Tuesday, June 29, 2010

LavaCon 2010

I will be presenting two sessions at this year's LavaCon conference in San Diego from Sept 29 to Oct 2nd.

The new generation of customers and technical communicators look at information design and collaboration in a totally new way. The book paradigm and things like Tables of Contents and Indexes are alien to them. So how do we prepare? One way to watch our kids do their homework and we learn from them. This session will take a look at why the print page based model we are all so used to is broken, and puts forward some ideas on how we should be thinking about information design for the digital generation.


Every company does five things, develop a product or service, tell people about it, sell it, collect money for it, and write about it. The first four activities are usually the responsibility of either a VP or CXO level executive, while the fifth is virtually ignored. This presentation will talk about how to identify, organize, manage and leverage a company’s biggest hidden asset — its content — at a strategic level.

Click on either title to vote for the session, or to leave comments and feedback.

Technical Communication As Story Telling

Over on his "I'd Rather Be Writing" blog, Tom Johnson, has taken my idea of Tech Comm as storytelling, and expanded on it an excellent post, that I highly recommend.

In particular I like these two ideas on the practicalities of applying story telling techniques to technical documentation:


In a good story, the resolution always brings about some type of change, or comes about because of change. If you listen to stories on The Moth podcast (a storytelling podcast), you’ll constantly hear this element of change near the end of each story. For a story to feel meaningful, the protagonist always changes as a result of the conflict. Without this element of change, the story feels flat.

In technical documentation, achieving that element of change is difficult. In almost all technical documentation, the reader is the protagonist, since our point of view is second person (“you”). You (the reader) have a problem. ..... Through the help topic’s steps and information, you find a solution that solves your problem. Hooray, you’re much happier and complete now. That’s the basic transformation.



A problem of some kind usually drives and gives rise to the story. But isn’t every help topic by default the answer to some problem? And aren’t users coming to the help content with a problem already in mind? Do we need to explicitly supply the problem, since it’s already apparent in the user’s mind?

Yes, your protagonist already has a problem. That problem is what is fueling his or her path through the help. But it can still be helpful to state the problem explicitly so that users can connect their problem to the solution you describe.

In many ways the examples and ideas that Tom cites, also feedback to my earlier post on Applying the 10 Commandments of Storytelling to Technical Documentation.

It's great to see these ideas being picked up and expanded upon.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Print or Digital ? - Using Augmented Reality to bridge the gap.

One of the the strangest aspects of all the recent discussions in the mainstream publishing world about the emergence of eBooks seems to be the notion that digital and print are mutually exclusive delivery options.

Nothing can be further than the truth; as we well know in the technical and corporate publishing world, electronic delivery of information is just one delivery option.

But how about combining the two? Print publications augmented by digital content?

Check out this video of a young reader's reaction to a copy of the BBC's science magazine, FOCUS, with augmented reality content.

Think about how effective that would be when used to deliver technical or training materials?

Perhaps Augmented Reality maybe just the thing to bridge that perceived gap between print and digital? Food for thought.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Where's The Manual?

Over the last couple of days my life in corporate and technical communications seems to have crossed over into my life as both a pop-culture writer, and motor racing fan.

While watching the advance press-screening of TOY STORY 3, I was delighted to discover that a central plot point revolved around the toys using the manual to discover how to effectively reboot Buzz Lightyear via his 'reset' button - of course, as they say, "hilarity ensues."

Then this morning I was pointed in the direction of this amusing video of McLaren Formula One team drivers, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, both World Champions, trying to build one of their race cars without the aid of their team. The plaintive cry of "Where's the manual?" made me smile.

But as much fun as it is to hear "manuals" used and talked about like this, it made me think about a more serious take.

I still keep hearing people in the technical communications industry say they aren't valued, that what they do has no place in a hi-tech digital world. Well it doesn't come much more hi-tech than Formula One, or digital than Pixar, but still the idea of, and need for, a "manual" is paramount.

In both cases, the toys, and the drivers, wanted to know how to do something.

And that's where the future of technical communications lies. It doesn't matter what form the "manual" may be, now or in the future; we have the skills to provide the best answers to the question "How?"

Now, that's real value...

Just ask Buzz or the McLaren F1 team.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What's Your Frame of Reference?

I spent a large part of this last weekend attending various sessions at the annual "It's My Heart" conference on Congenital Heart Defects (my youngest daughter is a CHD survivor - and she and her mother are very active in trying to raise CHD awareness).

As the majority of the sessions were hosted by various members of the medical profession, I expected them to be freely peppered with jargon (see my last post), but what really caught my attention was the frequent referencing of names and research to an audience, that, no matter how educated they had made themselves on various aspects of CHD, could not follow the point being made.

This group of medical professionals knew they would be speaking to an audience of lay-people whose own experiences lay outside those of the medical staff they interact with on a day-to-day basis; but no adjustment was made to accommodate that.

The first rule of any sort of communication is know your audience and adjust as necessary. While the various surgeons did explain a lot of technical information, references to other supporting material and research remained obscure.

This made me think about my own techniques when presenting. My public speaking tends to fall into two camps, the corporate communications world, and the creative side of pop-culture. I know I often make pop-culture references when I talk about corporate communications, but now I wonder am I assuming too much that my audience will understand them?

Adjusting for the audience is not just about vocabulary and jargon, it's also about adjusting your own frame of reference.