Lost in the Meme Field of Good and Evil

For most of the last seven years, France has had a meme called Florence Cassez. Mlle. Cassez has spent all of those seven years behind bars in a Mexican prison. She was arrested for kidnapping, along with her boyfriend, a known Mexican gangster. Her arrest was filmed by Mexican television. The entire country, terrorized as it is by drug wars and gangs, both imported from Colombia where the climate is not so comfortable any more, and home grown, watched as a foreign criminal was brought to justice by the Federales.

Mlle. Cassez, even during her arrest, said, “Yo no sabia” – “I didn’t know.” She consistently claimed her innocence, and her defenders asserted that her only crime was poor choice in partners and gullibility. The case became a cause célebre in both countries, and almost immediately became politicized, with Mexican and French presidents digging in – the one insisting on her guilt, the other on her innocence. The Mexican press was universally cruel to her, while the French press had practically acquitted her, so wildly enthusiastic were they for her cause.

Several times, the Mexican courts, right up to the Supreme Court, were asked to rule on questions of irregularity in her arrest, tainted evidence, etc. All to no avail. All appeals lost.

Florence Cassez became a true meme, spreading like wildfire and becoming symbolic in at least two countries, pushing in opposing and incompatible directions in each case.

Continue reading “Lost in the Meme Field of Good and Evil”

Doing Well by Doing Good

In the late 1930’s, two significant political figures discovered new technology.

At the time, the new technology was called Radio. And both of these political figures discovered, pretty much in parallel, its power and influence.

One of these figures was Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
The other was New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Continue reading “Doing Well by Doing Good”

Preserving Golden Opportunities

Well, cherry picking season passed long ago, but it was followed hard by apricot season.

It’s really been a remarkable year for apricots. The variety of apricots in our region is essentially biennial. Oh, they produce some fruit in the “off” year, but it’s not much. Last year I think we got five altogether. Most people in the region have two trees, producing in alternate years. We’ve also got two, but they produce in the same year. Why the previous owner did this I am not sure, and probably it was unintentional.

In any case, when they come ripe, the apricots come falling off the tree faster than you can pick them up off the ground. You sit under the canopy of branches, on a warm summer day, clearing the ground in front of you. While you’re picking the fruit up, you hear more drop into the space you thought you’d just cleared. The insects buzz, the birds are in intense song mode, and all seems right with the world. You’ve got so many new apricots.

Oh yes, did I mention that you’ve got so many new apricots? You see, it’s a problem. These are not just low hanging fruit, they are golden opportunities, waiting to be picked up.

Golden Opportunities

Like fresh ideas, new initiatives, or “urgent” matters, if you leave them lying about too long, they go bad. Apricots get stale, fresh ideas get pigeon-holed for “later” (I.e. never), new initiatives lose their energy, and urgent matters not only cease to be urgent, they cease to be, period.

Since we can’t eat all those apricots in such a short time, we get cracking:

  • We make jam
  • We use them in chutneys
  • We freeze some
  • We make pies and cakes

In our profession, of course, we can often have the luxurious gift of abundance of ideas and initiatives, without the time, resources or support to realise them all, and of course, we end up frustrated, often cursing our bosses or our cruel fate.

The trick lies in knowing how to seize these golden opportunities, which are often unexpected. We don’t have to realise all these great things at once, but we do need to keep them from going bad. This often means slowing down the decay process. So we can consume (realise) some opportunities right away, and use the others to make jam, chutney, pies and cakes, and so on.

Making jam, pies, etc. for us means transforming our brilliant but currently unrealisable ideas into realisable alternatives or derived products. Obviously, the biggest obstacles are time and resources, and they are usually interconnected. to give a simple example, maybe you’ve got a great way to put all your XML topics into a jazzy CMS. But you don’t have the budget to buy the CMS nor the tools people to configure and maintain it according to your great plan. Well, why not model your structure in your existing software configuration management system? You can leverage existing resources, and probably get your software team interested in helping you set it up, especially if it helps them pull your information into their builds.

You can also freeze some of your projects; freezing is a preservation method. Preserve your projects and ideas by taking the time to detail them, so you can come back to them with the same excitement and enthusiasm you had when you dreamt them up.

Only one thing: unless you can get this project or idea into action immediately, please DO NOT put it into the system to linger and die while everyone tells you what a good idea it is. Pick your moments strategically. Even if you have an abundance of good ideas, it’s best to use just one or two at a time, and pull the frozen ones out of the freezer when you need a little sweetness in your professional life, and golden opportunities are out of season.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that we give a lot of our fruit away. Pies, cakes, jams, chutneys, too. That’s something else you can do with your good ideas – give some away to others in your organisation who might be able to use them, probably sooner than you can. Some people won’t credit you, and that hurts, but you’ll have contributed to your organisation, and what goes around, comes around, not always in the ways we expect.

Another thing I forgot to mention about our local variety of apricots: they get black gnarly spots all over the skin, that look like nasty canker sores. But when you peel them, they are lovely inside: fleshy and tart if you take them a bit early, or juicy and sweet if you take them at their prime of ripeness. I was talking about this with our deputy mayor, recently, and he said, flat out, “black spots are quality.” Remember, that the real source of quality is almost always hidden, and many a truly golden opportunity can be stained with black spots.

Otherwise put, “perfection is the enemy of the good.”

Cherries as Metaphor

At our property in the Languedoc region of France, we’ve had a bumper cherry harvest this year. Seems like it will be an excellent year for fruit in general. I hope so, because the veggies are in desperate shape. Some of our onions are having near-death experiences, for example. The problem with conference season is – you don’t get to work your vegetable garden.

But I digress – back to the cherries. Every year, as I pick the handsful of glorious, abundant cherries, I thank the birds for staying mostly up high.

Low Hanging Fruit
Low Hanging Fruit

Cherry picking, of course, is a time honoured art. We cherry pick through bargain bins at our favourite stores. We cherry pick the best ideas dreamed up by our colleagues. We cherry pick those parts of a political philosophy that are convenient to our world view. Etc.

Anyway, the birds – they get the ones I can’t reach, or won’t climb to, anyway. I go for the low-hanging fruit.

A few years ago, right around cherry picking time, I was telling a few of my colleagues much the same story, and mentioned that I go for the “low hanging fruit.” I then added, “Isn’t it interesting, how a business expression can be applied to a natural activity?”

No one laughed.

Hey, I’ve Been Elected!

Yowza, I’m elected to the STC Board of Directors!  I’m signed up for two years of hard labour, but it is an honour to serve, and serve I shall.

I don’t need to write a long post here, just remind those of you readers who might also be STC members, that my issues won’t go away – you can see them all on this site, grouped as pages under The Power of Radical Persuasion.

I’ll keep people posted on STC activities from my new perspective in the same set of pages, and on twitter as @gallon4stc. This main posting area will continue to be separate, devoted to real communication issues.

I would also really like to say how much I have appreciated this campaign, and that ALL the candidates have been good, worthy candidates. STC is lucky to have such depth of talent.

I also especially want to thank those members who voted. Not that many do, so if you did vote, even if you didn’t vote for me, you are a hero in my eyes. Thank you for voting.

I Keep Thinking…

…about all this communication stuff:

  • I keep thinking about how information architects don’t like to be called UX designers. “IA is so much more,” they say. The “more” they’re talking about includes content. Not Lorem Ipsum, but real content. Many IA’s think of themselves as content strategists, too. They probably are. In fact, I think IA and CS are interlocking, interdependent parts of a single, holistic process – whether done by one person or a team.
  • I keep thinking about how Map should be an element used on the publishing side of DITA, not the authoring side. Let’s rename Map to Container (that’s what it is) and then a Map could really be one: you could map a layout out on a graphic of a page or screen of your publication, and fill it with DITA elements: topics, concepts, and the newly named containers. Using these graphical elements, you could have text flows just like in old fashioned desk top publishing programs, and you could control the layout and make it pretty – removing one of the most common criticisms of working with XML.
  • I keep thinking how I really want to do it all myself. Not because I don’t like teamwork, not because I’m jealous of others’ competencies, but because I love all this stuff so much, I just want to have the fun of doing it all. Silly of me, I know.
  • I keep thinking how technical communication is a lot like playing the piano. Not just because you need to make your fingers work a keyboard in both cases, but also because, as you develop your skill and hone your craft, you become aware that you are working with subtleties that no one other than a few other specialists in your field would ever be aware of. Quality assurance people would say that this is “too much quality” – you should provide just as much as the customers ask for, and not a jot more. But we do this, every day, even though we don’t really get paid for it, and users do not – at least consciously – notice. Not only that, I encourage everyone to keep doing it.
  • I keep thinking that everything is connected. I’d better quit it, because in the end, it means thinking about the entire, infinite, exquisite universe – makes my head ache.
  • Yeah, but I keep thinking that the only really valuable skill in this age is the ability, just exactly, to make connections between things where seemingly none exists.
  • I keep thinking that one day, we’ll discover basic principles of electronic networking and break through to achieving the wonderfully facilitating type of many to many communications environments we used to have on The Source back in 1985.
  • I keep thinking that Ted Nelson was right. About just about everything.
  • I keep thinking that the more means we have to communicate, the more we seem to be throwing words and preconceived ideologies at each other like weapons.
  • I keep thinking about silence.

Find Your User’s Voice

I’m working on an interesting problem these days. I have a client who is about to release a new software product. I can’t tell you what it does, for obvious reasons, but I can tell you that it does some neat things. Perhaps too many.

It provides users with all kinds of useful information. Some of it is useful for a group of users – call them Group A. Some of it is useful for another Group B.  They aren’t interested in the same things, and for some information,  Group B wants to know about it, but Group A not only isn’t interested, they’re not authorized to see it.

Access to sensitive information can obviously be solved with user profiles, but it’s a challenge to sell the same software to two different audiences. To facilitate the task, we’ve decided to create two different interfaces, one for each of the groups. When a user logs into the software the interface s/he sees is dependent on a user profile associated with the login. The other interface is not available.

That was the easy part. Next, we have to design the interfaces. And each interface has to communicate with its user group in language that makes them comfortable, and, above all, inspires confidence in the software.

It’s early days, but here are a few guidelines I’m working on that you might also find useful:

  • The design (look and feel, user interaction model) of the two interfaces needs to be sufficiently similar that should someone need to have access to both, they don’t need to relearn everything to use it.
  • At the same time, the same elements of the interface need to be fine tuned to appeal to very different user populations – for example, one might be technical, or engineering oriented, the other might be business oriented. One might be implicated in operations, the other might be financial, etc.
  • The language, labels, messages used in each interface need to be 100% adapted to the user group’s profile.
  • When writing the messages and content delivered by the software, we need to think about subtext as well as overt meaning. When two people have a conversation, there is enormous subtext based on power relationships, expectations, tone of voice, etc. When software provides information to a user, there is an implied notion that one or the other is the expert. How the software communicates with the user needs to be aligned with whether the software or the user is expected to be the expert, and the tone of the communication needs to be equally adjusted.
  • The user guidance, also needs to respect the target audience. This is harder the it might seem. Some of the user guidance is common to both interfaces – and needs to maintain that level of confidence for both, despite the fact that the two groups tend to favor very different communication styles.

My takeaway from this exercise so far: when we talk about content strategy for software, we really need to take a holistic approach, and realize that content and style need to be coherent, and in resonance with the nature of the information itself, and the user who must interact with it. Interactivity, in this sense, needs to take certain aspects of human communication into account if it is to succeed at convincing users and gaining their trust.

Where Would You Take This Idea?

I invite your comments, thoughts or reflections.