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Tag: STC

Conferences Opinion

The Ideal Tech Comm Association?

There’s been a ton of discussion about the various organizations, especially STC, recently. With established associations, it can be difficult to take a completely fresh look because of the constraints of structure, organization, and tradition.

So, I thought I’d ask this question: What does your ideal association for technical communicators look like?

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Conferences Humor Webinar

Preview of coming a-QUACK-ions

duckMy presentation for the STC Summit in Dallas is finally done. The session, “Managing in an XML environment,” is scheduled for Tuesday, May 4, at 4 p.m. Central time.

I hope to see you in Dallas, but if you can’t make the conference in person, I will also do a webcast version of this presentation on June 15 at 1 p.m. Eastern time. That event is free but does require registration.

I’m sure you’re wondering about the duck. In my presentation, I will be introducing a formula for measuring documentation quality. It’s based on Quality, Usability, and some other factors that spell out, you guessed it, QUACK.

And if that’s not enough to bring you to the session, I also have several other animals in my slides. Consider yourself warned.

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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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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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Got plans for May 2010?

After my summer of complaints and criticism of STC and its various issues, I was more than a little surprised to be asked to manage the Design, Architecture, and Publishing track for next year’s STC Summit.

Hoist on my own petard (my obsession with Wordnik continues)…what could I do but agree. Or, go into exile.

Several of the other conference organizers are people I know quite well:

  • The author of Managing Writers: A Real World Guide To Managing Technical Documentation, Richard Hamilton, is the track manager for Managing People, Projects, and Business. He knows his stuff.
  • The principal of UserAid, Paul Mueller, is track manager for three (THREE!) tracks: Education and Training, Web Technologies, and Emerging Technologies. He’s also the Deputy Chair of the conference. (private note to Paul: I take it you were not able to retrieve the goat pictures. Sorry about that.) Another excellent choice.
  • Ant Davey of the UK and Ireland chapter has the Communication and Interpersonal Skills and Professional Development tracks. I’ve worked on STC-related matters with Ant, and he’s a great choice for this track.
  • Rachel Houghton, Program Chair. She did great work on last year’s conference.
  • Alan Houser, conference manager. You may remember him as the guy who retrieved David Pogue from a poorly timed bathroom break during the opening session. I’ve known Alan for many years, and I expect another well-organized event, in which he solves the inevitable emergencies with typical aplomb.

(I’m sure that the other track managers are excellent as well, but I don’t know them personally.)

Here is the description of the Design, Architecture, and Publishing track:

Choice of appropriate design and architectures can improve the efficiency, usability, and quality of an organization’s technical publishing. This track explores issues in information design and system architectures for publishing, with particular emphasis on systems and solutions for organization-wide publishing. Suggested session topics include:

  • Visual communication, integrating text and graphics, page layout
  • Single-source publishing, for multiple delivery formats, multiple purposes, and multiple audiences
  • Methodologies and solutions for content management
  • Comparing and selecting delivery formats
  • Issues in structured authoring and publishing, including migration, design, and deployment
  • XML-based publishing
  • Using industry-standard publishing architectures, such as DITA
  • Accommodating localization workflows in the publishing process
  • Moving unstructured content to structure

And now I need your help in two areas:

  1. Submit your proposals. The quality of the conference is determined by the quality of the presentations. And that, of course, is determined by the quality of the proposals submitted. Please send in your best stuff. I suppose you can look into the other tracks if you must.
  2. Help review proposals. I need two or three people to help out in reviewing conference proposals in this track. I’ve done this in the past; it’s a relatively limited time commitment. You will be asked to read lots of proposals and evaluate them, probably in mid-October. Along with reviewers, I will eventually generate a list of recommendations for which proposals to accept. If you have significant expertise in topics in this track, and especially if you do not intend to submit a proposal of your own, please consider volunteering to help with this effort.

Some notes on this year’s process:

  • The deadline for proposal submission is October 5, 2009 at 10 a.m. Eastern time.
  • This is a direct quote from the conference page: “With the smaller number of sessions (for the most part) only one proposal per speaker will be accepted.” (You can still submit multiple proposals, but do not expect to have more than one accepted.)
  • Two speaker references are required (unless you have presented at this conference in the past four years, in which case we will review your evaluations). I personally intend to put a significant weighting on previous highly rated speaking experience.
  • In 2009, sessions were recorded. I assume this will happen again.
  • The conference is May 2-5, 2010, in Dallas, Texas.

Get started with a proposal

If you have questions, leave a comment or contact me. I look forward to seeing lots of compelling proposals.

