Author Archives: Larry Kunz

About Larry Kunz

I’m a technical communication professional with more than 35 years’ experience as a writer, manager, planner, and information designer. In my job at Extreme Networks in Raleigh, NC, I create content for customers and business partners. I'm also part of a team that's always looking for ways to make our content more valuable for our company and our customers. 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.

Technical Communication: Oh, the places you’ll go!

A Technical Communication graduate student recently interviewed me for a project she’s doing. She asked great questions, and (with her permission) I thought I’d share some of my answers with you.

What does a career trajectory look like in technical communication?

Places_you_go_Seuss

Your career in Tech Comm, and possibly after Tech Comm, will be uniquely yours — shaped by your interests and talents.

Follow-on question: Is there lots of room for growth, or do people need to transition to management after a certain point?

There is lots of room for growth. Just as people follow many paths into Tech Comm, they find a lot of paths to follow once they’re here.

It’s like Dr. Seuss said: you can go almost anywhere.

Where you go in Tech Comm — or where you go from Tech Comm — depends on what you’re especially good at and what you’re most interested in. Continue reading

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Why your idea didn’t fly — and how you can give it wings

Roseate Spoonbill in FlightRemember that great idea you had at work? You knew it would make a huge difference for the company and its customers, that it would pay dividends long into the future.

You pitched it to your boss, or to the C-suite. You put everything you had into it. But they just yawned. Nobody caught your enthusiasm. Worse, when a different, shiny idea caught their eyes, they forgot all about your idea and backed that one instead.

What happened?

Seth Godin provided some answers in his blog this past Super Bowl Sunday. Seth examined why cities spend hundreds of millions on stadiums while projects with a better return on investment — like building roads, improving education, or investing in technology — go wanting.

Learn the dynamics of corporate decision making

Seth sees 5 dynamics at play in decision making at the city or state level. I’m convinced that they also bear on your situation at work.

  • The project is now. It’s yes or no. There are no subtle nuances, no debating the pros and cons for years. We either build the stadium, or our team moves to Vegas.
  • The project is specific, easy to visualize — in contrast with, say, “investing in technology,” which each person is likely to visualize differently.
  • The end is in sight. When you build a stadium, the stadium opens and games are played. With other projects, it’s often harder to visualize the end state.
  • People in power and people with power will benefit. Enough said.
  • There’s a tribal patriotism at work. “What do you mean you don’t support our city?”

So what was your idea? Were you proposing that the writing team embrace structured authoring? Did you want the company to adopt a content strategy?

Why did your bosses toss your idea aside? Maybe you didn’t frame it in a way that took the 5 dynamics into account.

Make your idea fly

How can you improve your odds when it’s time to sell your next idea? Ask yourself these questions.

  • Is it clear cut? Can I create an unambiguous, shared vision in everyone’s mind of what will happen if my idea is adopted — versus what will happen if it isn’t?
  • Can they visualize the results? It might help to tell a story: meet Joe, who just bought our product. Here’s how my idea will improve his life and turn him into a more loyal customer. Or here’s Sally in Tech Pubs, and here’s how she’ll be able to create better content for Joe and others like him.
  • Is the end in sight? Can I describe what the results will look like in a year, or in 2 years? Or am I trying to sell something that brings only gradual improvement? Similarly, can I describe the win criteria: what specific things need to happen for this project to be measured as successful?
  • What’s in it for the executives? This might go against my altruistic nature, but the bosses won’t really listen (although they might pretend to) unless they see some benefit, tangible or intangible, for them.
  • Am I appealing to company spirit? Can I paint a picture of customers waving banners with the company logo, or of the CEO on a stage talking up this idea before a cheering audience?

Try framing your next idea around these dynamics, and you might see a better result. Because people are people, whether they’re a city council or the C-suite at a corporation.

Don’t give up

anoseate Spoonbill, Birding Center, Port Aransas, TexasYou’re probably thinking: my idea can’t score on all of these criteria. By necessity, it’s a long-term solution with no clear-cut success criteria. Or it addresses issues that are internal, “under the hood” — nothing that the CEO would ever talk about onstage.

In that case, go ahead and pitch your idea anyway. Just be aware of the forces that are at work, and be willing to address them. “I know this isn’t something we’ll be able to tout to our customers. But you (Mr. or Ms. CEO) will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve made your employees happier.”

Seth, unfortunately, used the word losers in the title of his post. He was saying, I think, that basing decisions on those 5 dynamics is a losing proposition — that cities would see better outcomes (better infrastructure, better education, better quality of life) if they could get past the limitations imposed by the 5 dynamics.

