Category Archives: Value

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

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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.

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

Launching your technical communication career

Last time I wrote about the places you can go, or the different trajectories your career can take, when you work in technical communication.

But how do you get that first job? What qualifications do you need, and what are employers looking for?

Prompted by interview questions from a Tech Comm graduate student, and based on my experience working in the field and interviewing candidates, here are some thoughts.

montage of album covers from 1979

We listened to different music in 1979, and breaking into the field was different too.

I got my first technical writing job a long time ago — in 1979. One thing I know for sure is that your breaking-in story won’t be the same as mine. Things were a lot different then, and I’m not just thinking about the music we listened to. Companies, having realized that technical people didn’t necessarily make good technical writers, went looking for young writers who weren’t necessarily versed in the technology but who could learn it.

Armed with a double-major in English and philosophy, and having a tiny bit of experience with computers, I landed that first job with IBM.

You won’t have the same experience. Your résumé will need to look a little shinier than mine did.

What are the educational requirements for working in Technical Communication?

Follow-up question: Are certain degrees or backgrounds more sought after by employers? Continue reading

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?

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?

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?

It’s not your text

Hey, wow. I was looking on the internet and — what do you know? — I found a list.

Yes, I realize that the internet is full of lists. Many of them exist simply to entice us to click. A few might entertain or inform, and then I forget them in 5 minutes.

A very few are worth recommending. One such is this list of rules for editors, compiled by the Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre. If you’re in any part of the writing business, hurry on over to The Sun and take a look.

I lingered long over Rule 4: It’s not your text.

You are in the middle of things. You have a responsibility to assist the writer in achieving their purpose. You have a responsibility to the publication to maintain its standards and integrity. You have a responsibility to the reader, the party most commonly overlooked in these operations, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. Your personal preferences are subordinate to these responsibilities.

quill penSo it is with editors, and so it is with technical writers as well. We have a responsibility to the company we represent, to maintain its standards and integrity (to the extent it has them), and to present its products in such a way that our readers can use them effectively.

We also have a responsibility to the reader, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. This is our paramount responsibility, because this is the one we have to get right. We might get away without perfectly reflecting the company’s style or brand image, or without perfectly describing the product’s features. But if we don’t meet the reader’s needs, so that they stop reading and walk away (or dial tech support), we’ve failed completely.

stone bridgeI’ve heard the technical writer described as the bridge between subject-matter expert and reader. I used to bristle at that metaphor: I thought it implied a passivity on the part of the technical writer, as if we were nothing more than a conduit carrying information from one actor to another. “People walk on bridges,” I remember complaining.

Now, in my old age, I’m more comfortable with the bridge metaphor. Maybe I have a higher opinion of bridges: some of them are engineering marvels, and even the simplest ones are mighty useful. But mostly, I think, I better understand that it’s not my text.

Yes, I play an important role in the transaction between expert and reader. But I’ve come to understand that part of my role in that transaction is to get lost. If I want my name on something, I should write a novel.

My job is to make the text good, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s not my text.