The best gifts I’ve received

Gift-wrapped packages

I like gifts. Just don’t say “free gift.” That sets my teeth on edge.

In this gift-giving season, I pause to recognize some of the people who’ve given me gifts during my career. There are lot of them, but these stand out.

The manager who invited me to bring any and every problem to him — as long as I also brought a solution. My solution might not, in the end, be the solution we chose. But it started our conversation, and — most important — it got me focused on fixing, not dwelling on, my problems.

The public-speaking trainer who, early in my career, assured me that my audience wants me to succeed — not make mistakes they can pick apart. To prove his point, he asked me what I want from a speaker when I’m a member of the audience.

A colleague’s advice that speaking or teaching is a form of gift-giving — that my words are something of value, a gift for my audience. People like to receive gifts, he said, and you should enjoy giving them too.

Plastics scene from The Graduate

Just one word: DITA

The team-lead, at IBM in the early 1980s, who encouraged me to learn a precursor of DITA that was just coming into use. Think of Benjamin Braddock and “plastics” — except that I took it to heart. I embraced the idea of structured authoring before I could become too set in my ways as a technical writer. I’ve benefited ever since.

Finally, numerous managers who saw farther than I could and helped me prepare for what was coming — whether it was a new technology or a department-wide layoff. And other managers who took a chance on me, and then — when I didn’t get it right the first time — took a second chance.

I’m grateful to all of them.

I’d like to hear about gifts you’ve received that helped you in your career. Share your stories in the comments.

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Letting the team decide

Do you manage by consensus? Do you invite your team to come together to make decisions? Not all decisions, of course, but the many choices that — while not mission-critical – affect the team’s day-to-day work and its esprit de corps.

I admit that managing by consensus isn’t my preferred style. But having worked on teams where members are invited to participate in decision making, I’ve come to see the advantages:

several hands claspedBuy-in: When the team chooses, its members are much more likely to be comfortable with the choice – and with the results of that choice.

Empowerment: Team members feel like their opinions matter, like they’re being heard.

Results: Because it represents the team’s collective wisdom, often the decision is better than anything you would’ve come up with yourself.

Making it work

Before you try managing by consensus, you have to cultivate the right environment to make it work. From my observation, here are some ways to do that.

Assemble a team that’s knowledgeable and trustworthy. You’ll be better able to empower the team when you trust their wisdom and their motivation.

Sometimes – most times, in fact – you won’t get to pick who’s on your team. People are assigned to you, or they come onto your team through reorganizations. What then? You might have to start slowly, until the team (with your encouragement) has established that level of knowledge and trustworthiness – not to mention establishing the ability to trust each other.

Create a framework in which managing by consensus can take place. Obviously, the team can’t make every decision. Decide up front what’s not negotiable, and what kinds of things you’re comfortable letting the team decide. Some of the non-negotiables will be handed down from Corporate. Others will be areas where you have latitude, but about which you feel strongly. Examples might be working hours, or basic rules for professionalism and mutual respect.

Give up your need to be in control. When I’m the person in charge, and I know I’m accountable, this one is hard or me. I can solicit advice, I can ask for feedback – but my buck stops here” mentality makes me want to call the shots. Yet I’ve learned, as I said earlier, that letting the team decide often results in better outcomes than when I decide things myself.

Make sure everyone has a voice. Insist on a culture where one or two people don’t dominate, where everyone feels like they have a chance to contribute. If someone becomes too vocal, or isn’t vocal enough, remind them in a one-on-one conversation that everyone is expected to contribute and everyone has a right to be heard.

Realize that sometimes it’s messy. Life becomes more complicated when you’re no longer calling all the shots. Sometimes, when you ask the team to make a choice, it takes them a while to figure out what they want. There might be strong disagreements along the way, and even healthy disagreement can cause stress. Although you might have to play the role of facilitator, or even referee, resist the temptation to lapse back into the role of boss.

Have you worked successfully on a team where decisions were made by consensus – either as the leader or as a team member? What were the factors that contributed to that success? What benefits came from using the managing-by-consensus approach?

An image with an impact

If good writing is the foundation on which technical communication is built, then visual elements provide the curb appeal.

Even though most of my training and experience are in writing, not illustrating, I’m keenly aware of the huge effect — for good or ill — that visuals can have on content.

