The linchpin of inspiration

Author and storyteller Carla Johnson, in her keynote speech at this week’s STC Summit, described how inspiration comes, not as a bolt from the blue, but from observing other people’s creative work. She warned against brand detachment disorder, in which we see another brand — maybe Disney or Apple — doing something cool but immediately dismiss it because it couldn’t possibly bear on our own company’s brand.

photo of Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson

Instead, Carla charged us to observe what other brands are doing, distill the parts we can use, and relate those parts to our own brand and customers. Then we can generate ideas and pitch them to our bosses. Call it the inspiration process.

That’s what Rachel Sparks, Technical Director at Xenex, did. Xenex makes robot-like machines that hospitals use to disinfect areas where patients are treated. This is a very big deal, because it drastically reduces the threat posed by sepsis and other infections. When Sparks noticed that some hospitals were giving their machines whimsical names and putting Santa Claus hats on them, she saw a way to market her company’s product not as a machine but as something that touches people’s hearts.

That’s great creativity, great marketing. But is it technical communication? Did Carla get mixed up and think that she was speaking to the Society for Technical Marketing?

No. Carla knew exactly where she was.

The payload


The inspiration process (the labels say, in order, Observe – Distill – Relate – Generate – Pitch)

About halfway through her talk, Carla dropped her payload. But she did it so casually, and she moved so quickly to the next topic, that I’m afraid a lot of people might’ve missed it. People might’ve left the hall filled with creative energy, but not knowing how to carry that energy back into the office on Monday.

I chatted with Carla afterward (she graciously stayed in the exhibit area for several hours after her talk) and verified that, yes, this is what she’d said and, yes, this is the kernel of what she wanted her audience to hear.

Technical communicators are the linchpin between people, information, and technology.

In other words: We technical communicators — not the engineers or the marketers or the salespeople — are uniquely able to make the inspiration process work. We can draw inspiration from what we see happening around us, distill it, and relate it to our own company’s brand. We’re the people who ought to be discovering new and creative ways to enhance our company’s brands.

All because we, uniquely, live at the intersection of people (think, audience), information, and technology.

Taking a vital role — and having fun

I like this. It means that technical communicators can have a vital role in making our companies succeed. It certainly means our jobs can be more fun.

But how many any of us do anything remotely like this? How many are in a position where, if we had a burst of creative inspiration, anyone would listen to us?

Carla would say to start small. If you have brand detachment disorder — if you think that the likes of Disney and Apple have nothing to do with your company’s brand — admit that that’s a problem. Confront your fear of going forward. Then move ahead, taking small steps at first, until the inspiration process becomes habit.

What do you think? Is Carla right about the unique role of technical communicators in the inspiration process? If you heard her speech, what did it say to you?

For me, I’m game to give it a try. Even if no one listens to me, I’ll have had some fun. And if they do listen — well, who knows what might happen?

12 thoughts on “The linchpin of inspiration

  1. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Wonderful summary, Larry. And excellent listening and follow-through. Thank you for pulling out this meaning for all to see. Now, who will step up to the opportunity to make this kind of difference for our companies?

  2. Ben Woelk

    Carla is absolutely right! I love that linchpin description of our role. I am blessed to be in a position where I’m able to bring and actualize my ideas for innovation! We are reframing our entire security awareness program around social norming, optimism, and gamification. My role across two practice areas–techcomm and infosec–exposes me to new ideas that prime the pump of innovation.
    Nice post! I think I have a blog post emerging as well!
    Nice job!

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