Category Archives: Value

Yes, and: Helping you communicate better

When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.

As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.

Cover for If I Understood You bookThen he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading, and he didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.

In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.

Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.

Empathy: the key to communication

Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”

Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.

Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”

He’s right.

He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”

Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts (it’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to talk with you”). He reports on a number of research projects.

Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) recognized them by naming him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Inprov: new insights for technical writers

Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.

Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome. Continue reading

A passage particularly fine

I’ve agreed to give a short speech at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration next week. It’s a special occasion, so I want the speech to be good.

Right now the speech is about twice as long as it needs to be. Which means that I’m right on schedule. It’s time for me to stop writing and start crossing things out.

I’m guided by this bit of wisdom from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (quoted by James Boswell):

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson: not particularly noted for his sense of humor

I think I first encountered this quotation when I was in my twenties — perhaps even in college. That’s a good joke, I thought. That Dr. Johnson was quite the kidder.

He wasn’t kidding. But I wasn’t listening.

By the time I turned 40 I began to see wisdom in the doctor’s prescription. Stay vigilant, I took it to mean, lest your writing become flowery or overly ornamented. I was quick to deride those attributes in other people’s writing. Scoffing, I’d hand down my judgment: it’s overwritten.

Today, however, I’m a believer. Today when I write something cunningly clever, a phrase especially well turned — anything that’s particularly fine — I regard it with suspicion.

I don’t always strike it out, I confess. At least not right away. But l move it aside. Then I go back and see whether the piece is actually stronger with it gone. Almost every time, the piece is stronger.

It’s stronger because now, instead of pleasing me, it aims to please the people who’ll read (or hear) it.

You’re looking to be informed. It’s not my place to impress you.

Perhaps you’re looking to be amused or entertained. I’m more apt to do that if I write for your benefit rather than mine.

So (on a good day at least) I’ll furl my flowery phrases and instead deploy language that’s clear and direct. I’ll stop putting on a show and I’ll put you in the center of the story.

Many of us writers fell in love in our formative years with creative writing. It’s taken most of my life to understand that solving a puzzle — the puzzle of communicating effectively with my readers while keeping them engaged — is no less creative than making my prose dance on the head of a pin.

It’s no less creative, it’s no less fun, and it’s a lot more considerate of you, my audience.

(Update: Remember the speech I was writing? Here’s how it came out.)

Survey says: DITA’s benefits and challenges

DITA SurveyWhat are DITA‘s biggest benefits? Its greatest challenges?

The Content Wrangler is surveying DITA users, and last week Scott Abel — joined by DITA cognoscenti Rob Hanna,Mark Lewis, and Keith Schengili-Roberts — presented some preliminary results.

I’ve listed the rankings here, along with some thoughts of my own. Each numbered item is from Scott’s presentation; the commentary between the numbered items is mine.

(The survey is still accepting responses. If you haven’t yet weighed in, you can do so right now.)

What benefits does DITA provide?

This section was open to all respondents.

1, Consistency: content reuse/single-sourcing
Yes: when I think of single-sourcing, I think of consistency. But I also think about flexibility — of being able to publish the same content on the web, as integrated help, as PDF, and in other formats. For me that’s a big benefit, just as much as — and probably more than — consistency.

2. Usability: structure provides predictability

3. Translation: savings from reusing translation
The panelists remarked that they expected this one to score higher, and theorized that many of the survey respondents were content creators but were not the people actually responsible for translation. I think they’re probably right — and I’d also point out that a lot of organizations simply don’t translate their content. It would be interesting if the survey asked how many are currently translating DITA content.

4. Customization: segmentation, personalization
Nice to see this one crack the top 4. I think we (the community of DITA content producers) are just beginning to take advantage of features like metadata and keys. There’s so much more we can do to adapt content based on the audience’s geographic location, experience level, and so forth. (Key scopes and branch filtering in DITA 1.3 hold out even more promise.)

Rank the biggest challenges associated with using DITA

This section was open to respondents who said they use DITA.

1. Reuse: determining reuse strategy
Conref or keyref? What taxonomy to use, and where to put the metadata (in topics or in maps)? Who “owns” the library of reusable content? There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on best practices when it comes to developing a reuse strategy. Maybe, like the consultants always say, it depends — on what the writing team is
used to, on which groups are collaborating to produce content, and on what the corporate culture will support.

2. Usage: making DITA do what we want it to do

3. Training: equipping staff with skills needed
DITA logoThere’s a ton of training out there — in the basics of structured authoring, in DITA itself, and in the various tools. So I’m not sure what the problem is, unless it’s that companies don’t want to pay for training and want simply to hire people who already know everything (see #7 below). Even if you could hire fully-capable DITA writers off the street (and that’s a big if), they still need to be trained in how to use your local style, transforms, and so forth.

4. Technology: understanding software

5. Formatting: developing stylesheets and rules for content
This isn’t rocket science, but it is serious, hard work. It’s often not considered when companies plan a transition to DITA — which makes it even harder.

