Tag Archives: audience

Delighting in our language

Fellow technical writer Tom Johnson has entitled his blog I’d Rather Be Writing.

But lately it seems Tom wouldn’t rather be writing — at least, doing technical writing. In Tom’s words, the day-to-day job of technical writing, especially the plain language aspect, has “removed my ability to delight more in language and to express myself in more articulate, interesting ways.”

Tom describes the essays his wife writes as a student in a Master of Liberal Arts program. She gets to deploy phrases like erstwhile acolyte — phrases that would never find a place in technical writing. For Tom, the thrill is gone. Worse, he says, in both writing and reading he’s lost the delight of learning new words, playing with the language, and “enjoying the eloquence of an author.”

How do I respond to a brother writer in need?

First, by stating the obvious. Erstwhile Acolytes would be a great name for a rock band.

Second, with understanding. Early in my professional life I dreamed of making my living as a “creative” writer. I — and many of my young colleagues — looked at technical writing as a way to put food on the table until we sold that first novel or screenplay. Now, nearly 40 years later, here I am — still working as a technical writer.

But something happened along the way. I came to understand that all writing — including technical writing; maybe especially technical writing — is creative, because problem solving is a creative process. In our case the problem is how to communicate most effectively with the target audience.

Tom mentions the Simplified Technical English (STE) dictionary. Originally developed for the aerospace industry, it stipulates a set of writing rules and a vocabulary of about 900 words. Erstwhile isn’t one of those words, and neither is acolyte. Yet communicating effectively within the constraints of the dictionary is a creative activity. It’s like solving a puzzle.

various kinds of puzzles(Granted, it’s a puzzle in which I reserve the right to change the rules. If I know that the precisely right word happens to be outside the 900-word canon, then dammit I’m going to use that word. Audience trumps guidelines every time.)

So, yes, I don’t get to write erstwhile acolyte in the Installation Manual for E4G Routers. But I get the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve met my audience’s needs. And I’ll shelve erstwhile acolyte until I’m writing for an audience it resonates with.

Which brings me to my last point. Vary your writing by finding different audiences. All technical writing and no play makes Johnny a dull boy. This blog, for example, gives me a platform for reaching a different audience — still professional, but more collegial — than I reach in my day job. Here I can write more expressively and have a little more fun.

So, if you want to recapture the joy of using our language, I’ll suggest to you, as I suggested to Tom, that you try writing for different audiences. Try writing essays or poetry. And each time you write, think of it as solving a puzzle: the puzzle of how to communicate effectively with the audience you’re addressing.

Do you ever find yourself losing your delight in our language? What ways have you found to recapture that delight?

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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.)

Making a difference, forever

Be careful what you post on the internet, they say, because once you do it’s out there forever.

I suppose that’s true. In fact, it’s been true since before we had an internet.

In the beginning….

In September 1980, about a year after I hired on at IBM in Kington, New York, a colleague and I started producing a little newsletter to help the technical writing staff master the intricacies of our computer system.

In those days before personal computers, even though we were writing books for datacenter professionals, most of the writers had received only rudimentary training in the practical aspects of using computers to do their work. Our system, the same one the engineers and programmers used, was complicated and not especially user-friendly. (The term user-friendly itself was shiny and new in 1980.)

I think it was my colleague, Susan, who came up with the idea of a newsletter. I eagerly agreed to help. I don’t remember who came up with the name, VM Voice. VM, then as now, stood for Virtual Machine and was the name of that intimidating computer system.

vmvoice

Our maiden issue: Starting with the basics

We started with the basics, gently introducing our readers to VM and its components. Over time we evolved to more complex and specialized topics, always targeting the technical writing staff and its particular needs. Each weekly issue ran to two or three pages — printed and then placed into everyone’s mailbox.

We did about 50 or 60 issues before the well of ideas dried up. Then time passed.

Fast forward to the present….

In March 2017 a longtime IBMer, preparing to retire, was cleaning out his desk. He found a stack of old papers and spotted a familiar name on the top sheet: the same last name as another guy in his office. “Know who this is?” he asked.

“Well, my mother worked at IBM. I’ll ask her.”

Soon the stack of papers was in the mail to Susan, herself long retired. She reached me through a common LinkedIn friend and asked if I remember VM Voice.

Of course I remember. It’s a wondeful memory.

I consider VM Voice to be one of my career’s biggest success stories.

