Helen Blunden is a modern learning professional who specializes in workforce social learning, collaboration, Working Out Loud, and the effective use of social media. Helen is a passionate and curious advocate of the potential of sharing work and learning which has built her a global reputation and won her the Jay Cross Memorial Award from the Internet Time Alliance in 2016. Helen works through her business Activate Learning Solutions and Adopt & Embrace
How did you get involved with working out loud and what does it mean to you?
I guess I fell into it without realising what it was.
For many years, I had been blogging on a personal blog called Ramblings (and before that I wrote in journals). It was only when I started to focus on writing just about what I was working and learning that I started exploring social media around the same time. I called myself “Activate Learn” and decided that it was time for my blog to move from being personal to focusing on professional and personal development aspects. That gave me the grounding of showing and sharing my work openly and transparently – and it came naturally because it’s easier to write about what I was doing and experimenting.
You’ll note that the majority of my writing is written without the end goal of instructing or educating others. Sometimes I think I’m just writing for myself. That is, it’s not written to educate, to inform, to direct or to tell. It’s simply a collection of random thoughts where I attempt to cobble together some sense to it all. Sometimes I succeed but many times, it just gives me more questions.
When I first heard the term ‘working out loud’, I began to realise this is what I had been doing for many years without having a name to it. To me, it was simply showing people what I’m doing and learning about and how I’m going about doing it and using social tools as the platform to show that work to a wider group of people. In all honesty, I never thought people would pay attention but imagine my surprise when they started replying, posting, commenting, sharing their own ideas. Even better, they started connecting me to their network and linking me to opportunities that would never have come my way otherwise. That’s when I realised its power.
You have great experience working with video as a means of sharing. What led you to practice working out loud in your work in this way?
I’m not a fan of public speaking. In fact, I know that the best way to overcome this fear is to keep doing it – that is, more public speaking. I could have explored clubs like ToastMasters, I could have asked to do more presentations at conferences, or community service groups that I was a member of such as Rotary but part of me didn’t really want to speak publicly – on a stage – with eyes looking at me.
So instead, I tried another approach.
I was seeing the increase of video some years back and I thought it was going to be the natural progression of my blog. But once again, I simply didn’t want to do ‘talking head’ video or vlogging. I wanted to create my day into some kind of story and bring people along the ride. A bit of creative licence. I also wanted to share my own personality in it. I didn’t want to present on camera as a ‘professional thought leader type’ because that’s not who I am. People who know me, know me as someone who likes a laugh, willing to put up their sleeves and has some weird if not quirky observations about stuff in general. I wanted that to come out in my presentations so it meant that I had to be comfortable in front of the camera. Admittedly, the use of Snapchat helped me so much to get the elements of articulating a message in a short period of time plus creating the story line. However, I was also dabbling with my own video stories all of which are on YouTube. Using the camera has allowed me to overcome the fear of ‘eyes watching me’ because I’m just talking into a lens (no people), I can edit my work (reshoot and edit the story as I need to).
Initially, I was editing a lot so in effect, however, in recent times I’ve noticed a VAST improvement in my camera work to the point that I’m now very comfortable in front of it. It was put to the test this year where I was a community reporter for Microsoft Ignite, a technology conference in Orlando. I had to work with a production crew where I was responsible for conducting interviews in real time that were live streamed to a global audience. I had never done that before but I feel that my work – and working out loud through my video over the years – would never have given me this opportunity otherwise and I felt that it actually brought my skills to a whole new level.
I would say to people if there is a skill you need or want to learn, start working out loud with it and be consistent about it. My filming opportunities didn’t come overnight. I’m talking about from the start of video about 5 years ago to now, it’s just been ongoing. Work out loud on something that you love to do – that you WANT to share, that you NEED to share and where you would thrive on getting feedback – negative or positive; and STILL want to work out loud.
This week we are exploring the benefits of working out loud. What benefits have you seen in your work?
As I mentioned before, if I’m entirely honest with myself there is one main thing I have noticed recently.
My confidence in front of the camera. Just looking at myself on camera and also having the feedback from the producer and production crew at Microsoft Ignite made me realise everything I had done to date culminated to this point in time to Ignite.
