Author Archives: Larry Kunz

About Larry Kunz

I’m a technical communication professional with more than 30 years’ experience as a writer, manager, planner, and information designer. In my paying job I lead projects and perform consulting for clients who want to treat their customer-facing content as a business asset. I teach a course in project management in the Technical Communication certificate program at Duke University. I’ve also developed and delivered courses in structured authoring to internal staff and corporate clients. I’ll be happy to speak at your next event, either in person or over the web, about Tech Comm or any related subject.

How’s your leadership? The self audit

My inspiration for this article is a Twitter conversation with Dr. Deepak Malhotra‏ (@HeadHR_Deepak) after last week’s Power-of-Connection chat session. (#PoCChat takes place on Mondays at 15:00 GMT, and I’d love to have you join us.)

Dr. Malhotra encouraged us to perform self-audits to help us become more effective as leaders. He provided the following outline; I’ve filled in each step with my own thoughts.

Man looking at himself in a mirror

Image credit: What Shih Said (WordPress: whatshihsaid.com/)

What leaders do I admire?

Write down the names of four or five leaders you admire. They can be famous or obscure, historical, contemporary, or even fictional. They can be people in charge of large organizations or people who simply lead by example. They can be Abraham Lincoln or your first boss. Warren Buffet or Captain Kirk.

It’s best if at least a couple of your choices are people you know and who have influenced you directly. In any case, all of your choices should be people whose leadership styles you know well.

What attributes do I admire in those leaders?

Now that you know which leaders you admire, it’s time to figure out what it is about them that you admire. It’s like asking What makes these leaders effective? But it’s more personal. Leaders can be effective in ways you appreciate but don’t admire or even approve of.

You’re looking specifically for attributes you hold in high regard, and your list will be yours alone. Maybe you admire charisma, or compassion, or strength of character. You should be able to explain, in a sentence or two, why you admire each of the attributes you pick.

Which of those attributes do I want to emulate?

Narrow it down even further: out of the attributes you admire, which ones do you think you’re capable of pulling off?

I worked with an executive who had military-style self discipline: always dressed impeccably, shoes shined, every hair in place. It gave him an air of authority, and I admired him for it. But it was completely not my style.

Other attributes, no matter how admirable, come with a cost. For example, if you resolve to be honest at all times, no matter what, sooner or later you’ll make somebody mad. You might encounter resistance. Ask yourself if it’s worth the cost.

By now you should have a fairly short list of attributes, maybe three or four, that you admire and are willing to develop. If you’re list of attributes is longer, you’ll find it hard to stay focused as you seek to grow as a leader.

How am I doing?

Now that you have a list, measure your performance in each area. Don’t compare yourself to the leaders you admire — that’s an awfully high bar. Instead, decide what level you’re capable of reaching, and measure yourself against that standard.

If honesty is one of the attributes you chose to develop, think back over the last few weeks. Was there a time when honesty was called for, and you demurred? What happened? What thoughts and emotions led you to react the way you did?

If I’m falling short in any area, why? What can I do to improve?

You’ll probably find that you’re already strong in some of the areas you’ve decided to emulate. Many of us admire in others the same characteristics we see in ourselves.

There’ll be other areas, however, where you’re falling short. When you needed to be honest but you weren’t, how could you have handled the situation better? When a similar situation arises again, what might you try doing differently — or what can you say to yourself — to bring about a better result?

Going forward

I’m looking forward to diving more deeply into this. I think it’s going to be fun: recalling leaders who’ve changed my life for the better, and finding attributes in them that I can aspire to.

Dr. Malhotra, if you’re reading this, I hope I’ve faithfully captured the essence of what you meant when you described the self audit.

Everyone: Do you perform self audits of your leadership? If so, what techniques have you found helpful?

Lottie Applewhite: friend, colleague, exemplar

Some of the greatest leaders lead without having Manager or Executive in their job titles. We call them exemplars.

lottieaLottie Applewhite passed away on May 15, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC. She was a technical editor for many decades. She loved her work, she took it seriously, and she was very good at it.

But that tells only a small part of the story. Lottie set an example with her conscientious and diligent work. She advised and encouraged countless colleagues, from the most distinguished to the least. No matter who you were, Lottie greeted you with a welcoming smile and then gave you her undivided attention.

STC (the Society for Technical Communication) honored Lottie as a Fellow — the highest honor it bestows on a member. In the late ’90s STC chose to honor 10 of its most distinguished Fellows as exemplars — and, fittingly, Lottie was one of them. It was the perfect word to describe her.

