Extroverts and introverts: We’re all relevant

Can't we all just get along?On June 15 Bobby Umar devoted his weekly Twitter conversation, #PoCchat (Power of Connection), to the question of how introverts can become “relevant to connection and leadership.”

I like #PoCchat a lot. Bobby picks great topics, and his thoughtful questions always spark good discussions. But I was taken aback by the thrust of his questions, as well as by some of the answers. Do people still think that introverts aren’t relevant?

Business writers have been devoting a lot of attention to the 30 to 40 percent of people who consider themselves introverts. Notably, Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution — first a book, then a website, next (who knows?) maybe a major motion picture — uses personal stories to rebut the idea that introverts can’t succeed as leaders and as high-profile performers.

All of which prompted a somewhat, but not entirely, tongue-in-cheek rejoinder from leadership coach Jesse Lyn Stoner: Confessions of a Closet Extrovert: We Need a Champion, Too.

Yet with all the attention being paid to extroverts, introverts, and their roles in modern businesses, a few myths still need to be dispelled: Continue reading

ContentHug: Technical communication’s present and future

ContentHug logoVinish Garg recently interviewed me for his ContentHug website. We talked about the evolution of technical communication, the role technical communicators can have in disruption, and what I’d wish if I could wave a magic wand.

Check it out — and leave a comment to tell me what you think.

Closing the #techcomm technology gap

The Library of Congress houses more knowledge than any other institution in the world. But is knowledge really knowledge if nobody can read it?

Library of Congress, circa 1890

The Library of Congress, circa 1890. Apparently, even then it had trouble cataloging all of its content.

This week James Billington, the Librarian of Congress since 1987, announced that he plans to retire on January 1.

The story behind Billington’s resignation, as often happens when someone is on the job for so long, is complicated. In recent years Billington has come under fire from critics for several aspects of his leadership. The biggest complaint, however, is this: the Library suffers from a serious technology gap.

According to the news report about Billington’s resignation, “just a small fraction of [the Library’s] 24 million books are available to read online.” The article also hints at a cataloging problem: millions of printed pieces – some dating to the 1980s – are piled in warehouses, waiting to be shelved. It’s a problem that might be alleviated with the right application of technology.

Billington and his defenders argue that he’s started the Library on the path toward modernization. Of course he has: he’s been on the job since 1987. So even if the Library is using 1990s technology he can take credit for it. But when all’s said and done, it’s clear that the Library is late to the technology game.

Like the Library of Congress, we technical communicators are in the business of making knowledge available to people who need it. Continue reading

Shocked at how languages evolve? No way!

As a native speaker of English, I’m often impressed by how much influence our language has throughout the world, especially in business and technology.

Other times I’m not so much impressed as embarrassed.

If you ride the subway into downtown Stockholm you might see this advertisement:
Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression
That’s right. No way, the flippant, emphatic expression of denial, has made its way into the Swedish vernacular. I shudder to think what might be next.

Yet I shouldn’t shudder, and I certainly shouldn’t be surprised. Languages have been influencing and enriching each other for millenia. Case in point: knowing English and a bit of German, I had no trouble finding the subway station in Stockholm. I just followed the signs to Tunnelbanan.

Now that no way has entered the Swedish language, I’m willing to bet that — unless it soon falls out of vogue — it’ll evolve new shades of meaning in Swedish that it never had in English. Just like smorgasbord has evolved a metaphorical meaning in English — it now refers to any large and diverse collection — that it doesn’t have in Swedish.

Having gotten over my initial surprise and embarrassment, I realize that the Swedish no way is just another example of the eternal interplay between languages. It’s a reminder that language is dynamic, that it often goes in directions surprising and whimsical. It’s a fascinating and marvelous process. And if anyone thinks it’ll ever stop, I have two words for you:

No way!

Honoring scientists, honoring science

Statue of Jöns Jacob Berzelius in Stockholm, SwedenOn a recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden, I encountered this fellow presiding over a pleasant city park that bears his name.

I’m ashamed to say that I had to look him up in the encyclopedia. Jöns Jacob Berzelius is considered a pioneer in chemistry, having developed the modern notation for chemical formulas in the early nineteenth century. In Sweden he’s so highly regarded that he not only has a park named after him, but his birthday (August 20) is observed as Berzelius Day.

