I like to say, at the beginning of every new year, welcome to the future.
2019, a brand new space with freshly waxed floors and newly painted walls, awaits our arrival. As we enter in, let’s look around for a moment. Let’s think about what we’ll make of the new year.
Our day in the sun
Start with the 2018 STC Summit, where keynote speaker Carla Johnson called technical communicators “the linchpin between people, information, and technology.”
Bridging the gap (Source: eurodiaconia.org)
We’re uniquely positioned, Johnson said, to help our companies succeed by influencing our the way they interact with customers and prospects. All because we bridge the gap between, on the one hand, products and technologies, and on the other hand, voice, branding, and messaging.
Pretty heady stuff! If Johnson is right, we technical communicators are about to have our day in the sun. Soon everyone in the organization will look up to us.
Back to earth
Yet, at the same time…
In so many of the major trends in content creation, it seems as if technical communicators are being overshadowed by other kinds of professionals.
API documentation is perhaps the fast-growing segment of technical content. Many of the people who create API documentation don’t consider themselves technical communicators.
Everyone’s talking about chatbots. Many of the people who create chatbots don’t consider themselves to be technical communicators.
User experience — UX — is in the spotlight as never before. Many of the people who design and create the UX don’t consider themselves to be technical communicators.
More people than ever are consuming visual communication, like videos and augmented reality. Many of the people who produce videos and AR don’t consider themselves to be technical communicators.
So what’s going on? Is that “linchpin” talk just an illusion? Are we being overshadowed, or pushed aside, by software developers? By UX specialists? By visual communicators?
A bug in our makeup? Not really
For as long as I can remember, technical communicators have battled an inferiority complex, yearning to be accepted as equals by other professionals. Have our hopes been in vain? Is there some kind of “bug” in our makeup that dooms us to second-rate status in the professional worlds that we inhabit?
No, and no.
What seems like a bug, you see, is really a feature.
At long last, technical communicators have left their cloister and become active, contributing members of countless other professional communities. The software-development community. The UX community. The visual-communication community.
We’ve made it. We’ve been accepted.
Caption: “Well, every dog has his day.” (Source: The Far Side by Gary Larson)
We’re not being overshadowed. We’re simply taking our place alongside professionals who have different — or more specialized — skills. In so doing, by applying our special perspectives and abilities, we enrich the work they produce.
Unlike Rex here, we technical communicators might never get a parade down Main Street. But we’ll get something better: the knowledge that we’re fully accepted in, and contributing to, the professional worlds we inhabit.
And that, as we stand at the threshold of 2019, is the future of technical communication.
For me, two stories have stood above the rest. While both of them took years to play out, they both, by coincidence, culminated in years that ended with 9:
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. When the Apollo 11 crew returned safely to earth, it fulfilled a goal set by President John F. Kennedy eight years earlier.
On November 9, 1989, crowds of Germans danced on top of the Berlin Wall — the death rattle for Communist domination of Eastern Europe.
Two more stories
Recently, however, I’ve added two more stories to my list. I wonder if either one will see a turning point, or even a culmination, in this 9 year.
The earth’s climate is warming, and people are suffering the effects. Almost everyone in the scientific community agrees that the warming is caused by human activity, and that unless we quickly change [our energy consumption], the disastrous effects will be irreversible.
In Europe and the United States, right-wing nationalist leaders, preying on people’s fears and sowing division, are consolidating power and threatening to turn democracies into authoritarian states.
Paradise, California – November 2018. Will climate change end up being the top news story of the 21st century? (Photo Source: NBC News)
I don’t know whether either story will end happily, as my first two stories did. But I know that happy endings are possible only if we, the people, demand openness and truth from those who hold economic and political power.
I think we all know the truth about climate change. But because so many powerful people pretend not to know, or simply don’t care, we’re risk doing grave damage to the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit.
Would-be authoritarian leaders, of course, consolidate power by distorting the truth: by gaslighting, and by suppressing facts they deem to be inconvenient. They get away with it when we, the people, don’t call them to account.
Truth: worth fighting for
For years, I’ve said and written that truth is absolute, that it’s a cornerstone of a free society, and that it’s worth fighting for.