I look at it differently. I prefer to say that Seth has shed light on some basic aspects of human nature. Rather than simply abandoning our less-than-shiny ideas, we can succeed when we understand those aspects and turn them to our advantage.

What do you think? Has Seth given you a way to bring your ideas to fruition, or has he convinced you that your ideas will never gain traction?

Can you share a story of when you got an idea approved by appealing to these aspects of human nature?

Is your child texting about technical communication?

Here’s a quick guide to find out:

stack of dictionariesBRB
Big reference books

TMI
Tagging my index

LOL
Learn other languages

NGH
Need graphic here

TTFN
Try this font now

Quill penIDK
Insert DITA keyword

WTF
Write the facts

ICYMI
I corrected your mistakes, incidentally

TTYL
The things you learn

TL;DR
Technical literacy definitely rocks

FTW
Fantastic technical writing

Don’t twist the prose

It’s never too early to plan for next year’s gardening. I just got a new pair of pruning shears, and on the back of the package I found these illustrations:

garden_shears

….accompanied by these instructions:

Don’t twist the scissors in use. If the scissors are in the city Figure C in the way the clock pointer, the two shear bodies will squeeze each otherDamage: if it is twisted to the look of the clock in the opposite of the A, the time of the clockWill produce a gap between the two sides of the plane, and can not ensure smooth trim. Correct useShould be shown in figure B.

Yeah. Wow.

I was tempted to laugh and roll my eyes, and I confess that maybe I did. A little.

But it’s also worth pausing to make a few points — because someone wrote this, honestly thinking they were conveying useful information. Nobody sets out to make their readers’ eyes roll. So what happened here? Let’s think about it.

Don’t overthink

First, I’m pretty certain that the writer, despite the best of intentions, overthought the whole thing. Here’s what they wanted to say: For a smooth cut, always cut straight on. Don’t rotate the shears to the right or left.

But, anxious to make sure no one would misunderstand, the writer inserted cross-references to the pictures and added the convoluted text about what happens if you turn (twist) the shears clockwise or counterclockwise. The added detail, rather than clarifying, only muddled things.

My copy often goes from simple to complex, just like this writer’s. Then, after setting it aside for a little while, I can come back and make it simple again.

Translation matters

Then, when you’re writing content for translation, be sure it’s translated by people who know both the source and target languages. It sure looks like this company cut corners when it came to translation. (Maybe they twisted their shears counterclockwise while cutting. Who knows?)

I’m certain that this copy looked a lot better in the source language than it does in English.

Also, when writing for translation, be sure the writer and the translator are working with the same authoring tool. It’s likely that those crashed-together words, like otherDamage and clockWill, resulted from a writer saving the copy in one tool and a translator opening it in another.

Verify, verify, verify

The manufacturer knew they’d be selling their product in a large English-speaking market. Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d usability-tested their instructions — or even if they’d simply verified them with one English speaker?

Perhaps it seemed like an unnecessary expense, or too much of an inconvenience, to verify the instructions. Or perhaps someone simply said We don’t care — just ship it.  Whether that decision will have negative consequences, in the form of damaged customer loyalty or decreased sales, I don’t know. (Very possibly it won’t, which is why someone said We don’t care.)

The decision certainly has resulted in embarrassment for the manufacturer. Can you put a cash value on that?

Reaching your audience through empathy

On Tuesday, January 23, I’ll give an online talk — along with my colleague Christina Mayr — about empathy and how you can use it to connect technical documentation with its audience. Our talk is part of the “Writing Well” conference.

I hope you’ll consider joining us.

Our talk

man-in-the-mirror

In the mirror exercise, you and another actor (think: your reader) follow each other’s moves (credit: whatshihsaid.com)

Audience analysis is at the heart of what technical writers do. But what makes an audience analysis truly successful? Empathy. Customer empathy spans more than customer service; in fact, it’s most needed long before a user even calls for help. By employing empathetic techniques – for example, monitoring customer support cases to find pain points and improve documentation to address them – you help your users  trust your documentation and seek it out before calling customer support.

Our talk, Improve Documentation Usage with Customer Empathy, will show you how to acquire user empathy and effectively create empathetic technical information. It will discuss several empathetic techniques you can use in your organization to start writing with a better understanding of your users’ pain. We’ll also discuss the case studies, collaboration, and user outreach Extreme Networks performed and the results of these activities.

The event

IDEAS conference logo
The “Writing Well” conference is a two-day, online event that’s put on by CIDM, the Center for Information–Development Management. CIDM brings together managers in the field of information development to share information and new ideas.

The “Writing Well” conference invites you back to basics as we explore what defines good documentation in today’s structured, topic-based environment. What does it mean to write well? What characteristics predict whether or not content will be usable and understandable? Where should we be spending our time? What strategies help authors produce content that users willingly turn to first?

