Episode 119 – Writing to change the world with Euan Semple

Euan SempleThink that what you say on the internet has no impact? Euan Semple says think again.

‘An avalanche only ever happens because the last snowflake falls. If it doesn’t, an avalanche doesn’t happen. Each of our conversations could be a last snowflake.’

Despite the fact that he’s been blogging for 16 years and has written several successful books, he still recognises the resistance we all feel: ‘this is obvious’, ‘who am I to write this’, ‘who’s going to read this’, ‘who cares’… But his answer is simply this:

‘Just sit down and write it and let other people work at whether it’s worthwhile.’

Because not only does the process of writing force you to clarify what you think, putting that writing on the internet turns you from a passive consumer to an active participant in shaping our world.

(There’s also some incredibly practical tips on structuring your book and muscling through procrastination, and possibly the best tagline for this show EVER if I can just summon up the courage to use it…)


Euan’s site: http://euansemple.com/

Euan on Twitter: https://twitter.com/euan

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Sign up for the newsletter, including a review of what I’m reading now and a weekly writing prompt: https://www.getdrip.com/forms/887338035/submissions/new

Apply to join the This Book Means Business mentorship programme (begins September): https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/

Alison Jones:                        Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And it’s a real treat to be here today with Euan Semple, who is a speaker, a writer, and a consultant on the implications of digital technology. Euan was one of the first to introduce social media tools in the BBC, 12 years ago, and since then, he’s helped large organisations around the world do social media better. He’s the author of Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do, which is a great title, and he has a new book brewing.

Euan, it was lovely to see you at the launch of This Book Means Business last night. I think we’re both a bit kind of hoarse from that.

Euan Semple:                       Yes, it was lovely to be there. Yeah, a nice group of people.

Alison Jones:                        It was really fun, wasn’t it? It was really, really good to have you there. And now we have to focus our attention on the podcast, not talk about how we aced it at the launch, which is what I’d like to do, given half a chance.

Let’s talk about social media instead. So, obviously, 12 years ago it was completely, ooh how do we do this? I suppose now it’s kind of embedded isn’t it, in most organisations, but are they doing it right?

Euan Semple:                       Ooh, well, actually it’s longer than that, I mean, I started blogging 16 years ago, and it’s 12 years since I left the BBC, that was perhaps the number you picked up. But yeah, it’s funny how it comes and goes and I refer to a lot of what’s happened as industrialised social, which is marketing and comms teams, frankly, filling their internet with more noise than signal. My message and the title of the book, but also what I work with organisations on, is to be more interesting, to be more authentic, to be braver, to talk about what they actually do rather than the fluff around it. I haven’t given up yet, I think that we’re still at early days of the internet, there are lots of incredible, there is lots of incredible potential. But, we’re still sort of circling around it a little bit at the moment.

Alison Jones:                        Is there a rule of thumb that the bigger the organisation, the harder they find this?

Euan Semple:                       Hmm. I think the bigger they are, the harder they find everything. I think, a friend of mine once said, “Once you’re big enough to need a dedicated HR department, you’re in trouble.” And I sort of know what he meant, because we sort of professionalise all sorts of aspects of the workplace that, in some ways, we lose out by doing so. It becomes a thing in itself and things become more complicated, more remote, more bureaucratic, so there are companies that try to keep themselves to a certain size, people like Gore.

I think also the way we look at management, the way we look at organisations, the way we think hierarchically, all of these exacerbate a problem of scale, and so what I saw in the BBC put me into just the tools, and it was inside the BBC that other people were involved in the external social media, but my interest was in getting people talking to each other more productively about work. Once you have that kind of an engaged lively platform, you cross over by boundaries, you start to reduce distance between people. Even people sitting in the same often flat office can be miles away in terms of the way they think.

Alison Jones:                        And they can be emailing each other, which I always find quite tragic.

