All I want for Christmas is…. (Tech Comm edition)

I’ve been a good little technical communicator all year. At least I think I have. If I’m on Santa’s Nice list and not his Naughty list, this is what I hope he’ll bring:Santa Claus

  • A good understanding of who my readers are
  • User stories or scenarios that accurately describe the tasks my readers are trying to do
  • SMEs who take documentation seriously and make themselves available
  • A doc plan that spells out what everyone expects of me — and what I can expect from them
  • Managers who understand that good technical communication is good for the bottom line
  • Tools that let me create and update content, store content, and (especially) publish content to different formats without turning myself into a contortionist
  • A good editor

Here are some things I do not want to find in my stocking:

  • A brand new release of the authoring software, with major changes to the user interface, right in the middle of a project
  • Overpromising by upper management: “Sure, we can ship all of those features by next month”
  • Silos that make it hard, if not impossible, to develop content collaboratively
  • Last-minute translation requirements (and come to think of it, last-minute anything)

What’s on your Tech Comm holiday wish list?

Leader, be worthy of my trust

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters (source: CIA Headquarters virtual tour)

Earlier this week, in the Project Management section that I teach as part of Duke University’s Technical Communication certificate program, I told my students that trust is the currency of project management. In fact, trust is the currency of all leadership.

You can coerce people using brute force alone. But to truly lead, you have to earn your followers’ trust.

How does a leader earn trust? By showing that he or she is trustworthy. By never pursuing hidden agendas. By being truthful.

Yesterday John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, held a press conference in the lobby of CIA headquarters. Engraved in the wall next to him, according to the New York Times, was a verse from the Gospel of John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I wonder if Brennan thought about that verse of scripture as he stood there, defending his predecessors at the CIA who’d covered up the horrifying truth that its agents — agents of my country, the United States of America — had tortured and abused human beings as part of the “war on terror.” Continue reading

On the wild trail: When you don’t feel prepared

Book cover: WildIn her best-seller Wild (which was recently made into a movie), author Cheryl Strayed recounts her experiences as a young woman hiking alone for 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Although woefully underprepared when she began — a fact she readily admits — Strayed stayed the course and found the experience to be life altering.

As technical communicators, sometimes we’re thrust into jobs for which we feel underprepared. Maybe we land a new writing gig for which we don’t know the subject matter. Maybe we take on new roles and responsibilities to keep from being expendable. Maybe, as in the extreme example of Tina the Tech Writer, we have 45 minutes to learn how to be a database analyst.

When this happens to us, we might need to avoid the trap of the impostor syndrome. We can also learn from Cheryl Strayed’s experiences on the trail. Continue reading

4 ways to get the most out of your SMEs

For as long as I can remember, and probably from time immemorial, we technical communicators have struggled in our relationships with subject-matter experts (SMEs). Sometimes the results are humorous. Often they’re painful.

Sumo wrestlers in competitionWhen I teach Tech Comm at Duke University, I use this photo of sumo wrestlers to illustrate the struggle. Yet I also hasten to assure my students that it’s not always this way — nor does it have to be.

How can you work with your SMEs to increase the degree of cooperation and limit the pushing and shoving? Here are four principles that’ve helped me. Continue reading

I’m an impostor – and that’s OK

Impostor syndrome. It’s when, as a professional, you feel like you’re totally unqualified for the work you do and you’re terrified that people are going to find out.

Trapeze artist flying through the airAccording to Wikipedia, researchers tell us that “two out of five successful people [are affected by impostor syndrome] and…70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.”

Wanna know a secret, based on what I’ve observed during my career? If 30 percent say they never feel like impostors, I can promise you that most of them are lying.

Practically all of us feel like impostors sometimes, and there’s a good reason: we don’t know what we’re doing. Continue reading

Black Friday, Green Friday: Count me out

I’m opting out of Black Friday. Passing up all of the offers that cluttered my email inbox this morning — even the one from the Sierra Club, an organization I thought was better than that.

Black Friday needs a new name. While I understand that the “Black” refers to black ink in a ledger, the irony of using that word after what’s happened in Ferguson, Missouri, is too great to ignore.

Black Friday ad with red slash superimposedFor Black Friday takes place in big department stores and suburban malls, not in the low-income sections of town. It’s for the haves, not the have-nots. And in this country, in 2014, the have-not group is disproportionately filled with black and Hispanic people.

In Black Friday I see the social divide that leaves some people desperate enough to protest in the streets while the rest shrug and say “what’s their problem?” Or are too busy jockeying for bargains to notice at all.

So let’s call it Green Friday. Green, the color of money. And green the color of envy, as in “My neighbor got an 80-inch flat-screen, and I have to have one too.”

Better still, let’s opt out.

4 ways to size up your client’s culture

I appreciate all the clients I work with. Each one is unique, with its own corporate culture. Often, that culture makes it easier to work with the client. But sometimes it erects obstacles that we have to overcome.

How can you measure the corporate culture of a client you’re working with, or are about to work with? If you’re a full-time employee, how can you measure the culture of a company you’ve just joined or are about to join?

The answers to these questions will probably determine whether you’ll have a successful working relationship with the client. Continue reading

Peace: Celebrating our common humanity

malalaKailash_SatyarthiAt first glance, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kailash Satyarthi and  Malala Yousafzai, are a study in opposites. An Indian and a Pakistani. A Hindu and a Muslim. A man and a woman. Members of two different generations.

But much more than that, here are two human beings dedicated to protecting and providing opportunities to all the children in the world.

Focusing on what we share in common, not on our differences. Looking beyond the labels. Honoring those with vision, courage, and a heart for humanity. Isn’t that what peace is all about?

Image sources: (Satyarthi)
Wikipedia Commons (Yousafzai)

Tell me why I should buy

Today’s post is about content marketing — specifically, the lowest form of content marketing: political advertising.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee, from the original edition of Through the Looking GlassOn three different days in the past two weeks the snail mail box has brought flyers from both candidates who are vying for a seat in our state legislature. Tweedledum’s ads all say that Tweedledee is unfit for election because he’s wrong about everything. Tweedledee’s ads say that Tweedledum is unfit because he once worked as (gasp) a lobbyist.

Here’s the thing: each candidate is so busy tearing down the other that he never says a word about why he himself might be the better choice. Continue reading