Lottie lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Chapel Hill around 1990. A few years later I attended an event hosted by the STC San Francisco chapter. When they found out where I was from, several of them clustered around and asked me to tell Lottie how much they missed her, how much they wished she were still there.

Shortly after coming to North Carolina, Lottie met Diane Feldman, a young editor, and took Diane under her wing. Diane, who went on to have her own exemplary career, always credited Lottie’s friendship and mentoring as big factors in her success.

Writing in Carolina Communiqué, the Carolina chapter newsletter, Diane described their relationship:

When I expressed an interest in her work as an author’s editor of medical manuscripts, she consented to share her extensive expertise with me. And so I joined the ranks of the hundreds of people who have been inspired and invigorated, amused and amazed, motivated and mentored by Lottie Applewhite. I’ll attempt to capture just a few of the qualities that secure her place as a most memorable character in the eyes of nearly everyone she meets.

Intellectual curiosity. When Lottie wraps her mind around something, whether it’s a medical manuscript, a recipe, or the personal problem of a friend, she probes to learn the “why” behind the “what.”

Rigorous professional standards. Lottie will always take the extra step — from making a special trip to the library to asking help from an expert — to ensure that the work she delivers is of the highest quality.

Genuine love and respect for others. If Lottie has a criticism to deliver, she does so in a way that makes you grateful for the attention. If you have done something that she appreciates, she will always let you know — often in the form of a note or a letter.

Generosity of spirit. Even when she has dozens of projects requiring her attention, Lottie will take the time to help and to teach. She does not hold close the expertise she has acquired, but shares it willingly with those who call upon her for information or assistance.

Joie de vivre. This is the most important secret of Lottie’s success. She embraces life fully, with energy and enthusiasm. Whatever the project, you know that if Lottie is involved there are going to be a lot of laughs. I have had the pleasure and privilege to learn much about my trade from Lottie Applewhite. Her professional expertise is uncommonly valuable, but the life lessons she teaches by her example are priceless.

The words are Diane’s, and I can attest to their veracity. Lottie leaves her imprint on hundreds of technical communicators who are better professionals, and better people, for having known her.

If I can leave even a tiny fraction of the legacy that Lottie has left, I’ll have been a success.

Farewell, Lottie. Thanks for brightening every room you were in. Thanks for affirming so many of us. Thanks for showing the way.

Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?


Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years. Continue reading

A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.

379px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)

Making a difference, forever

Be careful what you post on the internet, they say, because once you do it’s out there forever.

I suppose that’s true. In fact, it’s been true since before we had an internet.

In the beginning….

In September 1980, about a year after I hired on at IBM in Kington, New York, a colleague and I started producing a little newsletter to help the technical writing staff master the intricacies of our computer system.

In those days before personal computers, even though we were writing books for datacenter professionals, most of the writers had received only rudimentary training in the practical aspects of using computers to do their work. Our system, the same one the engineers and programmers used, was complicated and not especially user-friendly. (The term user-friendly itself was shiny and new in 1980.)

I think it was my colleague, Susan, who came up with the idea of a newsletter. I eagerly agreed to help. I don’t remember who came up with the name, VM Voice. VM, then as now, stood for Virtual Machine and was the name of that intimidating computer system.

vmvoice

Our maiden issue: Starting with the basics

We started with the basics, gently introducing our readers to VM and its components. Over time we evolved to more complex and specialized topics, always targeting the technical writing staff and its particular needs. Each weekly issue ran to two or three pages — printed and then placed into everyone’s mailbox.

We did about 50 or 60 issues before the well of ideas dried up. Then time passed.

Fast forward to the present….

In March 2017 a longtime IBMer, preparing to retire, was cleaning out his desk. He found a stack of old papers and spotted a familiar name on the top sheet: the same last name as another guy in his office. “Know who this is?” he asked.

“Well, my mother worked at IBM. I’ll ask her.”

Soon the stack of papers was in the mail to Susan, herself long retired. She reached me through a common LinkedIn friend and asked if I remember VM Voice.

Of course I remember. It’s a wondeful memory.

I consider VM Voice to be one of my career’s biggest success stories.

  • We saw a need and we met it.
  • We had fun, especially trying to present complex, even daunting, subject matter in a way that our audience would find comfortable and reassuring.
  • We got instant feedback, and it was almost always positive.
  • We made a difference: the information in VM Voice — homespun as it was — made people better at their jobs.

Seeing those scanned copies of VM Voice reminded me that when you plant a seed, you never know precisely what will happen. When you publish something, either online or in the old-fashioned paper-and-ink way, you never know when and where you might see it again, or who might be affected by it.

