UK MadCap user group launches with two events

MadSIG, the MadCap UK & Europe user group, launches with two events in the UK in September. We are a handful of MadCap users who network to share expertise and support. Most of us are based in the UK, though I’m the Europe outlier who’s based in Germany (and sometimes Denmark).

MadSIG offers occasional meet-ups and also a LinkedIn group for feedback, ideas and resources. If you are a sole technical author, become part of a more personal group – in your own virtual home town rather than in the big city of the online forums!

MadSIG is a special interest group under the ISTC‘s umbrella – while you don’t need to be an ISTC member to join and participate, it’s certainly a good idea to take advantage of the society’s many benefits.

Meet with MadCap’s Mike Hamilton in Staines on 19 Sep

Mike Hamilton from MadCap is going to be at the Swan Hotel and Pub, The Hythe, Staines TW18 3JB, on Thursday 19th September from 7pm onwards. He’s generously offered to spend the evening talking MadCap with anyone who uses Flare and the other MadCap products, or is interested in finding out more about them.

If you would like to come, please let us know by email to MadSIG@ISTC.org.uk with your contact details, so we can update you if anything changes last minute. If you’ve got any specific topics you’d like to talk about, feel free to let us know, too.

Mike Hamilton has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the MadCap products, so bring your questions and, if you like, your projects, and get to know some other Flare fanatics from the South of England at the same time.

Inaugural MadSIG meeting at TCUK on 25 Sep

MadSIG holds its inaugural meeting at TCUK 2013. If you’re at TCUK anyway, this is your easiest chance to meet other MadCap users. We’ll meet at the Terrace Bar of the Marriott conference hotel on Wednesday, 25 Sep at 5 pm.

This meeting is a TCUK fringe event – that is, it is organised by us delegates, not by the conference itself. We are grateful that TCUK provides space and publicity.

Call for proposals for TCUK13, 24-26 September

You have 10 days, until Friday 5 April, to submit a proposal (or two) to speak at Technical Communication UK (TCUK) . TCUK 13 takes place in Bristol from 24th to 26th September 2013. It is the UK’s leading technical communication event, and without a doubt the friendliest professional conference you can find.

TCUK 2013 logo and banner

As well as three days of workshops and presentations, TCUK is your opportunity to meet and network with other technical communicators from across the UK and many other countries. We have planned social activities including receptions and a Gala Dinner (where we present the ISTC’s annual technical communication awards). In previous years delegates have organised a number of popular conference fringe events, from quiz events and late-night salsa dancing to early morning runs, and there are sure to be similar activities this year.

The call for proposals is open but closes on 5th April, so if you want to have a chance to speak at TCUK make sure you submit your ideas on time. Regardless of whether you want to present for the first time or you are a seasoned conference speaker, we want to hear from you. We don’t mind if you are new to technical communication or if you have worked in this field for ever, if you have something to say to other technical communicators then TCUK 2013 is your chance to say it.

As well as topics relating to our specialist stream The Management of Technical Communication, you may submit proposals on any topic that you feel will be of interest to technical communication professionals. Have a look at the list of suggested topics and use that as a jumping off point for your imagination. What do you think would be of interest to other technical communicators? We’re waiting to hear from you.

– If you’ve ever considered speaking at a tech comm conference, I want to encourage you personally to submit a talk: TCUK was my first speaking experience in 2010, and it was immensely positive and rewarding! For more reasons, see my Top 6 reasons to consider speaking at TCUK 2013 and Why TCUK is such a cool conference.

Top 6 reasons to consider speaking at TCUK 2013

TCUK 2013, the UK’s premier tech comm conference, has just opened its call for proposals – and here are some good reasons why you should consider applying to speak in Bristol in September!

TCUK conference logo and banner

What all reasons have in common is that technical communication as a field and TCUK as a conference are more versatile, lively and interesting than you may imagine!