I look forward to connecting with you there.

Read this, but watch out for the side effects

Have you heard about the fastest growing job market for technical writers?

Cialis ad with couple in bathtubs

Oh, and if you read this blog in the bathtub, be careful. You could slip and fall.

If you can write the lists of side effects and disclaimers in pharmaceutical advertisements, you’re in high demand. I mean, you must  be in high demand, based on the sheer number of ads I see that promise to cure everything from diabetes to depression to, um, other things.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, here are the particulars about the blog you’re reading. At the bottom of the page, I’ve provided annotations to give you all the training you need to enter the exciting world of medical disclaimer writing.

Do not read this blog while operating heavy machinery, while trapeze-walking across Niagara Falls, or while performing brain surgery..

Do not read this blog if you are a man who is pregnant or about to become pregnant, if you are taking certain [1] enzyme inhibitors, or if you’re just plain feeling inhibited.

Side effects can include drowsiness, nausea, and sudden snorts of laughter. Some severe reactions, including blurred vision and decreased appetite, have happened [2]. Rare but serious side effects, including some fatal events [3] have also been reported [4].

Tell your doctor if you experience memory loss, seizures, hives, and sudden unexplained loss of body parts. They don’t have anything to do with this blog. But you should tell your doctor anyway, because — yeesh — they sound pretty bad.

Happy reading, and best of luck in your new career.

Notes:

  1. Certain ones. We don’t know which ones. Just trying to avoid liability here.
  2. Have happened: The perfect phrase for disclaiming any and all responsibility for anything at all.
  3. I’m preparing a conference presentation called Pharmaceutical Advertisers’ Euphemisms for “You’re Dead.”
  4. Have also been reported. Sharpen your passive-voice skills with this liability-evading construction.

Questions from the old year, questions for the new

Looking back over this blog’s performance in 2017, I see a pattern. The 3 most popular articles, in terms of page views, were ones that posed questions. The questions I asked in 2017 are still worth considering today.

Is augmented reality part of technical communication’s future?

While AR is popular for gaming, I asked, can it become a viable platform for technical communication? Nearly a year after I wrote the article, I still don’t see much enthusiasm.

screen shot of a sky map appThere are a few popular low-end AR apps, like the stargazing apps I mentioned in the article. Susan Carpenter, in a comment, envisioned using AR for museum interpretation.

But it’s still hard to see a business case for AR in mainstream product documentation. General Motors, attempting to break into this market, deployed its myOpel app a few years ago. While the app is still available, it’s getting only tepid reviews and it doesn’t seem to be spawning imitators.

Why is it so challenging to apply AR to product documentation? Partly, perhaps, because it’s so hard to know exactly what the user is doing — and trying to do — when they access the documentation. Mark Baker pointed that AR will work only if we can maintain our focus, remove distractions, and not introduce new distractions by, say, cluttering the user’s field of vision with “dashboards” full of irrelevant data.

As we turn the calendar to 2018, the vision of AR for technical communication remains gauzy, maybe somewhere in distant the future but not yet coming into focus.

Is “soup to nuts” what we need?

When I posed this question, I was thinking of authoring systems that combine under one banner all of the major steps of the content workflow:

  • Creating
  • Managing
  • Reviewing
  • Publishing

Vendors have been pitching these kinds of systems for a while. But I questioned whether very many real-world content-development teams were buying and using them.

Since I wrote that piece, my company has invested in one of those “soup to nuts” systems. We’ve begun using it to create, manage, and publish content — but not to review it. Just as I said back then, our subject-matter experts still prefer to mark up drafts using a familiar format like Word or PDF.

It’s too soon to tell whether our soup-to-nuts system will, as I feared, actually hinder cooperation and collaboration with other parts of the company. Service and Marketing, for example, use tools and processes that don’t play well with our the soup-to-nuts system we’re now using in Information Development. How big a hurdle will that prove to be?

People who commented on the article expressed skepticism, based on their own experience, about whether soup-to-nuts can work. One correspondent, however, reported being very happy with a tool I hadn’t considered when I wrote the article: Atlassian Confluence.

Will you still need me? (STC at 64)

Sgt. Pepper album with STC logo addedDuring the last Summit conference — and as Liz Pohland took the reins as STC‘s new CEO — I invoked a Sgt. Pepper song to explain why I thought STC, then marking its 64th anniversary, remains relevant in the 21st century.

