Category Archives: Content strategy

Carrying the earth on our shoulders

At last week’s STC Summit, I attended a couple of presentations that probed the same question. It’s an old question, but it’s still a thorny one.

atlas_rockefeller_center

I used to see this guy on childhood trips to New York. Now he reminds me of my Tech Pubs colleagues.

How can we integrate content into a unified presentation when the content comes from all over the place? When different teams — communication specialists and nonspecialists — are creating content using different tools and different styles, often with different objectives in mind, how can we present it to customers as a unified whole?

Both presentations showcased successful case studies for integrating content. Both placed the Tech Pubs department at the center of the action. Yet both left me wondering why this whole thing — integrating content produced independently and content produced as part of a collaborative effort — isn’t easier. Continue reading

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How do you know I’m telling the truth?

Deep in the Amazon rain forest, they do a really marvelous thing.

Have I seen it for myself? Well, no. Did I hear it from an eyewitness? No again. Truth to tell, I read about it on the internet.

Aerial view of Papuri River

The Papuri River in South America (photo: Andre Baertschi)

I need to back up and start from the beginning.

Dave Thomas, in a recent article titled The Revolution Will Have Structured Content, describes how the language of a culture will reflect whatever values the culture finds most important.

Thus, for example, “if we require Mr., which says nothing about marital status, before a man’s name but either Miss or Mrs. before a woman’s name, we are saying that the most important thing to know about that woman is her marital status.” And that’s why, over the last half-century, the use of Ms. has become prevalent.

A grammar based on evidence

Now, Thomas asks, what if a culture placed a high value on truth? Would its language evolve a grammar that would help a listener to evaluate the veracity of a given statement? Continue reading

Policing the public square

No doubt you’ve seen the news. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gone up to Capitol Hill this week to answer questions from several different Congressional committees. They want to know what Facebook is doing about privacy breaches and interference by foreign actors.

In his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg said:

“It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It’s not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”

Zuckerberg and Besmehn

Mark Zuckerberg and assistant Andrea Besmehn arrive on Capitol Hill (photo source: NPR)

So, as NPR’s Camila Domonoske points out, Facebook now admits that it’s a content publisher, not just a technology platform on which other people create content. That’s big news.

Here’s even bigger news: Continue reading

Content questions: Critical Thinking 101

In my first content questions piece, I cited Robert D. Kaplan’s Washington Post article, in which he describes how people use content to distort and deceive — how information becomes misinformation and then the misinformation is amplified.

wolf in a forest

Reader Mark Baker proffered this comment:

This is an old wolf in new sheep’s clothing, but there are so many wolves now, and their sheep’s clothing is such a bad fit that we can always see their paws and teeth sticking out.

I respectfully disagree.

This is not to pick on Mark, with whom — based on his subsequent comments and on other conversations we’ve had in this forum — I agree on most things. But here, at least, I think he understates the problem.

Sure, sometimes it’s easy to spot the content frauds. Just like in Cold War-era spy movies, you knew who the bad guys were because they had Russian accents.

But many wolves are better at masking their true selves. Social media, especially, makes for effective masks. It’s easy to pretend you’re something you’re not.

(It’s been 25 years since Peter Steiner’s famous “nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon in the New Yorker. How much has really changed since then?)

Exposing the wolves

We try hard to spot the wolves behind the masks. We look for trusted allies who can curate the content we receive. And we instinctively turn toward people who resemble ourselves — our tribe.

That exposes some of the wolves, but not nearly all of them.

To expose some wolves, we need to stop judging their appearance and start judging the things they say (or write).

In other words, we need to think critically. Continue reading

Content questions: a crisis of trust

We’ve been talking about content, about who gets to decide what is and isn’t appropriate, and especially about what happens to the content you publish.

A lot of it comes down to trust. Can we trust the content we encounter? How do we know? And, of course, how can we create content that people will recognize as trustworthy?

Meet the Edelman Trust Barometer. Published by the Edelman research firm, the barometer is an international study that focuses on the degree to which people trust “institutions” — defined by Edelman as government, business, media, and NGOs.

Richard Edelman speaking in the video

Richard Edelman (screen shot from The Battle for Truth)

I don’t think I’m off base if I interchange the term content providers for institutions. After all, the content we consume — the content on which we base our opinions and our worldview — comes predominantly from government, business, media, and NGOs. And the content you create probably falls into one of those categories.

The newest Trust Barometer finds that people’s trust in institutions — or content providers — is dropping precipitously, especially in the U.S.

In the words of CEO Richard Edelman, “the United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust.” Edelman even posted a short video, titled The Battle for Truth, in which he said (emphasis mine):

  • We don’t have shared facts. Therefore, we lack rational discourse.”
  • Silence is a tax on truth, and we have to speak up.”

By speaking up, Edelman means that it’s incumbent on every institution — every content provider — to “fill the void for quality information.” Trustworthy information.

