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The revolution will not be authorized

In the past few days, STC has been sending out acceptance notices for presentations at next May’s STC Summit. There’s been a small flurry of announcements, mostly on Twitter. (I live in North Carolina where two flakes are a flurry. 10 flakes are a school-closing, bread-and-milk-buying emergency.)

For instance, we have this on Friday, November 20:

Tweets related to STC acceptances

Tweets related to STC acceptances

Side note: I’ll be presenting on managing in an XML environment.

In the pre-Twitter Era, acceptances were sent by mail, and then conference organizers could post the full program more or less at their convenience. But now, the leaks start almost immediately.

This may not be a bad thing. The happy tweets raise awareness of the event. For an organizer, however, it means that notifications need to be carefully synchronized or perhaps staggered on a formal schedule (SxSW does this quite well; they announce program decisions in batches).

It seems like another case where unofficial community content is eroding the ability of the content owner to control the messaging. Coincidentally (!), that’s the topic of a webcast I’m doing on December 8.

Strategies for coping with user-generated content
Tuesday, December 8, 11 a.m. Eastern time

We are offering this webcast for free; you just need to register.

This is a new presentation that I first delivered at LavaCon in New Orleans this year.

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Fear the peer

(This post is late. In my defense, I had the flu and the glow of the computer monitor was painful. Also, neurons were having trouble firing across the congestion in my head. At least, that’s my medical explanation for it. PS I don’t recommend the flu. Avoid if possible.)

Which of these scenarios do you think is most intimidating?

  1. Giving a presentation to a dozen executives at a prospective client, which will decide whether we get a project or not
  2. Giving a presentation to 50 people, including half a dozen supportive fellow consultants
  3. Giving a presentation to 400 people at a major conference

I’ve faced all three of these, and while each scenario presents its own set of stressors, the most intimidating, by far, is option #2.

In general, I’m fairly confident in my ability to get up in front of a group of people and deliver some useful information in a reasonably interesting fashion. But there is something uniquely terrifying about presenting in front of your peers.

Torches // Flickr: dantaylor

At LavaCon, I faced the nightmare—a murderers’ row of consultants in the back of the room, fondling various tweeting implements.

Here are some of the worst-case scenarios:

  • No new information. I have nothing to say that my colleagues haven’t heard before, and they could have said it better.
  • Disagreement. My peers think that my point of view is incorrect or, worse, my facts are wrong.
  • Boring. I have nothing new to say, my information is wrong, and I’m not interesting.

Of course, my peers were gracious, participated in the session in a constructive way, and said nice things afterwards. I didn’t even see any cheeky tweets. (I’m looking at you, @scottabel.)

All in all, I’d have to say that it’s a lot more fun to sit in the back of someone else’s presentation, though. Neil Perlin handled his peanut gallery deftly, asking questions like, “With the exception of the back row, how many of you enjoy writing XSLT code?”

Rahel Bailie said it best, I think. After completing her excellent presentation, she noted that presenting in front of peers is terribly stressful because, “I really want you to like it.”

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Don’t forget localization

I was reading a list of seven tips for improving technical writing, and the first tip gave me pause:

1. Analogy – provide a comparison or analogy to describe how something abstract works.

Not everyone is as familiar with the system as you are. Try to help the reader along by giving as much direction as possible so they see the bigger picture.

Once they understand how the system works at a high level, they will have more confidence in reading the more technical details.

If your content is going to be localized, comparisons and analogies are going to be problematic because they are often culturally specific. Here’s a good example of how an analogy had to be changed in marketing material so that it made sense to audiences in different parts of the world:

When the Walt Disney World Resort created promotional material for a North American audience, it stated that the resort is 47 square miles or “roughly half the size of Rhode Island.”

Outside of North America, many people don’t know about Rhode Island, and this analogy would have no meaning. Walt Disney wisely chose to customize the material for each target market. For instance, in the UK version, the material states that the resort is “the size of greater Manchester,” and in Japan, the resort is described as the size of the subway system.

Disney may have the deep pockets to pay for rewriting marketing content for various audiences, but I suspect there are few technical documentation departments these days that have the money or resources to reformulate analogies for different regions. You’re better off avoiding analogies altogther when writing technical content.

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Conferences Webcast

Free the webcast!

In addition to our November event on localization, we are adding another webcast in December. I’ll be presenting Strategies for coping with user-generated content on December 8 at 11 a.m. Eastern time via GoToWebinar. This event is free but registration is required.

Here’s the description:

The rise of Web 2.0 technology provides a platform for user-generated content. Publishing is no longer restricted to a few technical writers—any user can now contribute information. But the information coming from users tends to be highly specific.

The two types of information can coexist and improve the overall user experience. User-generated content also offers an opportunity for technical writers to participate as “curators”—by evaluating and organizing the information provided by end users.

Remember, there’s no charge to attend, but you do need to register.

Date: December 8, 2009
Time: 11 a.m. Eastern
Topic: Strategies for coping with user-generated content

PS Depending on the response to this event, we are going to consider additional free events.

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A mercenary view of STC

STC has announced their new dues structure.

To summarize:

  • Dues are going up.
  • Printed publications are no longer included in basic dues.
  • No chapter or SIG membership are included in the basic dues.
  • There are still tiered dues for “persons located in low and lower middle-income countries as classified by the World Bank,” but those dues have also increased.

Predictably, reaction is largely negative, such as this comment from Julie Ross:

Good luck, STC! Your membership is not worth $215, especially when it includes less than it did before! I will not renew at these increases. Money better spent in other ways.

I have been a freelancer/business owner for the vast majority of my career (so far). Let me say a few things about STC’s value proposition for mercenaries like me.

Flickr: amagill

Money // Flickr: amagill

Cold, hard cash

My participation in STC events, especially the annual conference, has led to enormous amounts of business for my company. Let’s take just one example: During an STC conference a few years ago, I was approached by representatives of a government agency to discuss a major project. (I found out later they had attended my session to see if they wanted to talk to me. I apparently passed that test.) That meeting resulted in a new customer and over $250,000 in revenue for Scriptorium.

We ask customers and prospective customers how they found us. “I saw you at a conference” is a common answer. I don’t have exact figures on how much revenue we derive from conference participation, but I know that it’s significant. Even if we only get one project a year from an event, the investment is worthwhile.

Those of you who are freelancers or consultants probably have similar experiences. Conferences are an excellent marketing tool. If you are a regular employee or the thought of speaking in public makes you ill, this argument is perhaps less compelling, which brings me to…

Wishing well // Flickr: dystopian

Wishing well // Flickr: dystopian


It’s become a cliché that networking is the best way to get a job. But I think a lot of people approach this the wrong way:

  1. Oops, I lost my job.
  2. Time to do some networking.

Wrong. Networking is a lifelong project. If you want help getting your next job, you need to lay the groundwork months or years ahead of time. Got a job opening at your current employer? Send it out to respected colleagues. Have an acquaintance who’s been laid off? Help them out; offer to review or proofread their resume. When you need help (and believe me, at some point we all do), your network will return the favor.

At the last STC chapter meeting I attended, at least 30 percent of the people there were unemployed. I wonder how many of them started attending meetings only because they need a job. A long time ago, I read Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty by Harvey Mackay, and I highly recommend it if you want some advice on how to become a successful networker.

Let’s say you change jobs once every five years or so. And let’s assume that networking inside STC can help you get a job just a few weeks faster than you would on your own. If you make $60,000 per year (for easy math purposes), that’s $5000 per month or about $1250 per week. Five years of STC dues is around $1,000. If you can find employment even one week sooner, your STC investment breaks even. If you find a job two weeks faster, you come out ahead.

