Here are my lessons from the STC Summit 2013. This was my second summit after Chicago last year. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)
Prepare to have your questions reframed! To me, this is one of the greatest benefits of a tech comm conference: You arrive with a question – and get it “more than answered”. I talked to someone who came to Atlanta trying to find the right tool and quickly started collecting different leads. Then one conversation in the hallway made her realize that she should first re-evaluate her processes and postpone the tool selection. By reframing her question away from the premature tool space, she’s now more confident she’ll come out with a more efficient solution than she could’ve gotten by merely switching tools.
Latch on to wider perspectives. There were several sessions dedicated to neighboring disciplines and approaches. I was happy to hear David Pogue’s keynote and Lee LeFever’s presentation address cognitive issues of tech comm which dovetailed nicely with my own session about semiotics and mental models. I don’t think any of this will revolutionize the way we do tech comm. But it’s an approach that helps us to understand how successful tech comm works and why. And it even complements other areas such as Information Architecture, as I found out when I compared notes with Alison Riley after our talks. There were also several sessions about data visualization that neatly complemented each other.
Lightning talks are great fun! Again, the summit had two sessions of lightning talks (5 minute talks with slides advancing automatically and mercilessly every 15 seconds). This is a great format because you can transport a lot of information in short time – and it’s fun to watch them go off the rails a bit when the slides run away from a stumbling, bumbling presenter. It’s all in good spirits, though: Everybody in the audience admires the courage of lightning talkers and would be just as scared of slipping up. But please, lightning talkers: Some of you can be a little more courageous and go for a bit more content. Don’t plan for dead air as you wait for the slide to change, just in case you slip up.
Progressions are difficult. I find progressions generally a difficult format (and I let the conference organizers know in the evaluation forms). For many topics, 20 minutes is awfully short for a stage-setting presentation and a discussion among the 6 to 10 attendees. One progression leader who succeeded admirably in my opinion is Roger Renteria. His progression on the benefits of volunteer opportunities was quick to set the stage and open to invite questions, comments and ideas from different angles! Another solution I’ve seen is to relegate much of the info to the handout, but that seemed less successful than Roger’s approach.
Choose sessions by title and speaker name. At previous conferences, I usually selected sessions to attend by the title and the description. Now as I’m familiar with several speakers, I find that I can select sessions just as reliably by speaker name. If I know and like someone’s work and perspective, whether from a blog or an article or a previous talk, I usually find it worth attending their session, even if I might not have selected it otherwise.
There are no stars. Okay, so some names loom larger in the tech comm space than others, especially in twitter and blogs. But I’ve found everybody really accessible and genuinely interested in tech comm at large. I just figure that if I’ve gone through the trouble to attend (as Atlanta is not the hometown for most of us), I might as well make the most of it. And rubbing shoulders and engaging with people whose work I admire is a great opportunity, whether it’s after a session, in the hallway or after-hours at the bar.
Welcome first-timers and students. I’ve seen some of the most enthusiastic reactions to sessions from students, graduates and first-time attendees. They often bring fresh ideas and new perspectives to our profession. Maybe some ideas are owing to youthful idealism. Still, we can all use their energy to make sure they become engaged and happy practitioners who can carry our community forward!
Go meet the vendors! I’ve found the vendors and exhibiting consultants genuinely interested, putting tech comm before sales. So I enjoyed getting acquainted and comparing notes with them, even if I’m not in the market for the products or services they offer. MadCap’s staff explained to me how to repair corrupted topics (I know – I shouldn’t corrupt them in the first place… )
Over at Adobe, Scott Abel was interviewing tech comm’ers about hot topics and pet peeves; look for the videos to come to Adobe’s blog.
If you’ve been to the STC Summit, please share your insights in the comments. If you haven’t, feel free to ask whether it can deliver what you are hoping for. I’ll answer as best as I can.