What is it about the Swedes – who also created the Nobel Prize – that they so gladly celebrate the great scientists in their midst? More to the point, what is it about us Americans that we don’t? Oh, we love our inventors, because we love their technology and we love the economic benefits that come from their technology. But we rarely celebrate pure science. Where are the statues of great researchers and great theoreticians?

Sad to say, many Americans are skeptical of science. They’d rather mock science — for example, by throwing a snowball in the U.S. Senate chamber — than take it seriously. They don’t want to know the earth is getting warmer, because that might mean they can’t drive their beloved SUVs.

We love our freedom and we always have. But lately that freedom has turned into a license to live whatever lifestyle we like — with no ivory-tower, pointy-headed scientist telling us what to do.

It’s a damn shame. It’s an attitude that will hurt our country severely in the long run. And because our country is so big and so influential, it’s going to hurt the whole world. Already is hurting it.

We should take a lesson from Sweden – a country that knows how to honor its great scientists and a country that, not coincidentally, earns high marks for sustainability and for its use of renewable energy sources.

With context, I can see a lot

I’m passing time in Terminal C at Newark Airport, and way across the concourse a baseball game is on TV. From this distance the screen is tiny — in fact I can see only about two-thirds of it — and I can’t hear anything.

Distant TV screen at the airport

There, in the middle arch, is my baseball game.

Yet I can enjoy the game, simply because it’s baseball — a game I’ve watched since I was a kid. Even though I don’t know the players or the score, I have plenty of context for this game I’m eavesdropping on.

Similarly, one of the best things we can do as technical writers is to supply our readers with information that fits the context in which they’re reading.

Peering at the tiny TV screen, I recognize the words on a player’s uniform: East Carolina. I heard on last night’s local news that East Carolina would play Houston today for the championship of a conference whose name I don’t remember. Sure enough, the other team’s uniforms are red. Must be Houston.

I don’t know any of the players on ECU or Houston. From my vantage point I can’t tell the inning or the score. I don’t even remember the name of their conference. Still, I can see a lot:

East Carolina’s pitcher is a lanky lefthander with a nice, smooth motion. I watch him freeze a batter with a good breaking pitch — not because I can see the ball, but because I see the batter’s reaction. Now the batter is headed back to the dugout walking the same dejected walk of every batter who strikes out, from Little League to the World Series.

Years of watching baseball have supplied me with context. It’s the same with the people who read our technical content. When the content fits their context, they can make sense even out of information that’s new and unfamiliar. But information that doesn’t fit their context isn’t even information. It’s just data, with no meaning at all.

How can we help our readers fit information into context?

Use familiar terms. If the reader knows something by a certain name, use that name. This is no time to break out your thesaurus. If the reader is accustomed to the metric system, for heaven’s sake use metric measurements.

Use diagrams and illustrations that are consistent with each other in appearance and content. If possible, use diagrams and illustrations that look like ones the reader is already familiar with.

Compare new concepts to things the reader knows. John McPhee, about whom I wrote recently, is a master of this.

As I finish writing this article, dear reader, I realize that it needs to fit into your context. You might not care about baseball, or about my ruminations on the game. So I go back and rewrite the introduction, so that right away you’ll see what the article is really about. How’d I do?

What else can we do to fit content to the context in which our readers consume it?

One of the best at his (and our) craft

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

The genre is called creative nonfiction, and nobody does it better than John McPhee. This year marks the 50th anniversary of McPhee’s first published work, a portrait of basketball star Bill Bradley. Since then he’s written about dozens of topics — especially nature and conservation.

The Wikipedia entry for creative nonfiction distinguishes it from technical writing because the latter is “not primarily written in service to its craft.” I’m not sure what that means — it sounds like creative nonfiction is writing for writing’s sake. If you suggest to John McPhee that he writes “in service to his craft” I think he’ll be surprised.

I maintain that creative nonfiction is true technical writing. Although it might not guide a reader through a series of steps, it informs the reader about a scientific or technical subject.

Judge for yourself as McPhee describes Georgia’s Cumberland Island. Continue reading

I could’ve observed a lot by watching him

He’s smart and gifted. Yet he’s best known for his oddball aphorisms.