I’m not even addressing the case where your network helps you find a better job where you make more money or improve your commuting time. What’s that worth to you?

You do not want to be a paper clip. Flickr: bbaunach

Don't be a paper clip // Flickr: bbaunach

Avoiding commoditization

The mission of STC is to “advance the arts and sciences of technical communication.” How does this help you, the member?

If STC succeeds, you are more likely to find jobs that pay well because your work is respected.

You are less likely to be the first person laid off in a downturn.

You are less likely to find job postings that include general office work among technical communication tasks.

You are less likely to be replaced by another, less skilled, less expensive writer.

In short, if technical communication is valued, your work is less likely to be viewed like a commodity.

Commoditization is very, very bad for your income and employment prospects. Paper clips are commodities to be procured at the lowest possible cost. Quality is rarely an issue. You do not want to be a paper clip.

Based on these major factors, the value of STC is clear to me.

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Conferences Webcast

Coming attractions for October and November

October 22nd, join Simon Bate for a session on delivering multiple versions of a help set without making multiple copies of the help:

We needed to generate a help set from DITA sources that applied to multiple products. However, serious space constraints prevent us from using standard DITA conditional processing to create multiple, product-specific versions of the help; there was only room for one copy of the help. Our solution was to create a single help set in which select content would be displayed when the help was opened.
In this webcast, we’ll show you how we used the DITA Open Toolkit to create a help set with dynamic text display. The webcast introduces some minor DITA Open Toolkit modifications and several client-side JavaScript techniques that you can use to implement dynamic text display in HTML files. Minimal programming skills necessary.

Register for dynamic text display webcast

I will be visiting New Orleans for LavaCon. This event, organized by Jack Molisani, is always a highlight of the conference year. I will be offering sessions on XML and on user-generated content. You can see the complete program here. In addition to my sessions, I will be bringing along a limited number of copies of our newest publication, The Compass. Find me at the event to get your free copy while supplies last. (Otherwise, you can order online Real Soon Now for $15.95.)

Register for LavaCon (note, early registration has been extended until October 12)

And last but certainly not least, we have our much-anticipated session on translation workflows. Nick Rosenthal, Managing Director, Salford Translations Ltd., will deliver a webcast on cost-effective document design for a translation workflow on November 19 at 11 a.m . Eastern time:

In this webcast, Nick Rosenthal discusses the challenges companies face when translating their content and offers some best practices to managing your localization budget effectively, including XML-based workflows and ways to integrate localized screen shots into translated user guides or help systems.

Register for the translation workflow webcast

As always, webcasts are $20. LavaCon is just a bit more. Hope to see you at all of these events.

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Strategy < tactics < execution

I read Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done several years ago, and much of this post is based on the information in that book. 

Because of a Series of Troublesome Committees, I find myself thinking about three big-picture concepts: strategy, tactics, and execution:

  • Strategy is the overall plan. For example, one strategy for getting new projects at Scriptorium is to establish ourselves as experts in our chosen field.
  • Tactics are specific actions to achieve the plan. Our tactics include writing articles and delivering conference presentations that buttress our claim of expertise.
  • Execution is what happens after you pick a strategy and develop some tactics. That’s when we write the articles and attend the conferences.

Each of these stages is a prerequisite for the other. That is, you start by developing a strategy and can then pick your tactics. Finally, you have to execute on the plan.

You can fail at every point in the process:

  • Choose the wrong strategy, and not much else matters. Great tactics and excellent execution will not rescue you if you have chosen the wrong approach.
  • If you have the right strategy, but the wrong tactics, you may have some limited success, but poor tactics will work against you.
  • Worst of all, though, is bad execution. You pick the right strategy and the right tactics, and then sabotage the whole thing with poor follow-through or lousy performance. For example, writing an article full of bad grammar or delivering a boring, technically inaccurate presentation would be bad execution for us.

