Month: November 2012

Say Thank You

As some of you will now be aware, I am no longer writing my monthly Blog News column for the ISTC newsletter, InfoPlus+.

It actually started life here on this blog, every week (or so) I used to post a list of interesting posts and blogs and for a while there was an overlap but, eventually, I dropped the feature from the blog as the monthly approach gave me a little more scope to collect the best links and yes, I will admit I enjoyed the writing process that went with the column (believe me, it took me longer than you’d think).

Alas life continues to challenge my time so after not managing to submit my column for a couple of months (the shame!) I decided to make the hard decision and stop altogether. It doesn’t mean I’m not reading blogs any more, just that I’m not writing about them as much.

When it came to writing my final column, I checked back at when the column started and I was more than a little surprised to find out that it had been going for over 4 years! I’m quietly amazed it lasted that long, given my normal propensity to prefer tackling new things than sticking with current projects (I am a magpie).

There was one thing that I always struggled with though, and that was the lack of interaction, the lack of feedback. I had no idea if anyone was reading the column! The newsletter is published as a PDF and sent out via email so there are no stats to be viewed, in fact it was only at the Technical Communications Conference when a couple of people mentioned that they read it and, even better, they enjoyed it that I knew for a fact that it was worth writing. What a lovely little boost that gave my ego!

I most certainly wasn’t writing the column for that reason, in fact I’ll be honest and admit that I was writing it to try and boost my profile (I was also speaking at conferences and presenting webinars at the time) but that brief moment of adulation was very welcome. At least I think it was adulation… maybe they didn’t actually want me to autograph their conference programmes… hmmmmmmm.

I’ve been blogging for a long time so I guess I get a little blasé about feedback. Comments are great to see, I love the discussion aspect and the fact there is a passionate community of technical communicators who pop in here now and then, and if nothing else I can always check my stats to see that people are visiting the website (and presumably reading for they stay for a few minutes at a time), but being told face-to-face that someone has enjoyed something I’ve done, not much tops that.

It’s only now, reflecting on the fact that for the first month in 4 years I’m not starting to collate links and thoughts for the Blog News column, that I realise that saying thank you is something I’ve not done enough of, so let me start.

Thank you, dear reader.

Thank you for visiting and reading.

Thank you to those who visit, read and leave a comment, who join the discussion.

Thank to those who link to this blog, or retweet the link for others to see.

Thank you for taking the time.

I sincerely appreciate it.

Now, it’s your turn. No, I’m not looking for anyone to thank me, but take a moment and consider who you should be thanking, have you said thank you to them recently?

If not, now is the time. Go on, you will make someone’s day!

Information is not a commodity

The modern day technical writer, in fact I think we’ll go with technical communicator for this on, has a myriad of tools at their disposal. Be they authoring tools, publishing formats, or ways to collaborate, we are spoiled for choice. I can write content and make it available to the world in mere minutes if I so choose (and I do, frequently, you are reading it).

Of course, there is more to our job than the tools of our trade, so much more that at times I think we can forget that our value lies elsewhere and if we are forgetting that, can we really blame others for losing sight of it too? We are more than our knowledge of Microsoft Word, but I fear that’s not always apparent.

Working in a software company, I hear talk of the ‘quality of the code’ frequently, thankfully I hear similar comments about the product documentation, so where does the disconnect occur, how do our fellow professionals move from “those are the people who produce good quality product information” to “anyone can write product information” and, more importantly, how do we change that notion?

Part of the problem is that anyone can easily create and share information, better than that, they can collaborate with the author on that content. The people using the information can ask questions of the author directly, add their comments and even edit the content if it’s not correct. This is not new, Wikis have offered similar functionality for many years, yet somewhere along the line the value placed on information shifted from the quality of the content, to the functionality surrounding it.

  • Can I access it easily?
  • Can I leave a comment?
  • Can I send it to someone else?
  • Can I port it to another platform?

Some argue that information as a commodity raises the bar for us all, that by placing a value on information it allows us to be part of discussions we’ve struggled to gain access to in the past. Whilst that may be partly true, somewhere along the line we missed a grand opportunity.

Treating information as a commodity hides the real value and, worse, it places the high quality information we create into the same jumbled marketplace of content that we are all all too familiar with. As a commodity we have become just another coffee maker. Some people will seek out the best of such things, but the majority will not, they will seek the lowest cost and presume that, as it comes in a box that says ‘coffee maker’, it will meet their needs.

