3 motivators you share with your tech comm readers

What motivates you to work most likely motivates most of your users in their jobs, too! You still need to know your audience, their tasks and background, but the good news is that you have some basic motivators in common. And these can help you understand what makes you happy at work – and what makes your users successful in their work with your documentation.

The three motivators

I take my cue from Walter Chen’s post “The science behind what motivates us to get up for work every day“. I want to focus on three motivators Chen quotes from Daniel Pink:

The 3 real reasons that motivate us to work hard every day

Pink explains … that there are in fact just 3 very simple things that drive nearly each and everyone of us to work hard:

  1. Autonomy: Our desire to direct our own lives. In short: “You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of your way!”
  2. Mastery: Our urge to get better at stuff.
  3. Purpose: The feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world.

The motivators for technical communicators

Pink’s model resonated with me, and I think this is exactly what motivates me to do good tech comm work and try to get better at it:

  • Autonomy for me means to find something good in the benign neglect that often meets my efforts. Of course, I have specific products, deliverables and deadlines to comply with, but our documentation team is lucky enough to be able to define its own standards and processes as long as they’re feasible.
  • Mastery is the challenge to write better documentation. When I revisit obsolete documentation that I’ve written some years ago, it makes me smile: Seeing where I’m coming from and what I wouldn’t do anymore gives me a sense of progress. I’m still using task orientation and topic-based authoring – but I wouldn’t awkwardly mix concept and task in the same topic like this anymore.
  • Purpose for me is my reward that my readers can be more successful or simply faster in their work if and because I’ve given them the right information at the right time.

So in a very personal, non-scientific way, I could validate these three motivators.

The motivators for documentation users

I don’t think I’m all that different from my readers in this regard. I believe they get motivated by the same things – they’re just in a different job.

So I try to keep in mind the motivators when I structure and write my documentation:

  • Autonomy is tricky, of course. Someone looking up documentation has just given up the autonomy of a self-directed life and needs instruction or information. But I still try to acknowledge this and follow Pink’s advice above: “You (dear user) probably want to do something interesting (or important), let me (give you what you seek and) get out of your way!”
  • Mastery is where tech comm can really excel. By presenting essential information concisely and clearly we can make it easy for our users to master their tasks and their use of our product. For this mastery, it doesn’t matter whether users learn from the documentation and internalize a skill or whether they simply know where they can look up again quickly what they don’t need to remember.
  • Purpose is frequently neglected, I think. Often documentation focuses on the how, and forgets the why. But there is no sense of purpose without a why. Granted, not every topic can address the big questions of life and the universe. But as long as there is an elegant and possibly noble reason for why our product and its tasks are this particular way, it’s worth sharing it. It will give our customers an extra motivation – and make them more loyal users.

Is this what motivates you? Does it work for your readers or do they have other motivations? Please leave a comment.

How meaning works in technical communication

Considering how meaning works in communication in general, it should be easy in technical communication in particular, because several parameters are fixed.

Last week, I asked whether we actually create meaning in our documentation. Today, I take a closer look at semiotics to find out how meaning is created in communication – and specifically in techcomm.

How meaning gets transmitted in communication

Semiotics is a theory that explains communication as the production of meaning between people who exchange messages in cultural contexts. Semiotics aims to explain how communication is meaningful for a reader. (For much more on semiotics, check out Daniel Chandler’s good introduction Semiotics for Beginners.)

Note that the reader is not just a passive recipient of the message, but the active participant who constructs the meaning of a message. That is not to say that the meaning is whatever the reader wants. Rather, the meaning arises from how readers interpret the signs according to shared common conventions. For example, a user will – more or less – assume that a user manual contains photos or schematic images that represent the layout of the product, not an ideological statement, and try to create meaning accordingly.

Semiotics can get quite complex, due to all the moving parts:

  • Signs, such as words or even images, can lend themselves to creating different meanings at different times or for different groups of readers. (Think of ideologically, religiously or politically charged words or images.)
  • Semiotic “codes” can make you feel a member of the group, like your own regional dialect, or they can exclude you, like academic jargon. Whether you feel included or excluded influences your understanding of the message and the meaning you take from it.

However, technical communication suffers less from these shifts and ambiguities, because a lot of our signs and codes are restricted and well-defined. Or are they?

Why meaning seems easier in tech comm

Much technical communication can avoid some of the semiotic pitfalls because it addresses a limited, rather homogenous audience. We can assume a general willingness to learn the applied “code” of descriptions and instructions such as a user manual contains it. A manual can presuppose a certain vocabulary or define it in its glossary. The context is confined to the intended tasks of the products, and the expected outcomes of the tasks should be clear.

With all these major restrictions on communications in place, the user’s path is confined to a tunnel, and all that is left for the manual to do is to put in some lights and a railing to safely guide the readers through.

