In this episode, Cedric Chin shares how “earned secrets” are at the core of creating viral, thought leadership content. He shares his process for writing long-form articles and stresses how consistently publishing on a schedule can help build readership.
0:30 – Who is Cedric Chin?
1:45 – What is Commoncog about?
9:59 – Definition of “going viral” and thought leadership
11:07 – Four types of thought leadership according to Ryan Law
12:25 – Example of a viral “Yes, and” article Cedric wrote
15:14 – Example of a viral article challenging a truism
21:48 – The “ripple effect” of viral content
26:27 – Cedric’s most viral articles and how he identifies viral potential
36:08 – Cedric on why he aims to always share his “earned secrets”
39:38 – Intermission questions
44:30 – Cedric explains his process for writing long-form articles
52:09 – What beginners get wrong about writing high-quality thought leadership content
57:44 – Cedric recommending the Poynter writing tools course
If you’re a news or media publication running on WordPress, check out Newsletter Glue. It cuts your newsletter publishing time in half and enables you to manage your entire newsletter ops in WordPress. Go to newsletterglue.com to learn more.
Welcome to Sticky, the podcast that helps you build a must subscribe, must read newsletter through actionable case studies and playbooks. Today’s guest is Cedric Chin. Cedric writes Commoncog, a prolific blog about business expertise where he dives deep into both academic literature and the practices of experts in their fields. I had the joy of getting to know Cedric over COVID. He first DM’d me to chat about marketing, which led to an hours long Zoom call, which led to an hours long walk.
and we’ve been friends ever since. In this episode, I chat with Cedric about making content go viral. The big takeaway from this episode is the concept of earned secrets. This is a juicy, actionable secret you can only get from being neck deep in an area of expertise. The best earned secrets, like any secret, is super shareable, and that’s a big part of why content goes viral. There are so many armchair experts these days spouting business platitudes,
But Cedric writes from his experience managing a software company in Vietnam and isn’t afraid to read thousand-page tomes or spend months interviewing leaders to bring you the best, most actionable advice on business expertise. We dig into all that and more on today’s episode, so let’s get to it. Hey Cedric, so glad to chat with you. I’m very, very happy to be here and I’m very excited to talk about some of the topics and questions that you have because I rarely get the opportunity to nerd out about some of these things.
sort of like the meta take on how do you produce good content, how do you write a good newsletter. These are things I think a lot about but I don’t write about them because that’s not the topic of my website, my blog, right? So this is incredible and incredible opportunity and I can’t wait to talk about it. So let’s kick things off by talking about what exactly Commoncog is. I know it’s a blog and it has paid subscriptions. Can you tell us more? Oh.
Yeah, that’s easy. Commoncog is a blog and it used to be about career, better career decision-making. So I used to talk a lot about how do you think about your career and stuff like that. And originally I started it as a sandbox for learning how to do content marketing. But eventually I began to use it as a way to sort of interpret my business experiences. And I think you’ve sort of alluded to it. I went to Vietnam and…
I helped run the engineering office for the Singapore company. And we were exposed to very savvy business people in the region. These people were not educated. They were incredibly good at business. They would run circles around us. And over time, the blog eventually became more and more about how do you get good at business? Like, how do these people get good at business? They don’t have formal education. They don’t even know what an MBA is probably, or like the inside of an MBA course, right? But they were really good at business, better than my boss, better than me.
And so what is it exactly does it mean to be good at business and what exactly does it mean to get good at the expertise of business? And so what the blog is right now, it’s very much an exploration of business expertise, right? It’s two major components, which is how do you get good at business and what does that mean? But also, what does the science and practice say of accelerating expertise? And that, I think, is something that we’ve bonded over quite a lot because, you know, you think a lot about business.
And we also, due to our shared experiences, not shared experiences, you have sport experiences, I have experienced in a different sport. I do judo, you do ultimate very, very, probably at a, actually at a level much higher than me. And we think a lot about expertise development, like, and how does it apply to our business careers, our business lives. So that’s, I think, why we get along so well, why we always have things to talk about. And very much Commoncog is just like that, like with the Dow, turn to 11.
because I have no word limit and my essays can go very long and I can spend a month digging into, here’s what we currently know about this particular aspect of expertise collaboration, or this particular aspect of business, and here are all my doubts, and here are the ideas. And usually six months later, I come up back and say, oh, I’ve actually put into practice in this business context, and here’s what happened. Here’s what I found out. Here’s what’s difficult. So very much, Commoncog is…
A friend sort of put it to me, it’s like it’s Harvard Business Review written by one guy with every idea vetted true and tested against reality.
Nice. That’s a great way to put it. And on the business side of things, Commoncog is a membership site. How does that work? Yes, it is. So I stumbled into this business model purely by accident, but basically sometime in 2020, I turned on the membership feature of the blog. The blog is hosted on this software called Ghost, which has this built in. And a business mentor sort of pointed out to me that the whole Substack Revolution thing was going on.
I had no idea what’s happening, right? I was sort of like stuck in the middle of the global lockdown and very depressed. And then a business mentor did a call with me and said, Hey, you know, you should, the stuff you’re writing is amazing. You should consider turning on memberships. It’s definitely a possible thing to do now because this is so Substack thing that’s going on during the COVID pandemic. And I turned it on and it took a while to figure out the right sort of gatekeeping model.
But eventually what I settled on was every alternate week is a members only blog post. So this week will be free and publicly available, and then I can have the next post be gated for members and it alternates every week. And then it allows me to play interesting games where I write a series of deep dives into some set of ideas, and I purposely tune the public ones to be more likely to go viral, and then the nerdy implementation practical bits where I go really deep.
that tends to be the members only stuff. So that’s how I currently think about it. And the blog has done well enough that I basically can live off of it and I’ve stopped doing much consulting work. I used to do a fair amount of consulting work. I still take on consulting projects if it is interesting and I think I can learn a lot and put a lot of ideas to practice, but that has been rarer and rarer over the past couple of months.