Consider speaking because you…

  1. Manage a tech comm team, project, migration or strategy. This year’s specialist stream is “The Management of Technical Communication” in all its variety. TCUK reacts to one of the industry’s megatrends of recent years which is to position tech comm, even within corporations, as a business which can prove ROI.
  2. Commission technical communication. – That’s right: We technical communicators want to hear from people who engage tech communicators, in fact, we need to! One of tech comm’s mantras is “Know your audience” and that definitely includes those who ask us to create documentation in the first place.
  3. Have something to share, even if you haven’t spoken at a conference before. TCUK is very welcoming to newbies! I know, they gave me my first speaking opportunity in 2010. And I have attended TCUk ever since and seen two newbie presentations last year which were met by a supportive audience.

Consider speaking because TCUK is…

  1. A top 3 tech comm event in Europe. TCUK is the best opportunity to network, catch up with trends, trade experiences, mull over challenges, along with tekom in Germany and UAEurope in different countries.
  2. Cozy and diverse. In my opinion, TCUK is the perfect combination of a cozy scene and a wide range of topics. It offers stimulation and inspiration of larger conferences without the intimidation that a dozen streams and several hundred participants bring.
  3. Free for speakers! However, you will have to arrange for travel, accommodation, and meals yourself.

And if you don’t think you have enough for a 40-minute talk, you can still save the date and hold out for the annual “open stage” rant session. It’s not been finalised yet, but there was such a session for the last 3 years. All of the above reasons and benefits apply, except for the free conference attendance.

Just the facts, please!

Leah Guren’s Fish Tale at TCUK12

After opening remarks by conference organizer David Farbey, Leah Guren‘s keynote relevant and entertaining keynote address presented several lessons from the animal world:  A Fish Tale: Improve your Career by Watching Fish!

  1. Take a leap of faith – like salmon. It simply takes some guts and a little bit of faith that tech comm is here to stay, else you won’t be able to make a long-term plan and get behind it.
  2. Stay in school for better chances of survival – once you took that leap, keep honing your skills, keep developing. There are lots of ways and many don’t require the same amount of time and money as going to a conference, whether it’s e-zines, forums, user groups or webinars (some excellent ones are actually free!) Be sure to make your professional development part of your regular work schedule.
  3. Invest in better PR – the difference between a carp and coi is mainly the prize tag – which is thanks to better PR for the coi. Communicate your value that you bring to the company and to its customers. We know how much words matter, so we can do better than calling ourselves technical writers. “Information architects”, “content strategists”, even “technical comunicators” can make more money.
  4. Find the right stress – (sorry, I forgot how this related to fish… 😉 ) Tackle your fears, get a new challenge and pick the kind of stress where you’re still in control, feel stimulated and can grow.
  5. Active swim in a larger pond – because like a carp you will grow (professionally) in relation to the size of your “pond”. Find opportunities for growth how you can be the expert in your environment.

I’m sure I forgot a couple of Leah’s lessons. Nevertheless, I want to add an additional lesson that I’ve found important: Know the secret of the birds. That means know how your enemies tick, so they don’t eat you. Or if they’re not threatening: Seek heroes outside of your immediate field. Sure, you won’t be able to fly like a bird, but you can still find birds inspiring.

TCUK12, day 1: Workshops & company

The first day of the ISTC conference TCUK12 offered workshops and great opportunities to meet tech comm’ers from all walks of life and many corners of the earth.

When I arrived late on Monday evening, I promptly headed for the bar and joined the advance party for a last round – which lasted so late that I’m not even sure in which timezone it was 2 am before I turned in…

Robert Hempsall: Information Design 101

Robert Hempsall offered a great and engaging hands-on Information Design 101 workshop about information design. The workshop focused on the five key areas of content and structure, language, layout, typography, and lines and spatial organization. Using a formal application to vote in English elections by mail, Robert led us through the process of designing the form to maximize clarity and usability.

Thanks to our versatile and engaged group of delegates, our work on the form was not only lively, but showed how different disciplines contribute to the solution of better information design, from tech comm (with its principles of minimalism and parallelism) via user interface design (with its emphasis on making completion of the form as easy and painless as possible) to graphic design.