It somehow made everything that I learned by myself, asking my network or through coaching by people such as Colin Steed at LearningNow TV, my volunteer work on an intergenerational film project to film a short movie that we aired at our local cinema, my creative work on a fake news channel called CNT on Snapchat where I played foreign correspondent Sharon (Don’t Call Me Shazza) Breaknews, watching and learning from the likes of people like Joe Wilson TV, plus learning from video producers on YouTube then just the continual slog of creating video and just putting it out there – whether it was good or bad – the reason why opportunities had come to me. It was a big ‘a ha’ point for me when I started to realise that hell, I’ve put in lots of hard work to get here. It’s been fun but I have a whole heap of people and my network to thank for that.
You have a global reputation in learning, collaboration and community management. What role does working out loud play in that work?
I’d say everything.
I cannot stress the importance of working out loud. Nothing – I mean absolutely nothing – by way of new opportunities, volunteer jobs, work projects, new job roles, people in new industries – these opportunities would NEVER have come my way if I didn’t show and share what I was working and learning on.
People would never have known about it; networks would never have opened up for me; it would have been harder to build trust and reputation.
Believe it or not, I’m an introvert. Going out and networking at events and functions is not my preferred way of meeting people and building networks. The online platform gives me an opportunity to express my voice and ideas in so many different ways. It brings people to me.
People often say to me that they want to focus on getting the best job, finding the right job, getting a promotion or getting into the right school, course or Masters program and then “everything will fall into place because their degree will help them find them work”. I shake my head in disbelief.
What I see is that people have so many great attributes – sure, they may be confused about them initially – or they haven’t refined their goals or what they want to do in their heads. Thing is, neither have I. If we wait until the perfect degree, the perfect job, the perfect skills to start working out loud, we’re missing the point entirely. The idea is to put yourself out there, warts and all, and start sharing how you’re making the mistakes, how you’re learning from them, how open you are to getting feedback and improving on it.
It’s your ticket now to be fearless now, you CAN make mistakes, you CAN show that you’re not perfect and that you don’t worry about what others think.
It’s actually quite liberating to know that we don’t have to be perfect. We can let down the guards a bit.
What’s hardest about working out loud?
The hardest thing for me is the risk and vulnerability of putting myself out there in the open and public networks. You’re also open to criticism from people who don’t understand or think that you’re showing off.
I know many people aren’t comfortable with working out loud on public social networks and instead prefer closed communities with a small group of trusted people.
Personally, this has never worked for me. I need big ideas, ideas that come out of left field, ideas that come from strangers – interaction with people from across different ages, backgrounds, values, perspectives. I want to be constantly surprised, challenged and at times uncomfortable realising that what I’ve put out there is actually seen differently.
This has its positives and negatives. Positive in that it’s actually made me courageous to put my stuff out there (but it could also be an element of age where I’ve reached the ‘grumpy old woman’ stage where I really don’t let what others think of me detract my work) but the negative is that over time, other people are now coming into my story’ and I have to be very careful in what I share in case others don’t want to be unwittingly a player in it.
In recent times, I have noticed people in my field getting off social media, closing accounts, becoming a lot more private and not wanting their work – or their thinking or any of their projects – in my own working out loud activities. I’m unsure how to handle this because it leaves me feeling that there’s two sides to everything here. What one person sees as an opportunity to grow, develop and build new connections another sees as a right to privacy around their work and they reserve the right to share it in their own manner. I think the way ahead is to at least talk about these aspects and understand where both interests lie.
I think we need more people using public networks to show and share their work and open the way for dialogue, conversation and connection. Closing these behind walls or removing yourself from it simply isolates us from one another at a time when we do need to be connected.
But don’t let this stop you. Working out loud – whether you do it publicly like me – or within closed communities behind enterprise walls or within trusted communities is really a personal choice.
Any final advice for others?
Don’t over-complicate matters by reasoning yourself out of it. Don’t over analyse.
Don’t copy others – find your own way and style.
There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. (Heavens forbid you follow a model – you don’t need it).
Use whatever medium works for you expressing your voice in your own way.
Be like a child – just explore, have fun, share it, think about what you’re doing, improve on it, start over, be open to opportunities that will come your way.
Imperfection is perfect.
Keep at it. It never ends.