Tag Archives: storytelling

Two ideas a month?

Today I learned that, in the view of one pundit on Kinja, all newspaper columnists stink at their jobs. First, because they’re trained to report and not persuade. Second, because no one can come up with a fresh, original idea more than twice in a month. Maybe three times in a good month. Yet the columnist is expected to produce two columns a week.

Waterfall at the Japanese Garden in Portland

Google “image idea” and you get a lot of light bulbs. So instead, here’s a photo of Portland’s Japanese Garden — a good place to get fresh ideas.

The article offered a solution to idea-lorn columnists: use the same ideas again and again. After all, no one except your closest friends reads every column you write. So who’s going to know?

I’m highly suspicious of the finding (that all columnists stink), the explanation (two ideas a month), and the advice (recycle your ideas). Yet I’m prompted to ask, would that apply to bloggers too?

If the likes of George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Dana Milbank are good for only two, maybe three, fresh ideas a month, then surely a blogger like me — even though I try
to publish at least one original post each week — can’t hope to do better.

That would take the pressure off, wouldn’t it? When I struggle to find new ideas, I can just warm up some leftovers, as it were, and dress up an old post as something new. You, dear reader, won’t even notice.

(Insert eyeroll emoji.) If only that were true.

I don’t think columnists are that hard up for new ideas. Bloggers either. Reading Tom Johnson’s blog, for example, I suspect that he has at least two fresh ideas every day before breakfast.

I agree with the pundit about one thing, though: ideas are sometimes hard to come by. But we can still train ourselves to increase the likelihood of having fresh ideas. How? Try these techniques.

Seek other points of view

You’re used to seeing things as you see them. What would they look like from another vantage point? What if you could see them in a larger context?

What would you learn? Would your feelings or your opinions change?

There. Now you have fresh ideas to write about.

To get a different vantage point, maybe you just need to go someplace new, like the Japanese Garden. I like to follow people on social media who aren’t from my family, who aren’t from my home town, who don’t share my religious and political views.

I’m not saying you have to change your mind about anything (although that could be a side benefit). But you’ll get fresh ideas.

Read something new

If I were in my 20s or 30s I might say do something you’ve never done before. And, yes, that’s a good way to get fresh ideas. But when you reach a certain age you already know whether you’re willing to jump out of an airplane (I’m not) or take a trip around the world (love to, but can’t afford it).

I can read, though, and so can you. Those folks on social media who don’t share your comfort zone? They can point you to articles and books that’ll spark fresh ideas. Be careful what you click on, of course. But it’s possible to broaden your horizons without getting mired in internet quicksand.

Read books and articles about topics that are new to you. One of the best history books I ever read was Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, about the 1967 Six Day War — a subject about which I’d known virtually nothing.

I also recommend anything by John McPhee for new insights about culture, technology, and environmentalism.

Tell a story

You probably know that I believe in storytelling in all kinds of writing — including business and technical writing.

If you want fresh ideas, start telling a story. You might not know how the story will end. You probably don’t know what insights you’ll draw from it. Start telling the story and see where it takes you.

Fellow technical writer Neal Kaplan recently broke a blogging silence with an appealing story about taking a hike and then taking it again. I think it’s fair to say that the experience rejuvenated his creative thinking process. So be like Neal: go ahead and tell your story.

What are your techniques for increasing the flow of fresh ideas?

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Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

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

My hopes for STC’s new leader

Originally posted 24 September 2016. Updated 7 April 2017.

STC (Society for Technical Communication) members recently received word that CEO Chris Lyons will step down. A search for a new CEO will begin soon recently culminated in the selection of Liz Pohland to succeed Chris.

pohland

Liz Pohland, just named as STC’s new CEO (image source: STSC)

I know a good bit about the CEO’s role and about the search process, having served on the search committee that recommended Kathryn Burton to the STC board of directors in 2006.

In the hope that our society will grow and thrive under its new leadership, I have some advice for the STC members (search committee and board of directors) who will evaluate candidates to be our next CEO.

He or She will be an association professional, aware of the challenges faced by today’s professional societies and up to date on best practices.

Beyond that, STC faces challenges in growth, in membership retention, and in a perception that it hasn’t kept up with the times. So there are certain skills and attributes that I especially hope our new CEO will bring.

Important note: By listing these skills and attributes I’m not implying that Chris or the existing office staff have fallen short in any way. I’m simply looking to the future. Continue reading

Back to school: enhancing my technical communication skills

Here where I live it’s back-to-school time: a reminder that no matter how long I’ve worked in technical communication, there are always new things to learn.

Back-To-School-Books-And-AppleThe skills I’ve already mastered, while still valuable, won’t be enough for me to succeed in a world of new technologies and new ways of consuming information.

What will I be looking to learn this year? The following list is inspired by Joe Welinske’s talk, Key Trends in Software User Assistance, which
he gave last week to the STC Carolina chapter.

Search-engine optimization (SEO)

Joe’s succinct advice, to everyone in the room, was “Learn this.”

No matter what kind of technical content you create, it’s going online. Even the lowly (but still popular) PDF. And your readers will find it using a search engine.

So you need to understand how the right words and phrases, both in text and metadata, make your content bubble to the top of the search results. The best advice: don’t try to game the search engines. Make sure your content is relevant, and use terminology appropriately. 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 

One of the best at his (and our) craft

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

The genre is called creative nonfiction, and nobody does it better than John McPhee. This year marks the 50th anniversary of McPhee’s first published work, a portrait of basketball star Bill Bradley. Since then he’s written about dozens of topics — especially nature and conservation.

The Wikipedia entry for creative nonfiction distinguishes it from technical writing because the latter is “not primarily written in service to its craft.” I’m not sure what that means — it sounds like creative nonfiction is writing for writing’s sake. If you suggest to John McPhee that he writes “in service to his craft” I think he’ll be surprised.

I maintain that creative nonfiction is true technical writing. Although it might not guide a reader through a series of steps, it informs the reader about a scientific or technical subject.

Judge for yourself as McPhee describes Georgia’s Cumberland Island. Continue reading