– If it was that easy, we wouldn’t find meaning in technical communications so elusive – and we wouldn’t despair to get users to follow the documentation. So our daily experience tells us that it doesn’t quite work that way.

– I’ll explore this problem at my presentation “Addicted to Meaning: How Good Technical Communication is Like Bad Magic Tricks” at tekom/tcworld in Wiesbaden on Tue 23 Oct at 1:45 pm. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments or questions below.

But do we create documentation with meaning?

Being meaningful is an essential, but elusive feature of good technical communications. Yet being meaningful in technical communications is just as essential as being correct and clear, concise or consistent: Understanding how and why communication is meaningful can help you to make your documentation more effective and to make your product more useful.

What is meaning?

Information theory suggests a hierarchy of information which proceeds from data at the bottom via information and knowledge to wisdom at the top. For example:

  • Data is the sheer fact that the Microsoft Office 2007 software has an “Office button” icon in the upper left corner.
  • The information is that this icon gives you access to functions such as opening, saving and printing a file helps you with generic functions.
  • The knowledge is that this functionality has replaced the File menu you’ve been used to. This adds meaning and supports your active experience.
  • The wisdom might be in the affirmation that nothing lasts. Or that Microsoft has flipped-flopped when they abolished something as sensible as the File menu – only to bring it back in Office 2010…

So meaning occurs at the knowledge stage in this hierarchy when you make sense of data and information, when you “connect the dots” into something that you can apply purposefully. Meaning gives answers to questions such as “So what?”, “What does this mean for me, in my situation?” and “Why should I care?”.

Why should technical communicators care?

Technical communicators should care about meaning, because we are in the business of creating meaning and transmitting it to users. We can provide all the data and information we want, if it’s not meaningful to customers, it’s wasted and dead. Any time documentation fails, it’s either because meaning has not been created or not been transmitted successfully. Documentation that merely informs the user “To print a file, click the Print button” does not support any active experience. It does not create any meaning, if it omits the context, such as the task the user may be engaged in, the prerequisites and the expected results of the user’s action.

– How can we ensure that our documentation is meaningful? Should we be thinking about meaning explicitly? Or is it enough to know our audience, use personas and create task-oriented documentation? Feel free to leave a comment.

Pattern recognition for tech comm as STC webinar

If you’ve missed my session on “Pattern Recognition for Technical Communicators” at the STC Summit in Chicago, you now have another chance: On Wednesday, 8 August at 1 pm EDT / 7 pm CEST, I’ll be presenting the session as a live webinar.

Session abstract

Pattern recognition is an essential mental strategy for acquiring and disseminating knowledge, though most of us are not aware of it. When applied consciously, technical communicators can employ pattern recognition processes to develop effective documentation more efficiently and help readers orient themselves.

Learn what pattern recognition is and how it works, what pattern recognition strategies you may already be employing without even knowing it, and how you can employe those strategies to efficiently acquire information, structure documentation, and support users to:

  • Make sense of new subject matter
  • Start to build new documentation
  • Design and structure documentation
  • Support users efficiently

What attendees said

Attendees at the STC Summit came away with these insights (according to session evaluations):

  • “Pattern recognition can help chunk topics, find reuse opportunities, & help your reader navigate.”
  • “The session confirmed what I believe is needed, in that users want to know what to expect in each chapter, or book, that that is done by applying pattern recognition. I just didn’t have a term for it before.”
  • “Classifying TOC as top down, search/index as bottom up, combining the two to find a balanced form of communication.”

Sign up

You can sign up for the webinar at the STC web site. See you on the 8th! (Well, not really – but we’ll be able to hear each other… 🙂 )

P.S. This will be my second webinar – and I’ll be sure to take the lessons and suggestions from my first one to heart!

Improve tech comm by knowing a foreign language

Knowing a second language can help your tech comm work in a couple of ways. The benefit is probably not great enough in itself to justify learning a language, but if you have or had other reasons, it’s worth to consider these side benefits.

Making decisions in a foreign language

I got to think about this when I read a story in Wired that “thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases”. Psychologists at the University of Chicago conducted a study (abstract, full text in PDF) that asked “Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?”

In a foreign language, we use the same experiences and processes to evaluate situations and estimate risks. However, “a foreign language is like a distancing mechanism. It’s almost like you’re a slightly different person,” says Boaz Keysar who led the study (Business Week). According to the study, thinking in a non-native language emphasizes the systematic, analytical reasoning process. Thinking in our native tongue, on the other hand, leaves more room for the complementary intuitive, emotional decision process: “The researchers believe a second language provides a useful cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reaction” (Wired). (Whether an analytical process yields “better” decisions is an entirely different story…)

Making tech comm better with a foreign language

For the past 12 years that I’ve worked full-time as a tech writer, I’ve written almost exclusively in my second language English, though I did occasionally translate my English writing into my native German. The study’s conclusion that a second language provides a “useful cognitive distance … promoting analytical thought” explains what I’ve experienced in my work in either language, beyond the limits of actual study:

1. A second chance to learn how language works. Many writers I’ve talked to have a solid grasp of their native tongue, but cannot necessarily explain the rules why something is right or wrong. When you learn a second language consciously, you also learn about grammar (again), its powers and limitations. And you can understand how something what works in one language can be similar or even different in another. For me, writing in English certainly made me a more conscientious “grammarian” in either language.