Euan Semple:                       Yes and no. I think that touches on the fact that there are some forms of communications. So, for instance, I was in an office with four of my team, and we would email each other, but it was because we didn’t want to interrupt each other to have a conversation necessarily. There was just a quick ping to let somebody know something, to record something. So, I think again that we have all sorts of assumptions about the privacy of face-to-face, for instance. I’ve had many disappointing face-to-face experiences, but I’ve had some wonderful, wonderful online ones. So, I’m wary of some of the assumptions we make about how we communicate, and where we communicate and I think again we’re learning how to use the tools more effectively, all the time.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? The personal note that you talk about, and how people tweet a lot in our organisations, one of the issues, I guess, that for the organisation is the fear, the risk that someone will make a joke that will be badly received and this sort of social media storm that will come up, which I guess all of us have in the back of our mind. But with your organisation, the more you empower your people to tweet in their own voice, I guess, the more you feel at risk of that.

Euan Semple:                       Yes, it would be foolish to deny the risk, but I think that, the thing I say to people is, the risk is there anyway. Your people are on the internet, they’re on social media, they’re very often struggling to work out whether they can, or should, talk about work or, if your organisation is facing a big challenge and the public’s fear what do they do about that? So I think that’s part of having an internal social network so that inside you’re going at least as fast as the outside. So, you can learn better how to deal with it.

I think the other thing, though, is that we have still a journalist news population that’s seeking blood and everything, you make a slip and it gets turned into, very often, a bigger story than it merits. I sense in watching people online increasingly tuning down of that, or at least making their own judgements about it. There’s a mob rule aspect to the internet, which is still a concern. But, in my book, I had a chapter that I called, We All Have A Volume Control on Mob Rule. So, we get to choose what we amplify, what we turn down, what we link to, what we ignore or what we fight back against. I’m optimistic that people will gradually become aware of that power that they have and exercising it more responsibly.

Alison Jones:                        On that, now we’ve talked about this before, I really like your optimistic view of social media. I like the fact that you say, well, it’s here and people can empower themselves, they can educate themselves and they can use it responsibly. It actually depends on who you listen to. I’m not entirely sure I see everybody making that effort, but I think that’s how it has to be, doesn’t it? It’s here and we have to trust people to make the best of it.

Euan Semple:                       Well, it’s always other people, you know? Other people use it badly, other people use social media badly. So, again, a bit wary of that. Somebody said on Facebook the other day that, “Don’t worry about oversharing, I don’t care if you overshare, I can always ignore you.” That thing of judging other people for what they say or what they think, you have a different view and engage them and exercise your right to debate the difference, but again, a lot of the disapproval isn’t productive. I still have a lot of senior people whose attitude is, I don’t do technology. Well, that’s a dereliction of professional duty these days.

Alison Jones:                        That is not an option, that is a needed to play.

Euan Semple:                       No, no exactly. It’s not separate, it’s not other. This is challenge with the word ‘digital’, ’cause it allows people to think it’s something not to do with them. But it’s life, and it’s the way kids are growing up, it’s the way we increasingly do business, and for me, it’s been just an incredible opportunity to learn: to learn about myself, to learn about other people and to foster and sustain some really fabulous relationships all around the world, with people sometimes who I’ve never met.

Alison Jones:                        I think as it is, at its best, it’s ‘social’ media, I’ve thoroughly embraced this life, I’ve seen it myself. It’s this incredible opportunity to have the most interesting, thoughtful conversation that spans continents, and goes over time and people just come to it when they can. When it’s right, it is really, really powerful. Actually-

Euan Semple:                       Well, it’s-

Alison Jones:                        Go on.

Euan Semple:                       Well, just to pick up on the, it, it’s just a tool. It does the utter best. The internet is just a mirror and what it does is show us the way we are and the way we act, and the consequences. Sometimes, for the first time, and a lot of the time we don’t like that. We’re uncomfortable with it, but in the long run, it will force us to deal with stuff that frankly we’ve hidden for a long time.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah. If the tweet is as one end of the content scale and the book is at another, there’s a whole range where that conversation takes place every point in the scale, doesn’t it? Obviously, apart from inspiration, I focus on books as business tools. How do you see your book fitting into that kind of ongoing conversation and also the broader sort of communications landscape in your business as a whole?