It’s so cool to hear you talk through the membership and how you’ve done the gatekeeping because it sounds so obvious and elegant, but I can imagine how much effort you have to go through to get to that obvious and elegant place. Yeah, I think the mistake that people think about business is that you can plan everything in advance. And very much it’s…
throwing things at the wall and looking at what sticks. But the trick of course is that you do want to throw things at the wall slightly intelligently. I think all of us know people who, they just randomly flail around and then you sort of look at their history and you like, wow, you’ve not actually done much. Like you’ve spent a huge amount of energy and not accomplished very much over the last five years or something like that, right? And you want to.
one of the early questions that I tackled in the blog, and I still don’t really have a good answer because this is one of these eternal questions. It’s like exactly how much flailing around should you do? You don’t want to sit and think too much, but at the same time, you don’t want to take too much action and not be thoughtful about the iterations and the trial and error cycles that you do. This is very much consistent with everything that we’ve learned about business. Basically if you spend any amount of time digging into business history or listening to business stories…
every innovative thing in business or thing that has been found to work has always been a trial and error process. And I wouldn’t say that this model is perfect as well, right? I know that, for example, I think it was Chris Best, is it Chris Best? The CEO of Substack has said that you want your best content to be free and then the gated stuff is not as good as the free content, right? Because that sort of works with the dynamics of newsletters, which is that you want to grow the readership of the newsletters as much as possible.
And the gating part is just sort of like, there is content stuff that it’s not the best, but it is valuable. And so that’s the way he thinks about it. And I’ve been chewing on that sort of observation for a bit. I’m not sure how to think about it.
Yeah, I think your way of doing it where the actionable stuff, you know, the level deeper is behind the paywall makes a lot of sense because, you know, 99% of people are not going to take action, they’re not going to care, they’re just going to read it and be like, oh cool, viral piece, and then move on with their lives. And then the ones who are interested are exactly the kinds of people who are willing to pay, and so it makes complete sense for them to then upgrade and pay. Yeah.
Yeah, I guess so, but we’ll see. I probably have to continue experimenting, right? In the spirit of good business. Yeah. So speaking of viral, that’s kind of the main thing that we are going to talk about today, which is, how do you write? So the types of articles that you write are typically thought leadership articles. You go deep on a specific topic, and you talk about what experts in the field are doing, what they’re
the literature is saying, and you know, it’s the kind of article that you literally cannot get anywhere else unless you’re willing to read the dry academic literature or you happen to randomly know top CEOs and know in the first place what questions to ask them. I want to begin by asking, you know, what thought leadership means and also what viral means because those two definitions like can mean a lot of different things to different people.
And so let’s get on the same page and learn what that means to you. So I’m going to steal the definition and frameworks from this content marketing agency called Animalz. That’s quite famous. Animalz of a Z. And Ryan Law is the name of the guy, Law as in L-A-W. And he sort of defined.
taught leadership in a way that I thought was incredibly concise and incredibly accurate. And it’s basically taught leadership is any content that has an earn that shares an earn secret. So it is something that you have to figure out by going out into the world or and doing some kind of work together at that secret, right? It could be a viewpoint, it could be a set of experiences that you have to go in and do or it could be like some knowledge that only exists in the heads of people who are experts.
He gives a slightly more sort of rigid framework, right? He said that there are basically four sorts of major types of thought leadership. And I don’t fully agree. I think that there are more flavors to it, but I think it’s a good starting point. So let’s talk about them first, right? Four big ideas for thought leadership. Thought leadership is sharing and earn secret. One is ‘Yes and’ one is challenging truisms. Another one is sharing personal experiences, because this truly is an earn secret. You can only earn…
certain insights about the world by going out into the world and doing things. And then the fourth one is like analysing events, which I think should be quite self-explanatory, right? Like it’s an earned secret because you’ve taught through, given who you are, the unique angle that you have on the world, and you can interpret like something that’s happening and people will pay attention to you because of who you are and the past experiences you’ve had. Man, I love this breakdown of thought leadership and I’m definitely going to link to it in the show notes.
From what I know, the two types of thought leadership that you mainly write about is the ‘Yes, And’ framework, as well as the Challenging a Truism framework. Can you share a little bit more about how you use those frameworks in your articles and how that has led to you going viral? You have a Yes, and sort of, yes, this is true. And in addition to that, here are a couple of things that you don’t, that people don’t normally talk about.
And the reason this works is because it talks about something that is popular and proven. And so people are biased, sort of like, yeah, yeah, I agree with it, right? And then you go, and here is a few quirks of problems that you might not realize until you put it to practice. So an example of this from my own personal sort of history of articles would be putting Amazon’s PR FAQ to practice. And the, so the PR FAQ is an Amazon practice where if you want to launch a new product, you should write a PR FAQ.
before you start investing resources and actually executing on the product. And they criticize at the level of the PR FAQ before they sort of like argue or tell you like you should go and execute it or not. And as I learned from talking to various Amazonians including Colin Breyer who was there when the process is invented, very much the very often the iteration on the idea happens at the PR FAQ level not at the project level. Now
Pure FAQs have been around as an idea for an incredibly long time. And if you go and Google it, I think way back even in 2009 or 2010, which is when I first heard of this idea, people have been writing about this for ages because Amazon has been around for ages and people who have worked at Amazon and who have been exposed to this idea has been around for ages. Right. So this is a very, at this point, if you’re, if you know anything about business or you read anything about business, you would probably be exposed to the idea. But how do you actually put it to practice? Right.
there have been remarkably few pieces out there that talk about what is the lived experience of writing a PR FAQ. And if you actually try to put it to practice, you will find that it is bloody hard. And so I wrote about this, it took me around eight months to sort of like get the PR FAQ to work for me. And then I could sort of see like the limitations as well as the value of the process as well. And it’s not very obvious that you can iterate at the PR FAQ level.
And most people who try it, they are so uncomfortable with being punched in the face by the PR FAQ. So a lot of these arguments don’t actually make sense. Like, oh, it only works for a big company like Amazon, or it only works for startups. It doesn’t work for startups, but Amazon had to invent AWS from scratch. It’s not something that’s a startup origination problem that would be the same regardless of whether you’re a tiny company trying to do it or whether you are a big company. All right. So that’s an example of a Yes, Anne article.
Right? And I went through that incredibly long example to sort of show you like the kind of value, why it can go viral, because it’s taking an idea that people are familiar with and then like really going into like, yes, and, and here are things that you’ve not thought about. And then that prompts people to share, right? Because it’s, it’s, oh, do you know about this, you know, this, this angle to this thing that we all agree on and like. This next one is challenging truisms. Right? And so the one that I wrote that went viral is ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held’ Doesn’t Work That Well.’
And in that particular case, you’ve got a popular truism that many people think is true. And then you’re like, no, actually it’s not true. Right. ‘Strong Opinions, Weakly Held’ is often used as an excuse to come up with your own strong opinion and then cover your ass if it turns out to be wrong. Right. And so I think the alternative method of saying like, I am 60% confident in this. Uh, it matches the way most people’s brains work. And that this is the sort of strong result that comes out of a lot of work, specifically around Philip Tuttlock’s, uh, who is this.
psychology professor. Well, he’s most famous for doing forecasting tournaments and then like proving that a lot of expert political forecasters are worse than a chimpanzee throwing dots at a wall. Right. So the big finding there is that if you actually force yourself and everybody in your group to sort of say calibrated statements like I’m 60% confident in this, right, you actually produce better thinking. Anyway, so that’s like the second one.
Key Takeaway: So I really wanted to highlight and call out what Cedric is doing here because at the start of his definition on thought leadership, he said that it was an earned secret. And basically what he’s sharing with us right now is an earned secret, right? Because he talks about what thought leadership is and, you know, what the original Animalz blog post talked about. But then he then goes into the earned part of the secret because he shares his experience with writing.
‘Yes, and’ articles and why they’re useful and why they go viral. As compared to, you know, he could have very easily just said, I got these ideas from the Animalz blog post, this is the breakdown, then moved on. And by not doing that, he really fills in the blanks for us. Instead of giving us the point form definition, we now have so much more nuance and really understand the shape around how thought leadership, ‘Yes, and’ articles work. And I think that’s really powerful.
So we’re going to come circle back to all of that, but now can I get your definition on viral? Okay, so I don’t have a good definition of viral. I’m just going to describe what going viral feels like. So the metric that I use is usually on a weekly cadence, and the reason for that is because usually the article goes viral in one medium. For me, a lot of it happens to be Hacker News.
but occasionally it goes viral, say on Twitter, or it goes viral on a newsletter that is very widely read, particularly, I think in the past, newsletters that are very widely read with high open rates do sort of push this viral effect. And the way that I know that things are going viral, not only is it a visitor spike, but then I start seeing sort of mentions in social media. So, and I see a spike in…
people sharing on Twitter, traffic coming in from Facebook, traffic coming in from Facebook Messenger, Facebook traffic coming in from LinkedIn. And this is usually a ripple effect that happens after the initial sort of like platform share, right? So there’s usually like a spike from one initial platform share, and then there’s a ripple effect as people dance, sort of like are exposed to it, and then they share on various mediums. And this usually lasts three days, three to four days. And that’s why I sort of…
when I count the impact of a viral piece, I look at the overall week because there are ripple effects. What I found is also is that, for example, on an Android phone, there usually is a page where they show trending articles or links. I find that Google somehow is able to pick that, oh, this article is actually trending right now, and then they show it on people’s Android phone homepages or whatever. Oh, wow. There’s like a-
usually an uptake in number of you can tell from like the URLs right because these are specific I can’t remember the exact shape of the the URL now because for variety of reasons I switched from Google Analytics recently to PostHog but you can tell like oh there’s this like extra source of traffic which normally doesn’t exist right it’s totally random so that’s what viral feels like and Commoncog for contacts I mean at this point like
Various articles have gone viral again and again, sometimes multiple times in the same week that I’m sort of like, eh, okay, it’s happening, right? I put out some stats for you before this podcast. It’s like, I think 16 times over the past two years, which means I average around twice a quarter. And then the average traffic bump from these viral spikes is like additional 16 to 25,000 sessions per viral event. On top of…
the average weekly visitors that Comic Con gets, which is around 4,000. And these numbers are not very large, especially compared to more prominent publications. But what I really care about is the quality of the people who find the piece, because they are the ones who become newsletter subscribers, then they become sticky readers, and then eventually they pay for a membership. And I care about more, I think, than most people, I care about people who are good at business, who meet a certain bar, who are either…
tech executives or hedge fund managers, I mean, investors or consultants to these people. And they tend to make for the best members. There are two things that I kind of want to dig a little deeper on with regards to going viral. I think it was Ahrefs, but it could have been someone else who talked about what going viral actually looks like. I think they like graphed the traffic sources.
or something like that. And I love the way that you use the word ripple, because that’s kind of what they saw as well. Because I think it’s a common misconception from people that viral is this one-to-one-to-one-to-one-to-one kind of chain reaction that spreads out over time. But actually what it is, is one-to-one-to-many. So…
So, you know, a traffic source with a huge subscriber list or huge audience. And then that has that ripple effect that you were talking about. And then that ripple effect potentially leads onto another source with a huge audience and on it on that way. So it’s a bunch of huge, you know, stones thrown in a lake and then all the ripple effects from there rather than sand that you throw into the lake. And it’s like a whole bunch of tiny dots. Yeah.
I can give a concrete example of this, which is, so there was this article that I wrote called Don’t Read History for Lessons and it went viral on Hacker News initially and then it got picked up on Twitter. Some people started sharing on Twitter and then it got picked up by FinTwit, which is the portion of Twitter that is finance professionals, hedge fund managers and stuff. And then one, probably the top finance podcast in the world, Invest Like the Best featured it on Dell Newsletter.
So it was the number one link. And then from there, it went into a Bloomberg newsletter. So it was literally in the Bloomberg newsletter. I was like, wow, that’s actually pretty impressive. Like Bloomberg is mainstream media, right? And so you can sort of see the impact being shared. And I’m fairly certain as well that some of the articles and links to my articles are shared on private investor chats. And I’m not surprised if they’re shared in
private investor groups like maybe through the Bloomberg terminal or something. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised given the way some of these articles sort of spread through these various communities. Yeah. It’s really cool to kind of see that whole chain reaction, big bombs type of- Very common. Yeah. And the other thing that I wanted to mention with virality is, virality is subjective, right? So if you are a consumer focused publication, then virality might mean millions of people. That’s true. But-
In your case, you are not consumer focused. So virality means like your total addressable audience is much smaller. And so you hitting a hundred percent of your total addressable audience might actually look very different from someone who’s writing about food, right. Or something, some, you know, Marvel movie or something like that. And so I think like it’s important to be contextual around virality. Um, also like, you know, if you’re, if you are.
working at a company or something like that. And you have, I think this is really outdated, like maybe 10 years ago this was happening, but on the off chance it’s still happening today where you have bosses who are like, oh, we want our things to go viral. And in their mind, viral equals 1 million or more views or something like that. Like, I think it always has to be tied to who your audience is and like what the actual audience size is. Yeah, I would…
modify your sentence to say, total addressable market for the market for your content. And the reason I’m so precise is because articles can go even, so I’m a blog post, right? I mean, I write blog articles, right? And it’s clear that the average sort of range for a piece going viral is between 6,000 and 25,000. The reason because is that the pieces that I read are difficult to read.
I mean, I try to make it entertaining. And most people will say like, for the ideas that I covered, I’m usually the easiest piece to read, right? But it’s not easy to read in a general sense, right? So a more typical business piece that’s sort of written in a more dumb way with like really easy to digest ideas that are actually not very valuable, not very practical, they can go, I think way more, maybe a hundred thousand views, right?
And I’m not going to name names, but I think you know what some of these pieces look like. They’re like, oh, like, you know, they’re basically the article version of the Twitter thread of like, oh, 10 wasted entrepreneurs, like found their big idea. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s really viral. It can go really viral because it’s very popular. Okay. This is the lowest common denominator. It’s the kind of content that you see Twitter bros, like sort of writing treads about, right. And they’re completely useless, completely not practical. And but they go way more viral.
It’s just that the audience value is much lower because these people that read the article aren’t as valuable as actual practitioners that I care about. And so, yes, there’s total addressable market, but then total addressable market for the kind of content that you’re writing. And the feedback that I get regularly about Commoncog is that people, even regular readers of Commoncog, they have to make time in their schedule to read Commoncog because the ideas that I cover are not easy.
The writing is easy, it goes down easy, but the ideas are not easy. Uh, so, so that’s something that, uh, we also have to keep in mind. I think when we’re talking about this, this topic. Yeah. That’s really valuable. To me, one of the hallmarks of expertise is replicable success. And, um, one of the things that you mentioned just now is that you’ve gone viral several times and it’s kind of almost averaging once per quarter in the past two years. Twice per quarter. Yeah.
Can you share a little bit more about your most viral articles and which ones they were? And how do you get a sense of, oh, this one’s going to go viral, or this kind of topic, if I write it in this kind of way, it’s more likely to go viral? So I dug up some numbers before you came up with the… When you asked me to prepare for this podcast, I did look up some numbers, but I didn’t spend the time to sort of…
rigorously track which article was the most viral. I know certain articles stayed on top of Hacker News more than most. I can’t for the life of me remember it now. And part of it is because I was not very data-driven in the past, but recently I’ve been doing a business series on becoming data-driven, and I’m more data-driven now. So if we do a podcast in a year’s time, I probably will be able to give you these answers. But sort of going digging into the numbers, I think the most recent very viral piece that…
resulted in a bump to 30,000 readers, 30,000 sessions was Goodhart’s Law is not as useful as you might think, and I think you can go there if you go to the Commoncog front page, it’s still on the front page somewhere, it’s not that far long ago, right? Goodhart’s Law isn’t as useful as you might think, that’s the name of the article, it’s a very long article I think, not the longest that I’ve ever written but it’s fairly long, and the fact that it’s gone viral tells you something about the topic.
And this is, if you want to slot it into Ryan Law’s thought leadership framework, this is very much sort of like tacking a, what do you call it? Well, it’s not really a guess. And it’s basically disproving a truism, right? It’s basically saying that, hey, there’s this thing called Goodhart’s law, which is that a very old famous saying, saying that like when a measure becomes a target, the measure ceases to be a good measure. And I’m sort of pointing out like, look guys, like.
Yeah, that may be true, but it’s totally useless. What can you do if you’re a manager in a company trying to create this set of incentives? How do you prevent Goodhart’s Law? It doesn’t tell you how to do that. It just tells you, oh, there’s a thing. And then I then pull back the curtain and say, you do realize that there is a body of knowledge called statistical process control that was developed in the 1930s and put into practice during World War II that
They have come up with principles for how do you avoid this? And it is well known and well used in any sort of like manufacturing context, which is where SPC came from. And somehow we seem to have missed the memo, right? And then here, and these are the principles, here’s what it is. And here is what it looks like in practice. And then I go in depth into an example in with Amazon’s weekly business review practice, which has sort of taken these principles and really.
figured out how all the implications on how to apply it to a tech company. So this went massively viral. Again in the ripple effect way that I told you about. It was a HackerNews I think for a very long maybe like nearly a 24-hour period I think and a lot of people sort of like, holy shit, this is actually how you can do a metrics review and avoid many of the pitfalls of driving incentive driven behavior or driving a metric.