  • We saw a need and we met it.
  • We had fun, especially trying to present complex, even daunting, subject matter in a way that our audience would find comfortable and reassuring.
  • We got instant feedback, and it was almost always positive.
  • We made a difference: the information in VM Voice — homespun as it was — made people better at their jobs.

Seeing those scanned copies of VM Voice reminded me that when you plant a seed, you never know precisely what will happen. When you publish something, either online or in the old-fashioned paper-and-ink way, you never know when and where you might see it again, or who might be affected by it.

The first moral of the story: In technical writing you have lots of chances to make a difference. Never lose sight of that, even when the work seems like drudgery.

The second moral: Before you publish something, make sure it’s good.

Because the internet has a long memory.

And because some people never clean out their desks.

Timing is as important as delivery

Dear technical writer:

Your content is well-written and accurate. But what happens if you put it into your reader’s hands at the wrong time?

This is what happens.

 oscars17.png

At last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway came onstage to present the award for Best Picture.

When it came time to announce the winner, the card said

Best Actress
Emma Stone
La La Land

Beatty hesitated. Dunaway read the only thing that made sense in the context: the name of a film, La La Land.

It wasn’t until several minutes later, during the acceptance speeches, that the mistake became known. Beatty and Dunaway had been given the wrong card. The Best Picture winner was actually Moonlight.

Dear technical writer:

You might not be embarrassed in front of tens of millions of people. But when you provide the right content at the wrong time, no matter how good the content is, you’ve betrayed your readers.

As every good actor knows, timing is every bit as important as delivery.

Video source: New York Times

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

I love the challenge of describing things

I enjoy turning the spotlight on people who are great communicators. One of the best is about to retire.

scully.png

Vin Scully at work. Man, I wish my office had a view like this. (Image source: ESPN)

This weekend, Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully will call his last game. Since 1950 (that’s not a typo) baseball fans — not just Dodger fans, but all of us — have fallen under the spell of Scully’s warm baritone voice.

During a celebration in his honor, Scully said, “I really love baseball. The guys and the game, and I love the challenge of describing things.”

Describing things. Isn’t that what all of us — anyone who has written a user guide or tutorial, anyone who has created technical art or instructional videos — try to do? No one does it better than Vin Scully.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s a model for technical communicators.

Pull up a chair, and let me explain what I mean. Continue reading

The technical communicator’s credo

What does it mean to be a professional technical communicator in 2016? What will it mean to be a professional technical communicator over the next decade?

Hand holding a penAfter pondering those questions I came up with this credo:

I serve my audience. I strive to know as much about them as I can, and I supply them with the information they need, in a way that’s appropriate for their context. (Or, as Sarah Maddox put it: in the language that they understand, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.)

I serve my employer. While always behaving ethically I work to advance the interests of their business and represent them to their customers and to the public as they see fit.

I represent my profession. In my dealings with subject-matter experts and other colleagues, I respect both my work and theirs. I never give them reason to question the value of the work I produce.

I constantly seek to learn new things, while discarding techniques and ideas that have become outmoded. I understand that mastering new tools and techniques, and recognizing and adapting to change, are part of what it means to be a professional.

What do you think? If you were to write a professional credo, or if you already have one, what would it include?

twcredo

They’ll thank you when…

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. As a blogger it’s tough not to succumb to the temptation to write the dreaded (and trite) 2,387 things I’m thankful for.

readingLet’s turn that listicle on its head.

As a technical writer, what can you do that will make your readers thankful?

Here’s my list.

Tell them a story. Mark Baker asserts that we should see ourselves as story providers rather than content providers. He’s right. Stories resonate with people in a way that simple content, or information, simply can’t. In technical writing, the story’s hero is your reader, who’s trying to accomplish something or learn something.

Give them more than just a narrative. A narrative might be mildly interesting, but a story is more than that. A story is a narrative with facts, or data, baked into it. In technical writing, the data supports the story of your reader meeting their objective.

Provide everything they need, and not one iota more. Don’t leave out any essential data. Don’t make the task appear simpler than it really is. But don’t pack your story with extraneous stuff that captures the fancy of your subject-matter expert.

Write in the proper tone. This will vary depending on who you’re writing for. Crisp and professional for the IT specialist who’s setting up a network; more casual for the weekend warrior who’s assembling a backyard barbeque grill. A tone that works for American readers might not work for Asian readers. It’s all about the fundamental rule of technical writing: know your audience.

Do those things, and your readers will be grateful, even if they never say “thank you” to your face. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve provided something of value.

What would add to this list?