I pay close attention to how the artist chooses to present data in maps and graphs, because that choice can strongly influence the reader’s perception.

I like to spotlight images that are informative and well-executed — like the map in ProPublica’s story on last summer’s Houston floods and the Tampa Bay Times‘ 2015 infographic about the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Unfortunately, the Times has removed the infographic from its site, but a small piece of it survives in my post.)

Then there’s the recent op-ed by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in the U.S. In an article full of bar graphs and maps, one image in particular made my jaw drop.

Wishing to point up the lack of research into gun violence, compared with research into diseases like cholera and diphtheria, Kristof had a Times artist compare two data points for each problem: number of people affected and number of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health over the 40 years ending in 2012.

As you scroll down, try to set aside your political views — whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — and evaluate this image on how effectively it delivers its message.

graph juxtaposing 4 million gun-violence cases and 3 research grants

I’ve seen very few images that delivered their messages so startlingly, so resoundingly. The numbers are impressive, but the huge red circle and the three tiny boxes thunder out the message: gun violence, while a serious threat to public health, is woefully under-researched. (Kristof says that’s because of lobbying by opponents of gun control.)

Feel free to disagree with the message. But don’t tell me that it wasn’t delivered effectively.

Why do people mangle the language?

confusedAt the recent Australian STC conference, Neil James was asked why people write Manglish, or mangled English. I very much like what he had to say.

(As quoted in Sarah Maddox’s blog, ffeathers. Emphasis mine.)

  • At school, we imbibe the notion that complex writing is better writing. Waffle gets reasonable marks, provided it’s elegant waffle.
  • Early in our careers in the professional and technical workplace, mastering and using the technical jargon of our field gives us a stronger feeling of belonging.
  • When we learn the tech vocabulary of a particular industry, it’s difficult to adjust to communicating with a lay audience.
  • Institutional culture reinforces the language patterns. Large organisations move slowly. It’s hard to change their processes. When you do successfully introduce change, the organisation moves steadily along the new path.
  • Language is used as an expression of power. Sometimes, people deliberately use jargon to protect their financial interests or to manipulate public opinion. An example is from the airline industry, when people use the term “loss of separation” of two planes, which means the two planes collided.

What do you think? Have you experienced a “loss of separation” with some mangled English lately? What might’ve caused it, do you think?

Mapping space and time

Earlier this afternoon, you arrived in an unfamiliar city. Now you want to get out and do some exploring. Where’s an art gallery? A bookstore? A coffee shop?

On a display board at a bus stop, you find a map of the city with points of interest marked. With a little effort you find an interesting-sounding gallery and see that it’s eight blocks west.

The map in front of you describes physical space. Wouldn’t it be nice if the map answered one more question: How long will it take me to get there?

You’re looking to take a trip, not just through space, but through space and time.

You need a time map. Peter Liu, whose company is called Mapbox, is working to design one for you.

As Peter points out, time maps aren’t new. He even found one from Melbourne, Australia, that was used a century ago. But today’s software creates lots of new possibilities.

Melbourne time map

Travel times from central Melbourne via rail, 1910-1922 (source: Peter Liu)

Check out Peter’s time maps for yourself. I especially like the one that changes based on whether you’re walking, riding a bicycle, or driving a car.

Maps are one of my favorite forms of technical communication. Maps have been around for so long, however, that it seems like we already know everything there is to know about making them.

That’s why the time map caught my attention: it’s a new way of looking at something old and familiar.

What do you think? Will we see more time maps in the future? Can they change the way we interact with the world around us?

Delighting in our language

Fellow technical writer Tom Johnson has entitled his blog I’d Rather Be Writing.

But lately it seems Tom wouldn’t rather be writing — at least, doing technical writing. In Tom’s words, the day-to-day job of technical writing, especially the plain language aspect, has “removed my ability to delight more in language and to express myself in more articulate, interesting ways.”

Tom describes the essays his wife writes as a student in a Master of Liberal Arts program. She gets to deploy phrases like erstwhile acolyte — phrases that would never find a place in technical writing. For Tom, the thrill is gone. Worse, he says, in both writing and reading he’s lost the delight of learning new words, playing with the language, and “enjoying the eloquence of an author.”

How do I respond to a brother writer in need?

First, by stating the obvious. Erstwhile Acolytes would be a great name for a rock band.

