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.

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My tcworld11 presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer”

You can download the PDF slides to my presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer” at tekom/tcworld in Wiesbaden on 19 October 2011:

My tekom presentation "Getting ahead as a lone writer". Click to download the PDF.

My tcworld presentation "Getting ahead as a lone writer". Click to download the PDF.

For alternative formats and versions, see

The presentation itself went very well, I think: It felt a bit strange at first to be presenting in English to what seemed to be largely a German audience. But the questions and answers session at the end showed that for many the language barrier was not a problem.

I want to thank the attentive and helpful venue staff and sound technician for their professional, attentive help! They made me feel welcome and in good hands.

tekom11 & tcworld11: Two worlds under one roof

My first visit to tekom/tcworld, the world’s largest tech comm conference in Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, left me inspired and overwhelmed.

Two floors of tekom, photo by @donormal, used with permission

Impressive numbers

I’ve been attending the trade fair part of tekom for several years, but this was my first time attending the conference. 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the conference with impressive numbers:

  • 200 presentations, workshops and tutorials (78 in English)
  • 15 topical streams, ranging from content strategy and mobile documentation to localization, open standards and technical authoring
  • 2,500 expected delegates at the conference plus another 1,000 at the trade fair
  • 200 product vendors, service providers and associations exhibiting at the fair

Two worlds

The crowds mixed well, and I saw many Germans in English sessions (including my own). I talked to several people, and we all noticed that English and German sessions “felt” different, illustrating cultural habits I often find in documentation as well:

  • Corporate visions and innovations often drive English-speaking sessions which often seek to engage delegates with easy to digest images and charts. Some German-speaking attendees are skeptical of such entertaining fluff.
  • Methodology and processes often inform German-speaking sessions that seek to inform delegates of the right – or at least the best – way of doing things. Some English-speaking attendees find this staid or academic.

Axel Regnet also has a good analysis of this cultural rift in his German blog post.

My personal highlights

Understanding the Help 2.0 Revolution

Scott Abel’s keynote opened the first day. He presented a case study of ifixit, the socially-enabled “free repair manual that you can edit”. Their crowd-sourced documentation rewards authors with reputation, attention and a feeling of generosity. It drives sales of hardware parts and even allows to calculate ROI by product, manual, and author! There’s also a standard initiative of omanual.org, backed by guys behind ifixit.com and O’Reilly.

Scott Abel's keynote at tekom, photo by @donormal, used with permission

After some smaller or more theoretical examples of user-generated contents, it impressed me to see a working example on this scale. But then again, it’s like the cry from that vanguard to my own industry just got a little farther. More applicable to my own situation were a few insights from the next panel:

Have a question about TC? Ask the experts

Nicky Bleiel organized a panel discussion with Mark Clifford, Sarah O’Keefe and Scott Prentice. I had submitted a question that echoed Roger Hart‘s rant at TCUK:

Will technical communicators own content strategy or will they be overtaken by content strategists, information architects, UX designers who simply market themselves better? In other words, will influence (and jobs) follow skills or clout?

Some answers (to this and other related questions) were fairly obvious but, of course, valid:

  • Tech writers need to continue to hone their skills and to widen their turf lest they be pushed aside.
  • Tech writers must understand and argue their tasks and expertise in terms of the business.

Some arguments offered me a new perspective:

  • Follow the content: Technical communication, content strategy, information architecture, knowledge management all offer different paths and different approaches to ultimately overlapping or identical content. And we tech writers need to contribute to that content in a productive way.
  • Follow the role: Regardless of what the actual function is called in an organisation, we tech writers need to make sure we contribute to the efforts of the Chief Information Officer – or whatever that role is called.
  • The competition is fierce: Many tech writers are essentially up against everybody else, and their contents need to beat Google’s results.
  • The big disconnect is closing, as the distinction between retail and corporate information and user experiences disappears.

Content strategy day

Scott Abel brought eight content strategy experts to tekom for a full day of presentations and discussions, see the separate review.

Auditing your documentation

Kit Brown-Hoekstra presented a dense 2-hour workshop on the why and how to audit your documentation and processes, see another separate review.

Your turn

Whether you’ve attended tekom/tcworld or not: Feel free to leave a comment if you see things differently or to ask if you’re curious about a detail.

Join me for “Getting ahead as a lone writer” at tekom

If you’re attending the tekom conference in Wiesbaden, consider joining me for my updated presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer” on October 19 at 8:45 a.m. in room 12C as part of tekom’s international, English-speaking tcworld conference.

tcworld conference at Wiesbaden, Germany, in October 2011

My presentation will be an updated version of the session I did at TCUK 10. I will talk about how to overcome neglect and raise your profile by running your job (more) like a business with best practices. Here’s the abstract:

Lone writers are often the only person in the company who creates and maintains documentation. They often operate without a dedicated budget or specific managerial guidance. In this presentation, Kai Weber will draw on his experience to show lone writers how to make the most of this “benign neglect”:

  • How you can still develop your skills – and your career
  • How you can raise your profile with management and colleagues
  • How you can contribute to a corporate communication strategy
  • How you can help your company to turn documentation from a cost center into an asset

Twitter meetup afterwards

Join us on Wednesday at 9:35 am on the upper floor in the foyer in front of rooms 12C and D for a #techcomm meetup after the session! @rimo1012 and I, @techwriterkai, are presenting at the same time in adjacent rooms, so if you know us from twitter, stop by and say hi!

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