In this sense, the workshop presented a good example of “design by committee” (which is usually a terrible idea): We discussed the most intuitive and user-friendly sequence of the form’s elements and how best to phrase the section headings, as questions or as imperatives. A seemingly innocuous “all of the above”  check box also caused a debate: Should it precede the individual options, to make completing the form quick, easy and painless? Should it come last, so users hopefully first read and reflect on the options? Or should it be omitted altogether, so users have to think about each option and select all that apply.

Form design is maybe not among the core tasks for many tech writers. Yet I’ve found several challenges in it that are strikingly similar to getting a topic structure just right, whether it’s a consistent, indicative heading, good, clear instructions or logical structure.

Rowan Shaw: Quality Across Borders

Rowan Shaw‘s workshop Quality Across Borders: Practical Measures to Ensure Best-Value Documentation in Global Technology Businesses focused on creating documentation both with authors and for users who have English as a second language (ESL).

As in introduction, Rowan presented us with 10 sentences each of which had some element that can create a problem for ESL readers, ranging from “10/03/12”, which could mean 3 October or March 10, to metaphors and slang.

If you need to hire ESL authors, it can be helpful to ask applicants to sit for an exam which tests skills such as procedure writing, fluency of expression, structuring, detail, consistency – but also their motivation for applying, to spot those candidates who want a foot in the door, but might not be interested in tech comm in the long term. We discussed a sample test, whether it was applicable and appropriate in all cultures.

Rowan suggested that, given the practicalities of global ESL authors, you might have to settle for less than perfect profiles in candidates. Then it is important to know which skills are easier to teach someone on the job, for example, grammar, structuring, capitalization, punctuation and how to use a style guide. Other skills are harder to teach, such as an eye for detail, audience orientation, logical thinking, but also more intricate language skills, such as prepositions and correct modifiers.

Again, this workshop benefitted tremendously from the diverse talents in the room and the experiences delegates brought to the topic.

The right company

I keep harping on how much I enjoy and benefit from meeting other tech comm’ers. Just on the first day:

  • I found that several other doc managers are also wary to hire subject matter experts, who are less committed to tech comm, because they might just want a foot in the door (see above).
  • I had an immensely helpful conversation with someone who’s a visiting professor and who could give me tips and ideas that I can try as I consider teaching as a future path.

So day 1 was very fruitful already, and I’m looking forward to more sessions and conversations to come.

TCUK12: Internationalisation as an accessibility issue

Addressing internationalisation and accessibility issues are two complementary ways to make technical communications (as well as products and web sites) more inclusive. Attend a panel discussion at TCUK in October to find out what pitfalls internationalisation and globalisationcan bring and what others have done to address them.

The panelists

The panel brings together four internationally experienced technical communicators:

  • Karen Mardahl is TCUK’s keynote speaker of this year’s accessibility stream. She believes in encouraging technical communicators to develop their skills and knowledge to strengthen their role in any organisation, but especially to do their part in making products and services more inclusive for all people. Living and working in Denmark, she has experienced the subtle challenges of negotiating technical communications in an international, intercultural context first-hand.
  • Robert Hempsall is a specialist information designer whose international clients, such as international airlines and telecommunicartions companies, require forms, bills and letters designed for efficient localisation and maximum accessibility.
  • Ray Gallon is currently an independent consultant, specializing in the convergence of user guidance and usability for international companies such as General Electric Medical Systems, Alcatel, and Ilog-IBM. Ray is currently a member of the international board of directors of the Society for Technical Communications (STC) and past president of the STC France chapter. He shares his life between the Languedoc region of France and the city of Barcelona, Spain.
  • I will be moderating the panel and insert the occasional anecdote or lesson learned from my experience of 13 years of writing software documentation in English that is accessible and useful for users all across Europe.

The topics

The focus of the panel will be a dimension which frequently shuts out wide ranges of customers and users: National borders and the languages and cultural conventions they denote. Internationalization is an accessibility issue in user interfaces and documentation. In several ways, it affects whether you can reach your customers and how well.

