15 Feb

Balancing Academic and Practical Reading: Intercultural Communication + The Culture Map

This is rare. I usually avoid making book recommendations, but I actually enjoyed an academic textbook so much that I’m going to recommend it to anyone who works for a global company or works with a multi-cultural team. (If you work in ‪#‎techcomm‬, I’m more than recommending it. I’m insisting you read it.)

Unplanned Coincidence

I recently read an “academic” textbook at the same time that I happened to be listening to a “for leisure” audiobook on a similar topic (unplanned, but nice coincidence). I found the combination of the academic and the practical book very interesting and informative. It was like listening to two different versions of the same story but from very different storytellers. In addition, having to make connections, find similarities, and identify differences between the two books helped me to process and internalize the information better.

Plan Going Forward

This unplanned coincidence helped  me realize that I enjoy the combination of “scholarly” text with “non-scholarly” text.  I often read scholarly articles and practical articles in combination, so I’m not sure why I didn’t make this connection with books sooner. My brain craves variety,  so from this point forward (when available), I’m going to find a practical-skills book that compliments any academic textbook I’m reading and read/listen to them in combination.

Book-Combo Recommendation

Finally, here’s my first book-combo recommendation for anyone interested in practical skills and academic learning related to culture and communication.



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.


10 Mar

Techcomm hashtags

Use the following hashtags to keep up with technical communication news on Twitter:

#techcomm Technical communication in general
#stc News relate to the Society for Technical Communication
#stc14 News relate to the STC  2014 Annual Conference in Phoenix