As the most followed CFA charterholder on LinkedIn, Eric Sim, CFA, has expertly leveraged social media to connect with other professionals, build his personal brand, and advance his career. In the How to Master Social Media series, adapted from his recent book Small Actions: Leading Your Career to Big Success, Sim shares some critical lessons on how to make social media work for you.
When I was 14, I failed an important English literature exam at my high school. I scored just 28 out of 100, a result that really dented my confidence in my writing abilities. Years later, even after doing well at university, I still thought of myself as a poor writer. Despite this lack of confidence, I’d always wanted to write a blog, but I didn’t know how to start. I asked a food-blogger friend of mine for some advice, but rather than offering encouraging tips, she just told me to “use WordPress” and hinted that I was unlikely to make it as a writer.
I could see why she thought that. While I’m a foodie at heart, if I’d tried to write a food blog it might have been too restrictive because I don’t eat animal organs, caviar, and many raw foods. If I’d blogged about fashion, my readers would have quickly tired of hearing about my white shirts and blue suits. A few friends suggested that I focus on my core expertise — finance and investments — but that might have conflicted with my banking job at the time. Anyway, I still had no clue what WordPress was, and I put my blogging ambitions on hold for a while.
Fortunately, my interest in publishing my ideas online never completely went away. In 2015, I had some time on my hands during the Chinese New Year holiday in Hong Kong, so I convinced myself to post my first LinkedIn article. It took me three days to think about what to write because I kept asking myself, “What’s there to share that’s not already out there on social media?”
After I finally drafted the article, doubts about my own abilities in English made me edit it again and again. As I mustered the courage to click the “post” button on LinkedIn, I worried how my connections — about 300 of them at that time — would view me. Would they laugh at me?
My LinkedIn post was titled “I failed my mathematics exam.” Yes, I failed math the year before I failed English. I got about 100 views and seven likes for my very first article on social media. I was overjoyed because when I was in school, my essays usually had only two views: one from my teacher and the other from me. Neither of us liked what we read!
In the past few years, as my articles received more views and likes, things have begun to change. My American friend, Diana Wu David, who worked for many years in a senior role at the Financial Times, recently complimented me for my excellent writing. Despite receiving this kind of praise from time to time, the 14-year-old boy who failed his literature exam still haunts me today, but he also motivates me to keep improving how I communicate to my followers on LinkedIn.
After writing on the platform for more than six years, I’ve realized that social media readers care about your content more than your language skills, so if English isn’t your forte or your first language, don’t let that stand in your way.
If you want to have a go at writing, you could contribute articles to trade publications in your industry, but publishing on social media is easier and can help you reach a wider audience. You could start on LinkedIn or choose any other channel that suits your needs. No matter the platform, if you become your own publisher, you get to decide what and when to publish.
Here are my top five tips for producing interesting social media content, based on my successes and failures on LinkedIn since I started out.
1. Tell a Personal Story with Universal Application
Our brains are wired to be attracted by narratives, so you should tell stories in your social media posts. Whether they’re Cinderella-style fables or Mission Impossible movies, stories all have these three core elements: (1) setting, (2) conflict, and (3) resolution.
But stories need not be long. The shortest one, generally attributed to US author Ernest Hemingway, has only six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Personal stories, that are relevant to the lives of your connections, usually perform well on social media. It’s your story, so nobody can say if it’s right or wrong.
2. Always Add Value to Readers
Being upgraded to business or first class on a flight may make you feel euphoric, but writing a post about it doesn’t do much for your followers.
To build your brand, you should always add value to them and not just post about the basic facts of an event. If you want to write about the great food you just ate, go behind the scenes. Talk to the chef and take photos of the kitchen. If you want to post about your trip overseas, mention a local friend you met while away and tell people what you chatted about.
3. Start Your Social Posts Strongly
According to a Microsoft study, the average adult attention span was 12 seconds before the social media age, but by 2015 it had fallen to just eight seconds — shorter than that of a goldfish. You should capture readers’ attention with your first sentence.
I once wrote two LinkedIn articles about a Singapore street food vendor who won a Michelin star, and posted them a day apart with similar content, except for the first sentence. Which introduction do you prefer?
“Congratulations to Mr Chan Hon Meng, who was awarded one Michelin star for his chicken noodles . . . ” or “For 30 years, he’s worked 100 hours a week; in the last eight years, he’s been selling chicken noodles for less than US$2 a plate.”
The first post gathered some 700 likes, which is a lot by LinkedIn standards. But the second one attracted more than 90,000. That just shows the power of starting your post with a bang.
4. Use Dialogue
Try to use conversations within stories to bring events to life and pull the reader into your world. The dialogues I include in my stories tend to be about everyday situations. Several of my LinkedIn readers have told me that these conversations help them visualize the settings or scenarios I’m describing.
In the following example from LinkedIn, I used dialogue to illustrate how impressed I was with the service at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong. As I walked into the hotel’s grand club lounge, and before I sat down, the service person asked:
“Yes,” I replied, pleasantly surprised.
“Wow! You remember my order from yesterday!”
I then described the cheerfulness and the willing-to-go-the-extra-mile attitude of Warren, who had recently come to Hong Kong from Mauritius to work in the hospitality industry. But my readers could already see that for themselves because they’d been drawn into our conversation.
5. Do Interesting Things Offline
It’s difficult to post original and engaging stories and images, if you’re not doing anything compelling in your offline life. Only by constantly trying new things can you have new experiences and perspectives to share with your social media audience.
In recent years, I’ve spoken to small shop owners to seek out their stories, attended videography classes, and tried out audio-chat apps when they were still in their beta versions. You should choose your own new adventures and create your content around them. Producing content for social media still isn’t always straightforward for me, but I’ve learned many lessons.
In the final installment of the How to Master Social Media series, I’ll explain how to build your following on LinkedIn.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
Image courtesy of Eric Sim, CFA
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How to Master Social Media: Five Tips for Writing Well is written by Eric Sim, CFA for blogs.cfainstitute.org