But, to my dismay, I’ve seen that a lot of people simply don’t care about truth. I’m not talking now about the would-be dictators. I’m talking about ordinary citizens who simply shrug their shoulders, comfortable to live in ignorance.
Whether you believe in making New Year’s resolutions or not, I hope that in this 9 year you’ll resolve to speak up for truth and, if necessary, fight to defend it. I have.
A happy 2019 to all of you. May it be a year in which #truth triumphs over lies, and humanity over cruelty. It will be — if enough of us choose truth and humanity.#HappyNewYear2019
You’ve probably heard it by now: Time magazine bestowed its annual Person of the Year award on the Guardians in the war on truth. The award honors Jamal Khashoggi, killed at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, the staff of the Capital Gazette, 5 of whom were gunned down in their office, and other journalists who light a lamp in the darkness.
But defending the truth isn’t just for journalists. You and I, the consumers of content, have a part to play too. As I’ve written, we keep the light shining by
Being willing to “edit ourselves” — to exercise discretion and respect each other
Mayer does a good job of amplifying my points and adding fresh insights.
Be deliberate about the news you consume. Recognize that it isn’t all equally nutritious, and create an information diet for yourself that is ethically and responsibly produced. Questions to consider: Does the news organization have an ethics policy? Does it publicly correct errors? Does it differentiate between news and opinion coverage? If not, go elsewhere.
If you don’t like the way news is operating, demand better. Ask questions of journalists, and do so publicly. But please be specific. Complaining about “the media” (a phrase that covers such a huge territory that it includes talk radio hosts, high school sports reporters and travel writers) doesn’t contribute to healthier information. You might have concerns about how national politics are being covered. That’s valid and important. But it has little to do with the work of journalists in your local community. Stop conflating them.
Don’t use the term “fake news.” If it’s fake, it’s not news. We should all talk more about false claims that are designed to mislead and how we can be less susceptible to them — but those claims are not part of the news landscape. And the term simply does not apply to information you just don’t agree with.
Speak out about dangerous speech directed at journalists. Criticizing the work is fair game. Attacking people is not, and it can lead to violence. Don’t tolerate it from your friends and family, and don’t tolerate it from your president or local politicians.
Support journalism financially if you can — especially local journalism. Communities don’t thrive unless they have access to information, a shared set of facts, a sense of coherence and a sense of where they’re going. Providing that takes money.
Even if you don’t appear on TV, write for the newspaper, or even publish a blog, Mayer insists that your role not be passive. Speaking up is part of your job. For example, you’re to call out threats to journalists, whatever form they take.
And you’re to hold journalists to account. While most of them are doing admirable work, journalists aren’t perfect. Mayer is right in saying that we should question them. Not by painting them all with a broad brush, but specifically and constructively.
We should ask, for example, Why was a particular headline chosen? Why was one story played up and another buried? Did the paper really need to run another “guy in a diner” article to turn the spotlight on “forgotten middle America”?
Good journalists don’t mind being questioned. Heck, good journalists constantly question themselves. It’s an essential part of fighting for the truth.
We non-journalists must have the boldness to question ourselves, too, and ask if we’re doing everything we can to defend the truth from those who would extinguish it.
A month ago, I got a new job title: Information Architect. I maintain my company’s content infrastructure, training and supporting a writing team that has, through mergers and acquisitions, tripled in size over the last 18 months. I also look to the future, defining strategic goals and figuring out how to achieve them.
In describing my new beat, I told the writing team that I have two priorities:
Help the team do their jobs as effectively as possible — by listening to them, by training them in both tools and concepts, and by fixing problems
Position our documentation products to provide value to the company and its customers
What does that look like in real life? Well, the first priority is pretty much what you’d expect. If I’m listening to the team, I know where they need training and guidance. And I try to be responsive when someone has a problem. (I also rely on a couple of colleagues who can also step in and troubleshoot when needed.)
The second priority, for me, is the crux of my job. But, paradoxically, it’s a lot harder to envision.
How do I know I’m providing value?
Providing value is at the heart of what we do as technical communicators. But how do we know when we’re doing it (or when we’re not)? Defining value, and defining the metrics for measuring value, is like trying to nail Jell-o to the wall — and it’s been that way as long as I can remember.
