Showing the way in a surprisingly different world

leadwolfThe recent surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has occasioned a lot of writing that I can sum up like this: Suddenly the world is very different than I thought it was. How do I (or we) deal with that?

One particularly poignant article came from technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas — TechCommGeekMom. Danielle pondered what the election results, and the conditions leading up to them, mean for technical communicators. Are we seeing the end of the trend toward globalization? How easy will it be to find work if you live in a rural area, away from a city?

Toward the end of her article, Danielle issued a call to action:

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it. We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

How can technical communicators show the way, or “set an example,” in the way Danielle describes? How can we use our “big hearts” to bring progress, and perhaps bring reconciliation, to the fractured world in which we live?

Here’s my stab at an answer. I hope all of you will chime in with your comments. Continue reading

The gaslighting of America

gaslight (v.): To manipulate someone into doubting their memories and their perceptions of what is true.

Amid all of the jaw-dropping news that’s been happening lately, here’s a doozy. During the presidential election campaign, teenagers in Macedonia made money by churning out fake news stories designed to be read by millions of people as they circulated on social media.

What’s going on? Well, the truth — as so often is the case — is complicated.

Outright lies and twisted reality

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In case you’re wondering where the term “gaslight” comes from….

Did the fake news stories (including, for example, a report that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president) tip the election to Trump? I seriously doubt it. Even the most gullible American voters probably had already made up their minds to vote for one candidate or the other.

On the other hand, is Mark Zuckerberg kidding when he says that Facebook — which pushed the stories into users’ newsfeeds — has virtually “no influence” on the people who use it to get news? Maybe he’s kidding himself. But everyone else knows better.

You should care about this, no matter who you voted for. The fake stories slanted toward both the left and right wings (although the right-wing ones reportedly gained a lot more traction).

Presenting phony news side by side with legitimate news. The beginning of the gaslighting of America.

Now we’re seeing reports from the mainstream media — not from kids in Macedonia — that treat the preparations for Trump’s presidency as if they were a normal transition of power.

As if it were normal to install Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, an outspoken white supremacist who’s called for “tearing down” the political establishment, as the chief White House strategist.

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The look of someone who’s compromised every last one of his principles (source: Washington Post)

As if it were normal for the Speaker of the House, who over the summer denounced Trump’s words and actions as the “textbook definition of a racist comment” and a “joke gone bad,” to say that he’s enthusiastic about carrying out the “mandate” that Trump has received from the American people.

(Joshua Foust of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has compiled a much longer list of abnormal goings-on.)

These stories are being reported as business as usual, with barely a raised eyebrow.

Reporting the abnormal as if it were normal. The next stage in the gaslighting of America.

What are we to do?

Just in case you’re wavering: the crap you saw on Facebook was false. And the facade of respectability being applied to the Trump transition is false too.

So what can we do to stop the gaslighting, to overcome the lies and the distortion?

Continue reading

Where do the technical writers fit?

The other day Sarah Maddox posed the question Where do technical writers fit in an organisation? It’s a question my colleagues and I have bandied about for most of my 30-plus years working in technical communication.

The answer has evolved during those 30-plus years. And it’s tempting simply to throw up my hands and give the standard consultant’s answer: it depends.

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Sarah, like all of us, is looking for a place to fit in

Sarah doesn’t advocate for any one answer, either. Instead, she deftly states the case for including technical writers in each of these parts of the organization:

  • Engineering and product management
  • User experience (UX)
  • Support
  • Marketing
  • Developer relations

Here’s what I make of it.

We’re not an island

There’s one place in the organization where the technical writers definitely should not be, and that’s off by ourselves.

I didn’t always feel this way.

Early in my career, when technical writing was still being defined as a profession, it was important for the writers to establish an identity as a team and emerge from the backwaters of wherever they’d been placed on the org chart — usually in product development.

In companies that formed separate technical writing teams, the writers were better able to collaborate on tools, training, and best practices. Their managers could fight for a place at the table alongside development, marketing, and support.

The separate-team approach was what I experienced at IBM, and it wasn’t until maybe the mid-1990s that we, as a profession, had evolved past it. Continue reading

Where do we go from here?

 

Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live

Kate McKinnon’s opening this week was one of the best SNL moments ever. (Watch it to the end.)

In this week’s historic election upset, I was on the losing side. Where do I go from here? Where do we go from here?

This is the course I’ve mapped out. If your views are similar to mine, I encourage you to join me. If they’re different, I hope — in the interest of constructive dialog — that you’ll discover what’s important to me and what’s not important, like finding fault or throwing bricks.

Listen and learn

I want to understand the vast majority of Trump voters who aren’t racists, neo-Nazis, or anything like that. They’re people with legitimate grievances: they believe that our government is broken and that no one is protecting their interests. I might disagree with them, but I’ll never have a dialog with them — let alone change their minds — if I don’t first listen to them.

Give the president-elect a chance to succeed

When Barack Obama became president in 2009, some of his opponents made his failure their mission. Mitch McConnell said it in so many words. They were wrong, and now that the shoe is on the other foot, we can’t repeat their error. Donald Trump will be our president: we ought to want our president to bring about good.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about silent acquiescence. When President Trump proposes things that I disagree with, when he does things that diminish us as a nation, I’ll call him on it. And especially, I will…

Stand up for my fellow Americans

Let’s all pledge to stand in solidarity with women, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color whenever they’re threatened, whenever their worth and their basic dignity are attacked. Hateful, frightening things were said during the campaign: we can’t dismiss them as merely political rhetoric.

Defend the freedom of the press

Traditional journalism has been in retreat for a generation, because the marketplace for news is changing. Now it’s also coming under attack from from people who have no compunction about publishing lies and from government officials who feel free to threaten and disparage reporters.

Thomas Jefferson knew the importance of a free press. With him, I stand “for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”

Keep the faith

Just because my candidate lost, the things I believe in — progress, equality, inclusiveness — are no less valuable and no less worth fighting for. I won’t forget the words of Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Maybe the arc is longer than I thought, but the words are as true today as they’ve ever been.

What do you think? Whether you’re on the winning side or the losing side, where do you plan to go from here?

Too much managing, just enough leadership

As you might’ve heard, they played a baseball game Wednesday night. The Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians, 8-7, to win their first World Series championship in over 100 years.

The game reminded us that leading is different from managing.

Business consultant Liane Davey says that when times are good and managing is easy (like when your team is ahead 8-0), leading — imparting a shared vision and guiding the team toward it — is still vital.

Then, when times are tough, when it’s the last game of the World Series and the score is tied in the ninth inning, it’s leading, not managing, that comes to the fore.

Managing and then some

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A manager (Joe Maddon)

Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, the Cubs’ and Indians’ managers, are good leaders. Their players say so. Their success — they’ve both been to the World Series more than once — says so.

Both men are also known for their unorthodox managing styles. The tactical decisions they make during games can be bewildering. Sometimes they get carried away.

During the World Series Maddon and Francona seemed to be competing to see who could be the most hands-on manager. It was especially evident in the way they handled their pitchers.

On Wednesday night, the gamesmanship caught up with them: both teams reached the ninth inning with the score tied and their best relief pitchers either unavailable (because they’d pitched earlier in the game) or ineffective (because of overwork).

It was a classic case of overmanaging. Had Maddon and Francona stuck to more traditional methods, each one would’ve had a better hand to play in the late stages of the game.

Then, nature decided to play its hand. With the score still tied and the game about to enter extra innings, a brief but intense rain shower forced an interruption in play.

Leading at just the right moment

For most of the Cubs, emotionally down after blowing a 4-run lead, the rain delay probably compounded their gloom. They didn’t know it would turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.

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A leader (Jason Heyward)

As his Cubs teammates trudged into the locker room, outfielder Jason Heyward called to them. They knew Heyward, a 7-year major-league veteran, as someone who was quiet but grounded, a steadying influence in the clubhouse.

Now Heyward called the tired, discouraged players together for an impromptu meeting. We’re the best team in baseball, he told them. Let’s relax, play hard, and win this game. Then some of the others spoke up: We’re brothers. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re not going to give up.

A half-hour later, the game was over and the Cubs were champions. Several of Heyward’s teammates credited the ten-minute meeting with settling their nerves, turning around the game, and saving the team’s season.

It was a little bit of leadership, delivered at just the right moment by someone with no formal job title — no “coach” or “manager” next to his name. Heyward had something better than a job title: he had the respect of his co-workers, his teammates. He also had the instinct and the courage to lead when it mattered most.

