How to Add Value to a Discussion

posted in: Digital Skills | 0

Join the conversation!, the Cluetrain Manifesto said. And every year new businesses / bloggers / young professionals hop eagerly aboard, charging into your blog comments / presentations / conferences to say:

“Hi! Great post / talk / point. Could you answer a question you already answered in it? Here’s something you said, restated in a slightly different way. Now, could you do something for me? This task, or that task, that has no clear benefit to you, and by the way, visit my website at Thanks! Great post! Bye!”

Shilouettes of people in a discussion.A-wha? Clearly, this isn’t the way anyone wants to come off, but all too often people in a hurry to “participate” (promote) leave only a sense of vapid selfishness behind, at best annoying those they interacted with.

But there are ways to accomplish your goals and provide value to the people you interact with. The web really is a conversation, sometimes slower paced, sometimes a massive interaction of hundreds of people at once. Just like real conversations, one of the most important things to do before joining in is to listen, and listen carefully. Many of the misguided blog comments I’ve seen don’t even use (or know) the blog author’s name. Listening is about more than understanding the topic; it’s about understanding the speaker’s perspective on it, and opportunities to provide value to both him and his other listeners.

Ways to Add Value

Once you’ve taken the time to be mindful of the context of a conversation, you still have the problem of how to think of something valuable to say. One of the best frameworks is the Six Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?

  • Who? – Putting a human face on a situation, talking about how someone has / is dealing with it. Sometimes who is you; personal anecdotes that illustrate a point from the discussion (or one of your own), are enjoyable to read.
  • What? – Most of the time this is the conversation itself, but sometimes (particularly objective news reports or press releases), there’s opportunity to turn information into meaning. “What does this mean?” is a question many people want answers to.
  • When? – What’s the time context around this topic? Has it come up before? Were there previous discussions / events that you can point out as related? (It’s even better to synopsize points from these previous discussions that haven’t come up in this one.)
  • Where? – What’s the geographic context? Can you provide a local angle / anecdote? Or identify similar conditions that make the topic / event relevant in other locations?
  • Why? – What are the further considerations around a topic (e.g. who gains / loses)? Why is all about using your natural intelligence, logic, and experience to add insight.
  • How? – What led to this? What factors contributed? What is the actual process (if it’s one many aren’t familiar with)?

Essentially, I look for a question that the discussion hasn’t covered yet, and try to answer it. Sometimes it’s valuable just to ask the question, but you have to be more careful with this — it can come across as superior, or imply that the conversation starter hasn’t gone to enough effort to supply more information. They key is to contribute something because you think it will be valuable to those involved, not just to contribute.

Join the conversation. And say something worth hearing.

Update (04/05/10): Browsing through my feeds, I found a video by Darren Rowse of Problogger, energetically providing ideas on the same topic. The last minute or so raises a point I don’t cover in this post, talking about the utility of “What if?” as a way to add value: