What’s Emotion Got to do with Technical Communication?

I’ve just returned from the 12th Consciousness Reframed conference, in Lisbon. This conference, started by my friend Roy Ascott, is based on the idea that we can raise our level of consciousness using a combination of scientific research and mental and spiritual discipline. It’s based on the concept that artists are social researchers and socializers of new technologies, and that an artistic regard towards the planet and human existence is as useful as – and is a parallel activity to – scientific investigation. This ideas was also expressed in the 1950’s by Werner Heisenberg, one of the godfathers of quantum physics, and whose uncertainty principle is most easily understood from the point of view of Eastern philosophies such as certain branches of Buddhism, rather than from our traditional Western methods.

I was a presenter at this conference, but also an avid attendee, listening to people from a wide variety of disciplines and experiences speak about evolving ideas of transformation and multiple identities in the age of virtual, networked communication. The point of departure of this conference is to reject any and all dogmas, and be open to the possibilities of any serious study, be they based in science or the knowledge systems of aboriginal peoples worldwide. Thus, the gestalt of the conference is to avoid being boxed in, either by a purely materialistic idea of science, or by a totally spiritual approach that excludes more “rational” or traditional scientific methods.

I was struck by the similarity of approach between the best speakers at this conference, and the incredible balancing act of humanism, emotion, and science that I’ve already related in recommending Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk.

I have since read Dr. Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight, where she likens some of the states she experienced during her stroke and long recovery as akin to the “Nirvana” of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. She goes to great lengths to explain how her brain function, from a physiological point of view, was functioning to cause these sensations. She also swings back from that “concrete” explanation to the subjective account of how she experienced this – emotionally, sensorially, mentally and physically.

There is an incredible lesson in these types of experiences for us technical communicators. Jill Bolte Taylor wrote a book that was a New York Times best seller. It was about her own brain. It is full of technical and scientific information that, at times, can be extremely complex. Yet her book was a best seller.

She didn’t get to have a best seller by going into great detail to explain the intricacies of brain function. She got to have it because she told a powerful, human story.

We’ve all heard about “story telling” as a technique. But how many of us understand it at this visceral level?  How many of us are able to communicate complex, technical and scientific information to our audiences with the clarity and liveliness that Jill Bolte Taylor does either in her TED talk or her book?

How many of us even think about doing it?

Don’t most of us tend to think emotions have no place in technical communication?

But what if that emotional component, the human side of things, enabled our audiences to do what they want and need to do faster, easier, and with more enjoyment? Shouldn’t we be glad to provide that? Shouldn’t we be thinking about the lessons learned from the communications of Jill Bolte Taylor and the speakers at Consciousness Reframed, and understanding how we can tell human stories to our human users and give them a rewarding experience?

How would you do it?

How would you start to include human stories in your technical communication? What methods would you use? What kinds of stories would you tell, and how would you tell them? What delivery methods would you use?

Oral Tech Comm

This, too, is technical communication, and it enters perfectly into the “humanist nerd” camp. This TED talk has made a few rounds, but is worth viewing, or reviewing.

Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain researcher who got an insight into her own field through her own stroke.  While this kind of occurrence is dramatic, it is not in itself that exceptional. Many bright people who are researchers have had insights into their own research through a personal accident – the most well-known probably being Sir Isaac Newton’s famous apple.

What makes this one special is the combination of the following:

  • The clarity of the explanation – the technical content.
  • The personal point of view – she describes each of her senses shutting down, one by one, from a first-person point of view that has rarely been possible.
  • The emotion that suffuses the presentation. She manages to communicate an intense personal experience with all its sensations, and at the same time be clear about the scientific part, and for the most part (perhaps not so much at the very end), she manages to keep both clarity and a certain kind of precision in her content, and to convey the human experience.

I’ve noticed some problems using the embedded player, so in case, here’s the URL: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Lessons Learned:

We technical communicators have come from what used to be called “technical writing.”  We forget, sometimes, that the written word is just one means of communication. We also communicate orally (presentations, webinars, etc. – see my previous post about my experience delivering a webinar for the first time, for example).

The quality of the technical part of the communication – and its ability to stay in the memory of our audience – can often be a function of the human impact (humanistic impact) that it carries.

While this example is probably at the extremes of such a communication, and while some might even criticize the excess of emotion and loss of objectivity, particularly near the end of the talk, it remains a vivid illustration of just how powerful a technical communication can be.

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.

Transformation and Then Some!

Please watch this TED talk!  In less than 20 minutes, you will learn so many things on so many levels, and have a good laugh doing it!

Hans Rosling is a specialist in public health. This is the story of his discovery of the visual presentation of information. Now, he works with David McCandless, who created the animation I embedded in my earlier post,  A Beautiful Example of Transformation.

This video illustrates transformation on so many levels:

  • Public health
  • Education technique
  • Visual communication
  • Cultural misconceptions
  • Economic disparity

It shows how all this is connected and interconnected, and does it with humour, grace, wit, and intelligence. A lesson for us all.

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.

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.