Tag: <span>Technical Communication</span>

I’ve written about social media before, and given presentations on Blogging and the wider use of social media as part of our professional toolbox. But that was mostly with a view to how these new technologies could be used to provide a better service to our customers.

So what does social media mean to me, as a professional?

Personally, away from Technical Communications, I’ve been involved and actively using various forms of social media for over a decade. It’s very much something I take for granted and expect to be able to communicate with people in a variety of ways. However, because I’ve been using this stuff for so long, I tend to fall prey to the curse of knowledge and forget that I’ve been through all of the decision points that many people are still approaching for the first time.

An example, which prompted this blog post, came via Twitter today when Marian Routledge asked “Social networking a valuable tool for keeping pace with developments in the world of tech comms or just another time filler?”.

My initial response was “‘another’? Social networking has been about in various forms for 10 years. If you aren’t using it, how else do you keep pace?” as, for me, use of social media is one of the most efficient ways of keeping up with all of the conversations and ideas that bloom and grow in these spaces. If I wasn’t on Twitter, if I didn’t read blogs, if I didn’t monitor RSS feeds from vendors and thought leaders, if I wasn’t on various mailing lists, then I’d have to rely on far more direct and expensive means of getting at that information.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is not a replacement for face-to-face communication, never will be, and so conferences and meetings are still required, but I’d argue that those activities are enhanced through attendee use of social media.

One thing which many people have suggested is that, as accessing information online is so easy, we in danger of filling our time with all this extra information. I’d suggest not, but I know there is a chance that you could, very quickly, become overwhelmed by the amount of data pouring your way.

However, i tend to think of all the RSS feeds I monitor, the people I follow on Twitter, and the numerous blog discussions that I participate in, as one big stream of information. I can dip in and out, safe in the knowledge that if something important passes by unseen, it’ll no doubt come floating past again when someone else mentions it.

Does that stream of information make me better at my job? I think it does. In a way it’s like an extended conference, that buzz, the sharing of common ideas, the conversations between sessions. Being involved in any aspect of social media is exactly that, an extended conversation. There are some key words in that last sentence, and this, if anything, is the take home advice from this blog post.

“Being involved” in social media is a lot different from letting it flow into your inbox and swamping you. If you are involved you will know what conversations you can ignore, and what trends/people you should be following. To be involved you need to remember that social media is, and always has been, a conversation. It’s a two way thing, and the more you contribute to that conversation, the more you’ll get out of it. Comment on blogs, reply to updates on Twitter, publish your own ideas and respond to those who show an interest and you’ll soon find yourself part of the community. It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort, at most it may take 15 minutes a day if you are diligent, but the more you get involved, the faster you’ll be able to process the information coming your way.

At this point I’ll stop waffling and point you towards the latest addition to the growing set of social media resources for Technical Communication professionals. It’s called Technical Writing World and is already shaping up to become a useful place to discuss ideas, share problems and get solutions to the everyday issues we all face.

If you are a technical communications professional, and have still to get involved with social media, then Technical Writing World is a great place to start. It’s small enough to be easily managed, and interactive enough that you’ll be able to converse with technical communicators from all over the globe.

Go on, sign up, say hi and get involved. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Work

Are you in the UK? Are you attending the Technical Communication conference in September? If not, you really should, it’s looking like it will be an excellent conference.

The conference website is starting to gear up as well, and has posted some short interviews with some of the speakers, including yours truly. They should give you a flavour of what to expect at the sessions, many of which I’m hoping to be able to attend as well.

I’d imagine planning the sessions is one of the harder jobs when organising a conference, making sure there isn’t too much overlap and the programme this year seems to have a good balance. Certainly I think there is only one overlap with a session I would like to see that I can’t attend, but that’s because I’m presenting at the same time.

Hope to see many of you there, and remember, and this is the most important thing of all.

Mine’s a Guinness!