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Manifest(o) destiny

Tom Johnson issues a polite manifesto about moving STC’s publications online. (I am distracted by the use of the word manifesto and more so by its Wordnik page. I’d like to blame this problem on the Internet, but I’m pretty sure that the Internet just lets me manifest (!) my attention problem more easily. OK, I’m banning “manifesto” from the rest of this post.) Here’s Tom:

When I hear these discussions, it blows me away because I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. I admit, the look and feel of paper can provide a comfortable reading experience if you’re immersed in a 200 page novel lying on your bed on a rainy day. But the Intercom and other professional magazines or journals are not novels. With professional publications like these, the online format better matches the reading behavior of the audience. In fact, online formats provide more than a dozen advantages that print formats lack, including everything from interactivity to portability, feeds, metrics, multimedia, and more.

I am fundamentally in agreement with Tom’s manif….er, declaration of principles. For balance, I would like to address the advantages of printed content over online content. They include the following:
Higher resolution
The printed page generally has a resolution of 600 dpi (printed at the office) or 1200 dpi (printed on a printing press). On-screen, you have a resolution of around 100 dpi. Therefore, printed content has a resolution that’s around 36x higher than screen content. (100 dots per inch is 100 pixels times 100 pixels, or 10,000 pixels per inch. 600 dpi is 360,000 pixels per inch.)
There are other technical issues (such as light being absorbed/reflected on paper versus being emitted from a screen) why text on paper is easier to read than text on screen.
Batteries and electrical power
Paper doesn’t require batteries or electricity to operate. This matters most for toilets and airplanes. And airplane toilets.
Universal access format
Once you have a paper copy, you can access your data. The same thing is not necessarily true online. For instance, you can have browser compatibility issues with HTML, problems with PDF versions, digital rights management obstacles, problems with logons for private content, and so on.
Better layout
Print (and PDF) give you sophisticated options for layout that go far beyond what you can do online with HTML.
As a society, we have hundreds of years of experience with books and magazines. This is not true for online content.
Engaging your senses of smell and touch
I think this issue is often overlooked when evaluating print versus online. The physical experience of holding a book, the smell and feel of high-quality paper, the sensation of pages sliding past your fingers as you turn the page — all of these are lost in the digital experience.
Printed content conveys authority in a way that web-based content does not. I believe that this is related to some of the factors I’ve outlined above. We know how to evaluate printed publications for quality — we look for attractive design, glossy paper, high-impact color, and so on. There’s a reason why the cliché is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. We do. (See also: “Understanding Judgment of Information Quality and Cognitive Authority in the WWW,” Soo Young Rieh and Nicholas J. Belkin, PDF link)
But even though I can make a decent argument for the merits of printed publications, Tom is absolutely right, at least as it pertains to STC, when he says that:

Any organization or company would be crazy not to convert their paper-based magazine, journal, or newsletter into an interactive online format. 

He’s laid out (cough) the arguments for online content in some detail, so I am going to focus on something a little different. I’d like to take a look at the business case for moving publications from print to online. I do not have any useful information from STC on the actual costs, so I’m just going to make some estimates. (I would be happy to get the official cost information. Anyone?)
We have around 11,000 members, so let’s assume a print run of about that. Further, let’s assume that printing runs about $2 per copy (?) and postage about $1 (I have no idea). That gives us an estimate of $33,000 in direct printing and postage costs per issue. Multiply that by 10 issues per year, and you get somewhere around $330,000 in direct printing and postage costs per year. I am leaving out international postage and other complicating factors. There’s also the fact that STC is collecting additional funding for sending printed publications.
In addition, each printed issue incurs design and layout costs. Best guess? 100 hours per issue at oh, $50 per hour. So, that’s somewhere around $50,000 per year in layout costs.
Some things I am not taking into account:
  • Initial magazine design. My 100-hour estimate is for flowing content into an existing design, placing graphics, generating the table of contents, and doing print production.
  • Editing.
  • Working with recalcitrant authors.
  • Planning the magazine content/setting the editorial content.
  • The income side of the equation — fees specifically for international postage, for example
What would the equivalent costs look like for an XML or HTML-based workflow?
We eliminate printing and postage, so we save $330,000 per year. We probably save on the layout costs as well because publishing into HTML is so much less work. Total cost savings? Conservatively, it’s $330,000, if we assume no cost savings from reduction in layout work. (Note: If we continue to publish a PDF version of the magazine, we must keep the PDF layout costs as a line item and add a smaller amount for HTML-based publishing so maybe $300,000.)
I have been told that STC will lose advertising income if the magazine goes online only. I would agree that advertisers will pay less for online advertising as opposed to print advertising, but surely the advertising income would not drop all the way to zero. Let’s assume, however, that it does. The best estimate I have for advertising income is $143,159 (from Paul Bernstein’s detailed cost breakdown on the STC Ideas forum, accessible here to registered members of the forum).
So, even if advertising drops to zero, we have a net positive of $150,000 from moving online. Implementing an XML or HTML-based magazine for the first time will cost a lot less than that. Therefore, the return on investment appears quite compelling.
You should be aware that I have no confidence in any of the numbers I have compiled here. I do not know the following with any certainty:
  • Intercom print run
  • Cost per printed copy
  • Cost of postage
  • Income from advertising
However, based on my experience in the industry, I think that the general ballpark figures are probably accurate. I would be delighted to update this post if someone can give me the real numbers.
So, Tom has laid out the argument for moving magazine content online based on quality. I have given you the argument based on cost, along with the reasons why you might prefer print.
What do you think?

