If you had just one day

We technical communicators are consummate professionals. We take our jobs seriously, 365 days a year.

We seek to inform, instruct, and assist. Never to entertain. We leave that to other, lesser scribblers. Yessir, we’re all business, all the time.

And yet….

What if we had one day when the rules were different? A day when we’d still write informative, accurate content, but when we could let our professional hair down just a little?

I’m not talking about writing some whimsical placeholder text, and then deleting or replacing it right away. I’m talking about an imaginary world in which we could have a whole day to write stuff that was off kilter, and publish it, and there’d be no repercussions.

Did you ever wish you could have a day like that? Did you ever think about what you’d do?

I’ve thought about it. Continue reading

Email marketing: I was a dreamer

This week in his Power of Connection chat (#PoCchat), on the topic of email marketing, Bobby Umar asked this question: How did you feel when you sent your first e-mail newsletter or announcement?

Old letters and postcards

My first email newsletter didn’t exactly look like this – but it was a long time ago.

How did I feel? Wow! My mind flashed back to the late 1990s and the moment I hit Send on my first email newsletter. I remember feeling this insane hope that my newsletter would be different. That I’d succeed where all those around me were failing. That my recipients would read my newsletter because somehow, magically, they’d recognize that it was a cut above all the others.

You might say I was a dreamer. And undoubtedly I was. But I wasn’t the only one.

Bobby’s question also brought me up short as I recollected how little I knew about content marketing at that time. I didn’t fully understand that my content needed to focus on the reader and not on my products and services. I didn’t understand the importance of developing relationships with my readers before I started lobbing content at them.

It all seems second nature to me now. But, looking back, I can see that I had the keys to this marvelous marketing machine — with barely a clue as to how to run it.

It occurs to me that there are people like that today. In fact, judging from the contents of my inbox, there are a lot of people like that.

So, for their benefit, here are four basics for email marketing: Continue reading

When a good worker struggles

This one’s personal. It’s the story of one of the biggest leadership challenges I’ve ever faced: a good employee whose performance declined but who didn’t (or couldn’t) admit that she had a problem.

Broken pencilsJenny (not her real name) was one of the best pure writers who ever worked for me. She came to me highly recommended, with a history of success both at work and outside of work. When she joined our project, her subject-matter experts quickly came to love her: she was congenial, she asked good questions, and she respected their time. She showed enthusiasm and a positive, can-do attitude.

Soon after we began working together, Jenny told me that she was going through a difficult divorce and adjusting to life as a single mom. She needed a flexible schedule, to accommodate the kids’ activities. We agreed that she could do much of her work at home and in the evenings. I avoided scheduling meetings and important calls in mid-afternoon when she picked up the kids at school. The arrangement suited everyone, at least for a while.

Then she started missing deadlines. She’d assure me that a chapter would be finished by Friday. Then on Friday she’d ask if it could wait until Monday, promising to work over the weekend.

I asked her if things were OK, if she could use some help. The answer was always the same: I’ve got this. I can handle it.

But she wasn’t handling it. Continue reading


Coke’s bogus research: Everything old is new again

Growing old isn’t without its advantages. Here’s one: I remember stuff that happened long ago, so that I recognize it when I see it happening again.

This morning’s paper brings news that the Coca-Cola company has created a nonprofit foundation dedicated to funding research. The purpose of the research? To show that lack of exercise, not excessive calories, is reponsible for people being overweight.

It brings to mind the Tobacco Institute (TI), which famously in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s supported research refuting the growing scientific consensus that smoking tobacco causes cancer. Even after U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry reported in 1964 that smoking and cancer were definitively linked, the TI kept up its campaign through reports and magazine articles. The TI, of course, was founded and sustained by the leading cigarette manufactures of the day.

Now it’s Coke’s turn. I’d say that sugar isn’t the only thing Coke is full of. Continue reading

What should a Technical Communication course teach?

Technical communicator, do you wonder why your SME treats you like a pencil-pushing drone? Maybe they took an undergraduate Technical Communication course like the one Becky Todd took.

Ivy covered building“I thought the class was boring,” Becky writes, “because we mostly wrote memos and learned how to format letters. Like any good college student, I completely forgot about the class and moved on with my life.”

But Becky knew that she liked to write. And fortunately, soon after embarking on a career in chemical research, she found the opportunity to enroll in a Professional Writing program where she learned the true nature of technical communication. It changed the trajectory of her career.

Now, six years into her new life as a technical writer, it turns out Becky didn’t forget that first writing course at all. Instead, she remembers it for all the wrong reasons — for how boring and unsatisfying it was.

And I can’t help wondering how many courses are like that one: reinforcing the stereotype that technical communication is dull and menial. And how many students take those courses and then go through their professional lives looking with disdain upon technical communication and its practitioners.

