Don’t be the secretary

I’m about to head into a two day, brainstorming style, workshop. I was invited along as there will be a lot of useful information flying around, and it’s the beginning of a new stream of work. I will spend the next two days with the people who know most about our product and have already made it clear that my presence will be participatory, not dictationary!

I was quite adamant about this, to the point of being slightly abrasive, as it’s something that happens a little too often. Whilst they may not realise it but asking a technical writer along to “take notes” is basically asking us to sit quietly in the corner and “write stuff”. Because that’s what we do, right?

Part of me gets really annoyed when this type of thing happens, but part of me realises that I probably do the same to other professions. What we, as technical writers, consider important is not the same as that of the developers or engineers and that will never change.

I’m happy that, when I was invited to the workshop on the premise of “taking notes”, it only took a quick chat to persuade the technical architect that what he really wanted from my presence was actually the main focus of the workshop. Whilst we will be reworking (prototyping) some code, it’s not anything we can use and so the bulk of the output from the two days will be in the form of guidelines and best practice information.

And that I can help with.

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Long time blogger, Father of Jack, geek of many things, random photographer and writer of nonsense.

Doing my best to find a balance.

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Nothing irks me more when TWs agree to be reduced to the secretary (and not to say that a strict-secretary-role isn’t honorable, but it’s not a skilled, professional job). It’s one of the things that diminishes our profession.

I think tho, because of our vocational perspective and ability to focus on the big picture & end result, TWs are in the position to function as a meeting facilitator or leader. There’s some sense that a communication facilitator is a fluffy job, but if you can shorten a meeting from 5 to 4 hours, or eek that much more value from the discussions, you’ve provided a real service to the group.

I was in a meeting a few weeks back and it quickly dawned on me how the discussion was going in circles. Had I actually gotten out of my chair and written the points we were struggling with on the white board, we could have saved 5 minutes; in an hour-long meeting that’s significant.

Further, why am I the only person I know who thinks that meetings are great? Common wisdom states that no one likes meetings and that they’re a waste of time. I’ve always felt that meetings are where the most progress on a project takes place. After all group members are on the same page there’s a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the project.

I agree, and generally tend to become a meeting faciliator by default!

Meetings *can* be great and productive, but all too often they are tedious and unproductive. The role of meeting facilitator is crucial to the success of a meeting. I recently attended one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to. What made it so good was that it was well organised (not by me, I should add). It was a project retrospective meeting and the relevant attendees all had 2 minutes to talk about 2 good things and 2 bad things about the project. Other attendees got to listen but not talk. After this we had a time-limited session to identify and discuss the 2 main negative points that had been raised. This was followed by a summary. The whole took an hour and five minutes and everyone went away feeling we’d really achieved something, identified important issues and ways of avoiding these.

Instead of someone having to make notes, I took along a little digital recorder and stuck the resulting MP3 on a Web page afterwards for people who could make it along to the meeting to have the chance to listen to. It will also be useful to listen to the recording a few months down the line and check that we’ve improved on the issues we identified.

I find note-taking can be (oddly) distracting and can restrict you from taking part in a meeting. Making an audio recording can be an alternative, provided the meeting isn’t too long. Provided someone sums up, you can always just publish the recording of the summary.

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