Let me offer a few thoughts, and I invite you to add yours in the comments.
Value for my company
For years, many in the technical communication profession have quietly accepted the idea that our value proposition is based on cost avoidance: better informed customers make fewer customer-support calls.
But the other aspect of value — revenue enhancement — is what really excites the C-suite. How can we show that our work leads to increased sales or repeat business, or even just to intangibles like customer goodwill?
There’s anecdotal evidence that it’s happening. But to my knowledge, no one has convincingly drawn a connection between technical docs and increased revenue. I want to be part of doing that.
Value for my customers
That brings us to the second part of my second priority: providing value to my customers. When a customer finds the information they need, when they complete a task successfully, when they don’t have to open a support ticket, I’ve provided value.
I know how businesses work. Value is defined in terms of dollars and cents. But I also believe in the intrinsic value of simply doing the right thing: helping my customer succeed.
A part of me thinks that if I can do that, if I can help that customer succeed, the dollars and cents will take care of themselves. And maybe they will.
What do you think? What’s your value proposition as a writing professional, and how do you bring that value into being?
If you work as an information architect, whether or not it’s your official job title, do you see your role in the same way I’ve described mine? If not, what’s different?
If you’re not an information architect but you work with one, what do you expect them to be doing?
You’ve parachuted onto a random stretch of road. You could be anywhere in the world. How quickly can you figure out where you are?
That’s the idea behind GeoGuessr, a web game that’s occupied some — ahem, too much — of my time lately. You might find yourself on a muddy road outside an Eastern European village, a lonely highway in West Texas, or a scenic drive on the Isle of Skye. (For that one, I guessed New Zealand — exactly halfway around the world. Zero points!)
Technical writers are used to this. We parachute into our reader’s world, and we do whatever we can to orient ourselves. We try to understand their work environment, their background, and anything else that helps us communicate with them.
A rocky coastline. A car driving on the right. Are you on Vancouver Island? Almost: you’re on the Olympic Peninsula, and that’s Vancouver Island in the distance. (Screen shot from GeoGuessr)
In GeoGuessr, you use whatever clues you can find. The game is based on Google Street view, so you can move back and forth, explore intersecting roads, and zoom in on your surroundings.
You’re looking for clues in topography, road signs (Do you recognize the language? Place names?), vegetation (Tropical? Subarctic?) — anything that would suggest or disqualify a particular location.
As technical writers, we look for clues to orient ourselves to the reader’s world. We look to:
Technical support: What problems are our readers having because they lack information they need?
Personas: What specialized knowledge do our readers have — or, more to the point, lack?
Sales and Marketing: What can they tell me about my reader’s needs, based on their interactions with customers?
Direct feedback: When that reader said she couldn’t find something, what was the real issue? Did I put it in the wrong place? Express it in terms the reader didn’t understand? Omit the keywords that would’ve helped the reader find it using Search?
As I play GeoGuessr, I learn how to better pick up clues and improve my score. In the art of technical writing, we similarly learn to orient ourselves to our reader’s world. It’s challenging. It’s even kind of fun. And there’s always room to get better.
Where do you go to learn more about your reader? Got any tips for spotting clues?
Once upon a time, if someone wanted to know you better, they asked for your sign. Libra. Sagittarius. Whatever.
Later, Myers-Briggs types had their day in the sun. You proudly told everyone you were an INTJ. Or an ESFP. (I told people I’m an ESPN: I watch a lot of sports.)
Today, you can use technical documentation types to let others know what makes you tick.
You don’t even have to be a technical writer to play.
You’re a policies and procedures manual if your ducks are always in a row. People might say you’re rigid. But there’s never a situation in which you don’t know exactly what to do.
You’re a chatbot if you accost everyone you meet with “Hi! Thanks for using the sidewalk today!” Your real name is Philomena, but you tell people it’s Amy.
You’re a sales brochure if you’re the flashiest, most flamboyant person at the party. If someone’s looking for depth, however, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
You’re online help if you love to lend a hand at just the right moment. You prize punctuality, but you’re used to being pushed into the background.
