I’ve never had any interest in their authors because the post may be good at creating an audience but they are a terrible for business.

Write to Share

I can make no claims to have special insights into what makes a successful blog. This isn’t a high traffic blog and the small growth in attention over time has been purely organic. The few posts that have been well shared are more accidents than outcomes of design. The only common elements of those accidental successes is that I had something I wanted to share, I spoke from the heart and I otherwise had little regard for the recipes.

The blog is achieving its goals because I am writing as a process of reflection and a way to share those reflections out loud. Importantly, my friends, colleagues and clients find it a great way to get to know me, how I work and how I think

Because I am focused on sharing my learning with others who it may help, this blog:

  • wanders across a diverse but related range of topics with a common focus on my work of making work more human
  • each post is based around an insight or a moment that I want to explore and to share. That also means I write when I have an insight to share.
  • Because I want to understand how new insights fit into my existing knowledge, many of the links are internal to this blog, to people whose ideas I respect or to the reference sources that triggered the insight
  • I seek to speak in my own voice and share my own views as plainly and as simply as I can
  • Because neither I nor you have a lot of time, I prefer to be concise.

Friday night, I ran into an acquaintance who told me he had shared a post that I wrote about my career transition with three friends going through similar experiences. The reason I wrote that post was to help others facing the same experience. That anyone thought the post would help others is more than enough reason to write & share it. Working out loud might be messy at times and it probably won’t meet any external criteria for success, but every story like that tells me that the blog is creating the kind of success that I want.