Tag Archives: Beatles

Improving on perfection

This week brings two anniversaries — one you know and one you probably don’t know. They remind me that every new day brings opportunities for improvement, even when things might already seem perfect.

Sgt. Pepper: Nearly perfect

50 years ago today, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the best and most influential albums in the history of pop music. Of all the Beatles’ albums I think Sgt. Pepper is the most nearly perfect. Every track is strong. All of the ingredients, from instruments to vocals to harmonies, blend together just right.

Sgt. Pepper album coverYet Giles Martin just completed a project in which he remixed the entire Sgt. Pepper album. In a brilliant interview by NPR’s Bob Boilen, the first question posed to Martin — the son of George Martin, who produced the Beatles’ original albums — was Why? Why would anyone change one of the greatest records ever?

Martin’s answer: in mixing the original album, his father devoted most of his attention to the mono version, not the stereo version — because stereo was relatively new at the time. In the interview, Martin describes how he took the original studio tapes, along with his father’s meticulous notes, and applied a 21st-century understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in stereo sound.

The result, as evidenced by several samples played during the interview, sounds undeniably better than the original. Giles Martin took perfection and improved on it.

My career: From good to better

This week also marks the anniversary of the day I began my first technical writing job. Though far from perfect, my work was pretty good — as evidenced by feedback from my managers and my peers, and by 3 promotions in my first 5 years.

Yet the work I did then pales in comparison to the work I do today. In the intervening years I’ve learned a tremendous amount about audience analysis, about user experience, about writing for my customers rather than my SMEs, and of course about using software and machines to publish content in different media.

My colleague Vincent Reh, describing his career journey from typewriters to modern tools, emphasizes the constant need to learn new skills: “Tools have become so complex and schedules so compressed that most employers can no longer tolerate any kind of a learning curve. Today’s writers are expected to hit the ground running with single-sourcing tools right out of the gate.”

Vincent is right. And it’s not just tools. In my progress from that good beginning to where I am today, I’ve constantly had to learn new skills and unlearn other things. Just to stay competitive.

I fully concur with the words of Alvin Toffler: The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

Progress made; progress still to come

It’s nice to observe anniversaries, not least because they remind us of the progress we’ve made. Inspired by the new Sgt. Pepper remix, I’m using this week’s anniversaries to set my sights on progress still to come.

Do you have a professional growth story? How does that story affect the way you view the future? What are you doing to go from good — or from nearly perfect — to something even better?

Taking our work to a higher plane

Try listening to a Beatles song and ignoring the vocals. It’s hard, because the lyrics are so good. But try to focus just on the music and the sounds in Eleanor Rigby, in Strawberry Fields Forever, in Day in the Life.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966.JPG

George Martin, the “Fifth Beatle,” working in the studio with the other Beatles

What you’re hearing is the genius of George Martin, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90.

Martin was an artist with the sound board, just as surely as Rembrandt and Picasso were artists with the brush. He took great songs the Beatles had written and lifted them to a higher plane.

In technical communication we talk about the words, and we should. The words are important. But in our profession what separates the good from the great is often the nonverbal part: the visual presentation.

  • The use of graphics to supplement the text
  • The placement of text and graphical elements on the page
  • The integration of other media like video and audio
  • The way in which the content adapts to the device on which it’s displayed

In a few weeks I’ll attend Edward Tufte‘s one-day course, Visual Explanations, in which he’ll cover some of the design principles he’s always espoused and introduce some new ideas about adapting a presentation to its audience.

For me, Tufte is the George Martin of visual design. His techniques pick up where words leave off and lift the content to a higher plane.

At heart I’m a “words guy.” I think that I have an instinct for writing, but I’ve needed training to develop my skills in visual presentation. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that every technical communicator needs to be adept at both the verbal and the visual.

RIP George Martin. Thanks for the great music. And thanks for inspiring me to be better at my craft.

Image source: By Capitol Records via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain