September 28, 2022

Robin Good on questioning authority, finding trusted advisors, focus sharing, and information design (Ep35)

“The recipe is do not trust the algorithm, do not trust mainstream media for the most part, search for individuals who you have a strong affinity with and to whom you can apply strong filters about credibility, trust, integrity, the way they conduct the work, the way they show their sources, and how much they’re transparent about the way they conduct their business and their lives, and maintain these lists while updating it because your trusted sources, your trusted advisors, as I call them, are the key source to discovering new sources. “

– Robin Good

Sam McRoberts

About Robin Good

Robin Good is a writer, speaker, and change agent focused on content curation, learning, and collaboration. By emphasizing quality, credibility, and shared values, Robin has been helping entrepreneurs and small businesses share their content to develop long-lasting relationships and become reference points in their online market niches.

Website: Robin Good

Blog: Robin Good

LinkedIn: Robin Good

Facebook: Robin Good

Instagram: Robin Good

Twitter: Robin Good

Book: From Brand to Friend

What you will learn

  • What are the key capabilities to curate this world of information? (02:41)
  • What are the two requirements for doubting authority or expertise the right way? (05:21)
  • What is the recipe for sourcing information? (07:42)
  • Are there tools or approaches to capture, collect, distil, and make sense of information? (11:53)
  • What are the steps or structures to create something of value? (18:55)
  • Are there suitable software tools for information gathering? (22:22)
  • What are the tools or approaches for communicating in terms of visual design for sharing and communicating effectively? (26:15)
  • Why managing distractions is a key focus to thriving on overload (32:22)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Robin, it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Robin Good: Thank you, Ross, it’s such a pleasure for me as well to see you again and to be in such a position to be able to discuss the things that are close to my heart, together.

Ross: Indeed. For the very long time, I’ve known you, it’s certainly more than a dozen years you have been the master at content creation and curation. This is where you are thriving on overload, in a world of information, you’re finding what is valuable for yourself, and others. I and my listeners would love to find out how you do it. What’s the starting point for you? What are the key skills? What are the key capabilities for you in being able to curate this world of information?

Robin: It all starts from curiosity and with a strong attitude against authority. These are the two key elements that made me who I am. That is by questioning deeply authority, I connect immediately to information, news, propaganda, misinformation, fake news, or whatever you have classified in your head, and that is the ability not to take anything for granted, no matter where it comes from, or who it comes from, but questioning everything and going into asking, is this really so? Or I’m just taking it at face value because Ross just said it, or James just said it? I have this attitude, kind of challenging, provocative attitude toward whatever has been coming my way. I want to see whether the things that I learned are really the way they’re presented or they’re somewhat different.

I have to say, no matter how crazy I will sound that most of the time, things are not the way they look, and they’re presented. That doesn’t mean that what you say or what other authors that I read, write are not on the spot, but many of the basic ideas that we have about how things work, how life is, what’s the cause of this or that are not the ones that we are being presented, especially through education, through school, or university.

I’ve been very rebellious against the education system because it does limit our ability to question things. We’re taught from the very first day to be right, to have the correct answer. If you don’t have it, if you question your teacher, you’re going to be in trouble. That really stifles your creativity, your ability to explore, to be curious, and it’s so precious for somebody who wants to deal with information, tell stories, explore how life is, and so. It all starts with curiosity, and with a little provocative attitude against whoever says they know it all.

Ross: That’s fantastic in many ways. I know you as very authoritarian, questioning, and provocative. I’m also a big believer in schools just stifling anything which is wonderful within us. I wonder how people can nurture that; not just curiosity, as you say, that’s the starting point, that ability to question everything. Is it something we should nurture and always look for in terms of trying to always doubt the authority or expertise?