So that’s one example. There have been a couple of other examples that the traffic spikes aren’t as large. Forgive me, what was the original question again? Like you want me to talk through some of- The question is just kind of… Okay, so the question is, like, how do you get a sense of taste around viral articles? Because there’s obviously something that you know that you can consistently reproduce.
You know, most people, they have one viral thing in their whole life and it was something that they were completely not expecting and it goes viral and then that’s for the rest of their lives the most viral thing that ever happened to them. But for you, you are able to replicate it every other week, every month and so on. And so there’s obviously something that you know. Right. Yeah, I’d love to kind of get a sense for…
how you’re looking at it, how you’re making things go viral. Right. So I want to call out there is a dynamic here that benefits from having gone viral in the past, which is that in Hacker News, you get lots of points if you put an article that gets upvoted to the front page. And people have this incentive. And so I think for a certain group of my readers who are also Hacker News, people
They know that my articles are more likely to get viral than most. And so there’s a race, there’s always a race every time I publish for somebody to submit it to Hacker News because they might get all the karma. There’s definitely this dynamic going on because like the number of times I go viral on Hacker News, it just increased over the years, like the frequency and the periodicity between, but so that’s one piece, right? And I don’t want to lie when I did this, so I did consulting for a company called Holistics and I did get them to go viral a couple of times.
But it took the first time it went viral on Hacker News specifically. But Holistics is a business intelligence software. So it’s more a SaaS context, a SaaS content marketing context. Sorry for readers who are listeners who don’t know. SaaS is software as a service. Software as a service, content marketing context. It took me a year before they could go viral on Hacker News, after which it’s like a dam has been broken. And it was within the next year. I think it went viral twice in six months or something like that. It becomes more and more frequent the more and more.
brand perception, brand recognition that people have. And I’m certain that people do at this point are able to recognize the Commoncog site design and the URL because eventually they start developing an association with like, oh, this is Commoncog. Probably will be super long, but they will be worth it to read. Now, so that’s one piece. There’s this path dependent piece that you have to be very clear when you’re starting to build like this viral strategy that you have to slog for a really long time and then it sort of compounds after a while.
Newsletter Glue cuts your publishing time in half by enabling your team to publish newsletters the way you publish articles in WordPress. Find out more at newsletterglue.com. Now back to the episode.
The other piece is that everything that I wrote that went viral does fit into Ryan Law’s thought leadership framework. So it’s either a ‘Yes, and, or it’s tackling altruism, or it’s sharing personal experiences, or it’s analyzing events. And I don’t really do analyzing events, so I can’t really talk to that. But I can talk about personal experiences. Sometimes I will admit that I can’t predict what goes viral. So when I went off and did a four-month deliberate practice experiment training every day to see if I can…
speed up my judo skill, which you are a part of because you are, you know, you’re one of my friends who are, who is a really top notch coach. And so I asked you for advice during that period. So you were there every part of that journey. But when I wrote the piece, sort of like announcing that I was doing this thing and actually it was prompted by you, you sort of pushed me to say you should go write this piece because training is difficult and you might not be able to publish as much over the next couple of weeks in the lead up to the competition. When I published that piece, I did not expect it to go viral, but it did. And…
So as much as I like to take credit for being able to develop a sense for which pieces go viral, very often things that I don’t expect to go viral goes viral, or things that I expect to go viral doesn’t go viral. So there is an element of mystery, and it’s not a 100% hit rate. But broadly speaking, the…
once that where I have a very strong feeling it will go viral do eventually go viral and that usually tends to be when the the sense of an earned secret is incredibly powerful so it’s now it’s probably a good thing that I went into that whole tangent about the Goodhart’s law piece because in that particular piece my sense of this is a earned secret that not many people know about people always talk about Goodhart’s law they think that it makes them sound very intelligent like oh you know we need to be careful about misaligned incentives yeah so what
If you are in a business context, what are you going to do? Right? Like I don’t care that the effect exists. I care about how do you solve for the effect. And everybody doesn’t seem to take the extra step of like, how do we solve Goodheart’s Law? They just say, oh, Goodheart’s Law exists, which is useless, right? And so the fact that I uncovered, hey, there’s actually this whole body of work and it’s not just an entire body of work. It’s a body of work that has been around for like seven decades. And they’ve worked this all out. And there are multiple instantiations in multiple companies throughout history. And all of you are blind.
Like you don’t even know that this exists, right? And Amazon has figured it out, guys, right? So that was a sense that this is definitely gonna go viral because I think this is hugely valuable. This really breaks apart a sense that people have of this commonly known effect, the Goodhart’s law effect and really is generally valuable and gives people a new way to think about creating incentives in their companies. So.
That’s basically, if you boil it down to it, it’s when the sense of the shared secret is incredibly strong and you know it’s useful and valuable. Man, I love that. I’ve never heard of it articulated like that before. So this itself is an earned secret to me. Yes, it is. So yeah, that’s awesome. Does that mean that every time you write something you’re trying to write from the perspective of sharing an earned secret? Yes. I mean, that is…
primarily why people continue to read Commoncog even though it’s difficult, even though it’s hard. I’ve had a reader say to me that he actually makes time on the weekend to read the piece for the week because it’s not easy to work through the ideas, right? I want to be useful. I want to write stuff that is useful and when you want to write stuff that is useful, very often you are forced to go into unsecrets.
