Describing or clarifying: How do we explain stuff?

So our company has an elevator pitch competition. The task is to explain in 30 seconds “What does our company do?”

The submissions indicate that “to explain” means different things to different people. To some, it means “to describe or summarise information”. To others, it means “to translate and clarify for others”.

The two meanings reach different audiences with different levels of success. Description and summary are best when you have a similar background and outlook as your audience. Translation and clarification are best to bridge differences between you and your audience. Such a difference could be much vs. little experience with a product or knowing how to set it up vs. having to use it every day. To bridge this difference, you have to put yourself into the users’ shoes and remember how it is not to know all the things you know now.

Technical communication skills, our experience when crafting content, and the way we can structure information let us excel in the translating and clarifying. And the better we know our audience, the better we are at it.

Developers and testers who contribute to user documentation frequently deliver very good descriptions – and technical communicators can help them by translating and clarifying them further, if necessary.

We often hear that “everybody can write”. But what it means is that many people can describe (and some don’t even do that very well) – but few can clarify as well as a technical communicator.

If the distinction between describing and clarifying resonates with you, I’m sure you can think of more examples.

Skill map, wicked ambiguity & influence at #STC14

More than 600 technical communicators met for the annual STC Summit in Phoenix, AZ, to demonstrate and expand the many ways in which they add value for users, clients, and employers. It almost sounds like a non-theme for a conference, but that was a common impression I took away time and again, prompted by my personal selection of sessions, no doubt!

This thrust is actually very much in line with the STC’s revamped mission statement (scroll down a bit) which includes these objectives:

  • [Support] technical communication professionals to succeed in today’s workforce and to grow into related career fields
  • Define and publicize the economic contribution of technical communication practices […]
  • Technical communication training fosters in practitioners habits […] that underpin their ability to successfully perform in many fields

I’ll describe my personal Summit highlights and insights that resonated with me. For the mother of all STC Summit blogging, visit Sarah Maddox’ blog with a summary post which links to posts about no fewer than 10 individual sessions!

Connecting across silos with diverse skills

A good illustration for how easily tech comm skills and tasks connect with and seep into other job roles is Red Gate Software’s Technical Communication Skills Map. It appeared at least twice at the STC Summit: In STC CEO Chris Lyons’ opening remarks and again in Ben Woelk’s lightning talk.

Tech Comm skill map from Red Gate Software

Depending on a tech comm’ers talents and tasks, he can collaborate closely with – or develop into – a product manager or project manager, a UX specialist or tester.

Standing united against “wicked ambiguity”

Jonathon Colman, content strategist at Facebook, took a very high-level view of our profession’s challenges in his keynote address on Sunday evening. Technical communication that travels millions of miles on NASA’s Voyager or that must last thousands of years unites us against ambiguity – regardless of our different skills and various everyday tasks.

Jonathon Colman at TC14 keynote

Such ambiguity can become “wicked” in fields such as urban planning and climate change, because it makes the issue to be described hard to define and hard to fix with limited time and resources. The solutions, such as they exist, are expensive and hard to scope and to test. Still we must at least attempt to describe a solution, for example, for nuclear waste: Tech comm must warn people to avoid any contact in a message that is recognizable and comprehensible for at least 10,000 years.

Jonathon ended on the hopeful note that tech comm’ers can acknowledge wicked ambiguity, unite against it, race towards it, embrace it – and try the best we can.

Wielding the informal power of influence

Skills are not always enough to connect us tech comm’ers successfully with other teams and departments. Sometimes, adverse objectives or incentives get in the way. Then we need to wield the informal power of influence. Kevin Lim from Google showed us how with witty, dry understatement – a poignant exercise of persuasion without resorting to rhetorical pyrotechnics.

Kevin Lim on Influence Strategies

Influence, Kevin explained, is the “dark matter of project management” that allows us to gain cooperation with others. We can acquire this informal power by authentically engaging colleagues with our skills and practices. (The “authenticity” is important to distinguish influence from sheer manipulation.) To optimize our chances for successful influence, we need to align our engagement with the company culture, a corporate strategy, and the objectives of key people, esp. project managers and our boss.

