Monday, June 22, 2009

It's STC not STW

There’s been a lot written lately about the financial and operational crisis that the Society of Technical Communicators is facing.

A lot of people have posted some great ideas on Twitter (Identified by the #stcorg hashtag), and bloggers such as Sarah O’Keefe and Tom Johnson have outlined several ideas and observations that I agree with, and don’t intend to repeat here.

However there is an aspect of this institutional crisis that I believe needs a little more exposure, and one I’ve raised during several recent presentations at different regional STC events.

The third letter in our professional organization is C. C for communicators. It isn’t W for writers, yet that society is overwhelming sold to technical writers, its publications are aimed at writers, and not surprisingly the vast majority of its members are writers.

But what about the other “technical communicators”? Where are the technical illustrators, the animators, the graphic designers, the video producers, the script writers, the podcasters, etc.?

When I’ve mentioned this before the answer I’ve invariably received is “Oh we have SIGs for them.” – Special Interest Groups – really?

They aren’t a marginalized “special interest,” they are the future of the industry.

When I joined my first technical publications department in the mid 1980s the ratio of writers to illustrators was 2:1, add in other people who contributed to the production of the technical documentation and the number of writers was actually less than 50% of the total departmental head count.

In the opening decade of the 21st century when more people receive information visually than ever before a Society of Technical Communicators should be full of people who think, and deliver information, visually.

If the STC is to survive, it needs to attract and embrace the practitioners of the visual arts.

The same goes for those who are as comfortable working in the sound medium too – and the training folks who are developing interactive documentation, and – well the more you think about it the more the list grows.

As a writer, I would be delighted to see the day when the membership of the STC resembles that technical documentation department I joined over 20 years ago – where writers are actually in the minority.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Truth in Marketing is not an Oxymoron

“I’m a writer; I take the truth and give it scope.”

– Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale (2001)

If I have one underlying tenet that I try to live by, it’s to tell the truth. It’s a philosophy I also apply to my writing. Most of my published work to date has been non-fiction, and by its very nature involves a lot of research and fact checking to make sure that what you are presenting is the “truth.”

The problem with doing research based on historical events, and particularly in the case of biography, is that the “truth” is often what the person telling the story believes to be true. For that reason, as much as possible, I try and go back to original sources and documentation. The same thing applies when I’m writing fiction, I always try to stay truthful to the established rules of the fictional world I am working in. With a licensed property that also means doing a lot of research into the facts that other writers have established.

So what has this got to do with corporate communications?

Most of the corporate writing I do these days is marketing communications. From blog posts, to Twitter, white papers, product literature, websites, and press releases. And, as with my other writing, I always try to tell the truth. Sure, as the quote at the start of this post mentions, I sometimes take the truth and give it “scope.” Yes I’m perfectly happy saying that 10% is “double digit growth” or that 51% equates to “most,” or “the majority,” because beneath the spin they are still verifiable facts.

Where I have problems is with marketing spin that uses absolute terms like unique, best-ever, ultimate*, or first. if you want to use those terms, that’s fine – but do some research and some fact checking to make sure that you really are the “first to market”, or that what your product does really is “unique,” and if what you are offering really is the “ultimate,” are you really intending to never improve it.

This is even more important when you are marketing to an audience whose daily job revolves around words and the use of language. Say the wrong thing, use the wrong word and they will go check. If what you claim isn’t true – they will call you out on it. That will undermine every other marketing message you put out.

One perceived falsehood can undermine the credibility of everything else you do.

Oh, and one more little thing that drives me crazy, if in a press release, article, or whatever, you refer to another company by name, or one of their products – make sure you get the names right.

In this day and age, fact checking has never been easier, all it takes is a few clicks of the mouse.

There is no excuse for any marketing material not to tell the truth. Sure your readers may have to read between the lines, or decipher the spin, but the foundation of what you are saying should always be verifiable.


* The misuse of the word “unique” is one of my all time pet-peeves. Every time my wife watches one of those house buying TV shows and I here the presenter talk about a “unique feature” that we’ve seen 100 times before, it makes me want to scream.

Monday, June 8, 2009

5 Ways to Make Executives Love the Publications Department

“Publications never gets any respect,” is a refrain I’ve heard over and over again during my time in the Technical Communications industry. In fact I’ve even said it myself a few times. The refrain is often followed by, “no one really understands what we do, or the value we provide.” The unfortunate thing is that in a lot of cases these refrains have some justification, but it needn’t be that way.

As an example over the years I’ve visited literally hundreds of publication teams in a variety of companies and industries, but one of my most striking memories is the sheer contrast between two publication departments at a couple of luxury car manufacturers.

At the first company, the documentation department had a nice modern office, in a new campus setting. They had all the latest computers and access to great technology. In the parking lot outside the publications office was a fleet of not only their own cars, but those of their nearest competitor. Any member of the publications team could use any of the cars, in exchange for filling in a small usability report. The publications team were a high profile part of the customer support organization and were considered by the marketing team as part of the product “life style” branding activities.

At the second company, the publications department was in an old hut (in fact it was an old coal bunker) at the back of the factory, far removed from the production line, engineering, or any other function it needed to interact with. Although cars were parked outside, the team had no access to them. They had only a handful of computers and their technology was at least five years behind their competitors. The sole mandate was to produce a small defined set of hardcopy manuals. And that’s all they did.

So why the difference? In short the team at the first company acted like they were part of the company and projected a positive image of their skills. As such they were recognized and rewarded. The team at the second company stuck to the “we are only tech writers,” approach. They were, in many ways, responsible for their own position.

So if you feel that your publications team is “in the coal bunker” – how do you change things so that you get the keys to the luxury cars?

The following presents a basic five point action plan to help you raise the profile of what you do and make your executives love the Publications Department.

1. Realize exactly what it is the Tech Doc team does. - Before you can raise your profile, you need to know what you have to offer. Chances are that most Publications teams have talents and skills that exist no where else in the organization, and I’m not just talking about the ability to write. Also most often the Publications team is the only place in a company where all the company’s intellectual property comes together. Publications isn’t about “producing user manuals,” it’s about managing your organization’s greatest asset - knowledge.

2. Tell a good story. – People react to stories on an instinctive level. It’s easier to remember stories than it is dry facts and figures. Publications is the natural bridge between the end user and the company design, engineering and production teams. Gather stories and tell them – repeatedly. Come up with your own stories that illustrate the importance, frequency and impact of your own work. Develop fun trivia about what Publications does that people will remember and repeat.

3. Offer your services for fun and profit – Develop an in-house user community, not just an external one. Look around for other functions that you could work with or offer your expertise to. Develop an entrepreneurial mind-set and you’ll find opportunities to transform publications from an overhead cost-center into a profitable contributor.

4. Hook an executive sponsor – Find an executive’s pet project that could need some creative input, e.g. a little wordsmithing, or some graphic design work, and get involved. While the work is progressing make sure to bring the executive into your environment, and show off what the publications team can achieve.

5. Change attitudes. – If you go around say “I’m only a tech writer,” or “publications never gets any respect,” then people will believe you and act accordingly. Be aware of what you do, what you can offer and be proud of it. Treat your team (even if it’s only you) as if it was your own business. Build brand awareness, market and promote what you have to offer, and sell yourself, your team and the profession.

Over the coming weeks I’ll take a expand on each of these and provide some examples and suggested strategies.