How I teach myself new digital content skills using cake!

Fiona drinking tea 02

Our blog manager here at Firehead is Fiona Cullinan, who jumped from print journalism in 2000 to become a freelance digital editor and producer. Here she explains how she keeps her training current in the digital space with no employer to fund her development and little budget to play with.

As a long-time freelancer, I rarely receive any official training so I’ve become used to taking responsibility for my own personal development. In the past, this has mostly involved buying the latest content industry books and manuals, and even occasionally reading them.

Now it involves cake and something I’ve named Friday School.

Book FAIL!

Here is my book shelf. Counting up I have read precisely four of them. This is not good, considering the financial outlay.


The truth is, I’m finding books harder and harder to read. My work in the digital world has shrunk my attention span right down, I’m finding it slightly weird to learn about interactive subjects from words printed on a page and when I do have time to read I want to relax with Haruki Murakami’s latest – not a textbook.

Motivation WIN!

Karen's goals.pngEvery January, I check my photographer friend Karen Strunks’ blog because she always has inspiring new year resolutions and approaches for me to nick be inspired by.

This year, she even put her goals into a personal infographic (right).

She also happened to be testing out a new tool called Workflowy to help get herself organised – and I clicked with it immediately I guess because it works in the same the way that my brain does.

I write lists all the time, usually in a Word doc or in a client notebook, so nothing gets lost or forgotten. Workflowy is like a ‘lists with benefits’ app.

Not only does it let you create lists and endless sublists, but you can tag the tasks by priority or date (using hashtags) and assign the work using the @name function. Best of all, you can share and collaborate on a list and export it for use with other programmes.

What to learn?

So I started listing the things I wanted to learn more about and raiding my Delicious bookmarks. Within each section, I made a sublist of online chapters, presentations, slideshows, useful links, blog posts and video tutorials. I estimate there is about a school year’s worth of work lurking within this overview:

Friday school - WorkFlowy-1-1

Unpacking the topics

Below is an example of the opened up folder on ‘Programming’. The headings are taken from a currently free ebook-in-progress by a journalist called the Bastards Book of Ruby – an amazing free resource. Knowing how to code is something that is going to help me on a number of fronts and help to break down the technical brick wall I keep banging my head against.

Another useful thing to note about Workflowy here  is that pasting in any links automatically turns them into hyperlinks, so you can use it as a place to keep essential reads.

Setting a timetable

Then I discovered the hashtag function. I picked some elements from each section and added the hashtag #january. Clicking on the hashtag brings up the work for that month. As you can see, I nearly made it through my list, but there is no pressure – I’ll just retag anything I can’t fit in into #february’s work.


So where does the cake come in?

Cake and coffeeLearning must be fun or I know I won’t do it. So every Friday, for half a day, I take myself off to a café with wifi, treat myself to brunch, lunch and/or coffee and cake, and sit down to learn.

Last week I had a lovely chilli halloumi wrap as I created my first bit of computer code. The week before it was Victoria sponge over ‘The 7 Jedi mind tricks for creating compelling digital video content’ – a presentation from September’s Content Marketing World post-conference content offer (which I blew my annual books budget on but looks worth it, especially when I looked at the cost of flying to the US to attend the actual event).

What I learnt in January

  • The best part of the Google SEO guide. No snake oil just straightforward ways to make sure content is findable by readers.
  • Results-driven corporate blogging and how much it overlaps with my old journalism skills.
  • Digital video content tricks to take my video efforts to the next level.
  • Storytelling techniques from Hollywood to make my posts more engaging.
  • My first bit of coding using Ruby.

February will pretty much be a continuation. And thanks to the café set-up I’m really looking forward to both the learning – and the food.

A Hollywood ending?

If the Hollywood storytelling technique I learnt about in January works, then Friday School will involve a personal journey. Act 1 means leaving behind the world of books that I know and gathering some sages/friends to help along the way (Workflowy tool, café, online resources).

In Act 2, the learning adventure starts – over some cake. And in Act 3, there will be a big ordeal or monster to overcome – struggling with coding is a likely one, or the motivation to keep going, or taking the Google Conversion University exam for web analytics.

But the hero always returns older and wiser to their world – and in this case, probably a few pounds heavier – seeing the world with new eyes and aware of new possibilities.

Learning can be transformative to a person and to a career – so how do you manage yours?

Fiona works as a digital content editor and producer for Firehead and other clients. She is based in the UK and can be found at or on Twitter @fionacullinan.

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