Put everything under a common goal and engage: “Don’t have lunch by yourself. Bad writer, bad!” – appropriate advice for the Summit, too!

– Watch this space for more STC14 coverage coming soon!

How German is tekom and tcworld?

The world largest tech comm conference and trade show is a really a bilingual affair with two separate names. Follow me as I untangle the differences in reply to Alan Pringle’s request “Help this first-time tcworld attendee, please!” over on Scriptorium’s blog.

tekom, the conference of the German association of technical communicators of the same name, takes place every year in Wiesbaden. What goes by the shorthand name of tekom is really three separate events in the same place over three days.

There is tekom, the German-speaking conference which had 150 presentations, workshops and tutorials. (All numbers are from last year’s event.) Then there is tcworld, the English-speaking variant with another 74 sessions. About 2,400 delegates attend sessions in both languages. While session topics sometimes overlap, the same session is hardly ever offered in both languages.

The two names sometimes lead to confusion, for example, on twitter when it comes to the appropriate hashtag. The official recommendation is to use #tekom for the event and content in German and #tcworld in English.

The third event is the trade fair where you can meet 200 exhibitors who range from tool vendors, via  documentation and language service providers, to professional associations such as the STC. The trade fair is in the same venue and open to all conference delegates. It also draws an additional 1,300 visitors at a nominal entrance fee of €20, though many take advantage of vouchers that offer free admission.

Multilingual diversity

At the size it is, tekom is a unique event with logistical challenges of its own: You pretty much need to map out your schedule beforehand, lest you miss a session or vendor. Because tekom takes place at a convention centre, not at a conference hotel, you also need to plan your waterhole activities. There is no bar and not much of a lobby where you can simply hang around and meet people. Judging from after-hours tweets, though, it seems that many of the English-speaking crowd stay at the same hotel or two.

Among the rewards for hardy delegates is a unique variety of topics and delegates. Session streams include mainstays, such as professional writing, content strategies and user assistance, but also related areas, such as content management, parts catalogues and localization. tekom underscores its commitment to higher education and to graduates, with streams dedicated to young technical communicators as well as to academia and science.

Two traditions of professional presentations clash at tekom, and many sessions fall quite squarely into one of the two camps, regardless of the language they use. ‘Anglo’ presentations are sometimes heavier on business aspects, while ‘Germanic’ presentations tend to focus on technical or process details. As a result, some presentations feel a little stiffer than at conferences in the US or England, especially if the presenter is not a native speaker. But usually, there’s good substance, regardless of the language and delivery.

Just as with TCUK and the STC Summit, the largest group of delegates comes from the host country, followed by neighbouring countries. tekom especially attracts many delegates and exhibitors from Eastern Europe.

While you will get the most from tekom if you speak both English and German, you still get a full conference experience in English. There are two to four presentations and two or three workshops and tutorials in any one slot, offering five to six complete streams in English.

Making the most of tekom

My advice is to plan ahead:

  • Make and update your schedule to avoid missing out on your personal ‘must-see’ sessions and workshops.
  • Schedule free time to visit the trade fair, to wander the halls, to run into acquaintances and meet new people.
  • Bring business cards. I find I am using many more than at conferences in the UK or the US.

Wiesbaden is very conveniently located with direct commuter trains that reach Frankfurt airport in 40 minutes.

There are lots of interesting sites in close proximity: Mainz with its cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum (always a winner with the bookish crowd) is just across the river. The picturesque part of the Rhine with vineyards and medieval castles starts just a little downstream.

Note that 2013 will be the last year that tekom is held in Wiesbaden. The convention centre will be torn down in the summer of 2014. tekom14 will be held in Stuttgart.

This post is an abbreviated, slightly amended version of “How German is it?” which appeared first in ISTC’s Communicator magazine, Spring 2013, pp. 7-8.