Robin: I think that the key thing is not just to be passive on whatever information comes to you, from your friends, from your teacher, from your guru, from your trainer, and ask many questions. My fencing teacher may even tell me don’t hold that position where I feel so good in striking my adversary but I don’t know exactly why, so I ask exactly why is this so? Why it cannot be this way? Many times we bypass these asking questions because we feel we may sound stupid or not able to understand things, and we want to feel immediately at the level of our teacher or master. Instead, I think that by questioning things, by asking questions, specifically, you allow yourself to understand better. Many times we take for granted that the reason for something is not the actual reason for that something but we make it up because we didn’t ask.

The other thing we can do to nurture this curiosity, and questioning ability is to try to see our perspective on things that is, try to understand why we like or don’t like something, and explore that thing, write about it, think over it, discuss it with somebody else not with the idea of winning, but of clarifying what you have gotten into your head. These two elements may help that nurturing.

Ross: That’s fantastic. I’d like to come back to that. But in a way, this leads us to sources. We have any number of sources available in the world. We would try to find some sources that we trust more than others, but without getting locked into a particular set. How do you find information? What sources do you go to? What are the places you find good starting points or useful resources in your searches?

Robin: Number one, do not trust algorithms. This is the first key to finding sources and good information, not that the algorithm is always wrong or brings you the bad stuff but just to be very skeptical of the algorithm and it guessing what you want is a good starting point. Because most of the sources of information now play that game of the algorithm of serving your personalized information and sources and discovering new stuff but I really am deeply skeptical about that ability, at least in my situation. I don’t think the algorithms they’ve put out really get to know me that well to do a good job.

My key source of information is newsletters. My trusted source of information is people who write newsletters. I have replaced all together mainstream news of any kind and that includes any super commercial entity that produces news, that could be something maybe even at the level of Wired or TechCrunch, which was not traditionally considered mainstream news. It is for me now, mainstream news. I look for individuals to which I apply very strict filtering criteria regarding their credibility, their trust, their intent, their goals, and their prejudices.

I try to maintain a list of trusted advisors that continuously updates over time because even people do change. People that I thought were extremely insightful and so inspiring and wonderful for me, all of a sudden, disappear into nothingness because I discovered they have some big blind spots, which they never expose, so I cannot trust them anymore. Or if I catch some of the new trusted advisors, putting out the links or resources that I see, they have not explored deeply, they have not verified and they’re just adding them to their newsletter to make it richer, and bigger, I completely lose the trust in a matter of seconds. I do write to them and I say, Why do you do this? Why? I see so many don’t have the integrity to stand up to what they do. It’s very rare and difficult to find truly valuable, trusted advisors, but these are my sources.

The recipe is do not trust the algorithm, do not trust mainstream media for the most part, search for individuals who you have a strong affinity with and to whom you can apply strong filters about credibility, trust, integrity, the way they conduct the work, the way they show their sources, and how much they’re transparent about the way they conduct their business and their lives, and maintain these lists while updating it because your trusted sources, your trusted advisors, as I call them, are the key source to discovering new sources. Working on individuals, for me is the road to make sense of my jangle exploration throughout life. I’ve been changing and refining this list all the time. You certainly have been on my list and have not gone out but many have entered and disappeared over time.

Ross: Right, you mentioned making sense, so for me, that’s part of the thing of taking all of these pieces and pulling that into some kind of synthesis in your mind. That involves taking the bits that you like, to be able to piece those together, to organize them, to structure them. Are there tools or approaches that you use to capture, collect and store, or distill value and make sense of them?

Robin: Let’s be practical. I will play very low tools. I don’t think we have tremendous tools to do what you just described. But our approach to distilling and capturing things makes the difference. The first practical actionable advice is to take notes and to take notes in a timely way, that is not bring a notebook with you and a pen in your backpack, and then something happens, then you say, Okay, later, when I stop, I’m going to take note of this, that note is not going to ever take place because, by the time you stop and have a rest, you won’t have that clear thing in your head. Timeliness in taking notes about what happens around you, what you just notice, what you saw beyond the surface, in a discussion among people in front of you, what came up while you were walking, needs to be noted now. It may break your flow, it may break your sunset, it may break your love story, but that’s the way you capture it, you have got to take it the moment you feel it.

