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”

Advertisements

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?

TCWorld/Tekom and STC TC Summit: Two Realities

Since attending the TCWorld/Tekom conference for the first time last October, I’ve been thinking about how it both resembles and doesn’t resemble the STC Technical Communications Summit, an event that I have attended several times.

I had heard a lot of different opinions about this, and find that my own perception of this first dive into the Tekom world is a bit different from many of the comments I’ve heard. Here are a few of my observations, in no particular order, comparing the two events.

Basic Statistics


Number of days:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: 3
  • STC Summit: 4

Cost (member std rates):

  • TCWorld/Tekom: 650€
  • STC Summit: $1 025

Social Events included:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: Refreshment breaks, lunch every day
  • STC Summit: Refreshment breaks, 2 receptions, 1 lunch

Number of sessions:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: English – 62 sessions, 24 workshops German- 82 sessions, 25 workshops
  • STC Summit: 80 sessions, workshops extra

Post event access:

  • TCWorld/Tekom: Some presentation slides available for download
  • STC Summit: Summit@aClick access to full recordings of most sessions

Both conferences include trade fairs (Tekom’s is many times bigger than STC’s), and vendor showcases. Tekom also includes technology sessions that don’t seem to have a direct equivalent at the STC Summit, though some of these themes are treated in STC regular sessions.

Tekom offers a discounted rate to members of TC Europe member organisations. STC members do not receive a discount. STC, to my knowledge, has no discount programme for members of sister organisations anywhere.

Tekom’s trade fair does not include the innovation of the consultant’s corner, the space reserved for small consultancies that has been quite successful at recent STC Summits.

Content

As Kai Weber has pointed out in his overview of Tekom, it really is two parallel events: one in English, one in German. I have the impression (not totally backed up by observation) that more of the German sessions were oriented to practitioners, and more of the English sessions were oriented towards managers or consultants.

Like the STC Summit, presentations are organised in parallel tracks, and you can follow a single track or skip from one to another, as your needs and interest direct you.

Sarah O’Keefe, who speaks fluent German, said that she preferred to attend more of the German sessions. Her reasoning is that she already knows most of the English presenters, and the German presentations offer a different perspective on the themes that occupy our attention. My German is very rusty, and what remains in my head is just enough for me to feel frustrated when I try to decipher a spoken presentation. I must refresh my German before attending another Tekom event, because I would have very much liked to experience what Sarah was talking about.

Scott Abel organized a content strategy day at TCWorld that I took part in, that was the highlight of the conference for me. As I understand it, this was a new initiative for Tekom, not unlike the effort at the Dallas STC Summit. I would have liked to see a more dynamic followup at the Sacramento STC summit, as I have indicated elsewhere.

A major component of the TCWorld/Tekom event is localisation, and GALA is a partner in the event. The result is that if localisation is not at the centre of your concerns, it will seem that a huge part of the event does not concern you. A very high percentage of exhibitors at the trade fair were also vendors of localisation services, software, etc.

On the other hand, TCWorld/Tekom features a separate “Associations World,” a sort of trade fair for not for profits, for which STC has no equivalent. Exhibitors this year included other technical communication organisations such as ISTC (UK) and organisations from India, Japan, Poland, etc. It’s interesting to note that Tekom, a for-profit organisation, hosts associations, and STC, a not-for-profit, charitable organisation, doesn’t really have an equivalent.

Bottom Line

Both TCWorld/Tekom and STC Summits are great events. They have different characters, based in part on cultural differences, and also on the different business models and size of the two organisations. I am pleased to have been able to attend, and present at, both.

The Value Question

OK, this is not a blog for or about my family, but I’m going to talk about my sister again.

You see, I pick on her (she’ll tell you I always did) as an example because she’s pretty typical in certain ways.  She’s been carrying on quite nicely as a science writer, web content editor, media rep, and other nifty stuff that technical communicators routinely do, but to my knowledge, she’s never written a user manual or other direct user guidance in her life.

She’s done all this very well over a long, distinguished career (family resemblance is much more than coincidental ;-)) without ever being a member, herself, of the STC.

Suddenly, she gets it into her head to join, partly because of my participation and activism in the society, and guess what?  She can’t find anything that speaks to her.

I’ve already posted about how my sister didn’t go to the STC technical communication summit and I did. So, she looked for a webinar to take, and found one on scenario-based IA. Of course, she had to pay $79 for it. This was her take on it:

I thought this session was far too basic for a tech comm crowd (tell me who doesn’t already know what a scenario is?) and far too limited in scope, with the entire focus on “get your customer to do x monetizing goal.”  …I was looking for something a bit more directed to the education/nonprofit world, and my question [about that] was never acknowledged or addressed in the live presentation. So, what would motivate me to pay that much money for a live STC webinar in future, when it’s essentially a canned presentation?  I could have bought two books on info architecture for that $79 bucks.

This is the value dilemma. When a professional organisation offers a webinar and expects people to pay for it, it needs to make sure it’s delivering good value, or people will spend their money elsewhere. Stands to reason. My own first webinar presenting experience gave me pause to think about this from the other side of the screen – and to feel a bit guilty.

Seems obvious to me, that an organisation that presents webinars for a fee needs to be sure of the quality of the content. Beyond that, however, a proper educational service should be vetting the presenters, and be able to provide some help and support for them beyond managing the technical presentation tool. Those of us who do a lot of teaching already know there’s no better way to learn, and speaking for myself, although an experienced teacher and presenter, the webinar situation was new to me, and I could have used some preliminary coaching.

In STC, in this day when so much information is available free via social networks and search engines, it is incumbent on us to be “serious,” as the French would say, to be sure that our quality, and our image, be consistently above average. I think I’m pretty good, but my webinar for STC was not above average. This is certainly my fault and not STC’s – let’s be clear. But perhaps the education department should have – could have helped prepare me to make sure that my first time avoided the common pitfalls. This is not only a help to the presenter, it helps to guaranty quality for STC.

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.

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.