Tech comm MOOC by STC not happening apparently

The STC’s MOOC which I announced last month is apparently not happening. It was supposed to let participants explore the field of technical communications, and I was scheduled to teach the introductory module starting 30 September.

My assumption that the MOOC is not happening is based on the facts I have at this point:

  • There has been no announcement by the STC beyond an introductory one-page article in the July/August issue of the STC’s intercom magazine.
  • There is no place to sign up for the MOOC and to get specific information.
  • There is no content in the MOOC’s staging area.

I’m really sorry that it’s not happening.

I think we’ve lost a great opportunity to let people know what a varied and vibrant profession technical communication is. That we are mainly about improving relationships with customers and users where people meet products and services – not about spelling and serial commas.

At a time when professions and job requirements develop rapidly around us, it is important to prove that technical communicators do add value and play important roles in defining and implementing content strategies and user experiences – and this MOOC would have been a great chance to do just that.

Join us for a tech comm intro MOOC by STC

This fall, the STC will run a free 5-week MOOC to allow everybody online to explore the field of technical communications – and I’m excited to be teaching the introductory module!

The full syllabus

The MOOC will highlight the roles and responsibilities of technical communication professionals through 5 specializations in 5 weekly modules, starting on 30 September:

  1. Introduction to technical communication, by myself
  2. Content development and delivery, by Bernard Aschwanden
  3. Content strategy and lifecycle, by Mollye Barrett
  4. Instructional design, by Dana West and Phylise Banner
  5. Usability and user assistance, by Ray Gallon and David Farbey

The introductory module

My module in the first week will serve as a general introduction to the field of technical communication.

What will you learn?

After the module, you should be able to

  • Define purpose, benefits and tasks of technical communication
  • Argue the value of technical communication for companies and clients
  • Describe the daily job and career of a technical communicator
  • Identify the elements of effective technical communication
  • Describe and develop basic core skills of a technical communicator

What do you do?

Your week will start with some assigned texts and videos to introduce the topics.

You will see how all the pieces fit together in an online lesson on Wednesday afternoon (US time). The outline will be the same as for the readings; it looks something like this:

  1. What is technical communication? – Definitions and trends
    • A changing definition, from technical writing to business problem-solving
    • Recent trends (mobile and embedded help, social media and user-generated content)
  2. Why have technical communication? – Benefits and business cases
    • How technical communication benefits users and companies and products
    • What only technical communication can do (USPs)
  3. Who is a technical communicator? – Tasks and career
    • A day in the life
    • Personality and aptitudes
    • A versatile career path
  4. How does a technical communicator work? – Skills and expertise
    • Know your audience through audience analysis and personas
    • Learn from subject-matter experts by research and collaboration
    • Write task-oriented topics using task analysis and modular topic types
    • Edit modular documentation for content and language

You will have a chance to try your hand on technical communications in a couple of learning activities (a/k/a assignments) around creating and editing documentation.

Oof, that’s a lot, no?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it is a wide area, but the purpose is to give you a taste of our versatile profession! I’ll start with the larger picture to illustrate the value of tech comm and how it can be cool and profitable, before diving into a few core skills in depth. The four later modules can afford to be a little more focused.

More information

More information will be available shortly on the web sites of STC which is sponsoring this MOOC and on CourseSites which is furnishing the platform for it.

In the meantime, check out Mollye Barrett talking about the MOOC and her module in a 1:30 video.

What do you think?

Would this be interesting to participate in? What other topics would you expect to see covered in the intro module? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see if I can address your opints, either in the comments or in the MOOC module itself!

English articles for non-native speakers

A few simple rules can help non-native speakers get English articles such as the, a, and an right.

Some documentation I get to edit is written by tech writers whose native language doesn’t have articles. Their grasp on the subject at hand is as good as any colleagues’, and most of their grammar and spelling is fine, but articles the and a and an give them a hard time.