That’s why there are not many people doing that, that’s why there are not many trusted advisors out there because there are not many people wanting to take notes the moment they come to them, we’re not just trained to do that. I wish, why they didn’t do that to me in school because that’s where I should have taken the habit. It just came naturally afterward. I noticed that when I take those timely notes, it does make a difference.

When I do a second actionable advice thing, something better happens, that is when I manipulate that note. You could take thousands of notes and leave them there, and close the book; Tomorrow, you open the book, you take another note and another one, but the magic happens when you go back to the book to do something with that note, either to revise it, to expand it, or to act upon it because you want to put it to use for something for a collection for an article, for a guide, to make a presentation, to discuss a matter of importance with a friend; the moment you go back to it and you handle it, there is some learning taking place.

There is no learning taking place when you take the note. There is a realization, there is an opening, a perspective, a light you see in the distance, the moment you come back to it, your eyes adjust and you start to see something taking shape and having a bigger and deeper meaning. Handling it in whichever way you want to do it, rewriting it, discussing it, expanding it, searching for more, does help making it yours.

Then the third important thing, at least for me is to create something with it that is of value to me, that excites me to create. If it is something that relates to philosophy or intellectual ideas, maybe write an article or some deep reflections on it. If it is a tool or an application for a tool, find other similar ones and bring them together so you could build a toolkit or a manual of methods to do something. If it is an artist or an expert telling you something, go out and search for other artists and bring together other ideas that conflict and synergize with those. All these manipulations from the very first note, strike, or idea, enrich your ability so much to see, explore, and report to others.

The final action ideal is always to share this information with others, keeping it all inside your brain doesn’t help very much, and sometimes it leads to loops that don’t have a great exit, that great realization. The moment you put it out, you may find surprising conflicts that stem from the judgment of others or ways to look at things that you had not considered.

The final expression of distilling, organizing, and filtering information takes place when you share it with others. The more focused you are in sharing toward a specific goal, and a specific tribe, that is, what you would call the target group in the advertising world, makes things valuable because you can just share your realization for what they are in absolute terms, they increase in value significantly. The moment that you target your exploration to a goal, to an audience, that there’s some specific need, some specific expectation, that is thriving on information overload, it may apply and may uncover wonderful new ways of doing things, depending on who you talk to about this.

I’m a full supporter of entrepreneurs, curators, of knowledge managers, to not try to be everything to everyone, though sometimes it’s good to be, but to try as much as possible to define who you’re talking to, and what are the problems that you’re trying to solve so that you help unique valuable information for that direction and those people to emerge, which is not easy.

Ross: No, it’s not easy. Let’s think you want to create an article or a toolkit or a manual, so you’ve got to have some starting ideas. You’ve captured some ideas, and you want to be able to create something of value, so what are the intermediary steps? Is there a structure? Is there a particular software you use? Do you simply just lay out all your ideas in a document and then revisit them and pull them together in your brain? Are there any tools or ways of storing or connecting things that can be useful in building those things which we can share?

Robin: As you know there are a million ways to do this. Today, there is the emergence of so-called frameworks, which make it very easy, or much easier than it was before for a lot of people who don’t have experience in building up content to do so by following a certain predefined structure or sequence of elements. I have to say, I don’t like to marry any specific solution. I’d always like to be on the front, and fail a few times so that I can explore new stuff. In my specific case, I will explore new frameworks, new structures, copy and try to go better than my best competitor or friend, as I would prefer to call it. I don’t stand still on any specific solution to build content. But yes, my sequence is basically to collect information for a very long time on a topic before writing about it so that I have a lot of sources and a lot of elements so they can play together.

In general, one popular well-functioning approach is one of bringing up what is the problem first clearly, what is the frustration that I want to overcome or that I needed to overcome? Explore the different opportunities and roads to see their plus and minus, and eventually identify a possible road or recount the story of the road you’ve taken to overcome that obstacle, which tools you’ve used, and what procedures you have taken. That is one, but again, I feel completely a failure in saying that this is the instruction that should be used to present some information ideas.