Second, with understanding. Early in my professional life I dreamed of making my living as a “creative” writer. I — and many of my young colleagues — looked at technical writing as a way to put food on the table until we sold that first novel or screenplay. Now, nearly 40 years later, here I am — still working as a technical writer.

But something happened along the way. I came to understand that all writing — including technical writing; maybe especially technical writing — is creative, because problem solving is a creative process. In our case the problem is how to communicate most effectively with the target audience.

Tom mentions the Simplified Technical English (STE) dictionary. Originally developed for the aerospace industry, it stipulates a set of writing rules and a vocabulary of about 900 words. Erstwhile isn’t one of those words, and neither is acolyte. Yet communicating effectively within the constraints of the dictionary is a creative activity. It’s like solving a puzzle.

various kinds of puzzles(Granted, it’s a puzzle in which I reserve the right to change the rules. If I know that the precisely right word happens to be outside the 900-word canon, then dammit I’m going to use that word. Audience trumps guidelines every time.)

So, yes, I don’t get to write erstwhile acolyte in the Installation Manual for E4G Routers. But I get the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve met my audience’s needs. And I’ll shelve erstwhile acolyte until I’m writing for an audience it resonates with.

Which brings me to my last point. Vary your writing by finding different audiences. All technical writing and no play makes Johnny a dull boy. This blog, for example, gives me a platform for reaching a different audience — still professional, but more collegial — than I reach in my day job. Here I can write more expressively and have a little more fun.

So, if you want to recapture the joy of using our language, I’ll suggest to you, as I suggested to Tom, that you try writing for different audiences. Try writing essays or poetry. And each time you write, think of it as solving a puzzle: the puzzle of how to communicate effectively with the audience you’re addressing.

Do you ever find yourself losing your delight in our language? What ways have you found to recapture that delight?

Go ahead and let them see you sweat

Don’t let them see you sweat.

I’m sure you’ve heard that advice. Even when you’re not sure what to do, even when you feel scared, it’s best for you, as a leader, to wear a veneer of invincibility.

small-oak-tree

An oak seedling: vulnerable but strong

For years, that’s how I tried to be. Not the superhero who shoved everyone out of the way and said “I’ve got this,” but the calm, steady, implacable one who never let anything ruffle him and who (especially) never admitted to needing help.

And what did that get me? Respect, maybe. But not the loyalty or affection of my team members. I think most of them saw me as aloof, above it all — able to connect with them only on a superficial level.

As I’ve grown wiser I’ve learned that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. A couple of weeks ago, the Twitter #PoCchat conversation (every Monday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern) focused on vulnerability in leadership.

I like the definition Randy Thio offered during the chat: Being vulnerable is the deliberate absence of any barriers that may protect you physically and/or emotionally.

In other words, vulnerability is about your being open. Honest. Transparent.

Without vulnerability, you might come across as solid, dependable, even invincible. But you’ll also come across as distant and unsympathetic.

When people think you’re incapable of relating to them, it’s hard for them to trust you or feel loyalty toward you.

So try being the person you are rather than a superhero — indestructible but unrelatable — or a robot — steady and dependable but aloof. Try removing your mask.

When you remove your mask you can relax, because you don’t have to devote your energy to playing a role. You’re more confident, because all of us are better at being ourselves than at trying to be someone else.

Yes, you’ll be more confident. Seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Many of us associate vulnerability with having less confidence — with quaking in our boots, with trying not to let them see us sweat.

Although it might seem that way, it turns out that vulnerability and confidence complement each other. An insecure leader is almost never vulnerable: the last thing they want is for people to see their imperfections. It takes more confidence to be vulnerable.

It’s important that you get that. You don’t want your people to see you as a superhero or a robot. You do want them to see that you’re confident. Confident that you and your team can bring about a good outcome. Confident enough to take off your mask and let them see that you’re human too.

If you’d like to work on your vulnerability, I can suggest two things: tell your story, and be true.

Tell your story

Don’t be a man or woman of mystery. Be approachable. Make it easier for other people to relate to you.

If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you’ve probably had experiences that bear on the situation you’re in now. Share those experiences with the team. Even if you think of those experiences as failures, focus on what the failures taught you and how they prepared you for today’s situation.

As Randy Thio observed, telling your story invariably exposes you to judgment and criticism, further demonstrating vulnerability.