Euan Semple:                       Really interesting, ’cause I think partly it’s also to do with the perception of time and the passage of time, so for me as a blogger for 16 years, there’s an ephemeral nature to that. Even down to the fact that even though I have all that content, to use that word. I don’t ever really worry about losing it because it’s passing. It’s what I think at the time, it’s what I put out into the internet and it has an impact and then it moves on.

What’s funny about a book is the longevity, is the fact that it slows time down. People still refer to my book five years on, in a way that very rarely do they refer to any of my five-year, or ten-year old blog posts. Also, the way it has its own sort of life, people take photographs of it in different parts of the world, it makes it own way without me knowing it, sort of thing. It’s quite a different sort of thing.

Often times the idea is … I sort of got suckered into the thing of a business book having to be a certain size, so it’s a certain width on the shelf and it writes 60,000 words. If I do it again, I will write a lot less words, or at least I’ll write the right number of words. I won’t be dictated by the expectations of that type of book. I think the depth and heft, if you’d like, of a book, just the fact that it makes you think that much harder, that’s part of why I’m inclined to write another one, ’cause I enjoyed the process and I want to sort of force myself into thinking that hard about something that matters.

Alison Jones:                        That is actually one of the best reasons to write a book, isn’t it? Because it makes you discover and you stop and go deeper into something you’re interested in. So, tell us about that? Where did that itch start for the new book, and where are you at with it?

Euan Semple:                       As I see… coming out of some of what we’ve discussed and the unease that I feel in society and their rate of change and the powerlessness that they feel, a lot of destabilisation, and the people that we used to trust, like the media and the institutions that, politicians, or whatever else are looking distinctly untrustworthy these days. A lot of people are, at quite a profound level, I think, disturbed by this. The book title I’m sort of sticking to at the moment, is Changing the World One Conversation at a time.

Alison Jones:                        I love that.

Euan Semple:                       It’s around the fact that it’s the only way the world ever changes. But we’ve just got suckered into thinking it’s somebody else, somewhere else in a different way. But, even a politician like Trump has to start somewhere. He has to have a conversation with somebody who responds and reacts, and does what he thinks they should. Those multiply over time and I use the analogy of, I’m into mountaineering and figuring out the winter snow and they always say, an avalanche only ever happens because the last snowflake falls. If it doesn’t, an avalanche doesn’t happen. Each of our conversations could be a last snowflake. And equally, in a period of significant disruption as we’re in at the moment, individual actions have disproportionate effect. When it’s unstable, a casual comment or a casual tweet or a particular book can have much more impact than when things are stable and slow moving and resistant to change.

And particularly at the moment, partly just to give people a sense of optimism and agency, that they’re not just passive consumers or in the flotsam and jetsam and the politics of the world, they can actually do something. To do that through writing, and that whole thing about you don’t know what you think until you start writing it. It’s got a personal, psychological, therapeutic benefit but also, I think, it can help us all to have greater impact on the way the world ends up.

Alison Jones:                        Which is, of course, two of the best reasons ever to write a book. At what point, do you go hmmm, I’m going to write a book about this?

Euan Semple:                       Once I’ve danced around the subject for three years.

Alison Jones:                        It’s just one of those issues that doesn’t go away, and you think, goddammit, I’m going to have to write a book now.

Euan Semple:                       Well, it’s a bit like I once described, I forget the metaphor, blogging is like having, to use the Scottish word, a plook or a spot…

Alison Jones:                        I’m sure you’ve told me this before, and I can’t get it out of my head… Go on, go on.

Euan Semple:                       Wherever you’ve been itching, wherever it be itching, you should try not to scratch it, it gradually gets bigger and bigger, it eventually just bursts. So that’s a blog post, and to continue that analogy possibly too far, a book’s just a bigger version of that, that same building pressure and then bursting eventually out of your mind.

