Category Archives: Professionalism

Stand up and be counted: the technical communication census

It’s not just another survey. If you’re engaged in technical communication — as practitioner, teacher, or student — I encourage you to take part.

census taker in front of house

Take part in the census. And don’t worry: no salesman will call.

A team at Concordia University in Montreal, led by Dr. Saul Carliner, is conducting research called the census of technical communicators. It’s in survey format, but unlike most surveys targeted to technical communicators, this one isn’t about tools or technology. Instead, the research is about you: your background, your job satisfaction, your aspirations, and how you stay current in the profession.

I’m delighted that Concordia is conducting this census. Most data-driven research about our profession centers on the tools we use and the technologies we support. Some of it is geared to providing tools vendors with data so they can better market their products.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s refreshing to see research that’s about us: who we are, and how we perceive our work. Having completed the census questionnaire, I can tell you that it was well designed to yield a complete and accurate portrait of the people in our profession.

I look forward to seeing the results of the census, which will be published later this year in STC’s Intercom magazine. More in-depth analysis of the data might also be submitted to academic journals.

Although STC is helping to publicize it, the research project was developed and is being conducted by the team at Concordia. I’ve known Dr. Carliner, the project lead, for more than 25 years. I very much admire his energy, his dedication, and his insight.

One last thing: No one asked me to promote the census. I’m encouraging you to participate because I have high regard for the research team and because I think the research will greatly enhance our understanding of our profession and its people..

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When you’re the only star (part 2)

(part 2 of 2)

You’re a star performer. The other members of your team aren’t. What do you do? Last time we looked at a few things that don’t work — whether you’re the best basketball player in the world, a popular and accomplished baseball player, or an all-star technical writer on a team that isn’t getting the job done.

Now here are some things that do work.

What does work: Have faith in the team

Remember: while you might think you’re the only star on the team, the team members probably don’t share your view.

Here’s something else to remember: no one on your team is trying to fail. Nor are they incompetents, unable to do the job.

Somebody hired them, thinking they had the necessary skills. Surely, then, you won’t need to look very hard to see the qualities that can turn your teammates into capable performers, even if they’re struggling with the current project.

Yellow Brick road from the Wizard of Oz

Your vision can guide your teammates to taking their first steps along the yellow brick road to the goal

So try a dose of humility. Continue reading

When you’re the only star

(Part 1 of 2)

You’re a star performer. The other members of your team aren’t. What do you do?

In the business world, almost everything is a team sport. As a technical writer, for example, you might be an all-star. But you succeed only when the other members of the team — writers, editors, artists, publishers, SMEs, managers — do their jobs effectively.

So what do you do when they’re not effective? Here are a few things that don’t work.

What doesn’t work: Carry the whole load

LeBron James shouting at teammate J.R. Smith

What were you THINKING??

You’ve probably seen this photo of LeBron James, by all accounts the best basketball player in the world. He’s confronting teammate J.R. Smith after Smith’s mental blunder in the first game in this year’s NBA Finals.

James’s Cleveland Cavaliers went on to lose that series — but not because he didn’t give it his all.

He spent more time on the court (by a wide margin) than his next busiest teammate. He attempted more shots. He accounted for nearly half of his team’s assists.

In sports we often admire the guy who “carries the team on his shoulders.” But when a team needs to be carried, when it relies too much on one person’s contributions, that’s not a good thing. Continue reading

Do we understand ourselves?

People don’t understand us. From the first time I met a technical writer, I’ve heard them — I’ve heard us — say that.

Our bosses don’t understand us. Subject-matter experts don’t understand us. Our audiences don’t understand us.

So, at long last, we have a chance to change that. A few days ago on Twitter, an app designer named Louie Mantia put this out to the world:

As Louie’s tweet kept popping up in my timeline — with answers from journalists, lexicographers, and historians — I pondered how a technical writer might answer.

It was harder than I expected.

First take

First I thought of answering Louie’s question like this: Our top priority is writing directly to the people who use the instructions.

Then, in my imaginary dialog, I heard a resounding yawn from the general public: Of course you write for the people who use the instructions. For us. Who else would you write for?

Writing for the audience. While we technical writers trumpet it as a big deal, to our audience it’s so blindingly obvious that it goes without saying.

Second take

So I tried a different approach. Technical writers think in terms of how to use a product, not how the product works.

General public: We know that! It’s common sense, right? I don’t need to know how an internal-combustion engine works. I just want to change the oil.

Third take

crowd of people

Might the people understand us better than we think?

My third try: We work hard to tailor our information to our audience — in terms of both content and media.

GP: Hmm. The tailoring part, again, should go without saying. Maybe we don’t understand why you have to work so hard.

After all, when we get it right, it looks effortless. And when we get it wrong, it looks like we haven’t tried at all.

I began to realize that the skills we technical writers prize the most and discuss the most among ourselves, like audience analysis and media expertise, are things that — in the minds of our customers — ought to be second nature.

When we say that people don’t understand us, it’s not because they don’t grasp our skill set. It’s because they don’t realize how much energy we devote to honing those skills and to reminding each other how important they are.

Why do we need to remind each other of things that are so fundamental? Is it because our perspective is skewed from spending too much time with our work colleagues (especially Development) and not enough time with our customers?

Maybe it’s not that people understand us. Maybe we don’t understand ourselves.

Epilog

I finally did answer Louie’s question about what seems obvious to us but is misunderstood by the general public.

What do you think of my answer? How would you have answered?

Do you think our customers would be surprised to learn how much time we spend talking about things that, to them, ought to be second nature?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Embodying the modern elder

Ageism. It’s a subject I’ve tended to hold at arm’s length, for two reasons. First, although I know ageism is a genuine problem in today’s workplace, it fortunately has never affected me directly. Second, since there’s nothing I can do to change my birth date, I feel like there’s nothing I can do about ageism.

gandalf

To find elder statesmen who are still venerated, you might need to go to Middle Earth. 

But there is something I can do. And it turns out I’ve been doing it all along.

In Age: The Last Socially-Acceptable Bias, author Chip Conley describes returning to the workforce in his mid 50s, saying that “what I lacked in DQ (Digital Intelligence), I made up for in accumulated EQ (Emotional Intelligence).” The experience, he says, turned him into a modern elder.

Long ago, and still today in some communities, the oldest members were venerated. In the mid-twentieth century world that I grew up in, elders in the workplace were handed a gold watch, shown the door, and expected to shuffle off to a rocking chair.

On reading Conley’s article, I instantly embraced the term modern elder because I recognized the need to redefine the status of elders in the workplace, and because I realized that it’s something I already try to embody.

According to Conley, a modern elder is “someone who marries wisdom and experience with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to learn from those younger.”

As I pulled Conley’s definition apart, I saw something that I hope others see when they look at me. Continue reading

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. Continue reading