I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. The last year or so has been overwhelming as I overloaded myself with too many things, and I’m actually in the process of trying to reclaim myself and my time in the process. When you overextend yourself, it takes a toll.
I can’t remember the last time I wrote, but I changed jobs. While I liked being a content strategist, there were elements of where I was that didn’t fit right for me. If it’s not a good fit, you move on, so I was able to do that. Now, I’m working close to home at something new, and still getting a feel for what’s going on, so I’m not going to say too much about it, other than it goes back to my content management roots a bit, and I need to give some more time to acclimate to the job.
In the meantime, I recently went on our annual family vacation, which this year took place in Toronto, Canada. We enjoyed our time there so much that my son is convinced that he wants to move to Canada and be a Canadian. I don’t have a problem with that! If it wasn’t so cold in the winter, I probably would want to live there, too.
We drove to Toronto from our house, and we decided to stop about halfway going north and coming back, which ended up being a good decision due to weather and traffic issues (mostly in NJ, no less! Ugh!). We made our halfway-mark pitstops in Corning, NY, which is the home of the Corning Glass company and the Corning Museum of Glass. Some may remember Corning because of their housewares items (my family had Cornelle dishes with harvest gold flowers growing up) and Pyrex, but they also invented Gorilla Glass that’s used on cell phones. The museum is a lot more interesting than it sounds–it not only has beautiful art installations and history of glass exhibits, but also science-based exhibits about uses of glass. The museum also has live glassblowing, and for a fee, you can create a small item with the help of a professional glassblower in their studio hot shops. (I took advantage of it, and made a sculpture that sits in my bedroom.) It was so cool!
As a result, I was inspired to watch a new show on Netflix called “Blown Away”, which is actually a competition show in the same vein as Project Runway, Top Chef, or one of those other creative skills shows, but in this instance, it involves–you guessed it–glass blowers. I binge-watched the series over the last couple days, and I’m more fascinated by it than ever, wishing the closest hot shops to visit that teach weren’t in Philadelphia or Asbury Park (in other words, not anywhere close to me).
Here’s the trailer for the show:
But as I reflect on the show, it occurred to me that glassblowing is a lot like working in technical communication. Follow me on this.
While watching the show, you saw a lot of different things going on with glass. Sometimes the contestants had to make functional pieces, and other times it had to be artistic. Each challenge had a theme, which sometimes would be taken literally or figuratively by the artist/glassblower. Each contestant often had assistants to get the pieces finished, and time constraints. There were finished pieces that were incredible, and some, well, were crap. And there was a lot of broken glass, needing to start over, or pieces that didn’t quite come out as expected. Here’s what I could pull from that in relation to technical communication.
This really was a show about the creation of content, which is what technical communicators do. Instead of hot glass, our medium is content. Content, like glass, can be manipulated into all sorts of shapes, sizes, textures, and forms. It is never solely developed by one person alone, but rather you can have a main creator and supporters who will help it happen, or several creators who have to make all the pieces work together. Sometimes it takes several tries before you get the content right. You often have time constraints. And sometimes, just as you think you have it perfect, it will break on you, and you have to start over or try to rescue what you can from the broken remnants. Sometimes the end result comes out as you expected or better, but there are many times it comes out not as all as you envisioned or not well at all. Content can be robust, or it can be delicate. But when you spend a lot of time paying attention to details, allowing due diligence for the creation process, think outside of the box, and use a lot of precise skill, you can create something many can enjoy or use.
The part that ties it together most is that glassblowing and technical communication are both about blending science and technology with art or creativity. While many of the techniques used by glassblowers hasn’t changed in a century or more, it’s using something familiar to try to find new and creative ways to make something wonderful while understanding the technical aspects of working with glass–the science, the physics of it all. Technical communication is not much different. While it might not always be as artistic as colored glass pieces, it’s still having an understanding of science and technology on some level, and using skills to turn that science and technology into something beautiful–it is an art style of its own to turn technical jargon into something comprehensible, readable, and digestible in print or digital form.
