08 Apr

How I learned that pets trump people and other benefits of the V-word

When graduates and individuals looking to transition into my field ask, “How do I land that first job?” My answer is always the same. “Experience.” Predictably, the next question is, “How do I get experience if no one will hire me because I have no experience?” My follow-up answer is always the same. “Volunteer.” I KNOW. I JUST USED THE V-WORD. Calm yourself and just keep reading. It’s not all about the giving. There’s some receiving involved as well. You’ll see.

Getting started

If you’ve never volunteered or you’ve had a bad volunteer experience, you’re probably thinking, “What?” She’s telling people who are looking for a job to volunteer (i.e., work for free). She’s insane. This may  be true, but I’ve personally received more references, accolades, job leads, benefits, and access to influential people through volunteering than though any former employment opportunity. If you’re thoughtful and selective about volunteering, you’ll find that it’s a great way to increase your professional visibility.

Keeping the momentum going

Once I realized the benefits of volunteering, I haven’t stopped. It is a fantastic way to build experience, learn new skills, receive feedback, and build your network of contacts. This is, of course, if you are a hard-working volunteer. Volunteering is like all things in life. You get out what you put in.

Preparing for the future

I often use volunteering as a way to prepare for future employment. If I have an interest in something and there are no opportunities in my current work environment to experiment or stretch, then I will seek a volunteer opportunity that matches my interest. For example, social media has had a tremendous impact on the field of communication. It’s changed the way that people expect and demand to receive information. I communicate for a living, so to learn more about social media from the producer’s point of view versus the consumer’s point of view, I began volunteering for non-profit organizations as their social/digital media manager. During this time, I’ve acquired new skills and knowledge.

Learning and skill building is never-ending

I’ve learned some fascinating things through volunteering.  For example, as the social media manager for a non-profit art organization, I learned that my target audience showed more engagement with images compared to text –no surprise. For example, the audience showed a decent amount of engagement when shown an image of a handsome older gentleman holding a plate of cookies at one of our events.


Fig 1. Man with a plate of cookies engaged about 150  followers

The audience showed more engagement when shown a beautiful older woman smiling and holding a glass of wine and a paint brush.


Fig 2. Woman with a glass of wine engaged about 200 followers

And, of course, an image of a cute child working with clay engaged even more followers.


Fig 3. Children playing with clay engaged about 250 followers

Now what’s interesting is that videos blow images out of the water in regard to engagement, and the shorter the video the better. For example, sharing a video of an attractive couple (instructors) dancing sent engagement through the roof.

People Dancing

Fig 4. Dancing couple engaged over 400 followers

What beats cookies, wine, children, and a dancing couple? That’s right. Pets trump people.

Fig 5. Pet-art contest engaged about 650 followers

I can go on and on about the benefits of the V-word, but until you give it a legitimate try, you’ll never know what you can learn and gain from the experience.


03 Apr

When someone wants more than the 20-second elevator speech about techcomm

People have heard of novelists, journalists, columnists, essayists, bloggers, etc., but not as many are familiar with technical writers.  I rarely offer up to strangers that I’m a technical writer because this usually leads to the need for further explanation, and that’s more interaction with a stranger than this introvert can handle. Just kidding. Not really.

When someone wants more than my basic 20-second elevator speech, I share the following:

The Anti-Writer
A technical writer is someone who seeks to present information in a clear and concise manner.  My goal is to share knowledge and information, not craft the perfect or most poetic sentence. I sometimes feel like I’m the anti-writer because I spend most of my day eliminating words that cloud meaning. If I’m not eliminating words, then I’m taking apart and restructuring sentences to improve readability. Few things bring me more joy than shortening a sentence and at the same time enhancing its meaning.

Takeaway:  We’ve been tweeting before Twitter was a thing.

The Organizer and Curator
Technical writers are highly skilled at organizing information. That’s the true key to being a successful technical writer.  In some companies, technical writers are referred to as information architects because we organize and structure content to reduce the reader’s cognitive load or improve the reader’s processing fluency, which allows the reader to absorb more information faster. Additionally, we ensure information is complete, accurate, and up-to-date, and that’s what makes the content we produce valuable to companies and organizations.

Takeaway:  In my world, only usable information has value.