I’ll bet there are lots of courses like that. And I’m certain they do a lot of damage.

So how can colleges and universities ensure that they’re teaching technical communication the right way?

Continue reading

Mission: TechComm – Making the impossible possible

Ethan Hunt, the hero of the Mission: Impossible movies, is pretty terrific. But he’s got nothing on you, the modern technical communicator.

Mission: Impossible movie posterEthan doesn’t flinch in the face of torture. You keep your cool in a room full of SMEs during a review meeting.

Ethan deals easily with spies and assorted bad guys from all over the world. He speaks their languages and he knows their every nuance. You localize your content for the nuances of an international audience, and you work with translators calmly and professionally.

Ethan is up on all of the latest computer technology, and so are you. (I wonder if Ethan knows DITA?)

Ethan is comfortable working under cover. You work out of the limelight, the project team sometimes totally unaware of the value you contribute.

Ethan’s at his best when on the run, staying one step ahead as killers chase him around the world. You stay ahead of schedule as deadlines run toward you.

And the really scary parts? Hanging on to the outside of airplanes and such? No more scary than when the project manager announces that two features have been cancelled and three new ones added — and the docs are still due next week.

So next time you’re on a project that seems impossible, remember that you’re an action hero. Accept your mission and go change the world.

Postscript: Do you know a good backronym I can use to rename my Tech Comm department to IMF? If so, please let me know.

Story and data: yin and yang

I saw a story without any data. It was like a milkshake without any flavor.

First, some background: Mark Baker recently wrote a piece in which he rightly derided the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) pyramid as a model for communication. He pointed out that pure data, without a story to give it context, is meaningless.

Sea turtleThen he set out to replace the pyramid with a different model: a stack of turtles, each one riding on the back of the one below it. The stack, in Mark’s words, “is stories at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. It is stories, like turtles, all the way down.”

That sounded good to me. Then I saw a story without any data. Continue reading

Review: “Learn Technical Writing” online course from Udemy

Screen shot titled

A screen shot from the introductory part of the course

Udemy recently invited me to try their online course, Learn Technical Writing & Make an Average of $67,910 a Year. As the name suggests, the course is aimed at those who are new to technical writing or who are considering making technical writing their career.

Well-known technical author Dr Ugur Akinci developed the course and provides the audio narration. While I often wished that he wasn’t simply reading the slides, I very much liked his tone: warm, confident, supportive. Continue reading

Pluto and the art of patience

Last week, after a nine-year journey, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached its destination and started sending back images and other data about Pluto and its moons. In their news conferences, the NASA scientists are practically giddy with excitement — as well they should be. The images have been breathtaking.

Pluto as seen by New Horizons

Until very recently we knew this only as a spot of light (source: NASA)

These images are just the first taste of what’s to come, however.

Aimed at earth from 5 billion kilometers away, the signal from New Horizons is understandably weak. The bandwidth for the downlink is so limited (1,000 to 4,000 bits per second – much slower than a 1990s dial-up modem) that it’ll take until the end of 2015 just to get the compressed data. It might take until late 2016 to get all of the data in full resolution.

In other words, we’ll have to be patient. Those of us above a certain age can remember taking pictures on vacation and then waiting several days for the drugstore to develop them. It’s going to be like that with New Horizons.

After all the data arrives, it’ll take a while longer for the scientists to interpret it and develop realistic theories about what’s going on with Pluto and the moons: their composition, geological activity, and so forth.

Until then, we wait. In spite of their excitement, the scientists are cautioning everybody not to jump to conclusions, even though they — as much as anyone — surely understand the temptation to do just that.

As a technical writer I know about the temptation to jump to conclusions.
Continue reading

Lowering the bar

I recently saw a job posting in which the first line under “Responsibilities” went like this:

….deliver [content] that engages audiences, and that is virtually free of spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes

Misspelled road sign: shcool

S-h-cool? Hey, don’t worry. It’s cool.

Got that? The first requirement of the job – the number one expectation — is that my content will contain spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes. Not a lot of them, mind you. But the word virtually ensures that there’ll be a few mistakes.

Look, I know we’re all human and we all make mistakes. But they set the bar way too low when they say that I — or the successful candidate, since I won’t be applying for this job — will be expected to make mistakes.

Even without the word virtually, I’m afraid that “free of spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes” is still a very low bar. There’s nothing about making my content accurate, useful, and relevant to my reader. “Free of mistakes” diminishes who I am as a professional. It trivializes my work as a technical communicator.

I imagine this employer would have little use for the idea that technical communicators contribute bottom-line value to the business. Or for the idea that their customers deserve high-quality information. After all, a few mistakes aren’t going to matter.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? Or am I right to be offended by the attitudes that this job posting implies?