The first moral of the story: In technical writing you have lots of chances to make a difference. Never lose sight of that, even when the work seems like drudgery.

The second moral: Before you publish something, make sure it’s good.

Because the internet has a long memory.

And because some people never clean out their desks.

DITA satisfaction: Take the survey

Want to know why people are using DITA? Want more insight into the challenges as well as the benefits?

DITA Survey bannerHere’s a way to get those insights — and do The Content Wrangler a favor in the process. The Content Wrangler, the online persona of Scott Abel, has been for many years a leading voice in the worlds of content marketing and technical communication.

If you’re using DITA, if you’re evaluating it, or if you’re in the process of adopting it, take the 5-minute DITA Satisfaction Survey.

The results, which will be sent to you when the survey is over, will provide helpful data about what people see as the main reasons for using DITA as well as its risks and challenges.

The data will benefit individual DITA users and the DITA community as a whole. It’ll equip us to respond to common problems and complaints, and it’ll inform the DITA Technical Committee about what changes and enhancements are most needed.

Take the survey by May 15 and you’ll be entered into a drawing for Google Cardboard.

Sassy and also substantial

Peter Sokolowsky

Peter Sokolowsky (Image Source: cbs.com)

We’re having “a national conversation about language.”

So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.

When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.

In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.

The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.Tweet from Merriam-Webster about the word volunteer

Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention. Continue reading

Review: The Dance of the Possible

(Subtitle: The mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity)

dance_of_possibleScott Berkun has delighted me in the past with books like The Year without Pants and The Ghost of My Father. Engaging and original, they touched me in such a way that, long after I put them down, their insights remain fresh in my mind.

Yet after reading the first couple of chapters of The Dance of the Possible, I thought Berkun had let me down. In this, his “guide to creativity,” he was telling me that creativity comes from inside me. That I should keep a journal. The messages seemed shopworn, not original.

Then he hit his stride. Or maybe I just opened myself to listen to him. At any rate, the rest of the book proved to be entertaining, practical, challenging, and authentic.

Authenticity was the secret ingredient in Berkun’s earlier books. He’d embark on a journey of discovery, often self-discovery, and invite me to walk alongside.

This time he’s already gone ahead. He’s done the research and he’s created things. (This is his seventh book.) In The Dance of the Possible he’s left me a set of detailed signposts – showing me how to find my creative path and what to expect along the way.

There’s plain-spoken guidance on topics like finding and nurturing ideas, developing discipline, and seeking feedback.

You can read this book in an hour or two. But don’t. Linger over it. Underline. Jot down notes. (Start that journal.) And, when you’re finished, keep the book handy so you can refer back to it.

Or read a chapter at a time. Most of the chapters are little essays, two or three pages long, about some aspect of the creative process. Each one can stand by itself while complementing the others.

Dancing, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for the creative process. I won’t spoil the book for you. I’ll just say that dancing requires intention, it’s something you can learn to be good at, and – above all – it’s fun.

Four stars out of five. Maybe four and a half.

An abridged version of this review was posted on Goodreads and amazon.com.

Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

Seth Godin took me to school. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t realize it. But his April 11 blog post sounded like a direct rejoinder to my earlier piece: Just the right choice of words.

Here’s what Seth had to say:

If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….

There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.

The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.

In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:

It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.

Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?

Um, well….No. Continue reading

The technical writing beat

At a recent STC networking event, the woman across from me said she was a police officer and wanted to find a job in technical writing.

copwriter.pngShe’d come prepared to make her case. As a cop, she said, I write reports all the time. The reports have to be factual and clear. I reckon I’m already doing technical writing.

Good point. What else you got?

I’m always explaining things to people. How the law works, what they can and can’t do, and why. I deal with people from all walks of life. Many of them don’t speak English as a first language. I have to size up each person and tailor my message so they’ll understand.

Sounds to me like you’re pretty good at audience analysis.

She’d sold me on the parallels between police work and technical writing. It was something I hadn’t considered before – even though I’ve told my students for years that the best exemplar for technical writers is a dogged detective who keeps asking questions until the case is solved.

columboI’ve worked in this profession a long time and met colleagues with all kinds of backgrounds. My encounter with the police officer reminded me that, even though people have followed many paths into technical writing, there are more trails yet to be blazed.

Did you follow an unconventional path into technical writing? Are you even now trying to enter the profession with a background that, at first glance, might appear to have little in common? If so, I’d love to hear your story.  Drop me a line or respond in the comments section.