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.

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?

The EuroIA Summit – a Wow Experience

I did plan to write this a bit earlier, but while I was in Prague at this year’s EuroIA summit, I got a bout of bronchitis that’s been slowing me down. That said, I can still easily say “Wow.” It was a great conference.

What made it great, first and foremost, was the spirit. Just about everyone there was infused with a certain joie de vivre that was infectious. People were there to share and celebrate their profession. The “celebrate” part was really important. There was a sense that information architecture, as a profession, had gone through some hard times, and that it was now possible to hold one’s head up high and jubilantly proclaim to the heavens, “Ich bin ein IA!” – OK, wrong language for Prague, but I don’t know any Czech 😉

Another reason for the success of this conference is that it is deliberately kept small – sold out at 200. This is done to guaranty that most people get to speak to most people, and that you get to meet new folks, not just hang out with old friends. The small group fosters camaraderie as well. There were only two concurrent sessions at a time, so, although choices were sometimes difficult, they weren’t as daunting as for some larger conferences.

Then there was the quality of the presentations themselves. While I can’t say that they were uniformly outstanding, every presentation I attended was able to grab and hold my attention, even the one that I found disappointing. No one was so boring that I wanted to leave. That might seem to be a backhanded compliment, but anyone who has had to organize a conference knows that it is very difficult to achieve such a thing in a three-day event.

I specially appreciated that this conference was really for people in Europe. There were some attendees from North America, but the focus of the conference was on European practice and European issues, and that was a refreshing change from many so-called “international” conferences where people from all over the world can congregate and talk about the state of their professions in the United States.

One innovation of this conference that I really loved – and will probably steal next time I have to organize a conference myself – was what they called “The IA Shuffle.” Conference chair Eric Reiss explained that in the past, organizers had been disappointed by the poor quality of panels and debates that had been proposed and prepared in advance. They decided, a few years back, that an improvised panel couldn’t possibly be any worse, and thus was born the IA Shuffle.

Here’s how it works. At the beginning of the day, a tall hat is placed in front of one of the meeting rooms, and attendees are invited to drop their proposals for a panel discussion topic into the hat. At the end of the day, in plenary session, a single topic is drawn from the hat, and that is the topic of the discussion. Volunteer panelists are then solicited, and the process is repeated as they put their names into the hat. Five or six names are drawn, and Bob’s your uncle! A panel is born.

I personally agree with Eric Reiss’ assessment that the panel we witnessed was every bit as good, and perhaps better for its spontaneity, as any prepared panel could be.

I came back from Prague knowing that next year I’ll be submitting a paper proposal, and going to Rome for EuroIA 2012 whether my paper is accepted or not.

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.