2. Mirroring the “distance” of users. In my experience, the distance that a second language brings is basically pragmatic incompetence: In a foreign language, I’m not as fully aware of the social context, of how time, space and inferred intent contribute to any communication act. I may trip over an idiom I don’t understand, or I may fail to see the irony of a statement and take it at face value.

In tech comm, this linguistic challenge is actually a benefit, because many of my readers share in that distancing experience. My readers may read my documentation in their second language. Or they might use the product in a context and for a purpose that is more or less different than intended and documented. This is why localization is harder than just translation. Internationalization can even become an accessibility issue, when a product no longer works properly in a certain context. So facing similar pragmatic uncertainties makes me a better advocate of the users I write for.

Your turn

If you know a second language, do you find it helps your writing? Do you have other reasons or benefits beside the ones I listed?

What I learned from my pattern recognition talk at STC12

My session on pattern recognition for technical communicators was a very rewarding experience which taught me a lot. I thank Paul Mueller, Conference Manager, and Alyssa Fox, Program Committee Chair, for inviting me to speak, even though this was my first summit. Their friendly, indefatigable support set the tone for a high-energy, well-run conference.

If you want to revisit the session, here are the slides and the article from the proceedings. (If you haven’t attended the session, the article will probably be more helpful, for reasons explained below.)

Here’s a look behind the scenes of my talk and what I learned:

Two different roles

Attending a conference is not the same as speaking at one. Well, duh…

But what I mean is this: I took care to be an observant attendee before my own session, so I could gauge expectations and behaviors of attendees. Bluntly put: As attendee, I want my money’s worth. As speaker, I need to give my audience their money’s worth. Observing and knowing the first helped me achieve the second – or so I hope.

When I was still in academia, I was often put off by conference presenters whose ignorance of the audience’s interests and demands could be quite arrogant – and usually didn’t help the conference as a whole, either. So I wanted to avoid that.

Plus, one of the mantras of technical communicators is: “Know your audience!” How could I afford to ignore it at a tech comm conference?

“Unusual” works

I was unsure about my topic, because it was a bit unusual and off-the-wall: Tying the psychology of perception to technical communications – only to confirm what we do anyway, such as topic-based authoring and parallelism?

Me presenting on pattern recognition at STC12

(Photo courtesy of Jamie Gillenwater)

On the other hand, I know from attending previous conferences, how much I enjoyed and benefitted from such sessions. A-ha moments are fun and enlightening, they work in TV science programs, so maybe they’ll work at a conference as well…

During the session, I was too busy to count heads, but I’m guessing I might have had an audience of 70 people maybe. There were other sessions to choose from. Or breakfast, since I was in the 8:30 slot. So I decided early on to get over my worries and trust in the general curiosity of tech writers. 🙂

Rehearsing pays

So practicing helps… Again: Well, duh…

Specifically, it allowed me to move beyond bullet points. I’ve seen many a session (less so at the summit) where presenters mainly read their slides. To me, those are usually not the best presentations. I don’t need great showmanship, but reading the slides seems as if the speaker serves the slides rather than vice versa.

I’ve tried to make at least the a-ha moments less reliant on words and bullet lists and more like an illustrated story. And I’ve found that decent images will remind me of the story just fine. (The last section about actually applying pattern recognition in tech comm has more bullet lists, so people could take notes.)

In addition, I found that rehearsing also helps me to “know time” (a pet obsession of mine; I even have a blog post about it). I’ve seen excellent presentations, but it peeves me a bit if they take up 58 of 60 minutes. I also learn by asking questions and by engaging with the speaker or others in the audience. And to me, it seems a bit careless to mar an excellent session by running overtime.

Budget your energy

I am really glad (and almost a little proud) that we’ve had such a lively, engaging discussion after my presentation. People suggested additional sources, propped up some of my arguments and ran with others, bringing up evolution, Edward Tufte’s information graphics and – privately afterwards – even Immanuel Kant!

My one regret is that by that time I was a bit exhausted and didn’t always do justice when repeating the question or comment for everybody in the room and for the recording. Not sure how I can achieve it, but I want to save not only time, but also energy to facilitate the discussion afterwards.

But all in all I think the session went well, I’ve really enjoyed the experience and am glad to contibute to our curious, friendly and supportive tech comm community!

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!