You’re a user guide if you like explaining things with words, with body language, even by drawing pictures. In grade school, you were the kid who wouldn’t sit down during show-and-tell.
You’re a white paper if you have a knack for persuasion, carefully and thoroughly building your case and trying (but not always succeeding) to put it into terms your audience will understand.
You’re a video if you start talking before you even know what the conversation’s about. When you walk into a room, you expect all eyes instantly to be on you.
You’re release notes if you breathe gossip the way other people breathe air. You know everybody’s most embarrassing secrets, and you’re happy to share them with all who will listen.
You’re a setup card if you often find yourself at a loss for words. You can’t shake the feeling that you come off as cartoonish. You have inexplicable cravings for Swedish fish.
You’re a landing page if you love making a good first impression. Some people say you’re complex; others say you’re just hard to figure out.
You’re an API manual if you’re happy to connect with everyone, everywhere — but only on your own terms. Most people find you hard to understand. But to the people who get you, you hung the moon.
You’re a reference manual if the only thing you love more than facts, is dropping those facts on others. You find yourself in a lot of short-term relationships as people pick you up and then put you down.
You’re a training module if you’re always asking questions, always probing to see what other people know. (Come to think of it, every technical communicator is Lt. Columbo at heart. But that’s a topic for another day.)
If you were a kid growing up near New York City, your favorite music came with a voice. In the afternoon, after school got out, the voice belonged to the wisecracking Dan Ingram. After dinner, it was the voluble, high-energy Bruce Morrow.
(There were other voices, in the morning and on weekends. But for most of us, Big Dan and Cousin Brucie stood out.)
A simple, effective brand voice
Dan Ingram held down the 2-to-6 time slot.
Amplified by a microphone that lent a slight echo to every word, those two human voices combined to give WABC a distinctive and recognizable brand voice. The voice told us that WABC was fun, in the know, up to date.
What was the hottest music? Every Tuesday night, we listened as Cousin Brucie counted down the new Top 20. Where to hang out? Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.
WABC’s distinctive, instantly recognizable voice, known to millions of people, came from a couple of voices. Simple.
Later: More content, still simple
When I started my technical writing career at IBM, things were still pretty simple. We didn’t produce voice content, but we did print shrink-wrapped technical manuals that all looked the same. Marketing created print ads, white papers, and spec sheets that shared a common design. IBM customers got lots of content, but only a few kinds of content. And with one glance, they could tell it came from IBM.
Today: Many sources, many outlets, jumbled voices
Today, your organization’s voice is delivered through advertisements and social media — and also through product screens, technical manuals, help systems, blogs, chat sessions, datasheets, videos, conference presentations, and probably dozens of other ways.
What do your customers, partners, and employees hear when they interact with all of this content? What messages do they receive? What’s the image of your organization that forms in their minds?
Chances are the image is blurry.
WABC’s voice was crystal clear and recognizable. IBM’s voice, though very different, was also recognizable. Most companies today have jumbled voices — reflecting the priorities, values, and attitudes of content creators who work in silos all over the organization. Or who come from other organizations, through mergers and acquisitions, lending their voices to the din.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
For a select few companies, it isn’t like that. When you hear from one of those companies, you recognize its voice.
We can lead the way
I’d like to see more companies find their voices. And I think that technical communicators can lead the way.
Technical communicators? Why not marketers? Isn’t this part of the marketers’ job? Isn’t this their area of expertise?
Yes, it’s part of their job. But if it truly were their area of expertise, frankly, they’d be doing a better job of it.
Think about it this way: where does most of your organization’s content come from? In terms of sheer volume — words, pictures, minutes of video — the technical communicators outstrip the marketers. Since we contribute so much, doesn’t it stand to reason that we can lead the way in defining the organization’s voice?
For that matter, some Tech Comm departments are already leading the way — for example, at Red Hat and in the Cisco Stealthwatch product area.
What do you think? How important is it for an organization to find its voice? Are technical communicators up to the challenge?
Let me know what you think. Ask a question or leave a comment. We’ll pick up the conversation in my next post.
Cubs players carry their teammate, David Ross, off the field after the World Series (image source: MLB.com)
With the Chicago Cubs in 2016, backup catcher David Ross played in only 75 games (out of 179). Yet, when the Cubs won the World Series, the other players carried him off the field on their shoulders.