Be true

You already know that a leader should value the truth and should never act deceitfully.

Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the triumph over itDoes that mean that when the situation turns really bad, when you see everything falling down and you’re losing heart, you should be open and candid about absolutely everything?

Yes and no. Yes, but be careful to keep things in perspective.

Since you’ve likely experienced a similar problem or crisis before, you can lend insight that’ll help you and the team deal with today’s situation. Help your team see beyond the immediate; help them see the bigger picture.

Maybe you feel anxious, even frightened. Instead of expressing those emotions publicly, acknowledge them to yourself and then ask yourself whether they’re really warranted. No matter how bad things get, the sky isn’t really falling.

Once you’ve worked past those emotions, talk about how you did it.

Keep your poise. Don’t be the one who spreads panic.

And if you need help, be honest about that too. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that your confidence is wavering. It simply means you’re no different from everyone else.

What it boils down to

Vulnerability. It boils down to your objective as a leader: do you want to appear invincible, or do you want to earn people’s trust and loyalty? Is leadership all about you, or is it about the people you lead?

For me, vulnerability is part of what it means to be a servant leader. I’m not all the way there yet. I’m still learning.

Be confident. Be steady and consistent. But don’t try to be something you’re not. Be vulnerable.

A new vantage point

Around 1610, Galileo Galilei, pointing his newly invented telescope at the sky, became the first person to see bulges on both sides of the planet Saturn. He didn’t know what they were. It took 45 years before another astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, figured out that they were rings surrounding the planet.

For 350-plus years since then, every view we had of the rings came from the same vantage point: from outside.

Until last month. For the first time, the Cassini spacecraft slipped between Saturn and the rings, turned its camera away from the planet, and started taking pictures from inside the rings.

Cassini flying inside Saturn's rings
This illustration is part of a NASA animation that shows Cassini’s trip inside the rings. The inset captures an actual image that Cassini sent back.

Following Cassini’s example, I’ve begun considering how I can look at things from new vantage points. If I’ve always looked at something in the same way, have I really seen it in its entirety? Maybe not.

Here are a few things I’m trying to see from new vantage points.

Mergers and acquisitions

My company, Extreme Networks, has acquired parts of 3 different companies over the past year. As a result, our technical writing team is growing rapidly. New people, with all sorts of different backgrounds, are learning our tools, our workflows, and our corporate culture. A lot of anxiety comes with the experience of being part of an acquisition.

I actually have experience with this. I’ve seen things from the other side of an acquisition. Now is a great time for me to remember how it felt — and thereby to help make it easier for the newcomers to our team.

Starting out

My recent participation in the STC Carolina chapter’s mentoring program has given me a new appreciation for how hard it is to break into the technical communication field — from finding a specialty (software writer, e-learning developer, scientific editor) to creating a personal brand to simply landing that first job.

Colliding worldviews

Look at the current world scene and you’ll see people with fundamentally different worldviews. More and more, those worldviews seem to be colliding — and the more they collide, like particles in an accelerator, the more sparks seems to fly. The greater the differences seem to become.

I’m still trying to grasp that. More important, I’m trying to understand the people whose worldviews are different from mine. If I can understand the people on the other side, maybe we can find something in common that we can use as a basis for moving forward together. Maybe that’s too much to ask. I don’t know. But I do know that talking beats shouting, so that’s what I try to do.

(If you’d like to try, too, Jesse Lyn Stoner recently shared some practical tips for taking a stand without polarizing others.)

Epilog

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. On Friday its mission will reach its grand finale when it dives into the planet’s atmosphere. When it transmits its last data from inside Saturn’s clouds — a vantage point no one has ever seen — humankind will gain more knowledge about Saturn’s atmosphere than ever before.

How have new vantage points helped you in your professional life? Can you think of other vantage points you’d like to gain?

Informing the public, responsibly

The recent flooding in eastern Texas has engendered a lot of news articles. This one from ProPublica stands out because, in addition to covering a topic of interest, it has all the hallmarks of excellent technical writing.

Let me tell you why.

The lede is up front and to the point

The headline itself conveys the major points: Houston’s Big Dams Won’t Fail. But Many Neighborhoods Will Have to Be Flooded to Save Them. Then, in three brief paragraphs we learn that people are afraid the dams at the Addicks and Barker reservoirs will fail, which would flood much of the city, but despite their fears the dams are safe.

