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!

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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!

Alice Jane Emanuel’s “Tech Author Side Rule” 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 morning, I attended Alice Jane Emanuel‘s workshop “The Tech Author Slide Rule: Measuring and improving documentation quality“. In a lively and engaging session, “AJ” taught us how to use the slide rule she came up with. It is actually an Excel spreadsheet that helps you measure qualities such as structure, navigation, language, and task orientation. You weigh a good 30 or so of such qualities in documentation, depending how important they are to you. Then you can grade a document (or a collection of topics after optional tweaking) by assigning points for each quality. The sheet sums up the weighed points per category and also for a total score.

AJ Emanuel, with David Farbey, before explaining the Tech Author Slide Rule

While the sheet is excellent to track progress over time, you can see results very quickly by comparing your current documentation with legacy deliverables. The quantified approach offers a range of benefits that are otherwise hard to come by for tech writers:

  • The numbered scores appeal to managers and make to easier for writers to show progress and accountability.
  • The standardized categories can help you to build a team by ensuring that everyone focuses on the same qualities and by pointing to problems where individual documents go off the rails. They also help to train new writers.
  • In general, it helps to raise the profile of technical communication by clarifying its contribution and giving everyone in the organization more specific terms and numbers to discuss.

AJ emphasized that you need to keep the tool’s categories and usage consistent: It’s fine to change or add categories, weights and ranges of available weights and scores, but remember that you jeopardize comparability of results when you do. It may be fine to add a handicap for special cases, but in general, beware of grade inflation and keep your grading consistent.

I think the tool is a great addition to any peer review/editing process when fellow tech writers assess style guide compliance. Given it’s granularity of dozens of weighted criteria, I expect it would be most valuable to improve writing that’s problematic in specific categories. When different writers assess the quality of different deliverables over time, I’m not sure if the grading is consistent enough and the one total score is indicative enough to track progress in a meaningful quantifiable way. However, I believe it could still show relative improvement.

I think it’s very much worth checking out AJ Emanuel’s slide rule, and it’s easy to test drive it:

  1. Download the tool from AJ’s website Comma Theory where you can also find additional information.
  2. If you want to, tweak the categories (for example, by comparing it with Gretchen Hargis’s qualities in her book Developing Quality Technical Information: A Handbook for Writers and Editors.)
  3. Quickly grade a (short) document in a legacy version which has since seen significant improvement and in the current version.
  4. Evaluate the scores and test them on colleagues or managers.

Join us for pattern recognition at TCUK

Dr. Chris Atherton and I will be premiering our exciting interdisciplinary presentation on “Pattern recognition for technical communicators” at the TCUK conference near Oxford next week. You can find the session abstract on the conference web site or review my previous post.

Logo of the Technical Communication UK conference

Join us for a fun whirlwind tour through human perception and find out how you can apply pattern recognition:

  • Make sense of unknown subject matter
  • Overcome tech writer’s block and start writing
  • Chunk topics and find reuse opportunities
  • Help your readers to
    • Orient themselves in your documentation
    • Grasp individual topics quickly
    • Get the most out of navigation aids

Extra bonus! You’ll learn about apophenia, a concept that gives you something to talk about at cocktail parties and ranks high on most international geek scales… 😉

No previous experience required! If you’re at the conference and can get yourself into the right room on Thursday, September 22, at 10 o’clock, you have all the tools on-board that you need!

Next week I’ll be blogging from the conference, so watch this space…

TCUK10 conference videos online

Speaking of conferences, one stream of 13 presentations at the ISTC’s conference TCUK10 was recorded, and the videos are now online.

Included are the two keynotes by Nokia’s David Black and by J Haynes of Haynes manuals, as well as Roger Hart on content strategy, Chris Atherton on the psychology of usability, and many more.

The slide from J Haynes’ presentation is both, a sign and a reason of Haynes’ success. Check out the presentation to hear the story behind it.

(My own presentation wasn’t recorded, and I like to believe it’s for the better… 🙂 )

Psychology & technical communication, Chris Atherton at TCUK

Technical communication benefits greatly from cross-pollination with related disciplines, such as cognitive psychology. That was my conclusion after the presentation “Everything you always wanted to know about psychology and technical communication … but were afraid to ask” by Chris Atherton (@finiteattention).

Chris is an applied cognitive psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. She has the rare ability to cut through the crap without shortchanging her subject or her audience. She makes Occam’s razor user-friendly, if you will.

Here are my top 3 insights from Chris’ presentation and how I find them applicable to technical communications:

1. Do your reader a favor and supply context

Context relates different pieces of contents. More specifically, it relates what users already know to what they need to learn right now as they read the help. For example, an essential setup procedure is not helping the user, if they don’t know where to set up stuff. Well-written headings and carefully arranged “related links” help users to establish context and to evaluate whether the content they found is relevant to them.

Context also means the “location” of pieces of content. That location can be in a book (for example, about half-way through), on a page or screen (near the top) or in an online table of contents, such as Word’s document map (a sub-topic on one of the first branches after the introduction). Note that all the examples are really vague. But as Chris says, “we remember the gist and location.” And that’s what we go by when we try to find content again.

By the way, Chris pointed to research by Jakob Nielsen who found that location still works on long pages that require vertical scrolling! Apparently, readers do scroll – and remember the general location of what they read.

(You might recognize these points about context as two of my Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system.)

2. Simultaneity implies causality

That means that we often understand two things happening at the same time to be related by cause and effect. In technical communications, this is most relevant to training videos and user interfaces. For example, two call-outs appearing at once will be assumed to be related somehow. Don’t let the user guess, instead:

  • Be careful to create logical sequences.
  • Avoid presenting alternatives or unrelated items at the same time – and if you do, ensure to label them clearly (which will hopefully clutter up your screen or script enough to convince you to break them apart…).

Another example where simultaneity implies causality is people who can turn off streetlights simply by walking past them – which brings us to:

3. Don’t waste time catering to dogmas

This is a tricky one: Some psychological concepts are generally accepted as facts. Yet they make many scientists gringe, because the numbers and the evidence just aren’t there. For example, Chris referred to substantial criticism that’s hacking away at the alleged foundations of individually preferred learning styles.

For me, as a non-scientist, that means that I can support different learning styles in my documentation if it’s done easily and with no or insignificant additional effort, but I won’t go out of my way.

From here on, it’s a sliding scale into the murky depths of psychobabble which is easier to decode and ridicule. To quote an example from an NLP website: “Use brain gym to calm, energise or reconnect right and left brain for improved concentration.” (Apparently, in most people, the left and right brain are successfully connected, regardless of the brain trouble they may believe to have…)

Your turn

Do you know of other insights from psychology that can benefit technical communications? Or do you want to share ideas or experiences with one of the ideas above? Feel free to leave a comment!