So, next time you doubt yourself, think of yourself, a technical communicator, like a glassblowing artist. You are going to make mistakes, you’re going to break things fairly often, but when you refine your skills and focus, you too can make wonderful works of art.
Here in the U.S. (and perhaps in other places that have Netflix), there’s a big phenomenon about Marie Kondo. For those who don’t know who Marie Kondo is, she wrote a self-help book about home organization several years ago called, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. This book is now a Netflix series that has taken the U.S. by storm. While I have had the book in my Amazon Wish List for four years, and I haven’t watched the series (yet), through other articles, interviews I’ve read with Ms. Kondo, and other videos, I’ve gotten the basic ideas of what the Konmari method is. In the process, I’ve come to the conclusion that content strategists are the Marie Kondos of technical communication.
Now, I’ve thought about this for a while, so there is some logic to this. Ever since I’ve learned this content strategy analogy from Val Swisher of Content Rules, I’ve always used a person’s clothes closet as an example of how content strategy works. It might be oversimplified, but it works, and this is how you can further the analogy because of the Konmari method.
In that analogy, it’s explained that just about everyone needs to organize their closet, because most people don’t want to be looking for their clean clothes in a pile on the floor (although my teenage son is an expert on that method). While you can certainly hang all or most of your clothes, it helps to organize them a little bit. You can simply hang everything up, but it’s helpful to organize what you have. For example, you can put all the shirts in one area, the pants in another, skirts in another, etc. But that’s not the only way you can organize them. You could also organize everything by color–all the red items together, all the blue items together, all the black items together, and so on. You get the idea. Neither way is wrong, as long as it makes sense. The idea is to optimize what content you have so that it’s easily found when you need it.
In Marie Kondo’s Konmari method, organizing does not only mean getting organized with your items, but also determining what you don’t need and what you really need. You haven’t worn that sweater for ten years and really aren’t thrilled with it anymore? Thank it for its service and need at the time, but get rid of it–don’t hold onto it. She also gives tips on how to take what’s remaining and optimize how you access it. For example, she recommends folding t-shirts using a particular method so that they can be stored vertically, making them more easily accessible in one’s drawers. Her main mantra is about only keeping any items that “spark joy”. She even uses checklists to keep you on track in determining what to keep and how to stay organized. Does this sound a little familiar?
In this respect, this is why content strategists are the Konmari experts of content. What is our primary job? Sort through content. Make sense of what you need and don’t need, and organize it. We use taxonomy and content models to help our clients organize their content so that they–and their users–feel that the content sparks joy (serves its purpose most effectively) and they understand where they are going on their journey.
Now, recently, I’ve gotten into debates with a colleague about using content models before using a site map. His argument is that by creating a content model or taxonomy outline of a website when revamping after a content audit or inventory is a pointless exercise, as it leads the client to believe that this outline will dictate the sitemap and how the pages work, and it should be more fluid. While I understand his point, I strongly disagree. Let’s go back to that closet analogy. You’ve been hired to organize someone’s closet. They have a pile of clean clothes on the floor, and no bars or shelves or drawers in the closet. What do you need to do? Sure, you could organize all the clothes on your bed, but it doesn’t help because you are organizing for your closet, not storing on your bed! You need someplace to store it rationally. You need to provide the structure–the closet–first. For content, that could be a taxonomy outline or content model. Once you have that in place, then you can start organizing.
Taking that a step further, let’s say that you’ve set up some hanging bars and shelves in the closet the way the works best for the space, and organized your clothes for your client by type of clothing–shirts, pants, t-shirts, skirts and dresses (if you are so inclined). The client is almost happy, but feels something is still not right to them. “I’d really like to have my short-sleeved shirts together, separated from my long-sleeved shirts, because I have to wear long-sleeved shirts for work and I want to find them quickly.” All content in an inventory is not weighed the same, and should be treated at different levels as well. Okay, in this structure, it’s something that can be done easily. The structure of the closet has stayed the same (the taxonomy), but there’s a little bit of moving around and prioritization of main categorizations and sub-categorizations, but it makes it most optimal for the client.
