bookmark_borderFlipping point?

You may, or may not, have heard the phrase ‘Tipping Point’ used to signify “the moment when something previously unique becomes common“. Made popular, although not created by, Malcolm Gladwell, it can be applied most recently to the explosion of people using Twitter, and previously to such web applications/social networking websites, as Facebook.

Which, rather nicely (gee, it’s almost like I planned it!) brings me to my topic. Namely, Facebook and is it starting to tip away from ‘common’ towards something else.

I’m not quite sure where Facebook is tipping towards but there does seem to be the beginnings of a swell, a murmuring of discontent as Facebook continues to grow and tries to adapt itself accordingly. Basically, on a more and more frequent basis, Facebook seems to be starting to irk some people.

In that respect, it’s very much like the noise that preceded it’s massive growth but on the opposite side of the slope, the word of mouth is heading towards negative territory. Anyone else think so? Just me?

bookmark_borderMade to Stick

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck

I can’t recall why I picked up this book, most likely a recommendation from the same sources through which I discovered The Tipping Point (which itself inspired this book), but I’ve been dipping in and out of it for a while and finally finished it this weekend. That’s an indication of my reading habits recently, not any reflection on the quality of this book.

Whilst most would regard this as a business focussed book it, like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, is more about the ideas than their application. That said there are plenty of concrete examples given to reaffirm the basic premise of the book, that there are six key qualities that make an idea “sticky”:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotion
  6. Stories

It’s a fascinating read, including some well-known ideas (JFK’s “Put a man on the moon in 10 years”), throughout which several thoughts sparked in my brain as I started to connect some of the key qualities in a sticky idea with our profession. After all, what better way to make sure people get the most out of the information you provide than to make it sticky?!

Of course there are some parts of the book which, whilst interesting, can’t really be applied directly but I was amazed that, with a little bit of creative spin, you could probably adapt most of the ideas within to make your content stickier.

Made to Stick is very much one of those books which hold some simple truths which are well stated and analysed. Throughout the book there are many examples, so getting a handle on what each of the six qualities brings to the table is easy, and to be honest a lot of what is said you probably already know you just don’t know how to pull it all together.

There are some excerpts on the book’s website and if you enjoyed The Tipping Point then give it a look.

bookmark_borderTrickle and Blink

“There is no such thing as too much information”

We’ve all heard this statement at one time or another, and in the internet age it’s accepted as a statement of truth. Which is shame as it’s completely wrong. Turns out, that you only need enough information, not all of it.

A while ago I wrote up some thoughts on how to integrate an authoring team into an Extreme Programming (Agile) development group. The post Trickle vs Traditional outlined a basic way of building up the required content throughout the various stages of an XP release and, to save you re-reading that post, let me grab the crux of what I was saying:

The trickle method relies on the ability of the technical author to retain a “big picture” view whilst working on multiple chunks of information at any one time. The information will not come in a set order, nor from a definitive source, instead it will trickle in from various parts of the development team, testing, and so on. Your job is to monitor the flows of information, position yourself within a stream (or two) and divert the information you need into the documentation.

In reality this means that you need to develop a good technique for filtering information, knowing when and what to leave out of the documentation and relying on your knowledge of the product to help you make decisions and make them quickly.

Quite simply, to remain agile in such a system you need to be able to make decisions. A decision can be wrong, as long as you make the decision to fix it as soon as possible.

In a way, you start to write by instinct, trusting that you properly understand all the myriad of factors that influence what information you are creating and letting your talents as a technical writer take over. As Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote an entire book about this type of decision making, suggests:

We live in a society dedicated to the idea that we’re always better off gathering as much information and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. As children, this lesson is drummed into us again and again: haste makes waste, look before you leap, stop and think. But I don’t think this is true. There are lots of situations–particularly at times of high pressure and stress–when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions offer a much better means of making sense of the world. [source]

All of that sounds slightly scary if you are currently working in a process-heavy environment, with requirements and specification documents been seen as a way to provide all the information everyone needs, and which are typically a rather slow cumbersome way of handling information.

Anyone who has written such a document knows how hard they are to do as you can’t know everything at the start of a project and over time things change. Having previously worked in ISO regulated companies, where the audit history of a document was almost more important than the information in the document itself, I know how onerous, time-consuming and false those systems can end up being. Many is the time when everyone in a discussion knows what is going on but you still have to write it up, review and approve it, before it can be officially logged in a system that is rarely referenced.

