Thursday, May 20, 2010

Enter The Jargon!!

Whenever I am teaching a course on the philosophy and techniques of writing using Plain Language, or a Controlled language, such as Simplified Technical English, one of the "rules" that I most often quote and emphasize is:

"Avoid the use of industry jargon."

It seems a logical and obvious piece of advice, and not one I'd given much additional thought to, until asked the question, "what do you mean by jargon?" My immediate answer was "terms used exclusively within your industry that wouldn't be understood by people outside of it."

But over the last few weeks I've begun to question my own answer.

Webster's dictionary defines jargon as " the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group," which seems to fit with my original answer. But how do you define that group, and where are its boundaries? When does jargon become acceptable?

Think about the number of technical terms that are now part of everyday conversation - 'download,' 'upgrade,' etc. Do they still count as computer industry jargon?

What started me down this line of thought was working on my current book project about Wikis. While at the recent STC Summit in Dallas I used the word "wiki" without a second thought. It's a word well understood in that community, and I guess it could be considered industry jargon.

But outside of that group I find that when I talk about my book to a much broader audience there is a high percentage of people who know what a wiki is and can explain it quite succinctly. There are also still a sizable proportion who give me a blank stare until I say 'Wikipedia." A few days ago a writer friend of mine posted on his blog that he had being doing some research on "the wiki." He, of course, meant he had been using Wikipedia, just one (extreme) example of a wiki implementation.

But his use of a generic term for the technology made me wonder, is the word wiki moving away from jargon to becoming mainstream. If it is - what does this mean for professional communicators trying to avoid the use of jargon. Is what we consider jargon a label that is only proportional to the size of the community that accepts and understands a specific definition of a word? The smaller the community, the higher a word's potential "jargon" rating?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New Book Project: THE CONTENT POOL

Contracts are signed so can now announce that I will be writing another book for XML Press - "THE CONTENT POOL" will be published in 2011.

So what is "THE CONTENT POOL" about?

How to Identify, Organize, Manage, and Leverage Your Company's Largest Hidden Asset.

Every company, no matter what industry they are in, or product or service they create, do four basic things. Offer something for sale, sell it, collect the money for it and create content about what they do. Product development, Marketing, Sales and Finance are all recognized as essential to the organization and are often reflected by VP or CXO level responsibility, yet a company's content, which contains all of its intellectual property, is often overlooked. Whether they realize it or not every company's secondary role is that of being a publisher. This book will aim to place content creation, management and distribution on a par with other core strategic business activities.

Identifying, organizing, managing and leveraging your content properly can make you money.

The book will take a look at:
- Why every company is a publisher.
- What content do you produce now and how do you use it.
- Identifying the audience, today and in the future.
- What about the language you use - is it costing you money or even making you legally liable?
- Content development silos - gain through collaboration.
- How Consistency saves you money.
- Where are your pain points?
- Styes and Standards
- Rewrite and reuse.
- It's about answers not the documentation.
- Your customers will add value to your content
- Technology comes last.
- Your content can be a revenue source.
- Good content wins customers
- Helpful content reduces support costs.
- Develop a Content Strategy.

The book will conclude with - The Case for having a CCO (Chief Content Officer).

Friday, May 7, 2010

STC 2010 - A short walk from history.

For the first time in many years I wasn't chained to a vendors booth during the STC Summit, which meant as well as presenting, I could actually take time to sit in on many other sessions, and have lengthy hallway (and coffee shop) conversations.

What struck me about this year's Summit was how upbeat it felt in contrast to recent years. There was, at least to me, a definite feeling that the STC, and the industry itself, had weathered a crisis and was heading in the right direction. Yes there are still challenges to face, but there is definite light at the end of the tunnel.

There was less talk this year about jumping on to the latest production technology fad, and a lot more about considering our audience and answering their needs. As Anne Gentle put it during one panel, "it's about answers, not about documentation."

[Although one technology fad that was pretty much a constant - was the use of Twitter - used as both a communications tool and a way to post notes and ideas from sessions it added another valuable layer to the conference experience.]

I was also pleased to see that on the whole the attendees realized that as the industry is changing, so they need to. There were very few with the crossed-arms defensive "I am a technical writer" posture; most of the people I spoke to, and the audiences in the sessions I attended, realized that this is the perfect time to make yourself even more valuable by adding new skills and re-evaluating and realigning your role. Be it Information Architect, Community Manager, User Experience Designer, Multi-Media Producer, or something else, there is great opportunity out there for skilled and open minded technical communicators.

Each time I visited the expo floor it seemed busy, and all the vendors I spoke to were very happy with both the constant traffic flow and the questions they were being asked.

When I set out for the conference I had delusions that I would get an hour or so each evening to sit in my hotel room and write - it didn't happen. Literally from breakfast at 7:00am to crashing at 11:00pm each night, it was pretty much constant conversation and learning. All the presentations I attended were excellent and the two panels I participated in were great fun. I know the panel format was a bit of an experiment this year, but I hope that it returns for future conferences.

The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas, and was just a couple of blocks from the infamous Dealy Plaza, site of the Kennedy assassination. (in fact I could see the plaza from my hotel room - see photo above.) Hence my title about being a short walk from history. But I also believe that the profession itself is now also a short walk away from its own history. It faced a crisis over the last 12 months that it has endured and come through, and we are now on the first steps of a new direction. What direction that new history takes, will be up to us as a profession, and us as individuals, as to how we adapt and embrace the new challenges awaiting us.