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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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