How do we change this?

The short answer is, we can’t. The horse has flown the cowshed (?!), the battle is lost.

However, that’s not to say the war is lost.

Good quality information will bubble to the top of the pile eventually. If your information is in a small pool, this will happen sooner rather than later. If you are concerned only with an internal audience you can help this happen by reaching out to other parts of your organisation to make them aware of what you are doing. If your information is in a larger pool, and you have to contend with other ‘google-able’ sources then you will need to do some leg work, some P.R.

This is not a new scenario and the very things that give us flexibility and power are also the things waiting to plot our downfall.

Information is a commodity. There is no escaping that fact.

But we are craftswomen, craftsmen of the highest order, and our knowledge and approach to information gives us an advantage that we shouldn’t be afraid to push home. Yes, all that other information is good, yes I’m sure it comes in handy now and then, but our information is something you can rely on, something that you can trust. It is honed, refined and delivered by experts.

Our information is not a commodity. It is a differentiator.

The sooner we all understand, and believe that, the better for us all.

Edinburgh Zoo

It was a crisp, fresh November day in Edinburgh. I surprised Kirsty with a trip to Edinburgh Zoo.

Mostly to see the pandas who are, in real life, just as adorable and fluffy and cute and ohhmygodcanwetakeonehome as you’d imagine. Smaller than I thought though…

Anyway. I took the camera and, despite the railings, fencing, plexi-glass and other such screens, managed to get some pretty good photos.

How to embed linked images in Microsoft Word

Have you ever shared a Word document with someone only to find the images it included didn’t get sent over?

This is probably because the images you had were linked rather than embedded. You now have two options:

  1. ZIP the entire folder with the Word document and all the images (and hope that the links are relative and not absolute). I use 7Zip for such things (it’s free).
  2. Change all the linked images to be embedded within the Word document.

The latter option will result in a larger file size, but means you are only sending one file. But how do you do it? Microsoft haven’t made it very easy but the key is locating the Links dialog. This shows all the linked images and allows you to break the link and embedded them. The tricky bit is finding this elusive dialog.

Here’s how it works on my version of Microsoft Word, Office Professional 2010.

[swfobject]1005[/swfobject]

If you don’t see the Edit Links option, here is how to add it, once it’s added, it should appear as per the video above.

I’ve written about this twice already, but as they continue to be amongst the most viewed I thought it was worth updating the information.

Not lacking in passion

What are your passions?

Life continues on an upward trajectory.

I am a rocket!

God, I’ve lost the point of this already? Why on earth do I bother?

Ahhh that’s it! Passion!

No, not the bodice-ripping type from a Jackie Collins novel (is that even right?), but the type that makes you get up in the morning because you want to get something done. The type of passion that drives creative people, or those who like to be active, to get up and go do something they love.

I know many of these types of people. Some border on the obsessive, it seems like it’s all they think about, others have private hobbies in which they happily lose themselves for hours or days on end.

The thing is, I’m not sure I have one.

For a while I thought that was a bad thing but recently I’ve realised it’s not.

It’s something I’ve mentioned here before and it still irks me at times, but less so as time passes. I think I’ve finally realised that what I’m passionate about is everything. I enjoy the fact that I’m reasonably good at a few things, that I have reasoned opinions on a number of topics. It also explains why certain types of people bore the tits off me when they only have one topic of conversation (and that’s even before we get to those people who turn every single conversation into one about themselves). I digress.

I go through fads (not fashions) of my own making. Recently I re-discovered the simple joy of building Lego. There is something relaxing about switching off most of your cognitive function, and following simple instructions. You don’t need to extrapolate, to consider, there is no need to revise or improve upon what is laid in front of you. Given that most of my working day is spent in that headspace, the appeal of Lego is kinda obvious.

But that’s fading now, been there, done that. What’s next?

Maybe I’m going to get back into reading? Or that dusty guitar might actually get some of my attention?

Who knows, and more importantly, who cares? I know that I will find something to capture my gaze and keep me occupied, it may be something which stirs up some passion in me for a while but it too will fade. Circumstance will play it’s part, of course, funnily enough I’m not quite as passionate about cycling now the days are mostly cold and wet, and whilst I will always look on with a level of jealousy when I see those passionate people talking about something they love, but I will take solace in the fact that I am passionate about one specific thing.