There are a million different ones, it could be a personal discussion you have inside your head with yourself, you split yourself into two personalities and you have them discuss one against the other, and you can be the best devil’s advocate in both defending a topic and trying to dismantle it; that’s a wonderful approach to use, or having a face-to-face confrontation with somebody who thinks the opposite of that topic. We’re too much stuck into not only algorithms, but this SEO trash, cultural heritage, which has taken away the ability to think in creative ways about the way you can write, explore, and present information. It has made most of the content available out there a copycat symbol, a copycat tradition, and it has made the quality of the content very shallow in many situations.

Ross: These are all cognitive structures, these are ways of thinking, but are there any software tools, either old or new that you find useful or worth considering in being able to assist in that journey of piecing together those elements into something structured and valuable to others?

Robin: Yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that there are simple tools, and there is no clear winner, that help you in taking notes, they can be Apple notes, they can be Evernote, they can be Obsidian, they can be Notion, Roam, and all those many other notes-taking tools that have come out in recent times. But then to structure that information and present it, we’re still at the level of Google documents or Notion with blogs. That’s all we have, these still bloody linear up and down documents where there is a sequence of stuff. I’m very tired of this, and I don’t understand why nobody complains about this.

The tools are not yet there, they’re starting to appear but it is taking such an incredibly long time for people to see that to organize and present information, you need things that are not there in Word and Google documents, like being able to compare things, to be able to see the overview and the detail not just through the index but in better ways, to have a super view of what the contents are, where new ones or older ones are, the type of contents that are there, and zoom in and zoom out at the speed of light. There is very little in the form of nonlinear documents, multi-dimensional documents that help you explore information from the synthesis part to the smallest detail. That’s what we lack.

We’re seeing some interesting new things coming up. What could I mention? Let me mention, for example, xTiles. xTiles is a new app, maybe it will be dead in a few months, or will become a leader in the market, I have no idea. But they are exploring ways that allow you to organize information differently. I have experimented with it. You can Google and see what you can get out of these more structured thinking tools. You can search on Google for earning trust in business. I’ve created what I call tentatively a super guide, which is not a linear document, about trust inside the business. Go check it out and see where I think we’re headed.

Ross: Fantastic. I agree that it seems very strange in 2022 that we don’t have very good tools for thinking. The promise was there. You, I, and other people saw, well, just think of what we’ll be able to do, but we’re only just beginning to get there. There’s promising; the last few years have shown promising new tools emerging.

Robin: I was just thinking of Ted Nelson and his wonderful vision. It is still up to date what he saw so many years ago.

Ross: I was going to say when you were describing those tools, I was thinking of Apple HyperCard. It’s pretty hard to beat that. That was a revelation for me and many other people. There’s not much around which is quite like that.

Robin: Yes, indeed.

Ross: In terms of communicating, how to present, how to communicate, so you’ve distilled your ideas, you’ve brought those together, what are the tools or approaches for communicating beyond articles in terms of visual presentation or other tools for designing information and sharing and communicating effectively?

Robin: On this front, one aspect that has eluded most of the writers has been the information design side. We’ve taken for granted that by understanding a topic or having some insights into it, we just need to put it in black and white on paper, and the rest happens automatically. I value very much instead, how that information is shared. You could think until now about, for example, the difference between somebody who just wrote a text, and somebody who would illustrate some of that text.

Okay, that’s level one. If you want to go to level 2, 3, 4, 5, and beyond, what do you do? You have to understand what information design is and understand how people read information online, offline, in print, or on a screen, because that changes a lot how it will be appropriate to present and structure that information. For example, we take for granted that writing the way we write a book and writing the way we write a guide, that’s pretty similar; I don’t think so. I don’t think it should be that way. A print has very strict limitations on the economic side of the materials. On the paper, you use many pages, the weight, and the cost that it’s going to derive; you’re going to have that issue online, that should have been evident since the dawn of time of the digital era, but we have forgotten it.