The client then might say, “Wait, I think I also would prefer that the shelf for the t-shirts be moved to this different spot.” It might be possible, and that makes sense, or moving the shelf there would not allow for as much storage space, and that’s your job to tell them that it’s a bad idea. Ultimately, they can take your advice, or they can disregard it, but you’ve done your due diligence in pointing out what you know will work best, and what won’t.
In the same way that having that initial closet structure is important, the content model or taxonomy outline is important as well. You cannot determine the flow (like a website sitemap) until you know what the initial structure is. There is some fluidity or flexibility with the model, but as with any physical structures, there are limitations. The model outline and the sitemap might seem redundant, but in the end, they really work together to help the client. The outline sets up the structure as it should be set up (at least initially, if not entirely going forward) and imply how pages might be laid out, but the sitemap visually supports the outline by documenting how the flow of the outlined content works.
So everything we do as content strategists really is done using the Konmari method, if you think about it. We help others to provide structure, organization, and help determine if content is needed, and thanking it for its service while it lasted. Our jobs are meant to not only spark joy in our clients in helping them to create a better, more fluid, searchable way to access content, but ensure that the best content is available, so that their users can have the content spark joy in them as well. We, as content strategists, have studied this, and we know what’s needed to make things happen in the architecture and building of this “closet” or website. We need to be trusted that we know what we are talking about, even if sometimes it seems like we are talking nonsense (we usually aren’t). We provide the initial solutions that make things happen, and no amount of UX or design is going to happen if you don’t have your content (or your closet) in order first.
What do you think? Does my Konmari analogy makes sense? Include your comments below.
This is a big part of my job right now, and this is an excellent way to clarify the difference between what a thesaurus is and taxonomy is. Taxonomy really is about the organization of the content so that the hierarchy makes sense.
Another analogy that I’ve used–which I got long ago from Val Swisher of Content Rules is how one can organize a closet. You can put the pants together, the shirts together, and the jackets together, but you could put all the red clothing together, all the blue clothing together, etc. Neither way is wrong, as long as it makes sense and others can follow the flow.
Except with me these days, it’s more about pharmaceutical departments and procedures. Still, even with those topics, we need to scale it back all the way to what are the objectives of the website we’re building, and how do we structure the website so that users can find what they need quickly and easily. Start with the foundational basics, and build from there.
I highly recommended this article if taxonomy isn’t your strength. It shows that it’s not as hard as it seems.
As 2017 gets going, I realized that I haven’t written a whole lot in the past year. Why? Simple–not a whole lot to write about, frankly. 2016 was a rough year in many ways, but there were some good elements, too.
It’s hard to write about things when you feel like nothing is inspiring you or giving you little motivation. I remember feeling excited about tech comm for the first few years, and it was much easier, as I was learning new things constantly. Now, while there is still a lot for me to learn, it’s not quite as much in some instances. It’s probably like anything else, in that movements go in waves, and the mobile wave first took hold right about the time I started to study tech comm and get involved in tech comm. Now, it’s something that we take for granted, like electricity or running water in developed countries. There are still things to discover, but the wave of innovation and adapting to the changes to those innovations–both professionally and socially–have generally passed. We’ve adapted, for the most part. The use of mobile devices like mobile phones and tablets are common place now. Almost everyone has a smart phone. And many companies–not all, but most–have adapted their content and UX to have responsive design to adapt to different devices. E-learning has gone back to basics with m-learning by re-adapting chunking and also using responsive design and better UX.