Work

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How do you get started? Faced with that pristine new document, all that whitespace, what do you generally do to start writing that document?

Like most companies, we have a number of people who create content in a number of different styles and formats. The main producers are, of course, the technical writing team, but after that there is still a fair number of documents which fall into the “creative writing” bag including whitepapers, proposals, product sheets and so on.

The people involved in writing these documents are, for the most part, promoted internally and have had no formal training in how to write. I was chatting with one of them recently and he said that the biggest issue he had was just getting started, and once started he couldn’t really tell if what he was writing was particularly well structured.

“Hey” he said, “could you train us to be writers?”

One day I’ll learn not to say YES to such questions, but it seemed a reasonable request at the time.

The thing is, I’ve never been trained as a writer either, and writing technical documentation follows patterns which other types of document don’t necessarily follow. On the other hand, any pattern is better than no pattern and if I could introduce some basic methodologies, surely it’s better for everyone?

Luckily for me I had still had fresh memories of attending a particular session at the Technical Communication conference. Kim Schrantz-Berquist presented If you can write an article, you can write anything! in which she covered a couple of writing techniques which I think will be perfect to introduce to the ‘creative writers’ in our company.

The first one I’ve adapted quite a bit to better fit with the intended audience, but the principles of the 5Ws and 1H remain the same. If you cover Who, What, Why, When, Where and How you won’t missing anything, and it’s a good way to kick start the brain, and get past that first blank page.

Kim also covered the Inverted Pyramid, something more typically used in journalism, that loads all the important information at the top of the article, ideal for business writing as it allows people to ‘get out’ of the document without missing out on crucial information.

I’ve taken the techniques she covered, crafted some examples specific to our organisation, and a little bit about Active vs Passive, a few slides on grammar that build on advice from Prof. Pullum (basically, don’t sweat it and write as you would speak) and will hopefully deliver the first workshop next week.

But before I do that, I’d love to hear if you have any other techniques that could help.

Work

If you were attending a conference, and specifically attending one of the sessions that was going to be covering “blogging”, what questions would you want answered?

No, I’m not being completely lazy, I already have a good outline of what I want to cover (why, what and how) but it’s always good to get some “pre-emptive feedback” as a colleague of mine once stated.

On the flip side, those of you who already blog, any pearls of wisdom? Any information you wished you’d known before you started?

I’ll be publishing my presentation at the same time as I take to the stage at the Technical Communication conference in September and will update it based on any questions or comments raised during my session.

After all, for me, one of the main reasons I blog, and read blogs, is to exchange ideas and knowledge. The conversation is the power and I’m really looking forward to transferring my thoughts from here (on this blog) to the conference and seeing how a ‘live audience’ reacts.

Technical Communication UK
22nd-24th September 2009

http://www.technicalcommunicationuk.com

Technical Communication UK is the new annual conference that aims to meet the needs of technical communicators, their managers and clients, from every corner of the industry.

The conference is hosted by the ISTC, and run in partnership with X-pubs.

Technical Communication UK runs on 23rd and 24th September 2009, with pre-conference workshops on 22nd September. It will deliver more than 30 sessions over the three days, with presentations, workshops, case studies, and hands-on product demonstrations from experts in their field.

Let me know if you are coming along, as I’d hate to be sitting in the bar on my own on the Wednesday evening!

Work

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As we are in the midst of rethinking our publishing processes, I’ve been looking at the current crop of tools, and (for our needs) three of them stand out over their competitors. Adobe, AuthorIT and MadCap seem to be heading for a battle royale, with the latter two the David to Adobe’s Goliath. But who will win?

Before yesterday I wouldn’t really have put MadCap in that battle but it’s been a busy time for MadCap, who (yesterday):

..unveiled its roadmap for the first complete, native XML software family designed to solve all of a company’s documentation and authoring demands. The MadCap family will include five new products: MadCap Blaze, MadCap Press, MadCap Team Server, MadCap X-Edit, and MadCap X-Edit Express, as well as enhanced versions of MadCap Analyzer, MadCap Flare, MadCap Lingo and MadCap Mimic. The tightly integrated MadCap family will provide companies with an end-to-end solution for developing and delivering content in print, online and on the Web—and in their language of choice.

