Is there a direct connection between communication skills and the art of successful leadership? Most of us would agree that there is. But is there a direct connection between blogging and leadership? That may be more of a reach.
Can the process of writing a blog help to develop communication skills that will prove useful in leadership? In my opinion the answer is yes, but a qualified yes. Writing a blog won’t help anyone become a good writer who never learned to write competently in the first place. Perhaps even more important, writing a blog won’t help anyone become a thought leader who hasn’t developed any original thoughts.
Communicating a vision
To make a real mark in history, a leader has to communicate a vision that people understand. The vision must be powerful enough to motivate them to follow. In decades past, for instance, the men who became President of the United States typically were graduates of liberal arts education, trained in the arts of debate, oratory, and essay composition. They knew how to make their points.
No matter which end of the political spectrum you favor, most of us would agree that Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were gifted communicators. Though obviously they benefited from the help of speechwriters behind the scenes, both were skillful writers on their own, as proved by their private documents and letters.
Look for instance at President Kennedy’s memorable address on October 26, 1963, at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. Mr. Kennedy took that moment to describe his vision of the arts and their role in a democratic society. “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” the President said. “When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.” He looked forward to “an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.”
Another example of simple yet powerful writing is “A Time for Choosing”, a famous speech that Mr. Reagan delivered on October 27, 1964. Note the date. The speech was given during Senator Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful campaign for President. It predated Mr. Reagan’s own entry into politics by two years, and defined his vision of freedom from the oppressive control of government. “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth,” said the future president. “You and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny.” That speech jump-started his political career.
Fast forward 50 years
Today, of course, many parents steer their children away from liberal arts education and into the so-called “STEM” subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in hopes of giving them a competitive edge in the future job market. Education, even in non-quantitative fields, has moved away from essay examinations to more easily graded multiple-choice examinations. Many students who reach medical school have little experience in writing a structured essay, and even less formal training in grammar and composition. They may never have had their writing critiqued by a professor, let alone blue-penciled by a professional editor.
These issues bring us back to our original question about the potential benefits of writing a blog, and whether it can improve communication skills.
How many blogs now exist in the world? The hosting site WordPress.com alone handles more than 55 million new blog posts each month from about 70 million sites, read by more than 400 million people. Many other hosting sites exist as well. There is nothing to prevent anyone from starting a blog, and at the same time there is no guarantee that anyone will read it. A reader may choose to comment or not, and the comments may range from enthusiasm to polite disagreement to outright vitriol and threats of bodily harm.
Simply put, there are no rules in blogging. No discipline is required other than the will to sit down and write, and there is no mandatory editing process. So the experience of writing a blog may make you a faster writer, or a more prolific writer, but it won’t necessarily make you a better writer. The comments from readers will tell you whether or not they agree with your content, but they won’t provide feedback about your writing in any constructive way.
My experience as a “blogger”
A blog about medicine, or more narrowly about anesthesiology, won’t attract nearly as many readers as a blog written by (or ghostwritten for) a celebrity. At the same time, it’s surprising how far a blog post may reach, in terms of readership, influence, and geographic spread.
I started publishing my blog in 2012 because I wanted a site to house the opinion columns and articles I had already written, as well as a place to publish new ones whenever I felt like it. I already had substantial writing experience as an English major in college, and I had spent a year as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal before medical school. I didn’t want to make a career of writing, but there were things I felt a need to say about medicine and politics.
Typically, the site receives about 1200 visits a week, but sometimes a post will resonate with readers and suddenly attract many more. I’ve received comments from readers in Australia, England, and even Nepal. Readership escalated to more than 23,000 for the month of September, 2014, after I wrote about the airway management issues that might have contributed to the death of Joan Rivers.
To my surprise, the column which has had by far the most “hits” is one that I wrote very quickly one day. I was annoyed at arbitrary “quality” rules that still mandated the use of beta-blockers and ChloraPrep after it was well known that the data underlying the rules were seriously flawed. My counterargument, “Today’s evidence-based medicine may be tomorrow’s malpractice”, generated more than 17,000 hits in one day, and has been viewed nearly 83,000 times. It was reprinted on the California Society of Anesthesiologists’ website, where it has been viewed more than 100,000 times.
It’s possible to write a blog post and reach large numbers of readers without starting your own website. Several large health-related websites, including KevinMD, DocCheck, and The Health Care Blog, accept direct submission of unsolicited articles, and some of them pick up and reprint posts from individual blogs including mine. These sites have a continuous appetite for new content, so well-written submissions stand a good chance of being published.
Speaking for the profession
Any physician who publishes on social media inevitably becomes a spokesperson for the specialty and for the profession of medicine. A number of anesthesiologists generate outstanding work in blogs and podcasts, advancing public knowledge about health care in general and anesthesiology in particular. Some of my favorites include:
- Ed Mariano, MD, MAS: edmariano.com
- Shirie Leng, MD: medicineforreal.wordpress.com
- Marjorie Steigler, MD: http://www.marjoriesteiglermd.com/
- Richard Novak, MD: theanesthesiaconsultant.com
- Frank Sweeny, MD: straighttalkmd.com
If you’re interested in starting your own blog, you may find it worthwhile to engage a professional firm to help with the design, program the backend, and monitor the site for malfunctions and security. This saves a great deal of time, letting you focus on the content, and protecting the site from hackers and spam.
If you want to hone your writing skills, it may be best to take a class where your work will be thoroughly critiqued, or work with a professional copywriter at least while you’re getting started. Remember that you have ultimate responsibility for the originality of the content and for getting your facts straight. Good intentions won’t protect you in the event that serious error or copyright infringement results in legal action.
The steady practice of writing can help anyone develop habits of clear thinking. Reading the work of first-rate writers will improve anyone’s “ear” for exact language and smooth syntax. These skills can be very helpful in the progression toward leadership. Both at the state component society level and at the national ASA level, committees are always in need of members who are able to draft position papers and policy statements. This work in turn can lead to greater responsibility, and open up real opportunity to create and communicate a vision for anesthesiology in the future.
This column appeared first in the July 2016 edition of the ASA Monitor
Thanks for the shout out!. Haven’t written for awhile – you’ve inspired me to get something out there.
I found this article in the ASA Monitor, which led me here to visit your site and the sites of the other great bloggers you listed for us.
Thank you for introducing me to a bevy of talented anesthesiologist writers. I’ll be busy reading for some time.
-Physician on FIRE