I said that STC — which for decades has billed itself as the world’s largest professional society dedicated to technical communication — has stayed relevant by:

  • Providing a solid platform for networking and information exchange
  • Curating a body of knowledge
  • Connecting practitioners with educators

To stay relevant, I said that STC must:

  • Reach across to professionals in fields that involve content creation but that don’t necessarily fall under the rubric of technical communication
  • Make newcomers welcome and help them find their place in the organization
  • Find new ways to attract, train, and energize volunteers — because volunteers are the lifeblood of STC
  • Build its certification program into something that’s valued by practitioners and their employers — a process that’s likely to take a long time
  • Continue to operate as a worldwide society, retaining its place at the table alongside organizations like tekom in Europe

Now, in 2018, STC is spotlighting its age: its next conference is billed as the 65th Anniversary Summit. I think that its strengths, and its challenges, are much the same as they were in 2017.

What do you think — about STC, about soup-to-nuts systems, or about augmented reality?

What questions do you think our profession will need to focus on in 2018?

Jane Austen ponders technical communication

Last week’s news about the demise of Storify prompted me to go and retrieve a few of my old stories.

One of them, If Jane Austen wrote about technical communication, invited Twitter to complete the sentence

It is a #techcomm truth universally acknowledged, that…

PridePrejudice423x630you cannot safely assume anything about your audience.
– John Kearney @JK1440

it’s never too late. There is always the next iteration 🙂
– Yvonne Wade Sanchez @ywsanchez

buying a tool won’t fix your processes.
– Kai Weber @techwriterkai

when the big boss demands a dumb change, (s)he will later berate you for the dumb thing.
– Karen Mulholland @kemulholland

a person consulting the style guide for an out-of-office reply must be in need of a life.
– Anindita Basu @anindita_basu

the best review comments arrive right after it’s too late to update your content.
– Yours Truly @larry_kunz

you can’t stop people from sticking beans up their nose.
– Kai Weber @techwriterkai

That last one came with a link to Jared Spool’s Beans and Noses — the gist of which is that people will invariably do things that don’t make sense. That’s something we, as technical communicators, have to deal with. And it pretty well sums up life in the year 2017, if you think about it.

7 words you can’t say at CDC

According to its mission statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency of the U.S. government, “increases the health security of our nation.”

CDC logoIt does so primarily in two ways: researching diseases and their cures, and informing the public about its findings. For example, you might remember CDC’s role in warning citizens about the zika virus in 2015.

A few words might be missing

Soon, however, when you get information from CDC, a few words might be missing. Reportedly, senior officials within the Department of Health and Human Services recently decreed that CDC and other HHS agencies are forbidden from using 7 words in their official budget documents.

(This is a developing story. On Sunday, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald called the report about the 7 words “a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.” The word mischaracterization leaves wiggle room: it’s reasonable to assume that there was discussion about avoiding certain words — even if it wasn’t an all-out ban.)

George Carlin with the 7 words superimposed on his photo

Credit: Scott Smith (@stampergr) on Twitter

Here are the 7 forbidden words:

  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • fetus
  • evidence-based
  • science-based

What does it mean when words become non-words? As anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984 knows, it’s an attempt by those in power to impose control.

They know something I’ve known throughout my writing career: words matter. A lot.

By changing the words in the conversation, do the people in charge at HHS think they can change reality? No. I don’t believe they’re that foolish. Not all of them anyway.

They can’t change reality, but they can change the way in which reality is discussed. If they change the terms of the discussion, they can influence the way people think.

When nothing can be described as evidence-based or science-based, there’s no longer a need to question a finding that’s unsupported by evidence.

When transgender is stripped from the vocabulary, they can more easily dismiss the health needs of thousands of our fellow ci.tizens.

When they stop saying vulnerable, it’s easier for them to overlook human beings who are vulnerable and who need help.

The Florida tides

It brings to mind what happened in Florida a few years ago. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection ordered its staff not to use the terms climate change and global warming in any official communications, emails, or reports.

This despite the fact that, according to a New York Times article, “when many cities in Florida flood, which can occur even without rainfall during the highest tides, fish swim in the streets and people wade to their cars.”

But the nabobs in the Department of Environmental Protection, even as the bottoms of their trousers get soaked, need not trouble themselves with the thought that this is anything more than a random natural phenomenon.

What can we do?

There’s a lot at stake here. Although it’s tempting to smirk and roll our eyes, we mustn’t dismiss this as mere bureaucratic foolery. Instead, we need to call it out for what it is: an attempt by those in power to impose control.

Be wary of gaslighting — of any attempt to change the way reality is perceived. Don’t let Why don’t we talk about x any more? turn into X never happenedAll of us share a duty to know the truth and hold fast to it.

Finally, even if HHS won’t use those words, by golly we can use them. And we should. Question what this government tells you — and don’t be afraid to answer back, What about the vulnerable ones? What scientific evidence do you have for this?

Never let them forget that words matter.

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.