Because Ross was a good teammate. The oldest player on the team, he was known in the locker room as “Grandpa.” The younger players knew they could have fun with him, but they also knew they had an honest, dependable mentor.
The team’s manager, Joe Maddon, depended on Ross too. As a player working with fellow players, Ross could provide guidance and leadership the manager and coaches couldn’t. The kind of leadership that says, “I’m in this right along with you.”
Lots of leaders lead from up front, like a general riding into battle.
Some leaders lead from behind — providing guidance and removing obstacles, but preferring to cast the limelight on the team rather than on themselves. Leading from behind has much in common with servant leadership.
Then there are leaders, like Ross, who lead from within. Rather than a job title (VP, Director, Manager), their leadership is based on the trust and respect they’ve earned from the team.
Now retired from baseball, Ross has written a book, Teammate, in which he describes the attributes of a good teammate — in baseball, in business, or anywhere.
A good teammate is dependable
Your fellow team members “know that you will get your job done and they can rely on you.” For me, this is indispensable. You can fake it (I’ve seen people try), but not for long.
Being dependable doesn’t mean you’re the top performer on the team. It means that you understand your role and that the team can trust you to pull your weight.
A good teammate is supportive
When someone is struggling and needs help, you see the need (even if the other person can’t see it, or won’t ask for help) and you provide positive, constructive help, with sensitivity.
A good teammate is self-aware
You know your role, you know where you stand with the other team members, and you’re secure. As a result, you can focus on the team’s situation rather than your own. You can provide perspective.
Above all, you’re authentic. Everyone knows you’re speaking from your heart, that the good of the team — not your own ambition or recognition — comes first for you.
Dependable. Supportable. Self-aware. That’s the kind of teammate I try to be.
In today’s changeable business climate, chances are good that you — like me — will move back and forth between explicit leadership roles, like manager or team lead, and non-leadership roles as a member of a team.
Remember that even when you’re not on top of an organization chart, you have the opportunity to add value by leading from within.
David Ryan, cofounder of a company called Corilla, has garnered responses from 333 technical communicators for a “Life in Docs 2018” survey. The respondents answered questions about how we do our work and what we like and dislike about it.
I’d include a link to Corilla’s website, but at this writing the site is down.
Overall, the results don’t surprise. We technical writers are happy at our work, we use a variety of tools and processes, and we want to collaborate more effectively.
Today I want to zero in on a section in Ryan’s “insights” post, titled Communities of practice are the cultural engine room.
The survey didn’t have questions about associations or affiliations, so I don’t know how Ryan arrived at this “insight.” Perhaps he tripped over his own bias toward looser-knit, informal communities and against established societies.
That said, it’s a point worth discussing.
Here’s what Ryan wrote:
The role of the community organisation has never been more important for content teams. And never more popular. In the last decade we’ve seen mailing lists give way to LinkedIn groups, and societies giving ground to communities….
The decline of the society format is in part due to value and agility. Membership fees and lengthy campaigning for elections provide little resolution to the problems technical writers express (as evidenced in detail in these survey results).
OK, I guess that’s the connection to the survey. Respondents said that their contributions are “undervalued and misunderstood.” A few felt isolated and wanted more affiliation with each other.
For Ryan, traditional associations can’t help with those things. He went on to say:
Communities will continue to emerge and reshape as their needs require. The complex structure of societies exhibit a fragility that leans towards a self preservation bias.
Fragility? Self preservation bias? Mr. Ryan, your bias is showing!
But I hesitate to judge you too harshly because I’m aware of my own bias — which is that associations, like STC and tekom Europe, still play a vital role in:
Networking and information exchange
Advocating for practitioners
Defining and compiling a body of knowledge (a prerequisite for certification)
Connecting academics with practitioners
Bringing new people into the profession
While I’m all for loose-knit alliances like Write the Docs and even LinkedIn lists, they’e not by themselves enough to build and nurture a professional community. We still need traditional associations, and reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
Even David Ryan, in the end, seems to understand that. He finishes the Communities of practice section by observing:
Maintaining a brand may prove difficult as technical writing evolves from a singular function with specific certification and training (all revenue streams societies rely on) and into a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles. Given their importance in political and commercial advocacy, it’s ostensibly a good thing that they encounter these force functions for change — but it would be a shame to lose them entirely.