because very often platitudes or truisms in business, they may be true, but people don’t take the time to express exactly how true it is. So it’s wanting to sort of say, you need to prioritize in a way that, sorry, I’m introducing a new idea here. I know this is gonna take a bit of time, but I think it’s valuable. Like for example, one of the things that every business operator,
learns is prioritization is important. And it’s not just prioritization that’s important. If you get one or two things, the most important things, really right, it doesn’t matter that everything else screws up in your business. You will succeed. And this sense is very easy to say, but very difficult to communicate in a way that’s visceral, and in a way where you work out all the implications of this in your day-to-day life. It is easy to say the principle. The fact that I just
operator who has run a business or run a portion of a business as a responsibility for… There’ll be nothing, right. But then they don’t actually think about how should this change the way I think about my projects or the way I think about planning my week or the way I think about firing people, right? Because there are implications for all of these things. And really good business people will be able to tell you like, this is, these are, it makes sense, it’s common sense because if this is true, then you must do all these other things, right? And so teasing that apart, making that explicit.
because then I believe it’s useful, because most people don’t actually do the sort of thinking necessary to say, oh, if this is true, then I need to change the way I approach hiring and marketing and X, Y, Z. They don’t put in their work, but then the people that I admire the most and my business mentors tend to do the work. So making that explicit and translating that into the written word is sort of, it’s useful, and it just happens to also fall into the.
framework for top leadership, which is that it’s an earned secret, which means it’s more likely to be shared, it’s more likely to go viral. You’re making me rethink how I approach this podcast as well. I think intuitively this was what I was trying to do, but without having the vocabulary and without having it laid out for me so clearly, I was kind of like bumbling around. This is the value of coming out, right? Yeah. And it actually explains why your podcast, I believe, is really good.
I felt when I was listening to your podcast, and I was gushing over it, over chat with you, for context listeners, I published a podcast recently about Lesley, with Lesley as the guest, and I was the host, and we were not talking about business, we were talking about her experiences as an ultimate coach. And a lot of the insights that she had are earned secrets. A lot of the insights that you shared are earned secrets that people don’t know, and people don’t think as rigorously and as deeply about coaching and teaching and accelerating skill as you have, right?
So that’s why I felt that it was incredibly valuable. I was very, very happy with that podcast. The only problem is that the medium doesn’t go viral. Podcasts don’t go viral. They have very slow burn sharing. I wouldn’t be surprised if like over the next couple of months, multiple people in the ultimate world championship scene eventually all hear the podcast. So. Oh, then they’ll be horrified. Try not to think about it. Because I know you, I know you would be horrified by that, but like, yeah.
So we’ve had a lot of fun diving deep into the definitions of thought leadership and going viral. So I think what we need now is a break. Cedric, I’m gonna ask you a bunch of quick questions and you can answer them in one word or a sentence. So question one, Vietnam or Singapore? Ooh, this one is terrible. Um, it’s Vietnam or Singapore. Can I say both? I like the chaos of Vietnam.
Singapore can be a bit too clean and sterile. I like the freedom of going around on motorbikes in Vietnam, right? And the traffic is incredibly insane, which also adds to that chaos. And there’s something enjoyable about that. But at the same time, there is some things that are nice, like the cleanliness of Singapore and the olderliness of Singapore when you’re doing business in Singapore. What you see really is what you get. In Vietnam, it very often is not the case that what you see is what you get.
you very often meet there’s like the official way to do things and then there’s like the hidden local secret back channel Possibly corrupted way of doing things You have to be prepared for such things right? But as Singapore is like it’s all like if it’s if you can see it on a website and follow a process on the website It’s likely to work exactly as the government website describes it. So that’s awesome. And of course Singapore I’m Malaysian. I grew up in Malaysia and Singaporean food is of course awesome
Vietnamese food is healthier. Still awesome, really awesome. But like, you like what you grew up eating, right? So there’s that. Yeah. All right, question two. Bubble tea or burgers? Bubble tea. Because I think I like burgers a lot, and, but…
Every time I eat a burger, I’m happy for the first few bites and I’m sick of the burger and I don’t want to eat burgers for a couple weeks. Whereas bubble tea is incredibly sinful and somehow when you drink bubble tea today, you can still want to drink bubble tea tomorrow. Okay, assuming you’d be top 1% in skill level, no matter which you pick, would you rather be a professional judo athlete, a business writer, or a CEO of a software company? Uh, judo athlete. Because it is
I really understand the… I think I understand the skill tree in judo more than most and it is incredibly difficult and I think unlike business where you can get good over the course of decades into your 60s, assuming that you don’t calcify, you can…
get good at business over a long period of time. There’s no sort of like time limit, but with judo, there really is a time limit. And the time limit is your body. Right. So if, if I could today get that skill, right. With no costs, definitely a judo athlete because it’s a race against time before my body deteriorate. While we’ve been talking, I gave ChatGPT some of your answers and got it to write a limerick of you. Sure. Let’s do it. So I’m going to read out the limerick.
A fellow named Cedric, quite bold finds Singaporean dishes like gold in Vietnamese chaos heat revel, his ambitions on another level, dreaming of judo medals. So this is something that will only be possible in a podcast exactly during this time and you’re probably gonna date this podcast forever and ever because it’s exactly at the moment where ChatGPT is good enough which I think is only a span of a couple months and obviously during this this phase like probably a couple years from now we’ll be looking back and going oh that’s stupid like thing it’s so lousy you know AI has advanced so much like
now everybody has personal assistants. So interestingly on that note, right? When I recently, one of my, a reader, not a paying member, but a reader sort of emailed me and asked like, are you still doing this business writing thing? Because GPT is here, AI is here, and it’s gonna put you out of a job. And I was like, bitch please, like an AI can’t do experiments and suffer and write about experience. So I think there’s something there.
I don’t think AI is going to take over the world yet, and it sure as hell isn’t going to take over Commoncog. That was really fun. But now let’s get back to the show. I said it before and I’ll say it again. Those two words, earned secrets, are so valuable and really mind-blowing to me and already makes this entire podcast worth it. But now let’s peel back the layers a little bit and take a look at how you actually write these blog posts. Right.