I don’t disagree with him. But I doubt that every content provider is willing or able.

What do you and I, as consumers of content, do then? Continue reading

Content questions: is the human element worth a try?

At a time when the news media is under intense scrutiny, when people struggle to distinguish reliable information from “fake news” from merely biased news, how will we decide — and who will decide:

  • When is content inappropriate?
  • Who controls the content?
  • What if content is used to deceive?

I posed these questions last week, with emphasis on the information, or the content, that we create. And I asked how we — the content creators — will shape the answers.

Answering the content conundrum

Steven Brill interviewed on CNN
Steven Brill, interviewed on CNN on March 4, 2018

Here’s one answer, from Steven Brill, whose Wikipedia page calls him a “journalist-entrepreneur.” Brill’s new project is called NewsGuard.

NewsGuard, whose launch date has not been announced, will try to “help consumers distinguish between sites that are trying to get it right and sites that are trying to trick people.” Those are the words of Brian Stelter, who interviewed Brill for CNN’s “Reliable Sources” earlier this month. Continue reading

Content questions: will we have the answers?

This is about information: who controls its flow, who uses it, and who watches you when you use it.

This is about you. Because you access information — or content — on the internet, and because you probably create it as well.

Will someone have the power to tell you what content is and is not appropriate? Who controls what happens to the content you publish? Will someone use your content to deceive or mislead?

Just this month, 3 news stories have brought these questions into sharper focus. Will we, as writing professionals, have good answers? We’d better, because I don’t know if anyone else will.

When is content inappropriate? Who decides?

Advertisement captioned Don't worry, it's just Twitter

Scene from a recent ad appearing on Twitter’s website and in movie theaters

On March 1, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey promised to start measuring the platform’s “health” as a first step to freeing users from trolls and propaganda. (Josh Bernoff does a great job of  breaking down the announcement.) Admitting that “we didn’t fully predict or understand the real-world negative consequences” of Twitter’s free-for-all format, Dorsey promises to get busy and fix the problem.

Can he fix it?  Can he put the lid back on Pandora’s box? It strikes me as too little, too late. Continue reading

Lightweight DITA: I’ve seen the light

DITA logo being held aloft by balloons

Lightweight DITA doesn’t have a logo yet. The technical committee is welcome to use this one.

If you’ve taken one of my DITA classes, you’ve heard me extol the power of DITA. One aspect of that power is semantic tagging. In DITA, a piece of content isn’t boldface or italics. It’s a command name. Or it’s a citation to another document. Or it’s the name of a screen (a wintitle, in DITA parlance).

That’s a big selling point for DITA, you probably heard me say. Each DITA element represents what a thing is (hence the term semantic) rather than how it looks. Just think: you can take a big document and generate a list of all the command names, or all the screen names. You can’t do that when you’re just tagging things as boldface and italics.

Turns out there are a couple of problems.

  • First, I’ve never met anyone who wanted to generate a list of all the command names, or all the screen names. While it sounds good in theory, in practice it’s more like a solution in search of a problem.
  • Second, it’s a lot to remember. When is a command parameter a parameter? When is it an option? (DITA has tags for both.) Writers working side by side, writing content for the same help system, might tag the same object in different ways.

Just now, in fact, as I wrote this article, I couldn’t remember the name of the tag for citations. Even though I’m accustomed to using it, I couldn’t retrieve <cite> from my brain. I had to look it up.

Enter Lightweight DITA. Continue reading

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?

An image with an impact

If good writing is the foundation on which technical communication is built, then visual elements provide the curb appeal.

Even though most of my training and experience are in writing, not illustrating, I’m keenly aware of the huge effect — for good or ill — that visuals can have on content.

I pay close attention to how the artist chooses to present data in maps and graphs, because that choice can strongly influence the reader’s perception.

I like to spotlight images that are informative and well-executed — like the map in ProPublica’s story on last summer’s Houston floods and the Tampa Bay Times‘ 2015 infographic about the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Unfortunately, the Times has removed the infographic from its site, but a small piece of it survives in my post.)

Then there’s the recent op-ed by the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in the U.S. In an article full of bar graphs and maps, one image in particular made my jaw drop.

Wishing to point up the lack of research into gun violence, compared with research into diseases like cholera and diphtheria, Kristof had a Times artist compare two data points for each problem: number of people affected and number of research projects funded by the National Institutes of Health over the 40 years ending in 2012.

As you scroll down, try to set aside your political views — whether you’re pro- or anti-gun control — and evaluate this image on how effectively it delivers its message.

graph juxtaposing 4 million gun-violence cases and 3 research grants

I’ve seen very few images that delivered their messages so startlingly, so resoundingly. The numbers are impressive, but the huge red circle and the three tiny boxes thunder out the message: gun violence, while a serious threat to public health, is woefully under-researched. (Kristof says that’s because of lobbying by opponents of gun control.)

Feel free to disagree with the message. But don’t tell me that it wasn’t delivered effectively.