He was one of the best baseball players in history. Yet people who know nothing about baseball, think they know all about him.

His is one of the most remarkable personal brands I know of.

Photo of Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra from a 1956 Baseball Digest cover

Today is Yogi Berra’s 90th birthday. I’m using a photo of him from about age 30 because, as he once said: “I looked like this when I was young, and I still do.”

I like Yogi for a lot of reasons.

First, we share a given name. Lawrence Berra got the “Yogi” nickname early in life when a baseball teammate, watching him sit cross-legged waiting for his turn to play, thought he resembled a Hindu yogi. I bet you thought he was named after the Yogi Bear cartoon character. It’s actually the other way around — a testament to how popular Yogi was during his playing career.

Second, I see something of myself in him. In school I was known as a brainy kid. To fit in with the more popular kids I “dumbed it down,” intentionally using poor diction or choosing the wrong word. After awhile I discovered that not only wasn’t I popular, I was proving myself untrustworthy by trying to be something I wasn’t.

To quote one of his aphorisms, I could’ve observed a lot by watching Yogi Berra. Continue reading

Watch those connotations

connotation (n.): the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression
in addition to its explicit or primary meaning (from the Random House Dictionary)

Marli Mesibov has a nice piece, The Meaning Behind Connotations, explaining why content strategists must consider the reader’s interpretation of the content – not just its explicit meaning.

She describes an instance where an Internet marketer used an image that offended a lot of people and then tried to blame the people for taking offense. Then she says:

If the user has a certain connotation with a term (or image), then we as content strategists can’t decide they are right or wrong. It’s our job to accept that connotation, or lose the user’s trust.

Jared Spool tweet: Semantics is about meaning; meaning is important

Words of wisdom from Jared Spool (quoted by Marli Mesibov in her article)

As any good writer knows, you have to own what you write. You’re responsible for whatever meaning is there — whether you stated it explicitly, whether you laid it between the lines, and even whether you put it there by mistake.

You don’t get to decide what meaning the reader will take away. And because it’s a question of trust, it goes to the heart of the relationship between your business and your customers.

This applies every bit as much to technical writing as it does to content strategy, since the technical content you create falls (or should fall) under the rubric of your organization’s content strategy.

So how do you keep connotations from becoming problems? Continue reading

Knowing what to do: My prayer for Baltimore

In August 1967 my family took a car trip from our home at the Jersey Shore to the Midwest, where my mother was born. Along the way we visited several cities — including Detroit, where I remember seeing the zoo and the Ford museum in Dearborn.

Somewhere along the way we stopped at White Castle for an early supper. All of a sudden a man began yelling at the top of his voice. I think it had something to do with the cashier short-changing him. Nothing special, right? Except it had been just a few weeks since the Detroit riot that killed 43 people and left 2,000 buildings destroyed.

What I remember was the tension. Everyone in the place, it seemed, felt frozen with fear. But not just any fear. A sense that no one was in control, no one knew what was about to happen, and no one had any idea what to do.

Lone protester in Baltimore

This man stood alone between a line of police officers and a crowd of protesters, telling the protesters over and over “Do not give them a reason.” (Source: http://www.independent.co.uk)

I recalled that tension this week as I watched images from Baltimore. I have more than a passing familiarity with Baltimore, although I have to admit I’ve never been to the part of the city where Freddie Gray lived.

My heart breaks for Baltimore because I know something of the city’s character. It’s a flawed city, to be sure. But its people are strong, determined, and very much bound to their community. (On Twitter, my friend Ugur Akinci called Baltimore “a grand & troubled city,” which I think is apt.)

My heart breaks for Baltimore. And I can imagine the tension the whole city must be feeling. Who’s in control? What’s going to happen? What should we do?

On that day in Detroit, thankfully, the store manager knew what to do. He calmed the man down and resolved the problem. When the man walked out the door, it was like all the air rushed back into the place.

My prayer for Baltimore is that its people, proud and strong and hopefully united in a common cause to fix the injustice that’s been going on for decades, will know what to do. And that they’ll waste no time getting it done.

Postscript: Here’s a New York Times video that gives me hope.