It’s not my intention to disparage either of the managers in that game. Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, especially deserves credit for creating a culture where his team is united, where they’ve got each other’s backs, and where a player feels empowered to speak up.

Where, when the guy with “manager” next to his name gets carried away managing, a leader can step forward and buoy the team.

Image sources: Associated Press (Maddon), Chicago Cubs (Heyward)

Enchanted content

Earlier this month I participated in the Transformation Society’s Probing Our Future study — and wrote about my initial impressions.

The people behind the study, Ray Gallon and Neus Lorenzo, came up with a list of “superpowers” with which content creators (including, but not limited to technical writers) can improve the content they deliver and the way they deliver it.

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Image source: Transformation Society

As I ponder this, I notice that some of the superpowers are rooted in a common objective: knowing our audience so well that we can deliver exactly what they need, when they need it. The superpower of mind reading, for example, would let us know essentially everything about our audience. Things like:

  • The job they do
  • The task they’re trying to complete
  • Their domain knowledge
  • Their cultural preferences
  • Their disabilities and limitations
  • Their socioeconomic status
  • The hardware and software platforms they prefer
  • The choices they’ve made in the past

The list could go on. But you get the idea: if we want to know our audience, there’s a lot to know.

Even though the information industry has made great strides with things like web analytics and inference engines, I think it’s obvious that we’ll never know everything about our audience. Especially since each member of our audience presents a constantly moving target. For example, think of how much you’ve changed in the last year or so in terms of reading habits, or domain knowledge, or experience level with a particular software program.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to know our audience. It’s just that we’ll never know our audience perfectly. We’ll never fully be able to mind-meld with them.

It follows, then, that we’ll never be able to give them perfectly tailored content precisely when they need it.

So what can we do? Continue reading

Your opportunity at last

Imagine this:

After years of toiling in obscurity you find yourself in a position of power and influence. After years of never being heard you’re now being sought out.

You waited a long time for your day in the sun. Now that it’s arrived, how do you handle your change in fortune?

Practice humility

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When the limelight shines on you, don’t let it blind you.

Even though the limelight is now shining on you, remember that only recently you were in darkness. When you were struggling, you probably worked hard to keep things in perspective and to maintain healthy self-respect. Lacking power and authority didn’t mean you were less valuable than other people.

Now you need to work just as hard to hold onto that sense of perspective. You’re still the same person. Having power and authority doesn’t make you better than everyone else. If you try to act like you are better, you’ll likely lose people’s respect — and with it, you’ll lose your power and authority.

Finally, it’s not for nothing that there are so many quotations and proverbs about the need for humility: For pryde goeth before and shame commeth after (John Heywood). Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14).

Be a servant leader

Having been down in the trenches for so long, you have a unique perspective. What did you wish your managers had done for you? What did you wish they knew about you?

Now you can put into practice the things you wanted from your old managers. Now is your chance to become, in the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant leader: a servant first, a leader second.

Say things that are worth hearing

At long last, people are listening to you. It wasn’t easy to get their attention; it’s even harder to hold onto it. Don’t waste your opportunity by saying things that are self-serving, manipulative, or deceptive.


These thoughts were prompted by two baseball teams — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians — who’ve just qualified for the World Series and who’ve gone a very long time since winning their last championships (1908 and 1948, respectively).

Over the next few days the Cubs and the Indians will try to make the most of the opportunity they have. After decades in the darkness, they’re in the limelight. I can’t wait to see how they’ll respond.

What about you? Did you ever find yourself in the limelight after years in darkness? What did you do with your opportunity?

Here comes the future: got your superpowers ready?

What’s the future of technical communication? I’ve asked that question on this blog, and now the Transformation Society has taken it up.

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Image source:Transformation Society

Last month Ray Gallon, someone I’ve known and respected for years, and Neus Lorenzo, a new acquaintance, undertook a study called Probing Our Future. They held a workshop (which I did not attend) to frame the question, and last week they followed it up with a webinar and a Twitter chat (which I did attend).

I found the webinar to be a blur of information and ideas. (Remember, I hadn’t attended the workshop.) Things started coming into focus when I reviewed the webinar slides and when I joined in the Twitter chat. Where the workshop seemed to be full of abstraction (what can we dream of doing?), the chat questions were more practical (how do we do this?).

What “Probing Our Future” is probing

The new project poses the first question — “What’s the future?” — and then poses another: How can we equip ourselves to meet that future? Continue reading

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