Tag Archives: Mark Baker

Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

Seth Godin took me to school. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t realize it. But his April 11 blog post sounded like a direct rejoinder to my earlier piece: Just the right choice of words.

Here’s what Seth had to say:

If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….

There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.

The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.

In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:

It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.

Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?

Um, well….No. Continue reading

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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

What’s your leadership story?

monster.png

Monsters are part of Harry Potter’s world. Some leaders would like us to think they’re part of our world too. (Image credit below)

In the run-up to last June’s Brexit referendum, J.K. Rowling wrote a brilliant piece about storytelling:

“I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster,” she began, going on to say that all political campaigns tell stories and that one side in the referendum — the Leave side — had worked especially hard to create monsters, or villains.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing a day after the vote was taken, explained the outcome by saying the populist Leave side had told its story better than the political center — the Remain side — had:

“The political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”

He didn’t say that Leave had a better story. He said they told it better.

In politics the spoils often go to the best storyteller.

I’ve found that in leadership in general, the best storytellers make the most effective leaders.

Beginning, middle, and end

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For many leaders, including politicians, the beginning and the middle are simply a recap of the listeners’ current circumstances.

The end, in politics, is often about the bad things that will ensue if you vote for the other side. (Enter the monsters.) In true leadership, the end is about the good things that will happen if you follow me, or if we work together.

An emotional connection

A story makes an emotional connection with the listeners. Too often in today’s politics that connection is rooted in fear. In leadership the best connections are rooted in shared hopes and in a sense of cohesion, of belonging. We’re in this together, and together we’ll succeed.

Linking technical writing and leadership

Several of us, notably Mark Baker, have pointed out that storytelling is essential to technical writing as well. We guide our readers from a beginning point through a set of steps (the middle) to the desired outcome (end).

We try to connect emotionally with our readers: gaining their confidence, reassuring them as they move through the steps, and congratulating them when they finish.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does, as long as we remember that we’re storytellers and that our calling is to help people meet their goals.

What do you think? If you’re a technical writer who became a leader, did you find that your skill at the one helped you succeed in the other?

What’s your leadership story?

Update, 30 June 2016: My colleague Ray Gallon has broken down the “Leave” story in detailed and illuminating fashion. Highly recommended: The Morning After: Brexit of Champions.

Image credit: Bob McCabe, Jody Revenson, Moira Squier – Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey 

Story and data: yin and yang

I saw a story without any data. It was like a milkshake without any flavor.

First, some background: Mark Baker recently wrote a piece in which he rightly derided the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) pyramid as a model for communication. He pointed out that pure data, without a story to give it context, is meaningless.

Sea turtleThen he set out to replace the pyramid with a different model: a stack of turtles, each one riding on the back of the one below it. The stack, in Mark’s words, “is stories at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. It is stories, like turtles, all the way down.”

That sounded good to me. Then I saw a story without any data. Continue reading

You Have a Right to Ketchup and Salt

Did you see the news story about the Florida chef who refuses to let his patrons put ketchup and salt on their burgers?

If you’re older than 10, says chef Xavier Duclos, you have no business adding any flavoring to the dishes I’ve prepared. I’m the chef. You have to trust my judgment. And that’s that.

burgerIf I were a customer of Mr. Duclos’, I’d beg to differ. Having plunked down $12.95 for one of his burgers (that’s the going rate, according to his menu), I’d say that I’d bought the right to season my food as I liked.

Mr. Duclos has heard that argument, and he rejects it. At best he and I would agree to disagree.

At the same time, I understand where Mr. Duclos is coming from. Continue reading

On influence and Tech Comm

Mindtouch has updated its list of the most influential Tech Comm experts, and I’m flattered once again to be on it. Especially when I find myself sandwiched between two of my favorite colleagues from the UK: David Farbey and Colum McAndrew.

Shepherd leading sheepMy enthusiasm is tempered, however, because the list omits some pretty bright luminaries — people like Sharon Burton, Mark Baker, Danielle Villegas, and Julio Vazquez. By any measure, these people are influencers in Technical Communication.

Which leads to a couple of questions: How do you measure influence? And why don’t we do a better job of it?

Continue reading

Adapting to the modern web

New York Times website

The New York Times website, recently redesigned to deliver more curated content, more dynamic content, and more paid content — all adding up to a “sleeker, faster, more intuitive” experience. (Source: nytimes.com)

Hypertext means more than just text with a bunch of links in it.

So begins Mark Baker’s timely and illuminating article on the nature of hypertext. If content on the web began as a set of articles linked to one another, it’s grown to encompass search results, social curation (for example, liking, tagging, and retweeting), and dynamically generated content.

As technical communicators, have we really grasped that? Reading through Mark’s article I’m struck by the dissonance between the way I develop content at work and the way I consume content after hours. Continue reading

Beware the unintended consequence, my son

Mark Baker says that the purpose of all communication iThe White Rabbits to change behavior. It’s hard to argue with that, especially because Mark defines the phrase change behavior pretty broadly. I think that influence might be a more suitable word. But that’s a small point, and overall I agree with Mark’s assertion.

But here’s the thing. Whether our writing is designed to influence people or to change their behavior, we have to remain constantly vigilant for unintended consequences. Continue reading