My sister didn’t go to the STC Technical Communication Summit. I did. Here’s how it happened.

It’s been a long time since I posted here. Despite the conventional wisdom about blogging, I only post when I really have something to say.  I’ve been needing to think about this one for a while, and my thoughts are still developing – hence the long hiatus. 

I had a great time at the STC Technical Communications Summit. I’d better have, it cost me nearly 5000 € to attend it, between air fares, hotel, meals, registration, extras etc. There was lots of good energy and good vibes at the society level, but I’m not going to talk about that here, that’s for other forums.

What I want to do is reflect on the summit (and, indirectly, its value proposition) from the point of view of a simple attendee, which, after the first Leadership Day, I was. I was not presenting in any of the non-leadership sessions, so I just attended the sessions that attracted my interest, based on their catalog descriptions.

I’d have to say, as an overall evaluation, that I was neither disappointed, nor overly excited by anything I saw or heard. Unlike last year’s dynamic conference in Dallas, the sessions this year all seemed good, workman-like presentations, well-oiled, well-rehearsed, useful, but uninspiring. At least for me.

What I was looking for and didn’t find was the bubbling excitement of what I think of as the new, interdisciplinary nature of our profession. Last year, in the wake of the European STC groups’ successful Content Strategy Forum ’10, there was an effervescence around the Content Strategy and Usability sessions. This year, both were present, but muted. This year, everyone seemed to be getting “back to basics,” and basics seems to mean docs of one sort or the other.

My sister, an STC member, does very similar work to what I do, but in a different context. I do it for software development, she does it for a web full of scientific content, aimed at a general audience. We were looking for an excuse to get together in sunny California, and the Summit seemed like a good bet, but in the end, she didn’t make it.

Why?  “I don’t write docs,” she said, “there’s not much there for me.”

“Oh, there’s lot’s of content strategy and other stuff you’ll be interested in,” I said.

“Where?” she said.

And indeed, it was hard to find. In fact, the sessions that didn’t deal directly with some sort of subject specifically oriented towards user guidance were few and far between. With all the emphasis on clouds, web content, crowd sourcing, and the rest, this summit seemed to be very firmly anchored in a closed little world of manuals and their extensions.

I firmly believe that the future of technical communication is much more expansive than user guidance (though this will remain important). People who do web content, people who fill information-rich software with content, people who bridge the worlds of science and technology, people who engage the social, political and cultural implications of technology, all need the same kinds of tools, the same kinds of epistemological constructs, the same approaches to designing content and maintaining its life cycle intelligently.

An international technical communications meeting that ignores this, risks losing its relevance, no matter how upbeat, positive, and energetic it seems at the moment of its unfolding.

This year’s STC summit was a good tech docs meeting, and as such it was valuable and interesting. However, as an indicator of where our profession is going / needs to go, it could have done better. As an umbrella for the broad spectrum of practitioners of technical communication, it failed altogether – and seemed very parochial, at least to this participant. Since I am both active in STC leadership and concerned for the society’s future, I attended practically by reflex. If I were not involved (and partially funded by my chapter – thanks), I’m not sure I would have found it worth spending 5000 € just to network with people and attend some decent sessions. For that cost, I’d want the fire, the glory, the inspiration.

It’s been said that this is the best time ever to be a technical communicator, and I agree. I would like to see us break out of our own self-imposed ghettos, and provide that forward-looking, multidisciplinary, global umbrella that will lead us forward into this very exciting century.

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Reflections on Giving a Webinar

Last week, I presented my first webinar, and I think I may have taken away more from the experience than the paying participants!

It should be obvious that a webinar is not the same as a live presentation, but in this experience, I really learned just how different it can be. This webinar, a case study, started as a presentation proposal that got converted into the online format, and I should have modified it much more for the webinar.

It’s about audience expectations. When someone pays $79 or more for a webinar, they have the right to expect they will come out of it with new knowledge, or new resources that will help them learn more.  A case study might provide those things, but it doesn’t do so directly.

Also, when I present at conferences, I’m used to interacting, to getting clues from the faces of my audience. I love the exchange with them. Like a theatre actor playing a first role in the cinema, I found the silence of muted audio was even more challenging than giving a standup lecture course to a crowded amphitheatre of bored students.

In this age of virtual networks and telepresence, we all need to develop our skills in this domain. It will be increasingly important over the next years to know how to present to what might be a vast audience that is, though silent, very actively listening.

Lessons learned: 

  • It’s important to have a web presentation technique, and it needs to be very different from live presentation style.
  • Networking interactively (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) is relatively easy, even if sometimes chaotic. Networking with a vast muted (and invisible) audience requires more preparation and honed skills.
  • Even as a case study, the presentation needed more instructional design with more “how to” content.

For those who attended, and whose expectations might not have been met, my apologies. Next time I do a webinar, I’ll be very conscious of what I’ve learned this time around. We have the right to expect the best of ourselves and of each other, and the experience of mutual learning is a gift.

Where do You Come From?

How many of you tech comms reading this have a technical or engineering education?

When I ask this question of students in the master’s programme where I teach, or at speaking engagements, it’s invariably a minority of hands that go up. Personally, I’m not surprised. Most of the technical communicators I know have a background in arts or humanities. And the ones that have science or engineering backgrounds often have strong secondary interest in humanities subjects.

My own background is in music, theatre, and journalism. Of those, journalism makes some sense – a journalist, like a technical communicator, explains things to people – often translating from one mode of expression to another (as in: economist to average citizen, politician to skeptical reader, scientist to TV viewer or web visitor, engineer to end user, etc.). The rest?

Well, if you go deeper into it, my musical interests have always gravitated to the avant-garde, especially if technology was involved (computer music, synthesizers, fusion forms, free jazz, etc.), and in the theatre, I always worked with lighting and sound, two elements that are both intangible and related to technology. In short, I’ve always loved technology along with the other things I love doing, and combining this love of many things made tech comm a no-brainer for me.

I used to read manuals all the time – REALLY – I READ THEM!!!!

I found two things: I could become the “expert” about something just by doing this (most people didn’t bother) and I could write it better, most of the time. So, eventually, I started doing it.

Humanists gravitate to tech comm because people in the humanities generally have a wide variety of interests, intellectual curiosity, desire to understand and then to communicate that understanding.

It might be tempting to add that humanists don’t talk nerd – but if you want to be a good tech comm, you’d better know how, even if it isn’t your native language – and I think I can qualify myself as a genuine nerd in my fascination with some of the details of technology – hence the name of this blog.  At the same time, I share with many other technical communicators, a passion to explain it.

We are teachers, Chatauqua leaders, maybe even evangelists for the products and services we write about. At the other end of the spectrum, behind the scenes, we also seem to get passionate about how these things are done, improving processes and facilitating internal communications. There, too, we explain, we teach, we innovate, and we share.

Minimalism and Dogma

Let’s talk about minimalism for a minute.

A recent emailing on the subject from JoAnn Hackos emphasized the need that

“..users get only the information they need… And, the more languages we translate means that we cannot afford to add “nice to know” extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals. Their critical goal — getting their tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

I’d guess very few of us would argue with this position. At the same time, I’m not sure we’d all agree on what constitutes “nice to know extras that fail to help the users succeed in reaching their goals.”

If we define extras as “any non procedural information,” for example, we come into conflict with another important trend, the need to include decision support in on line help. Getting tasks done quickly and efficiently might mean, in some circumstances, having the answer to “why would I want to do this?”

Let’s be clear – most of the time, these days, we’re talking about software, and thus, online help. If you’re doing paper documentation, or even electronic, but related to electro-mechanical operations, or chemical processes, or manufacturing operations, you might have a different view of what constitutes essential information, even if you buy into minimalism as a principle.

The answer to “why would I want to do this?” or other decision oriented questions needs to be clear, concise, and limited to the immediate need. In most cases, probably not more than a sentence or two.

It means that those of us with an editorial function have a particularly onerous task. If we’re to practice minimalism with intelligence, and really provide service to our users, we need to avoid the dogmatic approach of ideas such as, “if it’s not procedural, cut it out.”  On the other hand, if we favour too much conceptual information, we’re not minimalist any more.

How much is enough?  How much is too much?

I’d like to take a stab at a simple guideline: ask yourself, “if I didn’t know anything about this software (or whatever it is), would I know when and why I need to do this?”

If the answer is “yes,” see if there’s anything to strip away, and ask the question again. Keep at it, until the answer is “no.” Then put back the smallest number of bits that make it “yes” again.

As you might imagine, this can’t be done by the numbers – it requires judgement, intelligence, and intuition.

