I love the challenge of describing things

I enjoy turning the spotlight on people who are great communicators. One of the best is about to retire.

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Vin Scully at work. Man, I wish my office had a view like this. (Image source: ESPN)

This weekend, Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully will call his last game. Since 1950 (that’s not a typo) baseball fans — not just Dodger fans, but all of us — have fallen under the spell of Scully’s warm baritone voice.

During a celebration in his honor, Scully said, “I really love baseball. The guys and the game, and I love the challenge of describing things.”

Describing things. Isn’t that what all of us — anyone who has written a user guide or tutorial, anyone who has created technical art or instructional videos — try to do? No one does it better than Vin Scully.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s a model for technical communicators.

Pull up a chair, and let me explain what I mean. Continue reading

My hopes for STC’s new Leader

STC (Society for Technical Communication) members received word this week that CEO Chris Lyons will step down. A search for a new CEO will begin soon.

chrislyons

I’ve found Chris Lyons to be a smart and dedicated advocate for STC. I wish him the best.

I know a good bit about the CEO’s role and about the search process, having served on the search committee that recommended Kathryn Burton to the STC board of directors in 2006.

In the hope that our society will grow and thrive under its new leadership, I have some advice for the STC members (search committee and board of directors) who will evaluate candidates to be our next CEO.

He or she will be an association professional, aware of the challenges faced by today’s professional societies and up to date on best practices.

Beyond that, STC faces challenges in growth, in membership retention, and in a perception that it hasn’t kept up with the times. So there are certain skills and attributes that I especially hope our new CEO will bring.

Important note: By listing these skills and attributes I’m not implying that Chris or the existing office staff have fallen short in any way. I’m simply looking to the future. Continue reading

Taxonomy: bringing light to the ocean depths

The American Heritage Dictionary defines taxonomy as division into ordered groups or categories.

oceanlight

Taxonomy brings light to the depths of our content.

Amid today’s ocean of content, taxonomy is the secret sauce that brings light to the depths, that imparts value to all of that content.

It breaks the content into usable subsets. It groups apples together with apples, oranges with oranges. And, when needed, it groups apples with caramel, or with peanut butter, creating associations that delight our readers.

Sounds wonderful. So why aren’t we all out there creating great taxonomies? Because it’s hard. It requires a lot of understanding.

Seth Godin recently wrote about taxonomy:

Your job, if you want to explain a field, if you want to understand it, if you want to change it, is to begin with the taxonomy of how it’s explained and
understood.

Seth observed that not all taxonomies make sense. Words in the dictionary are grouped by alphabetical order because that’s the way people look for them. Imagine if, instead, the words were grouped by their origins: all words relating to Anglo-Saxon farming, say, or Roman military strategy. No one but a hard-core etymologist would be able to use the dictionary.

That’s why we, as technical writers, have to know our readers’ domain — really know it — before we can make a meaningful taxonomy. Before we can organize that ocean of content in a way that’s relevant to our readers.

Seth put it this way: If you can’t build a taxonomy for your area of expertise, then you’re not an expert in it.

I submit that the converse is true as well: if you’re not an expert, you’ll struggle to build a good taxonomy. Study your readers’ domain. Seek to learn as much as you can about it. No shortcuts.

That’s the bad news. Now here’s some good news. Continue reading

Your cloak of invisibility

I just met, Internet style, Claire Mahoney — and already I’m a big fan. I loved her witty and on-the-mark article, Tech writer life: The invisibility conundrum.

Here are some of Claire’s suggestions for technical writers who want to become more visible in the workplace:

  • Work on relationships: Get out of your shell and join in the day-to-day office conversation.
  • Expand and expound: Say “yes” every time you get the opportunity to take on a new project, to provide help to people on other teams.
  • Care: Sweat the details. Put everything you have into everything you do. If others see that you take your work seriously, they’ll take it seriously too.
harry_potter_cloak

Harry Potter got his cloak of invisibility from a wizard. For us, it just comes with the job.

Do those things, and you’ll never have to worry about being invisible where you work.

However.

There’s one big thing Claire didn’t mention. As visible as we want to be in our workplaces, we technical writers had better get used to being invisible to our readers.

When we do our jobs right, nobody is supposed to notice. In that way we’re like the caterer at a big wedding, or the officials at a football game. If they do their jobs perfectly, all attention is on the bride and groom, or on the players in the game. If they mess up, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Tongue-in-cheek, I’ve complained that there’s never been a technical writer on Dancing with the Stars. And I once proposed creating a Salute to Technical Communicators Day, but Congress never got around to approving the proclamation.

The reality is, the nature of our work renders us invisible. It’s possible that someone, somewhere, might notice a well-written spec sheet or tutorial and think “nice job.” But you’ll never get the glory. Or get to dance with Sharna Burgess.

In fact, if you do your job really well — if you participate in designing a product and it turns out to be so easy to use that it barely needs documentation — then you can be sure no one will notice. The product is just there, doing what it’s supposed to, and all of the attention is on the customer’s task.

Which is why we’d better be OK with the idea of being invisible — outside our workplaces. But never inside.

Tell me about your experiences with invisibility in the comments section.

Image  source: harrypotter.wikia.com

The watery state of content

lakeCherryleaf’s Ellis Pratt wrote this week about the content lake. Picking up on the concept of a data lake, a repository that holds “a vast amount of raw data in its native format,” Ellis explained that content can exist in much the same fashion: a big bunch of content that can be organized and processed by a smart piece of software.

I’d never heard of a data lake until I read Ellis’s article, and I’d never heard of a content lake until Ellis coined the term.

It reminds me of Alan Porter’s content pool: the total body of content than a given organization possesses, from every part of the organization.

Maybe the difference between a content lake and a content pool is that the pool’s boundaries are a little better defined. And usually there’s a lifeguard to rescue you when you’re in over your head.

With all due respect to my colleagues Ellis and Alan, I find that the best description of today’s content is an ocean.

No matter which watery metaphor you prefer, our containers for holding content are filling up fast. Content comes to us from every direction, in a multitude of forms.

  • In the business world, seemingly every company is publishing how-to documentation, marketing and promotional literature, forum posts, and images. Look at the company’s organizational chart, and it’s hard to find an area that isn’t publishing content.
  • Anyone with a computer or a phone can churn out articles, posts, messages, tweets, and images — from self-published manuscripts to cat photos. From
    thought pieces to birthday greetings.
  • Content has begun flowing from the Internet of Things: an endless array of surveillance cameras, household appliances, and, well, things.

surferEllis writes about storing, querying, and retrieving the content for instantaneous use. Here’s a question for those of us who call ourselves content professionals: Are we ready to do that?

I think we’re taking steps in that direction. But a lot of us, and a lot of the companies we work for, are at risk of getting swamped with all of the content that’s coming.

In any case, as we approach the 2020s, the winning content professionals will be those who can not only stay afloat in the content ocean but who can ride on top of the waves.

Surf’s up!

What do you think? Do you see an ocean of content coming our way? Are we ready?

Insecure leaders — generous leaders?

Studies show.

Two words that ought to send your critical-thinking apparatus into overdrive.

Trapeze artist flying through the airIn this case, according to a report from Forbes writer Adi Gaskell, studies show that insecure leaders — those who say they experience impostor syndrome — are less selfish and more generous than other leaders. (Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you’re unqualified for the work you’re doing.)

Aware of their own shortcomings, the studies suggest, these leaders will forgive similar shortcomings in the people they lead. They even tend to delegate more work to employees who feel unworthy than to those who are confident and self-assured.

Gaskell writes, “The research found that when leaders suffer from impostor syndrome, they are more likely to be generous to others as they try and alleviate any perceived unfairness in their ascent to power.”

My own experience

That’s totally opposite to what I’ve experienced in my own career.

Of the leaders I’ve worked for (and with), it’s the insecure ones who act defensively and who are least likely to be generous. To a greater or lesser degree, they’re busy protecting their authority — which they often feel they gained unjustly — and trying to hide their deficiencies.

Leaders who are confident and self-assured, I’ve found, are much more generous: less apt to insist that everything be done their way, more willing to help when needed, more likely to deflect praise.

Confidence opens the door to true humility (not self-doubt) and servant leadership.

I’d much rather have a leader who’s confident than one who’s insecure. And so would you, I’ll bet.

Yet studies show the opposite to be true. So what’s going on? Here are some suggestions. Continue reading

Back to school part 2: enhancing my technical communication skills

Back-To-School-Books-And-AppleJoe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, has inspired me to learn new skills, or burnish my existing skills, so that i can continue to succeed as a technical communicator.

In my last article I described 3 of those skills: search-engine optimization (SEO), video production, and storytelling.

Here are the rest.

User communities

Our readers no longer live in isolation For help and guidance they look not to the official company-produced materials (like manuals and context-sensitive help) but to each other.

Smart companies, like the one I work for, host user forums and post knowledge bases on their websites. Customers can ask questions and get answers from each other and from experts on the company’s technical staff.

In many cases, online communities exist independently as well — on sites that aren’t affiliated with a product’s manufacturer. Those sites might have a lower signal-to-noise ratio, but they’re still popular. In some cases they’re preferred because, many believe, you’re more likely to find the unvarnished truth there.

I would be arrogant and a blockhead if I, as a technical communicator, chose to ignore these sources and insisted that my readers rely only on the official documentation.

I need to learn where my readers are seeking information about my products, and then I need to come alongside them — for example, by answering a question on a user forum and providing a link to the appropriate section of the documentation.

I also need to learn how people are interacting with my company on social media and be ready to step in when someone is looking for something I can provide. And when I step in, it should go without saying that the phrase RTFM is strictly verboten.

Designing and writing for the small screen

Joe noted that the most popular documentation format is still PDF, with web- and browser-based content cutting into its lead. However, the adoption of tablet- and smartphone-based formats like eBook remains flat. I think it’s because most technical documentation simply doesn’t lend itself to being read on a small screen.

MALE HAND HOLDING SMARTPHONE 2.jpgIt isn’t that people don’t want to read our content on a smartphone. It’s that we haven’t made it feasible. Yet.

We’re starting to see tools that can break up large technical documents into topics and push them to a tablet or smartphone in such a way that they can be updated automatically and the reader can make bookmarks and other notations.

So the technology is coming. Now we need the skills to create content for the small screen. Break large oceans of text into something more succinct. Find a better way to present content that exists today in large tables or complicated graphics.

How will we do that? I think we’ll have to pick and choose: figure out what content lends itself to a small-screen presentation and concentrate on that. Then provide download links to everything else. We’ll also need to evolve a skill we should already have developed: telling our story as succinctly as possible.

There’ll surely be demand for small-screen content. We have to figure out how to meet the demand.

UI strings and embedded assistance

The most direct way a technical communicator can show people how to use a product is to design the product’s user interface — or at least write the text strings in the UI. In the software world, more and more of us are getting to do just that.

When an input field is labeled in a way that makes sense for the audience, with a well-written help tutorial, the software becomes much easier to use and much less in need of detailed instructions.

Joe noted that in this area, technical communicators might have to fight to earn our place at the table. After all, there are already software developers and UI designers who consider this to be their jobs.

But some technical communicators have already gotten the chance to create UI strings and embedded assistance, and they’re making the most of it. As we — the technical communication community — develop a track record of success, with specific examples of how our work improved a product and made money for the company, we’ll get even more opportunities.

When those opportunities come, we need to be ready to seize them.

 

User communities. Designing and writing for the small screen. UI strings and embedded assistance. Have you been honing your skills in these areas? What other skills are you looking to update? What tips can you share with others?

Back to school: enhancing my technical communication skills

Here where I live it’s back-to-school time: a reminder that no matter how long I’ve worked in technical communication, there are always new things to learn.

Back-To-School-Books-And-AppleThe skills I’ve already mastered, while still valuable, won’t be enough for me to succeed in a world of new technologies and new ways of consuming information.

What will I be looking to learn this year? The following list is inspired by Joe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, which
he gave last week to the STC Carolina chapter.

Search-engine optimization (SEO)

Joe’s succinct advice, to everyone in the room, was “Learn this.”

No matter what kind of technical content you create, it’s going online. Even the lowly (but still popular) PDF. And your readers will find it using a search engine.

So you need to understand how the right words and phrases, both in text and metadata, make your content bubble to the top of the search results. The best advice: don’t try to game the search engines. Make sure your content is relevant, and use terminology appropriately. Continue reading

Take your eyes off your feet

Crater_Lake_Panorama,_Aug_2013It was unmistakable, the inner voice I heard as I hiked the rim trail at Crater Lake National Park.

Take your eyes off your feet.

I learned long ago, around the same time I first flew in an airplane and looked out the window, that I’m not afraid of heights. But I am afraid of falling. Put a barrier — a railing, a stone wall, an airplane window — between me and thin air, and I’ll walk right up and soak in the view. Take away the barrier and you’ll find me inching back from the edge, looking for a safe patch of ground.

There was no barrier along this stretch of trail. Just some grass and brush, and then a cliff of several hundred feet — the edge of Crater Lake. The view was amazing. But much of the time my head was down — noticing every bit of mud and every uneven spot that might make me slip or stumble.

That’s when the inner voice said Take your eyes off your feet.

Busted! I’d been so focused on avoiding a fall, that I’d lost sight of my goal: to enjoy the hike and see the scenery. I knew I had no excuse, except plain old fear.

So I took a deep breath, focused my eyes on the top of the next rise, about 100 yards ahead, and started walking. Continue reading

Trump’s Icarus moment? 

We learned in school about Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus, fascinated by the idea of flying, fashioned two pairs of wings for himself and his son, Icarus, out of feathers and wax.

Gowy-icaro-pradoThey began to fly, and it was wonderful at first. But then Icarus, ignoring his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun. The wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea.

Are we seeing Donald Trump’s Icarus moment?

Fascinated (perhaps obsessed) by fame and adulation, Trump put his name on everything he touched and became a TV celebrity. Then he thought of the ultimate ego trip: running for president.

It was wonderful at first. Probably even better than expected. Trump’s words resonated with a large and vocal segment of the population. He found his rallies filled with people who roared their approval at everything he said.

Trump flew higher. The news media flocked to him. In the candidates’ debates, the spotlight shone on him. He won a succession of primary elections.

He flew higher still. In an upset that nobody predicted, he won the Republican party’s nomination for president. He said whatever outrageous things came into his mind, just so he could hear the crowds roar with approval.

Now his wax is melting. Continue reading