I want to know what your process is because as you’ve mentioned at the start, your posts are really, really long and while they are written in a reader-friendly way, they do tackle some pretty complicated topics. And so, you know, researching and figuring out how to write them in an accessible way can’t be easy. And I’d love to learn a little bit more about, yeah, your process. One other thing I’d like to hear more about is…
So our customers at Newsletter Glue are mainly publishers, media companies, newsrooms, online magazines, and that’s also our audience for Sticky. And they typically work on really tight deadlines. That might be a daily newsletter or weekly or something in between. And I know that you kind of straddle, you know,
those two worlds because on one hand, you do spend months and months researching topics, but on the other hand, you somehow manage to produce articles and newsletters, I think once a week or once every two weeks. So I kind of like to hear how you think about all of that and you know, do the long-form stuff that takes forever and also manage to get stuff out.
on a regular schedule? So one thing that I do have to point out is that the overlap between my skill set and the journalist skill set of meeting a deadline is actually quite large. So if you talk to any journalist who has done the job for any more time or any editor really, they would say that writer’s block is for amateurs. They are able to, you need a piece by tomorrow. At this time, I’m going to hit it. And.
I don’t care what kind of work it does or whatever, they will hit it, they will hit it. This is a journalism writing skill 101. But I bring this up because it’s sort of easy to assume that people who do deep research and put in a lot of effort to write a piece can’t also do incredibly fast, bang out a piece to meet a deadline sort of thing. I am very much able to do that.
And I like to believe, I don’t know if this is true. In fact, you probably have to ask journalists to see if this is true, but this, every journalist that I’ve talked to seems to tell me that this is true. The people who do these deep investigative feature-lang pieces are also writers who can do, you got a deadline tomorrow, I need to, you need a 1500 word piece, done, right? So it’s not, it’s very much the ability to do these incredibly long pieces sits on a base level ability to hit a deadline.
and to do it consistently. Now with that said, my typical cadence is a week. Recently, due to the number of experiments and the recovery from my judo experiment, I have not been as consistent. But I do set myself a time limit of a week and this presents certain problems, right? Because certain pieces takes months to put into practice and to investigate. Some pieces require me to summarize a 5,000 page.
It’s a bit ridiculous. I’ve only done it once, I think. Or a really thick book. So this, I think, is making sense of data. It’s an incredibly nerdy book. It is, as you can see, I don’t know, how many pages is it? It’s like 366 pages, and it’s not easy. There’s math in it and stuff. So that obviously takes a couple of months, if not weeks, weeks if not months. And you have to, sorry, not 5,000 words I shouldn’t say it about, very thick book. 1,000 pages is I have.
I think summarized or at least worked through a fair amount of a thousand page book, which I can’t take because it’s very heavy, it’s above the computer right now. My point is that the way that I developed this is everything in my head is a bunch of questions. So there are a number of tricks that I’m pulling on at any given point in time. Right now I’m really interested in the two big topics for the last four months, I think has been deliberate practice, which I actually…
put to practice by doing this judo experiment, training five hours a day, every day. And then the other sort of piece is, how do you become data-driven? And that one was, that one emerged from working with Colin Breyer and Bill Carr, who were Amazonian executives very early on in Amazon’s history. And I did a project for them, a consulting project, to help explicate their approach to metrics, which is called the Amazon Weekly Business Review, right, for their consulting practice.
And I turned that into a bunch of tutorials that they’re going to disseminate to their clients. And that started me down a path of, like, how do you actually become data-driven? And I pretty much accepted that consulting project because I wanted to learn to become data-driven. Now, these questions lead off in multiple directions. And how I explore these questions tends to be a bit more playful and free-flowing. Sometimes it requires me to dig deep into the math of a particular technique. Sometimes it requires me to go and get a bunch of case studies.
And so the way I sort of arrange it is like, if a piece takes a bit more work, I tend to do work on it on the side. And this is thinking work, not writing work, right? I need to sort of figure out really what the ideas I need to get down before I start writing. And usually the investigation process produces brick crumbs, which I can turn into shorter pieces that are easier to write, which take only a day or two to write.
And that’s basically the process. So this is not at all obvious from the publication. If you read ComCog regularly, everything seems to be high quality, but what they don’t see is that, yeah, this seems that I have like a mental map in my head of I’m digging into this vein, this aspect of business, and there will be certain ideas that come out that are actually easy to write about, and I will publish them first. And in the process, I will do the thinking necessary for those more difficult pieces.
that’s basically it. And I basically have a whole bunch of questions that I want to ask and want to find answers to at any given time. And sometimes I cannot predict when the answer or a rich vein falls into my lap. But then I have learned to recognize when a rich vein exists and then start going really deep into it, right? And I guess it’s very much true. I’ve heard somebody say this. I think it was Daniel Ek of Spotify.
So to say that the best creators follow their own curiosity. And this is very much what I’ve been doing and what drives me and why it’s possible to keep writing stuff, uh, and, you know, go deep into multiple rabbit holes. That’s really interesting. So what you’re really saying is that instead of writing one blog post per topic, you actually kind of allow yourself to stumble upon a topic and explore it for months and months. And.
As you go down this path of exploration, you might find low-hanging fruit and you write multiple blog articles from these low-hanging fruit. And as you go deeper, your articles typically tend to get longer and at some point it runs its course or you find a new topic to write about or sometimes you have multiple topics in parallel and all of those things combined is what gives you all your ideas for writing. That’s really, really cool.
Okay, so I’m gonna ask you a question which is my favourite question that you have asked on your podcast, which is… I think you know where this is going. Yes, I do. What would a beginner get wrong when it comes to writing thought leadership articles? They will conflate quality. In order to write high quality pieces, you need to spend more time and output less of them.