Alison Jones:                        What a lovely image. Thank you for that. We’ll treasure that, thank you. So, how do you go about it, once, you know, right, it’s coming, do you know what, let’s lose that metaphor. Let’s just park that metaphor and talk about what you actually do. Because what I want to do is get under the hood: what systems do you use, do you open a new notebook? What do you actually, physical start to do when you think right, I’m starting to write a book?

Euan Semple:                       Well, I love tools and technology and I’m really into the whole productivity porn thing. I read endless books about being more productive, but as a result, I’ve got some pretty good systems, if you like, that I’ve used for a long time. I use a mind map, in the first instance, to just get ideas out of my head and onto the screen in a visual way that I can move around and combine and play with. Each time I sit down and look at the mind map, it prompts other thinking in a way a more conventional, vertical outline, doesn’t for me. I’m not a particular visual person but I certainly find in the structuring and marking out, literally, of ideas that helps.

And then I will turn it into an outline, and I move it into a tool called Scrivener, which I love dearly. Well, I say I love dearly, I sort of slightly come and go, I think it’s great for big things like a book, it’s great for writing, because it allows you to itemise the book, if you like, so I can take it to the point on the mind map, I can then write content or some paragraphs around that and then manipulate those within Scrivener, moving them around and restructuring it, reordering it in a way that’s really clunky in a conventional word processing document. I love it for that. Not always the best place to write other types of things, but certainly that, that’s the way I would go about a book. Then, certainly my experience with the first one was, I set a Pomodoro timer, which is a principle of trying to get yourself to focus and chunking things into digestible bits of time. So, it’s a 25-minute timer with a 5-minute break and then you repeat that.

When I wrote the first one actually, we were in the process of renovating our house and we were having to live in rented accommodations. A lot of it was written in cafes, and in fact a couple of times, even in car parks on my laptop. But it sort of didn’t matter, ’cause I had this timer, just this limited chunk of time, and I would just sit and literally flop my hands until the textbook timer went off. I often thought, gosh that’s way better than I expected it to be, could I just get over myself and get on with it. I was saying to my kids, I said it felt like when you watch a Rugby player practising for scrums, where they’ll run at that big trestle thing with weights on it and they just run at it and engage with it and then just push, and push, and push, until it basically grinds to a halt. That’s what it felt like writing chapters, I’d launch myself at the challenge, just push, and push, and push, and push until eventually my brain sort of gave up. So, it does feel almost…

Alison Jones:                        That’s a very muscular way of approaching it, I love that. I think a-

Euan Semple:                       Yep. Bugger all to do with thinking, it’s all muscle.

Alison Jones:                        And the timer, I tell you, I was absolutely amazed when I discovered this, because it does something to your brain, doesn’t it? It allows you to focus in a way that when you’re sort of bubbling along on the surface, thinking and being constantly distracted, well maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about knowing that a timer’s going to go off in a few minutes. It just allows you to completely focus.

Euan Semple:                       Yes, even the fact that most Pomodoro apps have a ticking sound…

Alison Jones:                        Oh, I can’t do a ticking sound. I really can’t handle a ticker, I had to get rid of that.

Euan Semple:                       Well, I come and go on that. Just to explain, for those who don’t know, the Pomodoro technique was written by a guy who, an academic I think, and he had this timer for cooking that was in the shape of a tomato. He would rotate it and it would click until it eventually pinged and went off. I sometimes find the ticking just triggers me being at a different mental space, if you like, it just trains my brain that while that’s ticking, you’re focusing.

Alison Jones:                        Oh, it just sends my heart rate through the roof. I get really stressed, and no, I can’t really do with the task.

Euan Semple:                       Yeah, I don’t always use it.

Alison Jones:                        Francesco Cirillo was his name, wasn’t it? Was he a student? It is brilliant.

Euan Semple:                       I think so, yes. He was writing paper, academic papers of some sort I think, yes.

Alison Jones:                        It’s really powerful, 15 minutes if you can’t do 25, but something about setting your timer just allows you be productive and it works for anything.

