Category Archives: Technical communication

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Putting out a paper, goddamn it

The FAKE NEWS media…is the enemy of the American people! (February 2017)

Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools! (June 2018)

Of all the odious things the U.S. president has said — and there are many — these are among the most odious. They’re certainly among the most dangerous. (When the president says fake news, of course, he’s talking about mainstream press whose reporting isn’t to his liking.)

Dome of hte Maryland state Capitol

The Maryland state Capitol, from the Capitol Gazette’s masthead

Yesterday a gunman killed 5 people and injured 2 more in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. While he didn’t wear a red hat or shout “MAGA” — the hallmarks of a radical Trumpian terrorist — he might’ve been emboldened by the president’s words. The words certainly did nothing to dissuade him.

Maybe he thought he could silence the press.

He was wrong.

Shortly after the gunman was taken into custody, Gazette reporter Pat Furgurson called his wife. CNBC’s John Harwood, a friend of Ferguson’s, describes the call:

Today, journalists in Annapolis and every corner of the world will put out a paper, goddamn it. Some, like Pat Furgurson, will work in the face of tragedy. Some will risk imprisonment or even death. But their work won’t stop.

(This tweet from Kyle Feldscher sparked a chain of other, similar stories of journalists continuing to do their jobs even as tragedies turned their lives upside down.)

The press is not the enemy of the people. It’s the enemy of liars. It’s the enemy of charlatans. It’s the enemy of all who claim authority to which they’re not entitled.

Men and women of the press — the journalists and those who work with them — are fighting for the people: working to find the truth and disseminate it.

For us technical writers, journalists are our kith and kin. To a great extent, we share the same skills — interviewing, researching, clear writing, critical thinking — and the same passion for finding and disseminating the truth.

Today we honor those who were slain in Annapolis: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters. Let’s also honor the other men and women of the press who serve the people by fighting for the truth and lighting a lamp in the darkness.

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

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

At the 2018 STC Summit

STC Summit logoI’m writing live this week from the STC Summit. Are you here too? If so, are you finding the experience worthwhile?

Take a moment to answer the following question. Then use the Comments section to tell me why you answered as you did. (Your vote is anonymous; your comments are not.)

If you’ve been to previous Summits, tell me how this one stacks up against those.

I’ll be back in a few days with my impressions from the Summit. But first, I want to hear from you.

They’re coming! Are you coming?

At next week’s STC Summit I’ll present They’re Coming! Combining Teams and Cultures. If you’re coming to the Summit, I hope to  see you in my session on Tuesday, May 22, at 4:00.

M&A: it’s everywhere

graph showing growth in mergers and acquisitions worldwide

M&A activity has increased steadily, both in terms of sheer numbers (blue bars) and monetary value (red line). Source: IMAA

If you work for a company in almost any field, chances are good that you recently went through a merger or acquisition, or that you’ll go through one soon. Research by the  Institute for Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances (IMAA) shows that M&A activity has increased steadily over the past 30 years, in every part of the world.

They’re Coming! is about the changes in people, workflows, and tools that accompany mergers and acquisitions (M&As).

On both sides of an M&A, fear might drive people to think They’re coming! A bunch of strangers is coming to take away my job or to wreck the corporate culture I’ve enjoyed.

Successful M&As don’t happen automatically. I’ve learned firsthand that they require thoughtful planning and deliberate action. Continue reading