[full details]

OK, so MadCap have a lot of ideas, but what does this mean for the technical communications industry? Putting aside discussion on bespoke solutions, in what state is the current crop of “out of the box” products? And, ultimately, why is this news from MadCap so intriguing?

Looking at the current tools the obvious and dominating product is FrameMaker. Recently updated by Adobe and with a new lease of life alongside Robohelp in their Technical Communication Suite, the future looks bright for the product and as the market leader it’s a safe decision to adopt their products and, like Microsoft in the OS business, it’s safe to assume they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. With a little work and additional tools, the Technical Communication Suite offers a smart multi-publishing system built around well-known and well-proven tools.

Then there is AuthorIT, which has been on my radar for sometime now, and the latest version certainly offers more functionality and builds on their core strengths. Their entire suite covers a lot of the areas that MadCap are targetting and it’s already being used by technical communications departments. The latest version is, in essence, a 1.0 so has a few rough edges and issues but the AuthorIT camp are making the right noises and I expect it to become a solid and viable solution for many people wanting to move into multi-format publishing from a single source.

At this point I should really mention the other tools that make up the rest of the market but as I’ve not really been heavily involved with anything else (Arbortext, ForeHelp, HDK are about it) it would be wrong of me to summarise both their market share and their futures (if anyone else has an opinion here I’d love to hear it in the comments). I would guess that, and I include AuthorIT and MadCap in this, the rest of the market outside of Adobe is fairly evenly split across a variety of products.

The new MadCap offerings bulk out their current product set into a complete end to end publishing system and, from what I can see with the limited details on offer, ticks all the boxes. On the other hand, both Adobe and AuthorIT will say the same thing so perhaps we need to see a little more detail before we get too carried away?

Yet, despite the fact that the feature set MadCap announced has a bigger overlap with AuthorIT, the feel is that MadCap are aiming squarely at Adobe. Of course, it’s understandable that they are aiming at the biggest target as chipping away at the other players probably isn’t a sustainable business plan, so the question is whether or not they can beat Adobe at their own game.

Given that Adobe were missing in action for a few years, the speed at which they have ‘caught up’ has impressed me but having seen demos of both their Technical Communication Suite, and of MadCaps offering (before these new products were announced) my gut feel is that Adobe have only caught up and aren’t moving forwards as fast as MadCap. In fact I think it’s safe to say that MadCap, and AuthorIT, are changing the game and I’m not sure if Adobe are properly positioned to respond.

As Ellis, over on the Cherryleaf Blog suggests:

I still have concerns that Adobe still really doesn’t understand the practicalities of technical communication, that features appear as solutions looking for problems to solve. However, Adobe is the market leader and, as we’ve seen in IT many times before, it’s often the company with the best marketing (rather than the best software) that wins.

The latest swathe of products gives MadCap a full, end to end, system that should be able to handle anything a ‘typical’ technical communications team can throw at it. In saying that, without a little more detail it may all be smoke and mirrors (something they’ve been accused of in the past) but the simple fact is that MadCap have already demonstrated they ‘get’ the current marketplace, and they’ve certainly made a big enough splash to warrant the attention.

I wonder, if we fast forward a couple of years, if the marketplace will still have one big player. I suspect not as the noises coming out of both the MadCap and AuthorIT camps speak of big things, so perhaps Adobe need to look over their shoulder and up their game? Regardless, the main winner of this competition is you and I, the technical writers who deal with these products on a daily basis. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest part of the MadCap press release is the fact it exists at all. Challenge the status quo and things start to happen, quickly, and the technical communications community can only benefit.

Tech Work

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