Euan Semple:                       That’s another good point to make is that it’s the same true of meditation as well, if any of you try to stick to a meditation practise, five minutes is better than nothing, 10 minutes is better … you know, that extra five minutes of writing is better than nothing. So, I have find that I should have circled round and think, oh my God, I’ve got an article at the moment that I’m writing that’s meant to be about 2000 words, and I’ll stop, rewind it and procrastinate and do anything but because I feel I have to sit down and write for an hour. But actually sometimes, just when I’m on the train, I’ll just writing and I’ll get five minutes, 10 minutes done, and by the end of a day or so I’ve got so much more written than if I’d continued to circle round and actually sit down and start.

Alison Jones:                        Are there times when you don’t do those little parcels of time? Are there times, when you think actually, I need to sit down and take a half a day or something or does it all get done in those little interstitial… though they’re not interstitial are they, they’re actually a big part of your day, but just broken down. Do you know what I mean? Do you have that difference in scale that you write in the different jobs?

Euan Semple:                       No, I find that longer stint much, I find it so hard I almost never do it. I wish I did, I mean, I read about writers who, that’s another thing, I procrastinate endlessly by reading about other writers.

Alison Jones:                        We all do that, we all do that.

Euan Semple:                       But I’m envious of people who can just sit and do four hours of absorbed and focused writing ’cause gosh, it’s just never happens.

Alison Jones:                        You know, I couldn’t do it on the writing, but I find when I come to do the revising that that was easier to do in big chunks. It’s a different kind of job, it’s a snagging job.

Euan Semple:                       Yes, I’d agree with that.

Alison Jones:                        Right, rather than the actual creating. And it took a different kind of energy.

Euan Semple:                       Yes, and you get into a sort of rhythm, yes you can get in a sort of rhythm with the editing and reviewing, yes.

Alison Jones:                        Interesting. My next question is, I was going to ask for your top tip for people who are listening, maybe first-time authors. We might have just have covered that with the timer thing, but anything else?

Euan Semple:                       I suppose there’s always that, somebody referred to it last night at your book club, that constant imposter syndrome thing.

Alison Jones:                        Go on.

Euan Semple:                       Who am I to write, well just who am I to write this, who’s going to read this, who cares, yeah. I feel this even with my blog, and I find the reason my blog is called The Obvious, is it’s because it was me overcoming my reticence about stating the obvious. Because we do that, we think well everybody else must already know this, or people will laugh, or it’s naïve or foolish, or whatever. And yes, some of the stuff that gets written is, but who are you to say, in a sense. Just sit down and write it and let other people work at whether it’s worthwhile or-

Alison Jones:                        And that’s so interesting. Can you remember, I mean I know it’s a long time ago now, but can you remember when you went, do you know what, I’m going to put it out anyway. What changed?

Euan Semple:                       Yeah, well, it’s never stopped. I still, I try to blog maybe three times a week and it’ll be just something that’s popped up and I’ve noticed and think well, that’s interesting, I’ll share that with other people. Each time I write it and finish writing it and I’m about to press publish, I get nervous. It’s that thought that, I know it’s funny, my daughter blogs, as well, one of my daughters, and she’s blogging really well. She was using that whole unfairness, that the blog that you’ve blog posted must be call a blog post. A blog post that you’ve spent ages crafting and thinking is going to change the world and nobody even questions on the end to that and then one that you’ve just thrown off because you’ve felt you should and you didn’t pay much attention to, goes berserk.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, well people will decide, won’t they. As you say, who are you to say what’s going to have significance for them? I think it’s such a really good point because it can paralyse somebody if they think that this is real. If they think that imposter syndrome that, that’s syndrome, the fear of ‘who am I to write a book?’ If they think it’s just them, and therefore they’re not worthy, it will stop them in their tracks. But as soon as you know that everybody feels it, it really is quite comforting.

Euan Semple:                       We will all lose it, if we discourage people and this goes back to the disapproval of oversharing and whatever else. I used to have a slight talk about the use of these tools inside an organisation that in many ways with investors, we got so good at tidying up that we’ve ended up getting rid of all the rubbish, all the nonsense and all the messiness to such an extent, we’ve also got rid of the, not just the noise, but the signal. So we’re not actually saying anything to anybody, we’re just passing bland management speaker in our organisations most of the time. Because we got so worried about it looking unprofessional or disrespectful, or disruptive or whatever else. I often say to people, if you want to have some quality signal that’s going to make the world a better place, you have to put up with more noise. You know? We actually want more shit on the internet, not less.