Living life.

You see, what stops me being passionate about one thing in particular is that I don’t really understand why you’d limit yourself in that way. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it doesn’t sit well within my mental model of me. I’m aware of my weakness when it comes to detail so deep-diving on a topic isn’t something I really find comfortable. I’ll tend to get as much out of something as I want and then stop, even if that means missing out on something vital. I’ll take shortcuts where I can too so my general approach to learning and information assimilation isn’t really suited to the role of being a specialist.

In my day job that’s been to my advantage and, I’m realising with increasing frequency, it suits me just fine in other aspects of my life.

In short, but when has brevity ever been a consideration here, I’m passionate about being passionate about lots of different things at different times.

Which is, probably, more similar to other people than I think.

Once again, I end a blog post with a massive non-conclusion.

/ENDS

Partridges and Pear trees

Here in the UK, there is no escaping the fact that Christmas is approaching. On TV the adverts have started, the store shelves are being stocked, and in the office talk is turning to who might make a fool of themselves at the Christmas party.

It’s also about this time of year I start dropping hints in the hope that I don’t end up with yet another reindeer sweater…

So, in keeping with the Christmas spirit of giving, and to save you all some time and effort, here’s a few suggestions that you could, perhaps, print out and leave sitting around for a loved one to happen upon, or email to a sibling with a subject line of “Buy me something from this list and nothing else!!”

Hopefully some of the above suggestions will save you from yet another pair of slippers…

Note: Most of the above links go through an affiliate account, so I get a few pence if you actually purchase the item.

Journalling

About a year ago, maybe more, I started writing (sporadically) in a journal and I’m quite surprised that I’ve kept it going, even though how I use it has changed.

I’ve always enjoyed the process of writing, this blog is testimony to that, but even before there was this place called the internet which I could pollute with the detritus of my mind I’ve always had a fondness for the written word. I can remember spending an evening with a girlfriend where we wrote down questions and answers for each other, passing sheets of paper back and forth. Even then, as a naive teenager, I realised that I preferred that form of communication over, say, actually telling someone what you thought.

Of course I’ve grown up a bit since then, not much mind you, but I still fall back on the written word and the process of writing as a way to get a handle on things I don’t really understand.

  • Why do I get so annoyed when plans change?
  • What was it that happened that makes me cringe when I have to get my hands dirty?
  • Am I inherently lazy and selfish or is there more to me than that?

The last few years have been amazing and I’ve learned so much about myself, about who I am (rather than who I want to be), and where my life may be heading. I’ve written a lot in my journal, not all of it has been positive, sometimes I wrote in anger, letting the emotions drive the words knowing that that flash of emotion would fade quickly, sometimes I paused to recognise just how many blessings I have to count, and sometimes it’s good to reflect on how lucky I am. The over arching theme remains though, it’s a place where I dump my thoughts so they can stew for a while.

More recently I’ve been looking back over what I’ve written, seeing the change in tone and in emphasis as I start to understand things better. I can see that I’ve made steps to put myself in a better place, some of which I’ve mentioned here, and that even in the past six months things have, once again, changed for the better. Of course it’s not all about how wonderful my life is (it is pretty fucking wonderful to be honest), and there will always be days which are challenging but, as I learnt recently, there is no such thing as a good day or a bad day, they are all just days and there is always a tomorrow, a new day, lurking around the corner.

With those realisations I notice that I’m now using my journal much more as a memory store. I’ve started feeding in other data, not just the random wanderings of my brain, but the photos I take, the places I’ve been, the music I’ve listened to, and I’m finding that has value as well (not just because my memory is awful!).

In fact it’s occurring to me now that, whilst I’ve struggled to instil new habits in other parts of my life, my journal has been a constant companion for a few years now. I wonder what it’ll feel like to look back on it in another year or two. Where will I be then? WHO will I be then?

For once I don’t really care about the answers to those questions, I will be wherever I am and I’ll be whoever I’ve become, but I do know I’m really looking forward to finding out.

Why seems to be hardest word

I was chatting to a new colleague, an experienced technical architect, the other day to give him an overview of my team and what we produce. He asked what type of information we provided, was it the “clicky clicky” type or something more useful that explains how our product works.

