Let’s Break a Tech Comm Rule

Update: Links to all session slides and recordings are grouped here.

I’ve been a technical communicator for nigh on 20 years. I teach technical communications. I theorize about technical communications. And for all this time, I have steadfastly held to the great rule that you do not mix concepts with tasks.

DITA has three major topic types. Two of them are Concept and Task. Why? To keep them separate, of course – everyone knows that!

And yet – and yet – and yet – here I am, telling you that “everything we know is wrong.” Continue reading “Let’s Break a Tech Comm Rule”

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.

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.