We write many times like we were writing in a book, we have a wall of text, and we have little ways to jump from one place to another or see connections that are taking place at certain points. Most of it, we have very little knowledge of how people read and how their eyes move on a digital screen. We have this F pattern that is very important to understand that is whenever we see something new that is based on text, we read across the first couple of lines, and then we just look across the left margin to find points that may be of interest to us.

The elements of chunking are very important, that is chunking is to break up into many little pieces whatever you’re writing, never have a wall of text, even five or six lines together, break it up, break it up, break it up. Then when you start to break it up, you break it up into chapters and subchapters, and these chapters and subchapters have very specific titles, and these titles to be read on a digital screen need to be short, and to the point, you can write a title of 6, 7, 8 words and expect that to be something digitally effective for the reader is just too long. You have to make titles that one can read at a glance, the eye will see those 2, 3, 4 words and it will make sense of them in one swap.

Instead, we still write, where you really need to pay attention to the single words, we have long paragraphs of text. We don’t help the eye catch the key points on the left margin where you can pick up, for example, the tradition of bolding text, inside paragraphs of text is very widely used but that creates all-in-the-digital ecosystem and context, more confusion to the eye. Because there’s already so much text generally, you don’t have the physical page that limits you to a frame so you have a lot of stuff to jump in and out of. The bolding can be used in an innovative way inside the digital screen by placing it only near the left margin that is only in the beginning words of certain paragraphs so that the eye can hook on to them and discover important points.

One other thing that we often forget on the web is line length. That is how long the line needs to be for people to decide to keep reading for the next 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 lines afterward. That makes a big difference because if you have a line that is short typically like it will be on Medium, then you will read and keep on reading. But if you buy a template, a theme, or start publishing today in WordPress, you won’t get the short line which is about 10 to 12 words per line, you will get a line that goes from the left margin of your screen to the right margin of your screen no matter how larger your screen, and if you have a 25-inch screen, you will have these immense lines, how can people read it?

These simple things escape us and these simple things are what I call information design. Who do you look up to to learn about information design? The absolute authorities in this field are a mix of people I simply adore and these are Edward Tufte, Jakob Nielsen, and a little-known lady called Karen Schriver, who wrote a book that’s called “Dynamics in Document Design”, which all provide very different angles in understanding better how to present information so that people can read it.

Ross: That’s fantastic. There’s a lot of value and insights you’ve packed into that. So to round out, maybe reiterating some of the things you’ve said or anything new, what are a few recommendations you would make to somebody that says I’m overloaded, how can I thrive?

Robin: Oh, yes, I do have a lot of recommendations for that guy and that girl. These are to now take into very serious consideration the deep change in habits that could be the titled kill distractions altogether. I’ve gone through this in my life with very specific actions. They started for the first time, it was the 80s, we didn’t have smartphones, we didn’t have cell phones, we had something in Italy, it was called Teledream. It was this little box you put on your belt and BBZZ it told you somebody’s looking for you, go call this number. That gave me a hint that I could be freed of this pressure of somebody ringing you in the middle of something. As soon as these appeared gradually, I went into a mode of considering putting away the telephone altogether, and gradually, bit by bit, I did.

Although this is very radical, and most people will not accept it, I have eliminated the telephone from my life. Nobody, almost nobody will ring my phone because they know I will not answer. When they ring and there is no answer, and they complain, I tell them the story that I have decided to put my phone not only on vibration but not to hold it anymore on my body at any time during the day. At certain times during the day, I go check my phone, somebody has rung me, somebody has sent me a message, somebody more educated has sent me a request to talk to me, when do I have time? Can we set a time? Then when we do that educated thing, I’m very happy to talk to anybody over the phone or any other technology. But I’m not willing anymore in my life to have a little plastic box ring and interrupt whatever I’m doing, that is number one.