So I’ve put together a few rules which are easy to memorize and help writers get articles right most of the time. Judging from my colleagues’ writing, they work… 🙂

The definite article the

Use the to refer to one or several specific, individual things. For example:

  • “Open the package by pulling on the lid.”
  • “To close the windows, click the Close button.”
  • “To save the changes, select the File > Save option.”
  • “‘Automatic’ is the only valid setting in this situation.”

The indefinite articles a and an

Use a or an to refer to one unspecific, countable thing. For example:

  • “You need a router and a network cable before you can connect your computer to the Internet.”
  • “To visit web sites, use a web browser, such as Mozilla Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer.”

Use a or an to refer to one particular example of something, often with a descriptive adjective. For example:

  • “C# is an object-oriented programming language.”
  • “PGP is a safe way to encrypt e-mails.”

No article

Use no article when the number of things cannot be counted or does not matter. For example:

  • “Many users worry about privacy and online security.”
  • Computers and netbooks are often equipped with WLAN cards.”

Additional advice

These rules are not 100% complete or error-proof, but they cover most of the scenarios you will encounter.

For additional rules and examples, I recommend these websites:

Snack-size tech comm videos from STC13

Scott Abel talked several tech comm speakers, bloggers and other luminaries into short videos at this spring’s STC Summit in Atlanta. The results are now available as Adobe Thought Leader Interviews at STC SUMMIT 2013. Most videos pack an interesting, usually well-argued insight into a minute or two. Taken together, they’re a good survey of topics and trends that were bounced around the Summit – and a perfect excuse to relive some of the #STC13 spirit!

Here are some of my favorites and what I like about them.

Sarah O’Keefe: Tech Communicators Need to Focus on the Business explains why tech comm’ers need to see how their content and their deliverables fit into the larger business schemes of their organization or client. It’s not exactly the first time Sarah has put out this message, but I consider this a recurring theme and one of the most urgent challenges for our profession.

Ann Rockley: The Benefits of Content Modeling shows how and why single-sourcing and content reuse requires prior planning. You need to model your content to ensure it comes out useful in the different formats. I appreciate Ann’s message that you not only need to do it, but you need to do it right.

Bernard Aschwanden: Benefits of Structured Authoring offers a primer on DITA and neatly sums up why the separation into concept, task and reference topics makes sense in a lot of cases. I like the video because it’s quite a feat to summarise both DITA and topic-based authoring in 2:40 minutes – and with examples to boot!

Rahel Bailie: Reclaiming Content Strategy urges tech comm’ers to reclaim the content strategy turf from the marketing people who may sell themselves better and know about writing copy, too – but we tech comm’ers can add the badly needed technicial knowledge as well. I cherish Rahel’s vote of confidence that we can and should reach out into this neighboring discipline!

Andrea Ames: It’s Not Your Mother’s Tech Comm Anymore argues that tech comm has to change and is in fact changing as users consume it in ever-developing context which makes tech comm’ers, and in fact users, too, the curators of documentation. I enjoy Andrea’s enthusiasm that blends “must do” and “can do” in most of what she does.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s my own 1:17 minutes of fame, ranting about tech comm’ers who wait for instructions and tasks. My point is basically: “Don’t Ask for a Mandate“, but rather prototype what content needs you find and let the solution sell itself. (I stand by my argument, though I don’t like my overzealous look of a young lawyer fearing to screw up his first court case… 🙂 )

But I highly recommend checking out the entire series of interviews, because they cover a wide variety of topics, technologies and tools!

What I learned at the STC Summit 2013

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.

Standing room only at the second Lightning Talks session. Photo by ‏@StubbornlyWrite.

Standing room only at the second Lightning Talks session. Photo by ‏@StubbornlyWrite.

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… 😉 )

@MadCapSoftware booth at the STC13 expo.

@MadCapSoftware booth at the STC13 expo.

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.

@valswisher and @scottabel prepare for a video at Adobe's booth. Photo by @sarahokeefe.

@valswisher and @scottabel prepare for a video at Adobe’s booth. Photo by @sarahokeefe.

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.

