Most of us are probably an expert in something, and we naturally get questions from people who want to learn more about our area of expertise. It is relatively easy to just jot down a few paragraphs, grab a couple of links and send off that email to the person asking the question. But think about how many times you’ve answered a similar question over the past month or the past year. Those 15 minutes chunks start to add up really quickly when you multiply them out across dozens of requests. That’s where reducing, reusing and recycling your work can have huge productivity benefits over time.
Today, for example, I met with someone who is moving into her first community manager position. After the meeting, I sent what looked like a pretty impressive list of 17 links to relevant information, but it took me less than five minutes to compile what she needed because I had most of it available in canned responses and other online documentation. Being prepared and ready with common answers allows you to be extremely responsive with details and comprehensive answers to questions without spending much time on them at all. Here are a few of the things that I do to reduce, reuse and recycle my work.
Don’t underestimate the power of online documentation. These frequently asked questions are a great way to come up with ideas for blog posts or other documentation that you can reuse over and over. I use my personal blog to publish most of my community management posts, and I have a “getting started” page where I’ve collected the posts that provide a good introduction to community management. A wiki is another good option for reusable documentation when you are working as part of a project, team or online community. The community that I manage has a wiki where we collaborate on FAQs, guidelines, technical documentation and many other documents. When I start to see questions coming up in the community on a common topic, it is often a sign that something isn’t well documented.
After your core set of documentation is established, many individual questions can be answered by sending a link or two. Whether you use a blog, wiki, collaboration tool or website, spending a few minutes writing online documentation now can save hours later when you reuse it again and again.
Once you have a good set of online documentation, you can start organizing it into collections and FAQ documents. I mentioned that I have a “starting point” page on my blog that simply links to collections of documentation, organized by topic. I also do this in the online community with FAQ documents and pages that organize information to make it easier for people to find. In many cases this lets me send people a single link or a couple of links that provide them with a whole collection of information on a particular topic. As I add new content, I go back occasionally to these collections and add additional information or links to some newer documentation on the topic.
When someone emails you with a question and you take the time to put together a complete, thoughtful answer, you should store it as a canned response ready for the next person who asks a similar question. I often use the canned response functionality in Gmail to do this, and your email client might have something similar available, but if not, you can always store snippets of emails for reuse in a text file or your favorite note-taking application. Now, I’m not saying that you should just blast these out to people as-is. I usually take the time to personalize them and add a little more information that is especially relevant to their situation. Each time I use one of these canned responses, I also take the time to see if it needs to be updated with some new information or additional links and then I save those changes for the next time I need to use it.
Most of my canned responses are actually collections of links to online documentation, so three ideas aren’t separate as much as they build on each other. You could also use the same techniques within a corporate environment with private collaboration tools inside your firewall. Whether the information is public or private, having great online documentation formed into collections and used as canned responses to inquiries is a great way to reduce, recycle and reuse your work.
What are your tips for reusing work?
Photo by Flickr user Nick Bramhall used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.
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