I assured him that we covered more of the latter type of information, but also provided “clicky clicky” (procedural) information when appropriate. For his type of role, that audience persona (experienced and highly technical), that form of information is exactly what he wants. For other parts of our product, used by inexperienced staff often with a high turnover, we try and help keep the costs of training down by providing more of the “clicky clicky”.

It’s all about the audience after all, right?

Thing is, as I walked away from that conversation, there was something in the back of my mind that wasn’t sitting right, something was irking me and it wasn’t until a couple of days later I realised what it was.

Within the team, there is one question we try and answer, one question that we find useful when trying to understand the latest greatest features of our product. Why?

We ask it of technical architects, product managers, software engineers and business analysts. We ask customers and our professional services staff. Hell if we can we’ll ask our Chief Technical Officer.

  • Why are we building this?
  • Why did we build it this way?
  • Why didn’t we build it that way?
  • Why should our customers use it?
  • Why should I use it this way and not that?

The list goes on…

And yet, walking away from that conversation I started to realise the one place we don’t ask it often enough. Within the team, of ourselves, we need to be asking one question more often; Why are we writing this piece of content? It’s a simple question but should allow us to follow on with further reasoning.

  • Who asked for this?
  • Who will use it?
  • Why am I WRITING this, would it be better as a video?
  • Does this piece of functionality even need any supporting information?

As the team continues to grow, and we start to take on more work from other parts of the organisation, we will need to keep these internal challenges in our minds.

This notion also fits, loosely, to a general theme that has been in my head since TCUK12 the idea of lifting your head, getting out of the default position of “write content” that many of us fall into. Whilst that’s a good default to have, as the world of Technical Communications continues to change it will benefit us all to spend a little bit more time asking why.

Challenging presumptions and changing attitudes towards our profession is not easy, but asking why can help.

Our profession is largely focussed on product, we understand that there are users of the product, we understand that those users vary in skill level and knowledge. Asking those why questions tells everyone else that we are thinking at a higher level, that we are trying to do better, that we want to contribute value to our organisation, this is particularly of value when you bear in mind that we tend to have a different view of our products from many of our counterparts.

As a technical writer, we touch all levels of a product, from the conceptual information all the way through to the technical detail of the implementation itself. We understand the business requirements, the use cases, and the end functionality. Not many other departments share that view so when we ask why, we can ask it from a position of knowledge and, increasingly, authority.

Too often I hear people say that they feel frustrated, that they don’t get the information they need, or struggle to get people to understand what value they bring to a company. Maybe the questions we are asking are partly to blame? Asking why is a soft way of challenging, of gently nudging people to a different view, if you are persistent and consistent the people you work with will start to anticipate your questions, raising their game to meet yours and that’s where the value lies. Not only does asking why get you more of the information you need, allowing you to make better decisions about your work, it’s also provide a link between parts of your organisation.

So be that person, be the central resource that asks why. It may take some time but stick at it and, along the way, you’ll have opportunities to promote what you do and others will start to place more value on the information you produce and the value you provide to the company.

And that, to me, is a perfect example of a win-win situation.

Censored

Have you noticed anything different here? Maybe not, but those of you who have been reading for a while (thank you!) may have noticed that I’ve been managing to post here a couple of times a week recently.

Don’t worry if you didn’t notice, there is no test at the end.

I’ve been pushing myself to write to try and get my blogging mojo back, partly because I enjoy the process and the fact that it helps me keep in touch with what’s going on in our wider profession, and partly because there is a lot going on and I like to capture some of it.

But I can’t capture it all.

Looking back at this blog, there are some posts which hint at some things which ended up coming to pass. The signs are subtle and obviously I’m more tuned in to them than anyone else as I wrote it but they are there. It’s not that I want to be cryptic, more that I know that a sensible level of awareness and self-censorship are one of the most important skills to learn as a blogger. Whilst the opinions stated here are mine, and mine alone, I simply can’t post things which might compromise the company I work for in any way shape or form.

And so, as I started to pull together some notes with a view to publishing them on this blog I realised I wouldn’t be able to, not at the moment.

Suffice to say that the next few months could see some interesting challenges and changes, and as soon as I can I’ll be discussing them here (and my Twitter feed is likely to be reduced to a serious of exasperated noises). I am feeling excited, nervous and ready for what lies ahead and hopefully as we learn lessons here, I can share some of them with you.

That said, if there is anything you’d like me to tackle, any questions to ask, please get in touch. Always happy to help.