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Some thoughts on “free”

Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine) has just published Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The book is available (not free) in all the usual outlets, but you can also read it on scribd. For free.

Reviews, so far, are mixed. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, didn’t like it. The New York Times, not so much a fan. And there was an ugly little kerfluffle about attribution (or lack thereof) of content sourced from Wikipedia. Emma Duncan, writing for the Guardian, liked it.

This book is important because Anderson is attempting to define a taxonomy of different types of “free.” Business and organizations face the difficult challenge of figuring out what should and should not be free. To give you a tiny, itty-bitty example, Scriptorium offers a series of white papers, technical references, and books. What’s the difference between a white paper and a technical reference? The white papers are free, the tech references are not. Costs range from $10 to $200. But how do we decide whether a document should be free or not? We are still trying to figure out the right answer. As Anderson points out, the incremental cost of producing additional e-books (after the first one) is zero. Should all digital content be free? We have chosen, for the most part, to charge for books and for the more technical documents. White papers, which typically provide an overview of a technology or methodology, are generally free. We feel that this is a fair representation of our actual development costs.

Meanwhile, our friendly neighborhood technical communication organization is trying to figure out some similar issues. Currently, the STC web site has public content (free) and members-only content (not free).

The major argument I’m hearing from STC leadership for locking down content is basically that otherwise, people will be able to use the content without paying for it. In other words, the value of the STC membership is that it gives you access to members-only content. This logic would make some amount of sense if STC held a monopoly on content related to technical communication. It does not.

So, what happens when you lock down content and hide it from non-members? You lose the opportunity to participate in the community. You lose the opportunity to have non-members read your content, decide you are useful, and join the Society. You lose the opportunity for inbound links.

Similar logic applies to forums, wikis, and online communities. Members and non-members should be able to participate. Perhaps members get special badges in their profiles to indicate membership, but communities derive value from participation, and open access means more participation.

If can be transformed into a vital hub for the technical communication community, the organization itself will do fine. In a moment of apparent insanity, I have offered to help with this effort. If you’d like to join me, contact me in the comments below, via Twitter (@sarahokeefe), on the STC Ideas forum (, or via whatever avenue makes the most sense to you. (Email and phone contact information are in the main part of our web site.)

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Whither STC?

As you may have heard, STC is in a financial crisis. According to the board of directors meeting minutes from May 5, 2009 (PDF, page 2), STC must retain membership “for the next year or STC will be out of business in two years.” There’s a lively discussion on Twitter under the #stcorg hashtag.

For example, Bill Swallow (@techcommdood) wrote: “From STC I want innovation, education, and communication. Right now I get advertising, magazines, and frustration. #stcorg”

STC itself has requested feedback via private email, on Twitter with the #stcorg tag, and on a “private online forum.” I appreciate the idea, but I prefer to share my thoughts here, where anyone can read and comment on them.

According to the June 18 email message from Cindy Currie (STC president), the “unprecedented financial shortfall” is being caused by “the recession’s negative impact on our traditional sources of revenue.” Although it’s certainly true that the recession has caused a decline in membership along with a decline in conference attendance (the biggest two sources of income for STC), the recession is not the root cause of the problem.

The root cause is that STC is not perceived as sufficiently important by its membership. After all, a member could pay $200 for a membership by dropping cable television for a couple of months. Getting rid of cable for a year would come close to paying for conference attendance. It is true, of course, that a few members are in serious financial trouble due to layoffs or reduced income. In most cases, however, I think the member (or the sponsoring employer) has simply decided that STC (or the conference) does not offer enough value to justify the cost.