It would be more than a shame. It would be a big loss for the profession: for the practitioners, the students, and the teachers who depend on it and help define it.
Professional associations, of all stripes, face lots of challenges — one of which, certainly, is the fragmentation of the profession into (quoting Ryan) “a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles.”
To counter these challenges, let’s concentrate on what we share in common, not on our differences. And let’s support associations that help keep the profession strong.
The details are shocking and sickening. It’s hard to imagine the scope of the damage done.
Imagine having to write about that story. How do you do it? How do you keep from veering into lurid sensationalism on the one hand and cold, dispassionate, recitation on the other?
The anonymous person who wrote the grand jury’s report handled it brilliantly.
In his excellent analysis, Josh Bernoff calls the report “an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.”
Josh mixes excerpts from the report with his comments. Here, I’ve boldfaced some of Josh’s comments and added mine in response.
I hope you’ll add your comments as well.
Bernoff: Here’s what you can learn from this: if you have something shocking to say, or shocking facts to report, say it plainly. It will speak for itself. Don’t soften it, and don’t inflate it with the language of outrage. If the facts are damning, just write the facts and let the reader react.
The older I get, the less I write. I don’t mean that I write less often — I mean that, when I write, I use fewer words. (Just now, I almost wrote fewer words to make my point — but, see: I shortened it and made it better.)
Many of us learned in school to puff up our writing. How else to complete those dreaded 500- or 1,000-word essays? How else to sound erudite?
I also learned — even if my teachers didn’t intend it — that my readers needed my help. That I had to lead them by the hand, tell them what to think. When I wrote about an awful situation, like the child-abuse story, I had to describe it, preferably with lots of adjectives, and then say that it was awful.
Turns out, all those words just get in my readers’ way. Turns out they’re smart enough to look at the bare information and draw their own conclusions. If I’m writing to persuade, I can include an introduction and a closing paragraph. Otherwise, the facts will stand for themselves.
Bernoff: If you wonder about the importance of language, pay close attention to the way the Church used words to minimize the impact of acts of child rape….Euphemisms implicate all who use them.
Remember when, a couple of years ago, the new Samsung Galaxy Note7 phones started catching fire and exploding? Here’s the first paragraph of Samsung’s recall notice:
Samsung has announced an expanded voluntary recall on all original and replacement Galaxy Note7 devices sold or exchanged in the United States in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and in partnership with carriers and retailers. Since the affected devices can overheat and pose a safety risk, we are asking consumers with a Galaxy Note7 to power it down and contact the carrier or retail outlet where they purchased their device.
How well did Samsung use words? I give them a C-plus.
First, they buried the lede under that convoluted opening sentence. I would’ve moved the second sentence to the top, or at the very least rewritten the opening sentence to say, simply, We are recalling all Galaxy Note7 devices sold or exchanged in the United States. At least Samsung put the cogent information into the first paragraph; it could’ve been buried even farther down.
Second, the affected devices can overheat and pose a safety risk softpedals the real truth. They can catch fire and even explode — which poses a serious safety risk. The chosen wording does make its point, and it’s far from the worst use of euphemisms I’ve seen. But, remembering the media sensation associated with that recall, this phrasing sounds like Come on, give us a break. It’s not like exploding phones are that bad.
Bottom line: You don’t want to cause a panic. But you want to convey the full import of the situation so that people will take the appropriate action.
Bernoff: There’s one final lesson here: use specifics in summaries, rather than generalities. Use “for example” to show what’s happening.
This is invaluable advice. Examples are stories, and readers respond much more readily to stories than to generalities. It’s hard work finding examples that support my point, and the lazy side of me wants to short-cut the process. But lazy writing is always second-rate writing.
When you have something shocking to say, remember Josh Bernoff’s advice. And use this grand jury report as inspiration.
By the way, if you’re not a regular reader of Josh Bernoff’s blog, Without Bullshit, you should be.