Monitoring the flow of information, trickling it into your documentation as and when needed, making quick decisions and trusting your instincts certainly feels like a more natural way to work. It does mean that there is no such thing as a final document and there is a chance you will publish something that is wrong; yet it is the very possibility of that happening which keeps itself in check. Allowing people to make their own decisions instills a higher level of professionalism and lowers the number of errors.

It’s not suitable for everyone and some industries wouldn’t enter it but it’s an interesting way to work. Limiting the amount of information you have available, and making decisions based on those seems wrong but it does work. You just need to be brave.


I like new things, as my Belbin team role suggests, I am the person who likes to start projects and enthuse others about it before… eventually.. I get bored with it and… ohh shiny! .. something new comes along.

I’m aware of this trait and have developed some internal habits that help me overcome it’s downsides, in other words I’ve figured out when I’m getting bored and so I start to change how I work to make sure that I see the project through to completion.

However my enjoyment of new things is beneficial and I’m constantly looking for new ideas, new inspirations from which I can learn, and for ways in which those ideas can be cross-pollinated (ok ok, stolen) and used in new ways.

One example came about when I first picked up on, after many years of being told to read it by my peers, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. It’s a fascinating book and several of the key points can be translated into the technical writing world. One in particular stood out, the premise that an idea could be made ‘sticky’, and got me thinking about how I could adapt some of the methods into my approach to writing and structuring documentation. To my great pleasure that premise has been further developed by Dan & Chip Heath in their book Make it Stick and, although I’m only partway through it, I already have some ideas which may help make the documentation I create more useful to the readers.

There has been some discussion about our profession recently, whether it’s “just a job” or a vocation for some. I think I, like others, fit somewhere in the middle. Whilst I doubt technical writing/technical communications can be seen as a vocation, it’s certainly more than just a job to me, spilling over into my everyday life and thoughts. Typography, design, architecture, marketing and, basically any form of communication, has me questioning and prodding it to see if I can reuse any of it.

These days with personal publishing also a hobby for many, myself included, obviously, then anyone who is interested in communicating ideas and information is able to draw so much from such a wide pool of sources that, and I hold my hand up in admission here as well, I’m somewhat surprised that we have been a little slow to grab onto these new ways of communicating. Mind you, blogs, wikis and the like, are all still very new so I expect that to change over time.

But it won’t stop me constantly scanning the horizon for something new.

Have you taken inspiration from an odd source? Spotted a clever way to tackle information, or noted an idea or two after reading a, seemingly, unrelated book. How much of a magpie are you?


Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for several months now, however I hate hate hate myself for buying it when I did, when it was the ‘in’ thing to read (in some circles) and so I’ve been avoiding it.

The really annoying thing is, of course, that it’s an excellent and interesting read.

To summarise a book like this is a challenge. Firstly you are competing with the very essence of the book and trying to encapsulate a large and complex topic into… well a blink of an eye. Secondly, you risk ruining the book for others as there is a large amount of pleasure in reading this material. Not least because it is very well structured, taking you from point to point, offering insights and stories to accompany each new theory.

The basic premise is fairly straightforward, Gladwell is investigating that split second moment that you occasionally have when you KNOW you know something but you can’t yet explain WHY you know it. The opening example in the book discusses a greek statue which scientists had tested to ensure it was real (they confirmed that it was over 1,000 years old), lawyers had pored over paperwork to confirm it was authentic, yet the instant a greek statue expert clapped eyes on it they knew it was a fake. Despite all the evidence to the contrary.

There are some insights into ‘mind-reading’ (face-reading), and a fascinating section dealing with autism and high-stress incidents.

I’ve not read “Tipping Point” but think I will now. So, vice versa, if you enjoyed that book, I’d imagine you’d enjoy Blink. It’s utterly fascinating to the point where my wife is thoroughly bored of me starting sentences with: “You know that book I’m reading…”. Always a sure sign that something has gripped my attention.


Popped into Waterstones at lunchtime in the vague hope of finding a decent book about Microsoft Word (2003). Nothing on the shelves worth bothering with so I left.

Somehow, when I arrived back at work, I was carrying a bag containing 3 recently purchased books. Such is the power of the ubiquitous 3 for 2 offer.

There’s a thought, are there ANY bookstores that don’t have sales on?

Anyway, I can now add the following to my “to be read” stack:

Suggestions on which to read first are welcomed.