By July 4, 2013 9 Comments Read More →

How To Share and Scale Your Expertise with World-Class How Tos

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In this post, I’ll share with you a proven practice and expert approach for sharing expertise.

We live in the information age, and a digital economy.   It’s an ultra-competitive marketplace.  Being an expert, with valuable experience has its privileges.

But you need to be able to share your expertise, and that’s a skill worth building.

It’s one thing to be an expert.  It’s another to know how to share your expertise with others.  If you can share your expertise effectively with others, you accomplish several things:

  1. You share your unique gifts with the world (it can be your way of changing the world)
  2. You distill and refine your expertise (teaching others refines your knowledge)
  3. You reinforce your expertise and establish your authority as an expert
  4. You help advance the practice and the knowledge for others to build on
  5. You help others carry the torch forward

That’s a pretty incredible way to grow and share your expertise with the world.  Knowledge is power.  You can use your power to change the world, one How To at a time.  And, whether you want to write a How To for wikiHow or build your own knowledge base or build out your own platform, How Tos will help you outperform other modes of sharing expertise.

If done well.

Otherwise, it’s just another contribution to the great pool of clutter and fluff.

“Algorithms for Action”

How Tos are algorithms for action.  They are a specific set of steps to perform a task.  Your “Action Algorithm” can change the world.  For example, what if you know the most effective way to dream up new business ideas?  What if you know the most effective way to change a habit?  What if you know the most effective way to influence without authority?

The possibilities are endless.

What Makes a World-Class How To?

It’s not writing and grammar.   It’s results.  The ultimate test is how people can perform a task better with your How To.  That said, let’s do a quick round-up of what sets world-class How Tos apart:

  1. Results.   The proof is in the pudding.    People that use your How To are way better off than those that don’t.  Otherwise, you didn’t really add any value.
  2. The problem you solve.   As I always say, the value of the guidance is the value of the problem solved.  If you want to create more valuable guidance, then solve more valuable problems.
  3. Experience and expertise.   Nothing is worse than a How To written by somebody who hasn’t actually done the task or can’t validate or test it.   Experience always shines through.   The best How Tos compress experience and expertise into a repeatable pattern for action.   As an example, one of my most important How Tos compressed the experience and expertise of more than 30 industry experts into a repeatable approach.  It ended up changing how the experts themselves perform the task, and exponentially improving their efficiency.
  4. Algorithm (“Recipe”).   Your algorithm for action, or your “recipe for results”, is ultimately the differentiator.  The precise set of steps you provide and the way you sequence those is what helps you
  5. Action.  Action speaks louder than words.   The best How Tos provide simple, actionable steps that don’t take a lot of thought, just action.  Believe it or not, this is tougher than it sounds.  You would think it would be easy to “just write what you do” or just “put the steps down.”  It’s tough to actually keep the action steps, simple and concise, and separate from the background information or overview information or conceptual information.  It’s also a challenge to put the action steps at the right-level, especially, if the task is complicated, or high-level, or somewhat general in nature.
  6. Repeatable.   The best How Tos are repeatable.  You can test them.   You can literally run through the steps and produce a result.   And, the result is predictable.  This actually goes back to the point on “Action.”  If you can’t run through the steps without having to do a lot of thinking and interpreting, then the How To isn’t providing enough of a starting point or baseline.  It’s dipping into theory or explanation.   It would be better to factor out all the explanation into an overview article, and refocus the How To on performing the actual steps.   This gives you the best of both worlds.
  7. Structure.  World-class How Tos are structured information.   Going from one to another shouldn’t be a jarring experience.  You should be able to expect a set of steps.  You should expect a simple summary up front so you know what the purpose for the How To is.  The structure of the How To should make it easy to perform the action, because it’s literally a step-by-step recipe for performing the action.

With that in mind, let’s turn this insight into action, and break down the steps for writing a world-class How To …

Steps for Writing World-Class How Tos

Here is a summary of the steps for writing world-class How Tos:

  • Step 1.  Identify a Relevant Problem to Solve
  • Step 2.  Solve the Problem
  • Step 3.  Write the How To in a Repeatable Structure with Steps
  • Step 4.  Validate the How To
  • Step 5.  Test Your How To with Users

Step 1.  Identify a Relevant Problem to Solve

In this step, you identify a meaningful problem or challenge or question to solve.  Make sure that it’s a problem that your intended audience actually cares about.

To do so:

  1. Create a list of goals that  users need to perform
  2. Prioritize and rank the list of goals that users need to perform
  3. Ask your users to prioritize the list
  4. From your prioritized list, choose your best bet that you can make the most impact.

The outcome at this step is a well-named How To, such as:

How To Build Mental Toughness Like a Navy Seal

The title of the How To should reflect a problem that your users care about and is a specific enough goal that you can provide a set of steps for it, and test it, to show that your steps actually produce the result.

Step 2.  Solve the Problem

In this step, you perform the actions to solve the problem.   Before you write down a solution, actually perform the steps to produce the desired outcome or result.   Once you have a repeatable pattern, then write down the steps.

To do so:

  1. Perform the actual task
  2. As you perform the task, write down the actual actions you want users to take
  3. Sequence the actions so that they produce the desired result
  4. Add relevant guidance to help perform the step

Performing the steps helps you build empathy for the challenges that users will hit.  It also helps you pay attention to the actual actions and steps, versus explaining the topic.

Note – In this step, you may need to integrate and synthesis several experts, depending on the problem you are solving, and whether you need more expertise beyond what you’ve got.