The Translator
Technical writers translate technical information into plain English. We work with highly technical individuals who design and provide highly technical products  or services. One of the teams I worked with consisted of two mathematicians, a physicist, a software engineer, a petroleum engineer, and an aerospace engineer (I liked to refer to him as the rocket scientist. BTW, the rocket scientists married a brain surgeon, but they promised not to reproduce–whew). There were only two individuals on the team who did not have a PhD—me being one of the two.  The value technical writers provide in this situation is the ability to translate technical information into something that non-technical users find useful.

Takeaway: We provide a communication bridge between the geeks and the rest of the world.

The Doer
Technical writers work under tight deadlines and are often caught in “hurry-up and wait” situations. Hurry up and get this done, but wait until everyone else is finished.  We often find ourselves hunting for information that our intended audience will find useful, which is sometimes different from what’s available or what the SME (subject matter expert) feels is interesting or important. Therefore, we need to be proactive seekers of useful information. We need to be collaborators and good team members. Most importantly,  we need to be the voice, champion, and advocate of the user.

Takeaway: We’re one of the highest paid professionals in the communication and writing field because what we do is hard and sometimes unpleasant.

In summary, it takes more than 20 seconds to explain adequately what I do for a living, but I’m okay with that.

References and Resources:

02 Apr

Why there is no room in techcomm for the grammar police

You’re probably thinking that as a technical writer my biggest pet peeve would be the misuse of effect and affect or that I’d have a strong opinion about the Oxford comma. Nope. My biggest pet peeve and the behavior I have the strongest opinion about relates to the correcting of grammar.

Grammar Police Bad!

In addition to being a technical writer, I’m also an instructional designer,  so I have a deep appreciation for the power of feedback. The article by FastCompany tilted How Yelp Encourages Users To Write More Thoughtful Reviews highlights the benefit constructive feedback provides compared to the damage destructive feedback provides. When I mentor new technical writers, one of the first pieces of advice I give is to avoid correcting the grammar of others, and here’s why I give this advice.

1. The conversation killer
Implying or stating that someone is wrong is the fastest way to end a conversation. As soon as a person feels that you are challenging, correcting, or judging them or their work, they often stop listening and divert their mental effort to preparing a defense or identifying qualities of the accuser that would negate the value of anything that the accuser shares. In other words, I’m not wrong because of the reasons I can outline here, and you’re an idiot, so who cares what you say, anyway. Once listening stops, communication stops. Once communication stops, the relationship dies. A good part of my job as a technical communicator is collaborating with others. In order to collaborate, I need to communicate. Therefore, I need to be very mindful of the appearance that I am “correcting” the work of others. In addition, my aim is to construct information that is easy to understand. I may have advice and recommendations regarding word choice and sentence structure, but I try never to imply that I’m correcting the work of another author. I am here as the champion of the user, and I’m also here as a guide and advisor to the original content contributor(s).  My goal is to improve readability, not to correct grammar.

2. The problem finder (versus the problem solver)
There is very little value in just finding problems, but there is much value in solving problems. Solving problems requires time and commitment. It involves serving others. The best editor I ever worked with didn’t just circle typos and add or remove commas. He took the time to educate his writers and make them better content developers. For example, if I didn’t follow a particular style guideline, he would refer me to the page in the style guide with the proper construction. Therefore, I had no excuse for making the mistake again. In other words, he identified a knowledge gap and then he helped me fill the gap. If you are only interested in finding mistakes, but not ensuring  that those mistakes do not occur again, then what value are you really adding? For example, I saw a viral post on Twitter involving grammar shaming. An individual had taken the initiative to write what he felt would be helpful instructions for his co-workers, and then taped the instructions on an appliance in a break room. Another co-worker came along and highlighted all the grammatical mistakes in the note, and then photographed the note and shared it  with others. I’m assuming with the intent to ridicule the original author. This example is a good transition to my last point.

3. The bully
I’ve worked on teams with people who are so smart that they are literally frightening, and technology that is so advanced that it takes many to understand and create the parts, and very few who can understand and operate the whole. I’m reminded on a daily basis how much knowledge and information there is and how very little that I have accumulated and mastered. Does this make me feel self-conscious and insecure? Yes. Does this insecurity drive me to bully and belittle others to make myself feel superior? I hope not.

Think about how you want others to perceive you and what value you want to add. Always consider if the feedback you’re providing is constructive or destructive.