What do you think?

It’s Not Cause and Effect, It’s the Content, Stupid

There is so much debate going on about whether the guy who shot Rep. Giffords was influenced by communication such as Sarah Palin’s crosshairs, or was just a lone nut case.

Friends, IT DOESN’T MATTER!

Even a lone nut case is affected by environmental factors, and the communicational environment in the U.S.A. has been poisoned for a good 20 years now.

It’s in the air, and anyone can feel it.

When you live away and you come for a visit, you feel it so thick you can cut it with a dull plastic end of a lifelike plastic Kalatchnikoff barrel.

When it’s in the air, the nut cases will pick it up.

So will others.

Who cares if Loughner read Palin’s (or other extremists’) site or not? These sites didn’t cause the shooting, they created the atmosphere that helped someone decide that it was OK to shoot.

Content matters.

A Rant About Communication Style

OK, in theory, I should not be writing politics here, this blog is about technical communication.

BUT………………

Recent events in the U.S. bring up a question that is related to communication, albeit not technical.

The recent (yesterday) shooting in Arizona, it seems to me, is a logical conclusion of the hate mongering that began back in the 90’s in U.S. political rhetoric.  While it is not exclusively the domain of the Republican party, it seems to predominate on that side of the political fence.

It started with the hate campaigns launched against then President Clinton.  It started with pure lies (yes, I KNOW they were lies) told by a senior senator and former presidential candidate regarding the Canadian health care system when Hilary Clinton was attempting to cobble together some sort of universal health care plan for the U.S.

I know they were lies because I am a citizen of several countries, including Canada, and have lived under the Canadian health care system – something the U.S. senators have not.

Since that time, the entire tone of political rhetoric has hardened, and become still more aggressive and violent. This includes radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who function by innuendo and suggestion, without backing up their assertions with facts (who needs them?).

I would remind everyone, that this tactic, known as “The Big Lie,” was admirably practiced by one Joseph Goebbels during a small military skirmish known as the Second World War.

The Reagan and Baby Bush administrations (essentially the same folks) honed these techniques to perfection – see George Lakoff’s admirable analysis, Whose Freedom? for details.

The now notorious cross-hair post on Sarah Palin’s web site that included Gabrielle Giffords as a “target” is a perfect example of the kind of hard rhetoric I’m talking about.

Let’s be clear here – I am not taking a stand for or against any political position in this blog, it’s not the place to do it.  I am making a very loud, protesting cry against the tone and style of political communication in this day and age.

Ms. Palin is entitled to her opinions about universal health care, but she is not entitled to publish inflammatory texts that suggest attacking (however metaphorically) other human beings. When she tweets out “don’t retweet, reload” to the world, this is, in my view, the kind of limitation to free speech that justice Frankfurter referred to when he said the first amendment does not include the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

I hope Ms. Palin will think twice, three times, and more, before publishing or spouting more “shoot from the hip” aggressive attacks. She should be ashamed.  I fear she won’t be, and that, also, is alarming.

To the Palins, Limbaughs, Becks, Bachmans and other demagogues of media or politics, I say with fervor and sincerity, the fact that someone disagrees with your political position does not render them  a traitor to their country or a bad person.  The fact that you paint them as such, does render you one.

There – I’ve started slipping down the same slope.  Let’s not go there.

A Beautiful Example of Transformation

Friends, check out this video:

It’s a great example of what Edward Tufte has been writing about for decades, and a marvelous demonstration of the power of simplicity to tell an important story.

Check out the site that posted this, Information is beautiful, to see more of the same kind of transformation thinking.

I have written elsewhere about the need for a transformation society (not an information society), where the accumulation of information becomes less important, information gets de-commodified, and is transformed into knowledge, know-how and understanding.

This seems a daunting task, and yet these people have done a part of it so simply, clearly, and (seemingly) effortlessly.

The video embedded above (and you can find a version for the U.K. in pounds sterling, too) shows clearly how we have developed an economy of debt, where we prefer to overspend and play financial games, than to put a relatively small amount of money into really solving some of the world’s problems.

Our information accumulation society has had something to do with this phenomenon, so it is wonderful to see the same technology applied to demonstrate clearly that this is a road we do not want to continue following.

Next step:  Let’s find ways to demonstrate how we can use the technology to implement these solutions.