Alison Jones:                        And that’s a great mantra for this show, isn’t it?

Euan Semple:                       Could be a tag line.

Alison Jones:                        I’m going to have a play with that, see how I can make it work. Could you recommend a book, a business book, ideally, but, you know what, frankly any old book that you think listeners to this show should go immediately and read?

Euan Semple:                       Well, there’s one that I’m just starting myself, so I’m taking a risk in recommending this and it might be rubbish and you’ll have to get me back on to admit that. It’s a book by a guy called Michael Neill, and I’ve certainly enjoyed his other books, and it’s called, Creating the Impossible: How to Get Any Project Out of Your Head and into the World in Less Than 90 Days. I’m going to apply it to my next book. I like Michael’s writing because he is part of a group of people who write about an idea called Three Principles, which is basically a sort of regurgitation, or rethinking of ideas that have been around since Buddha two and a half thousand years ago. It’s the way we allow our thinking to shape our lives and our world and can use it to get it our own way, to a ridiculous degree, all of the time.

I’m very interested in how we polish off the world’s problems by stopping doing that and getting better at being quieter and calmer and more intuitive in what we do. I also think that has a lot of potential in the world of work, which is where I’m mostly focused and spend my time, that in fact I’ve just shared a post this morning that I’d written a few years back which I’d called, Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.

Alison Jones:                        That’s great.

Euan Semple:                       How much of business happens to speakers who feel guilty about doing nothing, so they’ll intervene when they possibly shouldn’t or they’ll kick off some project that’s never going work but it makes them look as if they’re doing something. The book I’m hoping will hit that target for me, of purpose and decluttering my mind so I can kind of actually sit there in front of the keyboard and start writing.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant, and we love Michael Neill on this show. He’s been on a couple times, actually. I haven’t read that book. Might have to have him back on, that’s another reason to have Michael Neill back on this show. He has a voice like melted chocolate, so, I mean anytime he wants to come on this show, he’s always very, very welcome.

Euan Semple:                       I won’t ask you what my voice is like.

Alison Jones:                        No, you have a nice voice too. It’s fine.

Euan Semple:                       Deep fried haggis maybe.

Alison Jones:                        Its, yeah, it’s got more haggis in it definitely. Brilliant, that’s a really good recommendation. Thank you. Now, if people want to find out more about you, more about what you do, more about your blog, where should they go?

Euan Semple:                       My website is euansemple.com and my Twitter handle is @euan, the blog part of the website, so you’ll get to me through that.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic, and I put all those-

Euan Semple:                       It’s funny, because I do make a demarcation between Facebook and tandem work at home, so then I have platform if you want to say hi.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. I can vouch for that, it’s a very good social media concept, cause he talks about interesting things. And I like that you’ve actually got such an interesting group of people around. I often read the full thread of your discussions.

Euan Semple:                       Some of them are great, and some of them are just like watching a late night chat show on the telly. I’m very proud of that, and I wrote a most mischievous post the other day, with all the fuss about Facebook, I said, “I do love Facebook,” and then I said, “okay, maybe that’s overstating it a little.” But, what I love about it is those conversations, and I will go anywhere, wherever it is on the internet that I get those good conversations and it happens to be Facebook at the moment.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, I’ll drink to that. Brilliant. Alright, thank you so much for time you, and that was absolutely fascinating. I really could carry-on talking to you all day. I think your voice is more shortbread, it’s more sort of that lovely buttery shortbread. You good with that?

Euan Semple:                       Millionaire shortbread, maybe?

Alison Jones:                        Yeah, I’ll give you some chocolate on top, there you go.

Euan Semple:                       Thank you.

Alison Jones:                        Great to talk to you.

Euan Semple:                       Thank you.



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