The map is well drawn and emphasizes pertinent data

You can see at a glance the seriousness of the situation. There are the reservoirs, and there are the built-up areas adjacent to them and sometimes inside them. (Yes, inside them. Developers have been allowed to build houses within the boundaries of the reservoirs, on land that — most of the time — is above water level.)

Map showing Houston reservoirs and developed areas around them

Map source: ProPublica

The critical spillways (pink dots) are a bit hard to notice, but they’re called out in the article text.

The spillways, the reservoirs, and Buffalo Bayou, the critical waterway to downtown Houston, are labeled. Less essential details are not.

Background information is explained succinctly

On the assumption that most readers aren’t familiar with Houston’s hydrologic history, the writers provide brief summary information, at pertinent points in the story, about why the two reservoirs were built and how the dams are supposed to work.

Content is organized logically, in short sections

Each section heading is a question, like

  • What are the Addicks and Barker reservoirs? and
  • Why are the spillways a big deal? And what will the impacts of using them be?

The questions build on each other. And unlike with most “frequently asked questions” pages, they’re questions that people actually would ask.

Then each section answers the pertinent question in a few easily digestible paragraphs.

The writing is direct and in the active voice

Picking a paragraph at random:

As of now, the Army Corps says there’s enough excess water in the Addicks Reservoir that some of it is flowing around (not overtopping) one of the auxiliary spillways. The agency originally thought water might also have to flow around the spillways for Barker Reservoir, but now projects that will not be necessary as long as the weather stays good.

The tone is balanced

The article’s tone is businesslike yet reassuring. It reinforces the headline: although this is certainly a big deal, and although people who live near (or in) the reservoirs are going to experience flooding, there’s no cause for general panic.

It’s written collaboratively

Don’t miss the byline. Four different writers are credited for the piece: Kiah Collier of The Texas Tribune, Neena Satija of The Texas Tribune and Reveal, Al Shaw of ProPublica, and Lisa Song of ProPublica. Perhaps one of them, or perhaps an unnamed editor, deserves credit for pulling together everyone’s contributions into a single, coherent piece with consistent tone, vocabulary, and writing style.

I tip my hat to all of them for providing the public with information responsibly and in the proper context.

Postscript: I’m always happy to call out instances of good technical writing that I see in general-interest newspapers and magazines. (Here’s another example, about a different topic.) Do you know of any examples? Please share them in the comments.

 

It’s not your text

Hey, wow. I was looking on the internet and — what do you know? — I found a list.

Yes, I realize that the internet is full of lists. Many of them exist simply to entice us to click. A few might entertain or inform, and then I forget them in 5 minutes.

A very few are worth recommending. One such is this list of rules for editors, compiled by the Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre. If you’re in any part of the writing business, hurry on over to The Sun and take a look.

I lingered long over Rule 4: It’s not your text.

You are in the middle of things. You have a responsibility to assist the writer in achieving their purpose. You have a responsibility to the publication to maintain its standards and integrity. You have a responsibility to the reader, the party most commonly overlooked in these operations, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. Your personal preferences are subordinate to these responsibilities.

quill penSo it is with editors, and so it is with technical writers as well. We have a responsibility to the company we represent, to maintain its standards and integrity (to the extent it has them), and to present its products in such a way that our readers can use them effectively.

We also have a responsibility to the reader, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. This is our paramount responsibility, because this is the one we have to get right. We might get away without perfectly reflecting the company’s style or brand image, or without perfectly describing the product’s features. But if we don’t meet the reader’s needs, so that they stop reading and walk away (or dial tech support), we’ve failed completely.

stone bridgeI’ve heard the technical writer described as the bridge between subject-matter expert and reader. I used to bristle at that metaphor: I thought it implied a passivity on the part of the technical writer, as if we were nothing more than a conduit carrying information from one actor to another. “People walk on bridges,” I remember complaining.

Now, in my old age, I’m more comfortable with the bridge metaphor. Maybe I have a higher opinion of bridges: some of them are engineering marvels, and even the simplest ones are mighty useful. But mostly, I think, I better understand that it’s not my text.

Yes, I play an important role in the transaction between expert and reader. But it’s not about my personal preferences. If I want my name on something, I should write a novel.

My job is to make the information good, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s not my text.