This is true for expert writers. So like you all probably know, or at least I do, New Yorker writers who spends like, there are New Yorker writers who spend like up to three years on a piece. That’s how ridiculous some of them can get. It’s common for them to spend multiple months on a piece, investigating, going down, interviewing people. In fact, I think my favorite example of this is John McPhee had an original piece in the New Yorker about oranges and he took a couple of months, I think an entire summer, just going to Florida and talking to various orange people and then writing the piece.
Right. And later he turned into a book called Oranges, which is one of my favorite books about fruit, actually, probably the only favorite book that I have about fruit. Um, but people think, you know, a novice will come in and think like, Oh, you know, these people, they spend a huge amount of effort, Cedric spends a huge amount of effort digging into like some of these pieces, uh, some of these pieces represent a year of thinking. Right. And therefore I need to spend a year thinking, you know, to write these quality pieces. No, no, no, no. Like if you’re in a beginner, you need to.
you need to produce a huge amount. You need to set yourself a deadline, you need to be consistent and you need to produce a set amount. And I tend to recommend writers who are new to do one piece a day for 30 days. I did this when I was very, very young, like I think I was 17 years old. And it’s the equivalent of like the sports context where you bench press a weight that is much, much higher than anything you ever faced in the sport. Right. But you have to do that because in the sport you, you, you want to have that excess capacity.
So once you’re able to write a piece a day for 30 days, everything, every deadline would be like, oh, this is easy, I’ve done it before, right? I’ve done a piece a day every day for 30 days. And I prove to myself that I can do it. And so therefore, like, if you have a deadline for this long 1,500 words by tomorrow, sure, I can do it, fine, right? People think that quantity does not map to quality, but really good writers are able to produce reasonably high quality content at a very high rate.
and it’s not separate and you should aim for quantity first. Quantity is a quality of its own. So that’s I think the number one one. What’s the next? What’s the next thing that novices will get wrong? I think a lot of novices… I keep telling novice writers to just go to the Poynter website and look up…
a book by it’s it’s it’s you can either buy the book or you can sign up for the course the course is free and contains the exact same content as the book it’s called 50 writing tools and i i tell them that uh every time like somebody asked me for writing advice that you should just take that course when i was uh when i was 18 19 it was a series of free articles on the poynter.org website before they took it down and turned it into a book and now i’ll get the course but
you just take that and then during the one piece a day for 30 days sort of thing, you just implement each of these tools, right? Put them to practice. Right. And nobody seems to listen to this, right? Because the secret is if you want your writing to be possible, there are lots of little tricks that journalists know that they don’t teach in typical schools for writing classes in schools.
And once you, and these tools are really easy. They’re like very sentence length or beware word space, like you cannot repeat the same word too close to each other. Or when you’re describing something with high emotional impact, pair down your vocabulary to use simpler words because the impact is larger. These are things that I’ve internalized so deeply because I went through the Poynter 50 writing tools thing and people don’t seem to do that. And it’s so easy.
It’s like literally it will take you a month and it will change your writing forever, right? Like if you do it during the same time of the one piece a day for 30 days sort of thing, a month, maybe two months, and then these tools become part of you and then it’s forever. And you need to have like that base level of writing capability in order to do well on the internet as a writer. And it’s worth putting in the two months that’s gonna benefit you for the rest of your life, right? I think in my opinion, at least if you try to do writing.
So that’s another piece that I get a slightly irritated by, because when you want to produce good writing, at some point your writing skill becomes good enough that your writing is okay, and then at which point the bottleneck really becomes your thinking ability. And there is this thing that I believe, which is like, don’t make the easy things hard. It’s not that difficult to get to a base level of writing.
ability to achieve your goals for the internet or for publishing on the internet, right? So don’t make it hard, just get to that level so that you can focus on the really hard thing, which is the quality of your thinking. And at some point, that will be the bottleneck if you are serious about the whole publishing writing sort of thing. I guess it’s a bit unusual for me to talk about writing skill in this particular context, but don’t make the easy thing hard. Writing should be easy. And if you…
you want to get at the hard things, I guess. Which is like going viral or executing your content marketing strategy if you’re a SaaS or picking topics that matter that are high value. That’s actually really, really hard. You’re such good advice. All right, let’s wrap things up with a segment called Quick Racks, where I’ll ask you three questions and get your recommendations on them. So the first question is, what’s one underrated
email tool that you wish people knew and talked more about.
I don’t think it’s underrated because I think at this point many people have used it, but ConvertKit, I really like ConvertKit, or rather I like any tool that has lots of automations and ConvertKit I think is currently one of the best at doing these incredibly complex automations. It’s my recommended email tool primarily because of the degree of segmentation and automations that you can build inside the tool. And it’s relatively easy to…
wrap your head around I think. Nice. What’s one favourite, or what’s your favourite must subscribe must read newsletter? Ooh. So, ah this is a bit unfair. I love Matt Levine’s money stuff because he’s incredibly hilarious and he’s very prolific. The problem is that he is too prolific and I have stopped subscribing to him recently.
because I just couldn’t take it. Because he’s such a good writer that I feel compelled to read every single newsletter he sends. But then, and I recommend it a lot, he’s like a writer’s friend. He’s like a newsletter writer’s newsletter writer. And it’s so good, but it’s too much. It’s too much. Alright. And I think we covered this already, but in case you have something different, what’s one piece of advice for newsletter writers?
Oh, be consistent. Stick to a schedule and publish it. And it’s basically a variant of quantity is quality of its own. Like it’s, but I think it’s more important for newsletter publishers because for things like podcast and blog posts and definitely newsletter publishing cadence, consistency and frequency really matter. All right. And we are done. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Cedric. This was really, really fun. I personally learned a lot and I’m gonna try to see how we…
we can add your thinking on thought leadership and earn secrets into the podcast. And I’m sure it’s gonna make for a much better podcast as well. I’m very happy to hear that. I felt, and this was very fun. Thank you very much.
Stay in touch