At every stage, you face constraints. For instance, if your budget is limited, you might not be able to justify the most expensive tactic, even though it might have been the most effective. But once you work through your constraints and choose your tactics, there’s really no excuse for doing those activities badly.

Some things to keep in mind when working with technical communicators:

  • Forget the spin. Exorcising marketing and PR messages from technical content is a core job skill for many of us. Simple, honest, and straightforward messages are better. If you try to spin your message, expect a scornful response.
  • Language matters. Writers become writers because they care about language. If you want their respect, you need to show that you also care about language. At a minimum, grammar and mechanics need to be accurate. If you can go beyond the basics and demonstrate graceful writing, you will score bonus points.

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The ABCs of XML

STC Intercom, September/October 2009

XML is rapidly becoming part of the required knowledge for technical communicators. This article discusses the three most important reasons that you should consider XML: automation, baseline architecture, and consistency.

Download the PDF PDF file (144K)

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XML 101

My latest XML Strategist article, “The ABCs of XML,” is available as a PDF file (144K). This article was originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Intercom.

The technical side of XML is not much more difficult than HTML; if you can handle a few HTML angle brackets you can learn XML. […] If […] you don’t like using styles and
prefer to format everything as you go, you are going to loathe structured authoring. 

Just trying to make sure that there are no surprises. The article itself is a very basic introduction to the principles that make XML important for technical communication: automation, baseline architecture (sorry…I had problems with B), and consistency.

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A strident defense of mediocre formatting

In addition to a gratuitous (and entertaining) swipe at “noisome” DITA “fanboys,” Roger Hart argues that we need to reconsider the disadvantages of automated formatting:

The thing is, [separation of content and formatting has] all been taken rather stridently to heart in certain quarters, leading to a knee jerk reaction whenever author-controlled formatting/pagination/lineation is mentioned as anything other than bleak, sulphurous devilry. This is twaddle. […]

Uncertainty in meaning is anathema to user intelligibility. If we’re going to make sure we’re not writing poetry, there’s definitely value in having poetry’s level of control over semantic blocks.

Of course, it’s fully possible that this is an expensive distraction.

Possible? It’s definitely expensive. It’s possible that it’s a distraction.

I think Hart perhaps unintentionally put his finger on the real issue: value. How much value (in the form of improved comprehension) is added to a technical document when you are able, in the words of commenter Brian Harris, to “lovingly handcraft” each page?

How much value (in the form of cost avoidance) is added to an organization when you are able to spit out a reasonably formatted document in a few minutes?

Actually, I have a different question. How far should we take this argument? Here’s an example of the pinnacle of handcrafting:

Book of Kells image
Can we all agree that this might perhaps take handcrafting a little too far?

Compared to the Book of Kells (above), the Gutenberg Bible looks quite pedestrian:

Gutenberg Bible image

You can just imagine the scribes with their quills, lapis, gold leaf, and other implements muttering, “That Gutenberg and his noisome fanboys. He can’t even render two colors without our help. Poser. It’ll never last.”

Formatting automation removes cost from the process of creating and delivering content. For technical documents that change often and are perhaps delivered in multiple languages, it removes a lot of cost. Let’s assume that handcrafted pages can improve ease of reading and comprehension with careful copy-fitting and adjusted spacing (Hart’s article mentions “headings, line breaks, intra-word, etc”). This increases the cost of the content.

What happens when content is expensive? Fewer people get to see it.

Books in Europe went from 50000 before Gutenberg to 12 million 50 years later.

I think we can all agree that e-books offer none of the typographic sophistication in question here. Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) wrote in 1999:

It is hard to imagine today, but one of the greatest contributions of e-books may eventually be in improving literacy and education in less-developed countries. Today people in poor countries cannot afford to buy books and rarely have access to a library. 

Essentially, we can produce documents inexpensively and give more people access to them as a direct result of lower cost, or we can climb on our typographic high horse and whine about word spacing.

I’m with the noisome fanboys.

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