Number two, I’ve decided to separate as much as possible work from distraction. That at a certain age may be home, family, or places where there’s a lot of noise and a lot of distractions. Well, if you go into those places or if you decide to establish your focus point there, you’re lost. That’s not going to help you very much, you’re not going to find a lot of motivation. I have eliminated the watch from my arms, It’s in front of me when I watch the digital screen at all times but it’s just better not to be having to watch that wrist anymore for me.

I also think that to improve that situation, one key thing is to introduce more life. That means I used to spend most of the day in front of the digital screen, I now have reduced, without having reduced my profits, revenue, business opportunities, my time in front of the computer, and I’ve increased drastically my life outside, near Palm trees, under blue skies, in the water, running, playing frisbee, volleyball, meeting new people, playing music, I have gone back to my first career, which was one of a DJ, which I started when I was 14, in a professional way. Now it’s again part of my life, it’s not part of my professional serious life but it does recharge my batteries a hell a lot better than anything else that I used to do when I was sitting in front of my screen before.

Turning off all notifications, all of them, no notifications coming on my computer screen or my smartphone, are all essential elements. To kill all of the distractions, to me is the key to focus, and to be able to conduct good work, like fewer people are doing because they’re all on Instagram, TikTok, and being distracted by dling, dlong, dlang, and all these noises, I just can’t respect them anymore, I’m sorry. I find living life in that way wasted. That’s how I feel. But there is a big preoccupation.

Let me jump to another topic, because you may not be asking me about this. There is a topic about information and it may be related also to information overload, that is close to my heart and needs to have more attention from everybody in general, and that is: since I’m now 24, almost 30, I start to have worries about things that I didn’t have worries 10 or 20 years ago, and that is mainly what’s going to happen to all the work that I’ve published when I’m not here anymore, or when I don’t have the money to pay the server, the hosting provider.

We are overloaded with information but nobody is worrying about all the information we are losing every day. Great stuff, great articles, great blogs, a great website that just disappears. You may say Oh, but there is the Internet Archive. Yeah, but for how long? And for really all the pages that are out? No, it’s not for all the pages that are out there. We don’t know for how long and what interests are behind the Internet Archive, we should need two or three of those, different ones, and in different ways.

I don’t see anybody taking into serious consideration how we can keep this cultural heritage that we have developed in the last 22 years by writing online, where’s all this stuff going to go? Who’s going to keep it there? You are going to have to die, you just have to be in trouble in some way or lose your mind in some way, and that stuff is just going to disappear completely. This needs some attention to it because no matter how much superficiality we put out there, there are a lot of little golden gems out there; Billions, rare, hard to find but there are. I’m keen to find ways and have people reflect on the importance of not losing this stuff. If you can transform it into a book, whatever you’ve written, it’s a good bloody idea to do that. Because that book for now has a longer lifetime than anything you write online.

Number two, I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but are you sure you want to write on your own blog or website because that’s the first that’s going to go away, not if you have written on, it doesn’t matter how much you hate it, on Facebook, or Instagram, or Medium for that matter; the stuff you’ve written on these other platforms is going to last much longer than whatever you write on your blog post unless you read in a testament and instruct your kids or your best friend to take over when you suddenly disappear and they don’t know any of the passwords and that stuff is just going to go PFFFTTT. What do you think about that?

Ross: It’s probably how evanescent… are you creating content for now or do you want to create content for the future? I think it is different. Sometimes we are creating some content for now and some content we are creating for the longer future. So we have, hopefully, different strategies for that. But it’s time to wrap up. It’s a good place to end there. Just where can people find your current work? Where’s the best place to find your work?

Robin: is the best place to see what I’m following, reading, selecting, and sharing with others. That’s the best destination you can go to.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Robin, it’s been a fascinating conversation.

Robin: Thank you, Ross, for inviting me. It’s been such an honor and a pleasure to be discussing with you again, thank you so much for the opportunity, and good luck for the book. The title is conflicting in some way but that strikes as a possibility to increase my interest to see what you have written inside. I have to say that is my desire.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you.

Robin: You’re welcome. Thank you, Ross. Bye.

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