6. Governance: enforcing the rules
See number 5 above.

7. Staffing: finding experienced talent

8. Creation: understanding how to create DITA content

9. Measurement: what to measure, how to decide
Let’s be honest: rather than what to measure, don’t we really mean making the business case? We still struggle to quantify the cost savings and revenue enhancement associated with structured authoring and DITA. Translation savings, of course, are a big part of the story. But increased usability, customization, and brand consistency have value too. We just have a hard time quantifying their value.

10. Translation: issues associated with DITA content

So there you have it. What do you think? Do any of the rankings surprise you? Is anything missing from either list?

Do you agree with my take?

Thanks to Scott Abel for conducting the survey. Like so much of what he does, it’s of great value to the technical writing community. Thanks to Rob, Mark, and Keith for their contributions as well.

Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?


Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years. Continue reading

Sassy and also substantial

Peter Sokolowsky

Peter Sokolowsky (Image Source: cbs.com)

We’re having “a national conversation about language.”

So said Peter Sokolowsky, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster Dictionary, during an interview last week on CBS This Morning.

A national conversation about language? I don’t recall that ever happening before. If you ask me, it couldn’t come at a better time.

When the M-W Dictionary went online in 1996, Sokolowsky explained, it was the first time the dictionary’s curators could see what people were curious about. They’d never before been able to collect data about which words people were looking up.

In the past couple of years we’ve become hyper-aware of fake news, alternative facts, and the ways people use words to twist reality — or accuse others of twisting reality.

The watchers at M-W are doing their part: keeping close tabs on what people are looking up. When United Airlines sought volunteers to give up their seats and then had a passenger dragged off a plane, thousands of people went to the dictionary to look up the meaning of volunteer. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account took note.Tweet from Merriam-Webster about the word volunteer

Increasingly, M-W’s tweets themselves have drawn attention. Continue reading

We ask the good questions

It started with a simple question. What, I asked the Hardware Test guys, are the power consumption and heat dissipation measurements for the new switch models? I needed that data for the Technical Specifications section of the user guide.

infobooth

Questions and answers in Seoul, Korea (by WordPress user george2008)

To be helpful, I included with my request the chart for the existing models — my way of saying “I need numbers just like these.”

One of the Test guys looked at the chart, paused, and said, “I’m not sure these numbers are so good.”

That sparked a discussion — among 5 of us from Hardware Test, Development, and Tech Pubs — about how the data is collected: is it measured at the power source or at the switch? About how to quantify the data: should heat dissipation be expressed in wattage or in BTUs? About why our customers would want the data: to monitor lab conditions, to plan how best to deploy power supplies. or both.

(That’s right: these mechanical engineers wanted to know not just about feeds and speeds but about the customers’ requirements. Is it any wonder I’m proud to work with them?)

It happens all the time

If you’re a technical writer, you’ve seen it happen too. Your questions open the door to more questions and sometimes to whole new lines of inquiry. Your questions, many times, end up influencing the whole project for good.

Why is that?

For one thing, we’re good at asking questions. My blogging colleague Sharon Burton notes that curiosity is a hallmark of technical communicators, and curiosity often manifests itself in questions. Questions that stimulate thought, questions that force people to reach beyond pat answers, questions that no one’s asked before.

I admit that my initial question about power consumption wasn’t profound. But when the first engineer stroked his chin and paused, I was quick to draw him out, to get him to think out loud and see where the conversation would go.

We’re advocates for our readers, for our audience. We can understand all of the deep-down technical stuff the engineers understand, but we’re not satisfied until we can explain it in terms our readers will find meaningful. Sure, I want to know the amperage reading when all 24 ports are moving data at 10 gigabits a second. But what I really want to know is how a network operator can make decisions based on that information.

We’re persistent. Maybe we’re driven by our innate curiosity. Maybe by our loyalty to our audience. Probably both. Whatever it is, we persist until we have the answers we need — until we can give our readers the answers they’ll need.

Our patron saint is television’s Lieutenant Columbo, who never dazzled anyone with his brilliance but who always persisted, and who always ended up asking the right questions at the right time to crack open the case.

It’s part of our value proposition

I’m proud of the technical writer’s ability to ask good questions. I’m proud that we bring about positive changes, that we contribute value, in this way.

In the lab today, it started with a simple question. The answer turned out to be more complicated than anyone expected. But it was the right answer. It was the best answer.

I’m going to keep asking questions.

Enchanted content

Earlier this month I participated in the Transformation Society’s Probing Our Future study — and wrote about my initial impressions.

The people behind the study, Ray Gallon and Neus Lorenzo, came up with a list of “superpowers” with which content creators (including, but not limited to technical writers) can improve the content they deliver and the way they deliver it.

probing_detail

Image source: Transformation Society

As I ponder this, I notice that some of the superpowers are rooted in a common objective: knowing our audience so well that we can deliver exactly what they need, when they need it. The superpower of mind reading, for example, would let us know essentially everything about our audience. Things like:

  • The job they do
  • The task they’re trying to complete
  • Their domain knowledge
  • Their cultural preferences
  • Their disabilities and limitations
  • Their socioeconomic status
  • The hardware and software platforms they prefer
  • The choices they’ve made in the past

The list could go on. But you get the idea: if we want to know our audience, there’s a lot to know.

Even though the information industry has made great strides with things like web analytics and inference engines, I think it’s obvious that we’ll never know everything about our audience. Especially since each member of our audience presents a constantly moving target. For example, think of how much you’ve changed in the last year or so in terms of reading habits, or domain knowledge, or experience level with a particular software program.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to know our audience. It’s just that we’ll never know our audience perfectly. We’ll never fully be able to mind-meld with them.

It follows, then, that we’ll never be able to give them perfectly tailored content precisely when they need it.

So what can we do? Continue reading

Here comes the future: got your superpowers ready?

What’s the future of technical communication? I’ve asked that question on this blog, and now the Transformation Society has taken it up.

probing_the_future.png

Image source:Transformation Society

Last month Ray Gallon, someone I’ve known and respected for years, and Neus Lorenzo, a new acquaintance, undertook a study called Probing Our Future. They held a workshop (which I did not attend) to frame the question, and last week they followed it up with a webinar and a Twitter chat (which I did attend).

I found the webinar to be a blur of information and ideas. (Remember, I hadn’t attended the workshop.) Things started coming into focus when I reviewed the webinar slides and when I joined in the Twitter chat. Where the workshop seemed to be full of abstraction (what can we dream of doing?), the chat questions were more practical (how do we do this?).

What “Probing Our Future” is probing

The new project poses the first question — “What’s the future?” — and then poses another: How can we equip ourselves to meet that future? Continue reading

Taxonomy: bringing light to the ocean depths

The American Heritage Dictionary defines taxonomy as division into ordered groups or categories.

oceanlight

Taxonomy brings light to the depths of our content.

Amid today’s ocean of content, taxonomy is the secret sauce that brings light to the depths, that imparts value to all of that content.

It breaks the content into usable subsets. It groups apples together with apples, oranges with oranges. And, when needed, it groups apples with caramel, or with peanut butter, creating associations that delight our readers.

Sounds wonderful. So why aren’t we all out there creating great taxonomies? Because it’s hard. It requires a lot of understanding.

Seth Godin recently wrote about taxonomy:

Your job, if you want to explain a field, if you want to understand it, if you want to change it, is to begin with the taxonomy of how it’s explained and
understood.

Seth observed that not all taxonomies make sense. Words in the dictionary are grouped by alphabetical order because that’s the way people look for them. Imagine if, instead, the words were grouped by their origins: all words relating to Anglo-Saxon farming, say, or Roman military strategy. No one but a hard-core etymologist would be able to use the dictionary.

That’s why we, as technical writers, have to know our readers’ domain — really know it — before we can make a meaningful taxonomy. Before we can organize that ocean of content in a way that’s relevant to our readers.

Seth put it this way: If you can’t build a taxonomy for your area of expertise, then you’re not an expert in it.

I submit that the converse is true as well: if you’re not an expert, you’ll struggle to build a good taxonomy. Study your readers’ domain. Seek to learn as much as you can about it. No shortcuts.

That’s the bad news. Now here’s some good news. Continue reading

Your cloak of invisibility

I just met, Internet style, Claire Mahoney — and already I’m a big fan. I loved her witty and on-the-mark article, Tech writer life: The invisibility conundrum.

Here are some of Claire’s suggestions for technical writers who want to become more visible in the workplace:

  • Work on relationships: Get out of your shell and join in the day-to-day office conversation.
  • Expand and expound: Say “yes” every time you get the opportunity to take on a new project, to provide help to people on other teams.
  • Care: Sweat the details. Put everything you have into everything you do. If others see that you take your work seriously, they’ll take it seriously too.
harry_potter_cloak

Harry Potter got his cloak of invisibility from a wizard. For us, it just comes with the job.

Do those things, and you’ll never have to worry about being invisible where you work.

However.

There’s one big thing Claire didn’t mention. As visible as we want to be in our workplaces, we technical writers had better get used to being invisible to our readers.

When we do our jobs right, nobody is supposed to notice. In that way we’re like the caterer at a big wedding, or the officials at a football game. If they do their jobs perfectly, all attention is on the bride and groom, or on the players in the game. If they mess up, well, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Tongue-in-cheek, I’ve complained that there’s never been a technical writer on Dancing with the Stars. And I once proposed creating a Salute to Technical Communicators Day, but Congress never got around to approving the proclamation.

The reality is, the nature of our work renders us invisible. It’s possible that someone, somewhere, might notice a well-written spec sheet or tutorial and think “nice job.” But you’ll never get the glory. Or get to dance with Sharna Burgess.

In fact, if you do your job really well — if you participate in designing a product and it turns out to be so easy to use that it barely needs documentation — then you can be sure no one will notice. The product is just there, doing what it’s supposed to, and all of the attention is on the customer’s task.

Which is why we’d better be OK with the idea of being invisible — outside our workplaces. But never inside.

Tell me about your experiences with invisibility in the comments section.

Image  source: harrypotter.wikia.com