Step 3.  Write the How To in a Repeatable Structure with Steps

In this step, you put your information into a well-formed structure to share more broadly.   While there are many templates and variations for How Tos, here is the structure that I developed and frequently use:

Item Description
Title The title of the How To, starting with “How To”.  Example – “How To Invest Like Warren Buffet”
Summary A brief summary of the article in terms of the problem it solves.  The summary should make it clear what it helps the user do and the results they’ll achieve.
Objectives A brief list of specific objectives that the How To helps with.
Overview An overview of the problem that the How To helps solve, and an overview of the solution concept and approach.   This is a great place to call out any caveats or pitfalls to watch out for.
Summary of Steps The list of steps the user will perform.
Step <<N>>. An explanation of the step to be performed.   Each step has its own section.  Each step has a discreet set of instructions for performing the action.
Additional Considerations A list of additional consideration to think about or consider when you apply the How To.
Additional Resources A list of resources that are directly relevant and useful for this particular How Tos.

 

Step 4.  Validate the How To

In this step, you validate your How To.   First validate yourself by performing the steps in your How To.  Next, you validate the solution through “peer review.”   Ask relevant experts to validate your solution, and provide any feedback.

If you do this step well, other experts will acknowledge and appreciate how you’ve captured and shared an elegant solution.

Use questions to help you review your How To to improve the overall quality, and to validate the solution.  Here are questions that you can use to review each item of the How To:

Item Description
Title
  • Does the title distinguish by product or version where possible?
  • Are important nouns a user might scan for towards the left of the title?
Summary
  • Does the summary include key points extracted from the guidance?
  • Does the summary give quick insight into what steps the Tow To helps you perform?
  • Does the summary articulate the proposed solution?
  • Does the summary pass the ‘hallway test’ – would this be your verbal description of the solution?
Objectives
  • Are the most important learnings from the document extracted into the objectives?
  • Is each objective expressed as a specific task?
  • Is the objectives list short enough that it can be easily scanned and understood?
Overview
  • Does the overview provide enough background information to understand why it is necessary to take the steps?
  • Does the overview provide enough information that the module can stand alone?
Summary of Steps
  • Will the set of steps listed solve the problem?
Step <<N>>.
  • Does each step explain what to do, why it is important and then how to take action?
  • If there is a decision point is it called out with an explicit ‘if…’ condition?
  • Is the How To capable of standing alone without requiring the user to search elsewhere to complete the solution?
  • Where appropriate, are there code or configuration file examples?
Additional Considerations
  • Are the consequences of applying this How To considered?
  • Are potential solutions to these consequences outlined?
Additional Resources
  • For each resource you identify, is it directly relevant?
  • For each resource you identify, do you summarize why it’s useful?

Step 5.  Test Your How To with Users

In this step, you test your How To with users.  With a solution under your belt that you have personally validated, and a How To that you have validated with other experts in your field, you now validate with your audience.

Ideally, start with a handful of the most critical users, to address their feedback and improve your How To, before sharing more broadly.   By focusing on a small set of users at first, this will help you dive deeper into feedback.   It will also help you catch mistakes and address usability issues at this stage, that might trip up other users.  After you address your early adopters, you can then share with more confidence to your broader user community.

You user community will be the ultimate test of whether your How To helps them or not.

It’s also worth pointing out that perfection is pointless.  Seek progress, not perfection.  It’s far better to put out a How To that is effective and solves a problem that you can continuously improve over time.

Wrap Up

Expertise is one of your most valuable assets that you can develop throughout your lifetime.   You can make it work for you in multiple ways.   We live in an interesting world where we can rapidly share our expertise around the world in various forms of media.   If you master the How To approach, and can write world-class How Tos, you will take your expertise to the next level, both in terms of your own growth, as well as helping others to benefit from what you have learned.

In a nutshell, you will help others “Stand on the shoulders of giants.”

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Image by Alan Cleaver.

Posted in: Writing

9 Comments on "How To Share and Scale Your Expertise with World-Class How Tos"

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  1. David Zinger says:

    JD: I like your distillation of a how to on how to write how to’s. Seriously nicely done and helpful.

    • JD says:

      Thank you.

      How Tos have really served me well over the years, both to turn insight into action, and to transfer advanced skills.

  2. Nilesh says:

    Hi JD,

    Very nice way of putting “How Tos” Really enjoyed this. And will make use of this structure.

    Cheers
    Nilesh Joglekar

  3. Carlos says:

    Hi J.D., Excellent post! I will try to use that structure and insights. Thanks!

    • JD says:

      Thank you, Carlos!

      The secret of the success is in how you structure and sequence the steps. It’s truly a way to share recipes for results and algorithms for more effective and efficient actions.

  4. Carlos says:

    JD, talking about “How to’s”. I was wondering.. How do you manage your reading list?. I mean, I saw the “Great Books” section on the site, but tracking the books that you plan to read, reflect on the past reading topics, genres, etc in order to be able to see the reading trends or gaps in the things we choose to learn, keep focus, and share with other people could be a challenging task.
    I know that we can choose from Amazon Collections, GoodReads and related sites and tools I thought that you may have an effective way to manage this. Do you have patterns, practices and insigths to share? Let me know your thouths!

    • JD says:

      Hey Carlos — great question.

      To track books, I have a single list in Evernote called “Books to Read.” It includes the books I come across and all the books people recommend to me. I keep it alphabetical by book title so I can scan it quickly.

      Where it makes sense, I add headings to group some of the books under, such as Leadership or Emotional Intelligence. It’s effectively a long list that’s fast to scan, and simple to add to.

      To manage action, and actually read the books, I have separate lists for the month, the week, and each day. I add relevant books to my month, week, or day list, that I want to read.

      To find the best books, I ask my network and quickly find the good stuff.

  5. Carlos says:

    JD, — great answers! Thanks again for the insights.

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