For example, in documentation (and user experience design as a whole), language can be:

  • Inclusive when it is comprehensible to customers who speak English as a Second Language
  • Exclusive when it relies on specific cultural conventions, idioms or references, including common items, such as date and time Readability can be

The presentation of examples and entry forms can be:

  • Inclusive when they support different international conventions
  • Exclusive when they are limited, for example, to 5-digit zip codes

How to distinguish corresponding strategies?

  • Localization: The adaptation of product and documentation to a specific market, a locale.
  • Internationalization: The presentation of product and documentation that enables efficient localization in different cultures and languages.

Our panel discussion discusses these issues and more with examples and suggestions how to make technical communications more inclusive in terms of language and culture and hence more successful internationally.

If you know additional questions or topics of internationalisation as an accessibility issue, please leave a comment.

Why TCUK is such a cool conference

Technical Communication UK (TCUK) has established itself as a leading tech comm conference in Europe, because it combines expected features with more quirky, informal elements of “unconferences”.

Pivotal programming

Part of the success comes thanks to a well-balanced mix of sessions. This is the “meat and potatoes” that covers the usual suspects of methods, tools, and technologies. It also excels by reaching out into neighboring disciplines. This year a whole stream of sessions was dedicated to “anything but text”. These presentations (and a couple of keynotes) went all visual and covered icon design at Google Maps, IKEA’s textless communication, technical illustrations, colour usage, video in user assistance, and more.

TCUK audience, photo by @FireheadLtd, used with permission

Fascinating fringe

Unconference features, such as lightning talks, a rants session, and a fringe program, make up the rich dessert buffet. They inspire and foster an accessible sense of community among delegates who want to carry ideas and conversations into less formal contexts. Fringe events ranged from meetups of user groups or regional ISTC groups to a film screening, from informal social get togethers to the latest instalment of the legendary annual salsa class.

Committed community

That sense of community is what makes TCUK unique to me: Beyond getting the logistics right of putting on a conference, these worthy folks hit the sweet spot by establishing a framework within which stuff can happen. The amiable atmosphere draws delegates together, whether they’re there as repeat speakers or just for one day. I’ve met someone determined to make the most of his one day, and he was hooking up with people left and right everytime I saw him between sessions.

Three-and-a-half takeways

What did I take away from TCUK 11?

  • A feel for where the tech comm industry is at. Technical communication is as dynamic a field as ever and there’s no better place to take a temperature than conferences such as TCUK.
  • Learn to think and act outside the box. Thanks to the good programming, I got a lot of insights and inspiration. This goes for tech comm topics, such as personas and minimalism. And it extends into other applicable areas, such as being a riveting speaker and interpreting and visualising statistical data.
  • A long-term perspective. Perennially repeated discussions are such as “What do we call ourselves and why?” are legitimate and important. But we also need to think in terms of progress, how we tech comm’ers want to the industry develop and in which direction(s). Fittingly, the final sessions did a good job whether it was Ellis Pratt’s closing keynote or Roger Hart’s compact 3 minute rant that content strategists have little on us, but still might do us in.
  • Tech writers will be tech writers. You can’t stop a bunch of tech writers from editing a dinner menu. You just can’t…

Your turn

If you’ve attended TCUK 11, what were your impressions? You probably took something else away… Feel free to leave a comment!

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!

Andrew Lightheart’s “Riveting Speaker” at #TCUK11

Technical Communication UK 2011 balanced sessions about industry standard methods (such as personas and minimalism) and about seemingly marginal topics which turned out to be highly relevant and “fresh”.

Wednesday’s coma slot right after lunch fell to Andrew Lightheart and “How to be a riveting speaker“. And Andrew excelled beautifully, for two reasons:

  • Andrew is a professional who’s helping specifically IT people to become better presenters.
  • He walks the talk. He lives his own advice, so his presentation was not just an example, it was an embodiment of how to get your point across.

