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”

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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.”

The Gestalt of Bookkeeping

Well!  The STC election is over (I won). The spring conference season is over – at least for me, with many successes and then – the one I didn’t do so well at. The home stretch in this hectic season, before relaxing for the summer (apart for some client work to pay the bills) was French tax season.

To do my taxes, I first have to do my books. If you’re like me, you wait until the last minute to do a lot of the bookkeeping work. Resolutions, year after year, to keep my books up to date all during the year have all gone down the road that’s paved with good intentions…

Bookkeeping is a simple, boring, annoying task, right? Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be? Funny thing is, each year, when I start this process, so many things come back to me:

The lunch in New York, where I invited two of my former students, from two universities on different continents and from two different generations, because I was sure they’d have something to say to each other, and they did.

The EuroIA conference in Prague that stimulated and excited me.

The Intelligent Content conference in Palm Springs where I not only was stimulated and excited, but got to have a wonderful reunion with an old friend I hadn’t seen since high school (I won’t tell you how many years ago that was…)

The new sound equipment that I bought and have not yet used as intended (real soon now).

The trip to San Francisco that I didn’t plan, after the death of my closest cousin.

The weekend canoeing with my Barcelona friends on a meander of the Ebro River near Flix.

Doing one’s books for the whole year all at once provides the kind of reflection and review that we are supposed to do around various religious ceremonies, but that many of us largely ignore. Holding that receipt in the hand opens a floodgate of memory. It can be a time for nostalgia, for bittersweet reminiscence, even for regrets, or might stimulate us to beg pardon of someone for something we did during the past year.

Bookkeeping. Who woulda thunk it?

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.

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?

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.

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.