Pattern recognition for tech comm at #TCUK11

Our presentation “Pattern recognition for technical communicators” by Chris Atherton and myself at TCUK11 was well-received and brought “Ah-ha moments a-go-go” according to one tweet. Read how it went or download the slides in PDF by clicking on the title image.

Link to PDF slides: Pattern recognition for tech comm

How the session came about

The session (see the abstract) got its start when I met Chris at last year’s TCUK where she spoke about “Everything you always wanted to know about psychology (and how it relates to technical communication) … but were afraid to ask”. She didn’t really talk about pattern recognition, and I didn’t really know what it was, but I had a notion this might be good for another presentation. I contacted Chris, she thought it was a great idea, and so over the year, we came up with this baby.

"Only Chris Atherton can have a picture of a dog's bum in her #TCUK11 presentation and make it relevant." - @robocolumn

And we brought the baby to TCUK11. 24 hours before our talk, Chris and I attended Karen Mardahl‘s and CJ Walker‘s fireside chat-like session “Content strategy year 1: a tale from the trenches“.  Their dialogue format really appealed to us, we decided to replace some of the scripted moments with more informal dialogue – and the baby had two godmothers.

Then we attended Andrew Lightheart‘s “How to be a riveting speaker” (more on that in my previous post) after which we couldn’t very well present something with reams of text-ridden slides. So we threw out most of the text slides – and the baby had a godfather.

By now, it was still the same content, but quite a different presentation. After all the tweaking, we didn’t have a measurement whether it filled the allotted 40 minutes or was longer…

How it went, a view from the lectern

Chris and I met in the auditorium, set up, added some last minute changes. Checking the watch: 2 minutes to go. Looking up: We had filled the place, a good 100 people were keen to recognise a pattern or two…

Karen introduced us, and off we went. I had decided to be extranervous because the session was being filmed and preserved (is my collar right?) – but I completely forgot!

"By creating and following patterns you help your reader understand..." - @dfarb

Through all the changes and tweaks, we had come to know the material so intimately that it seemed to flow quite smoothly. The omitted text slides were actually a relief, because we could focus on the story and the examples, without having to vindicate each and every sentence. We had picked out stories and examples which were easier to tell than some of the concepts we had thrown out.

Karen’s warning of 15 minutes left came around the time I had roughly estimated. We had to leave out the communal brainstorm of more examples and applications, but everything else fit in.

The feedback after the session was very kind and encouraging. I’m glad and proud if we presented something meaningful to our peers.

The slides

The slides are not the actual presentation we showed, but a variation with more text, so they work a little better as a self-contained slide show without the soundtrack.  Click on the image above to display or download. The video by the TCUK crew is forthcoming.

Chris and I sincerely thank the TCUK organisers for inviting us, our peer presenters for valuable inspiration, all attendees for helpful feedback, intentional or not, before and after the session!

Feel free to leave a comment, whether you were there or are merely curious what it’s all about!


4 Responses

  1. Kai, this looks very interesting!

    I’m curious about a situation that we occasionally run into, which is the need to _break_ a pattern. What will sometimes occur is that we establish and then use consistent patterns for the reasons that you outline in your presentation. However, a trap we can fall into is that we don’t then recognize that the pattern isn’t working very well and that we need to come up with a better (or at least different) one. (As it turns out, people like patterns so much that they’ll hammer things into patterns whether it’s helpful or not.)

    Any thoughts about this?

    • Hi, mike, very good question! It took me a while to come up with an answer, but I think I’ll go for this:

      I agree that you’ll sometimes get stuck with the pattern that doesn’t work (anymore, after a while) which can lead to problems. What I think happens here is something like melting layers: You start out with fine pattern recognition and come up with an interpretation, either bottom-up according to a lot of data or top-down by applying rules. (And as we’ve found out, even that process is by no means always reliable and safe…)

      But the real trouble begins when you mistake your interpretation for a pattern… This quickly gets pretty philosophical, but my best shot would be along these lines: The pattern is innate to the bunch of examples (for bottom-up processing) and their relationships with one another. Or innate to the bunch of rules (for top-down processing). If or when your data changes, if only by revealing new artefacts, the patterns change. And you need to account for that by revising your interpretation accordingly.

      So depending on your context, patterns can actually be quite volatile. And most of my examples work best when you’re thrown into a new job and need to acquire lots of information quickly and act on it. So to me, pattern recognition is a strategy rather than a way to build repeatable templates.

      Does this make sense?

  2. […] co-presented a session on pattern recognition at the TCUK Conference a few days after I wrote this: Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  3. […] Pattern recognition for tech comm at #TCUK11 […]

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