STC13: Alyson Riley about effective IA

In her session “Building Effective IA Teams in Resource-Challenged Times”, Alyson Riley from IBM offered her take on the recent theme that tech comm needs to “speak business” to prove its worth. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)

Alyson argued that “nice to have” initiatives are no longer compelling enough to get tech comm a budget or a mandate. To play a mission-critical role in a corporation, tech comm must plug into the corporate strategy. However, that strategy and its stakeholders usually isn’t waiting for us to put in our two cents. So we tech comm’ers must:

  1. Focus on corporate strategy as opposed to tactics.
  2. Play to the motivations behind the strategy, so we can come up with ways to support it with our unique skills and contributions.

The following moves can help with that second step:

  • Address the “buyer evaluates” and “buy” stages of the product. Usually, we speak to the “customer uses” stage of our product where there’s often more cost than income. The challenge is to make it compelling for buyers and sales to also use our content to their benefit in the more profitable stages. A good start is to ask sales: “What is the hardest part of your job?” and see if we can help them with the information we provide.
  • Influence social content to help leads along the marketing funnel from awareness to loyalty and advocacy. That doesn’t mean to “sell out” completely to marketing. It’s often as easy and sensible as including customer benefits in our content. Simply add the “why” to the “how” and give clients a chance to understand and promote your product.

Both moves boil down to the same principle: Don’t educate stakeholders in sales, marketing, product management, etc. about the product. Instead, imagine what the success of these respective stakeholders looks like and address that:

  1. Analyze opportunities your product can address in the terms of sales and marketing.
  2. Craft an effective story that centers on your content and how it can drive revenue, sales, customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  3. Prove it with metrics that speak to the stakeholders.

When it comes to metrics, page views of documentation usually don’t impress managers much. Instead, Alyson suggested “time-to-value” (TTV) which measures the customer’s time from buying or paying for the product to the moment they reap value from it. This is similar to “return-on-investment”, but TTV can be clearer to measure when investment consists of one-time payments plus maintenance fees. Also, it’s easier for tech comm to favorably influence TTV… 🙂

STC13: Lee LeFever on the art of explanation

Lee LeFever is the founder of CommonCraft, best known for the instructional videos with the drawn paper cut-outs that a hand moves around as a voice explains how stuff works. He presented their approach to explanation which focus on empathy with the audience to foster understanding. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)

Explanations are hard and try as you might, they can still fail – as anyone knows who has given driving directions to a stranger and then seen them make the wrong turn.

The key to good explanations is empathy with the “explainee”, so you can explain something in their terms. What gets in the way is the “curse of knowledge” which means we cannot remember what it was like not to know how get to the specialty store or how a cloud service like twitter or dropbox works.

To show how explanations increase understanding, Lee used an explanation scale. First you have little understanding, and you care about the big idea, the “why?” Why should you care about a cloud service, why is this important to you? Once you have the “why?” down, you’re ready for basic understanding of the essentials, the “how”? How does a tool work, how can I use it to my benefit? To get expert understanding, you assemble more and more details for different scenarios – and before long, you have all the knowledge to explain this thing yourself!

Four features can make explanations successful:

Context anchors an explanation in shared experience and creates agreement. We all know what it feels like to have misplaced your keys, and we can agree that it’s very annoying. Context is important to show why something is relevant to you.

Story ties together a problem and its solution in a narrative arc. That can be as simple as: “Bob has a problem. Bob finds a solution. Bob is happy!” Story invites our empathy because we can identify with Bob and root for him. It illustrates facts, such as cause and effect, in real life.

Connections can provide a shortcut to other stories we already know. When the producers of the 1979 science fiction movie “Alien” sought funding, they connected their project to a recent successful movie in three simple words: “Jaws in Space”.

Analogies can emphasize “what’s really going on”. Consider an encounter with a bear and how it sets off your “fight-or-flight” impulse with stress hormones. Now transfer that experience: “Imagine the bear comes home from the bar every night.” This analogy gives you a good impression what it feels like to be the child or partner of an abusive alcoholic.

Lee closed by sharing several examples, both from his CommonCraft videos and elsewhere.