Andrew shared five things which, in his experience, make a good speaker:

  1. A presentation is neither a document, nor a performance, so:
    • Don’t write out your soundtrack and read out your slides. Limit slides to what you cannot describe quickly, pictures, charts, etc.
    • Don’t try to perform, you just set yourself up for unnecessary stress and failure, unless you are a regular, seasoned performance.
  2. A presentation is a conversation, even if the presenter does most of the talking. Get into conversational mode, and you’ll be more comfortable, more personable – and get your points across better.
  3. Stay relevant by focusing on what you want your listeners to do. That is your outcome, and your major points should lead towards it.
  4. Be warm: Connect by sharing (ordinary, personal) stories. And for a pause, in a story or between two points, shut up. Silence is fine. Your threshold to move on is reliably slower than that of your listeners.
  5. Slow down. Speak clearly. It anchors you, and you can listen to yourself. – This point especially resonated with me: I sing in a choir and MC during concerts. When we perform in churches, I have to speak very slowly and clearly because of the reverb. It’s a good and humbling exercise. Try it: Take a friend, find an empty church, stand on opposite ends and to tell him or her something… 🙂

In the subsequent Q&A session, Andrew answered our questions. Most useful to me were these tips:

  • Reformulate highly specific questions to repeat them (many listeners may not have heard it…) and so they stay generally relevant, then answer them.
  • Talk to an individual person in the audience. There is no crowd, there’s only the individual, 400 times…
  • A good general template for a presentation is to spend the first 15-20% on the elephants in the room and to spark your listeners’ curiosity. Then make a point and back it up by a story. Repeat point + story 3-5 times. Close by leading towards your outcome, which is what you want your listeners to do after your presentation.

– Andrew’s session was very relevant and quite influential for me. I heard it 20 hours before Chris and I were due with our own presentation. We were both there and couldn’t very well go ahead with our document of dozens of slides with bullets and text.

So rather than doing a run-through, we took out most text slides, leaving the pictures and examples and the bullets with big points. But it worked very well, and was very well received. So I can confidently say that Andrew’s tips actually work – even if it’s only your second presentation at a conference as it was for me! 🙂

Thanks, Andrew!

“Statistics without maths” workshop at #TCUK11

Technical Communication UK 2011 is off to good start with around 100 people attending six pre-conference half-day workshops on Tuesday. Even the night before saw about 20 attendees joining the organisers to help with last-minute setup chores, not to mention drinks and dinner.

On Tuesday afternoon, I attended the workshop “Statistics without maths: acquiring, visualising and interpreting your data” by Mike K. Smith, Chris Atherton and Karen Mardahl.

Mike K. Smith encourages us to insist on hard evidence

The workshop was virtually free of math in terms of formulas and calculations. Nonetheless, its introduction of concepts such as different average measurements mean vs. median vs. mode, or such as standard deviation vs. standard error challenged tech communicators. Personally, I’m more familiar with the finer points of language, not mathematical concepts, so it was a bit of a stretch for me.

The focus, however, was on general principles that give well-done statistics the power to infer a greater whole from representative data:

  • Strength of evidence, meaning the amount of data is large enough
  • Quality of data, meaning the data is good and useful to answer the question

A simple example illustrated these points:

1. Survey a group of people whether they like Revels, a British candy that comes with different fillings and hence different flavours, in general.

2. Hand out one Revel each to a smaller group of people and ask them how many liked the specific Revel they were given.

Frequently, the results of #2 are interpreted to mean #1. And that’s not even taking into consideration the alternative suggested by the workshop audience:

3. Watch a smaller group eat Revels (best without their knowing that they’re being watched) and draw your your conclusions how many really like Revels.

Another principle that was presented and discussed was that correlation measured by studies and statistics is not the same as causation: Two things that frequently or always occur together don’t mean that one causes the other. They could both be caused by a third overarching force. Or maybe there’s no causal relation between them at all…

The workshop about these concepts with dozens of examples also showed up a few cultural differences: Statisticians seem to strive for accuracy and precision to the point of not quite intelligible anymore, at least not outside their peer group.

I think some of the finer points about the definitions of averages and standard measurements (see above) were lost on some of us tech comm’ers. Still, the general message resonated with many: Statistics deserve close scrutiny, for the numbers they present, for the conditions in which they were measured and for the questions they seek to answer.

As Mike Smith put it towards the end:

What do we want?
Evidence-based change!
When do we want it?
After peer review!