I have been an STC member for many years, and am an associate fellow. I participate in the annual conference both as a speaker and as an exhibitor. My company is a member of the Corporate Value Program. I have served on a couple of society-level committees and initiatives. This doesn’t make me a typical member, but I think it does give me a fairly broad perspective on the organization as a whole.

I believe that STC needs to make some significant changes in the following areas.

Industry developments are fast and furious, and STC has not kept pace. For the STC conference, generally held in May, proposals are due the preceding summer. I turned in an article for Intercom on June 16, which will appear in the September issue. Chris Hester (@chris_oh) said it best on twitter: “Why pay for a pub when it uses content that was on blogs months earlier?”

STC needs to increase what the military calls operational tempo. Intercom, as many others have said, probably needs to evolve into an online publication to cut down the publication time. This has some significant advantages:

  • Faster publishing
  • Cheaper publishing by eliminating print production, paper, and distribution costs
  • Ability to publish more often

There is concern that putting Intercom online (and, by the way, I do not mean in PDF format) would put a dent in advertising revenue. It will. However, my company does not currently advertise in Intercom because we think the rates are too high and the value is not there. I would greatly prefer advertising in an online Intercom. I would also expect those rates to be significantly lower than the equivalent print ad. Providing Intercom online would open up advertising to many smaller companies. Would it be more profitable? I don’t know, but it would be a better, more relevant, publication, so that’s a start.

Similarly, the proposal process for the annual conference needs to be compressed significantly. With nine months of lead time, it’s impossible to provide relevant content. And please don’t tell me “it can’t be done.” Joe Welinske of WritersUA usually evaluates proposals in September/October for a March conference. Germany’s tekom, which is significantly larger than the STC conference, generally requires proposals in May for a November event. Six months is still a long time, but it’s one-third shorter than STC’s process.

STC’s main value is in providing a sense of community for technical writers/communicators. In the past, the organization delivered community through printed magazines mailed to the membership, through local chapter meetings, and through regional and national conferences. As email lists became popular, STC has provided discussion lists for various SIGs, local chapters, and other groups (for example, there is a chapter presidents’ list. Or so I hear).

Today, however, communities of interest are meeting through various social media, and STC has not kept pace. STC should be providing a platform that encourages discussion and collaboration. The obvious template for this is what Scott Abel has done with the Content Wrangler network. STC serves writers; give the writers a place to write blogs, collaborate on a wiki, and the like.

Incidentally, STC Body of Knowledge effort is an excellent example of open collaboration. However, it’s quite difficult to find it from the main STC web site. These and other initiatives should all be under the umbrella. It’s not particularly difficult to set up subdomains so that, for example points to the Body of Knowledge and points to the forums. And so on.

Finally, STC needs to embrace a culture of openness. That means:

  • Provide open access to Intercom and other publications online. Increase the readership, make the publications more relevant, and therefore increase their appeal to advertisers.
  • Provide open access to forums and other collaboration areas. Do not limit them to members only. The STC Single Sourcing SIG recently launched a Ning network (here), but access is restricted not just to STC members but actually to SIG members only. This balkanization reduces the value of the community. Instead, open up participation and build a valuable, must-have resource.
  • Improve member communications and especially focus on giving people a way of letting their voices be heard. The virtual town halls now in progress are a good idea, but the process of getting access is too difficult. I finally resorted to begging for help on twitter and got the information I needed in less than five minutes. Unless there is a compelling reason to lock up information, it should be publicly available.

Change is hard. Transformational change is painful.
I have worked with many of the people in the STC office and in STC leadership, and it’s important to recognize that they are hard-working, smart people. I like them. (One of them is particularly entertaining in a hotel bar at 1 a.m. You Know Who You Are.)

They see the icebergs ahead and are trying hard to navigate through them. The problem is that turning a cruise ship takes time and effort. And, if you’ll pardon the tortured analogy, the larger problem is navigating through the ice field is impossible with a huge cruise ship. The correct answer is to step outside today’s constraints and rethink the problem. Perhaps we should morph into a submarine and go under the icebergs. At this point, we are still discussing whether to make a 5-degree or a 10-degree turn.

The financial problem that STC faces is a symptom, not the disease. Let’s treat the symptom and get through this crisis, but please do not forget about the underlying disease. STC needs more velocity, more community, and more openness.

Update (6/23/2009): Since I published this post, several other bloggers have added their perspectives. Here they are, in no particular order. If I missed your post, please add it in the comments so that readers of this article can find you.

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