From my view, the initial thrill is over, and we are now settling into the “new normal”. Things that were new and exciting have now become everyday, or have morphed into what they will be. For example, when social media really started to take off, it was an opportunity to create content that could be shared easily in sound bytes or blurbs in a more viral manner than conventional media. It was an opportunity to use content to incite a two-way conversation to discuss and share. Now, social media strategists don’t use social media for discussion, but rather as another marketing medium. Content strategists have been…shall we say…strongly encouraged to look at content as a marketing asset, and look towards content marketing. Content marketers, however, are not content strategists who have some understanding of marketing, but rather it’s expected that they are full-fledged marketers that have some understanding of content. (Trust me. I’ve read the job descriptions posted for many companies.) Both social media and content marketing are things I looked at doing seriously with my career. But as time went on, it was apparent that corporate expectations were shifting, and that these jobs were really meant for business people who were marketers and trained in marketing, not technical communicators. While I have some good sense about business, marketing, and customer service after many years, I don’t consider myself a business person per se. In other words, I would never get an MBA because business topics bore the hell out of me, and there are others who can look and do that sort of thing better than me.
This past year was a year of experimentation for me. When I got out of grad school almost five years ago, I wanted to be an instructional designer until I found that there was no such position as an entry-level instructional designer. I fell back into doing what I had done for years, but with stronger knowledge and experience, which was content strategy and management. I’d been happy doing that work, but always wanted to expand my skills. When I was released from my long-term contract doing content management in 2015, I saw it as an opportunity to do something different. I could start over, if you will. I was hired to do a knowledge management job, but the position was a misnomer. It really didn’t do anything close to knowledge management, and in the end, the projects they had brought me on board for were cancelled, and my contract ended in early 2016.
I was able to pick myself up quickly, taking a copywriting technical writer position. While I definitely had the ability to do the job, I found that my best writing abilities and UX/UI skills couldn’t be used to their fullest potential. I’m used to writing more than two sentences at a time, or re-labeling a button using a single word. I knew I had more to offer than what was required with no opportunities to contribute more than that, so I let that contract expire.
After trying those two other avenues, I found a short-term job doing content strategy and management again. Oh, it was exciting for me! I felt so comfortable doing that kind of work, and I felt confident again in my abilities. I was right to trust my instincts–that there was more to me than writing two sentences at a time, and doing something that I like doing. That, in itself, was a big discovery.
So, through this period of self-discovery, it was rough. I was unhappy with the work I was doing, unhappy with my lack of progress in a positive direction professionally, began to doubt my professional self-worth, and felt conflicted about next steps. Okay, so I’m still working through some of it, but I think the worst is (hopefully) over.
This isn’t to say that it’s all been bad. From those events, I can say that I learned what I’m good at, and what I’m not good at. I learned what I like and don’t like. I started to have a better understanding of my self-worth, at least professionally. Those are big realizations in themselves.
There were also other good things that happened that proved to be positive challenges. I had post-weight loss surgery, and recovered from that well. I’d never had major surgery in my life (and will be avoiding it in every way possible in the future), and found strength within myself to recover quickly and push myself. I attended three conferences in 2016, namely CONDUIT, TC Camp – East, and the STC Summit. All went well, and it gave me a chance to learn and reaffirm my passion for tech comm, meet and network with old and new colleagues, and remind me that this is the profession where I belong. I got more involved in my local STC chapter, and now I’m the vice-president of the chapter, and working my way up the STC food chain, as one might say. I’ve been in charge of STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter’s programming this year, and I’m also co-chair of their conference, CONDUIT, so it’s been very busy for me that way as well, as I gain some new soft skills–and enhance ones I already had.
The election outcome put me in a very bad funk for the latter part of 2016. Dealing with my teenage autistic son has been more challenging than ever. End of the year holidays also don’t put me in a happy mood, usually. It’s usually a stressful time on a number of levels, and I couldn’t wait for the year to be over.
While in many respects, the start of 2017 is a chance to start fresh again, it’s an artificial starting point. I say that because we can start over fresh anytime we want to, if you think about it. It could be in the middle of August, or the end of March, or anytime, really. But with the stress of the holidays and year-end activities, January 1st was as good a date as any to start over, and it’s not something that is only on one day. Fresh starts can take days, weeks, or months. I’ve made some big decisions going forward that will take some time. I will need to be more patient with myself in achieving those goals. I am going to have many challenges, but I have support from my family and my colleagues to move forward in the direction I am intending.
The number one thing that I’ve decided that I need to do in 2017 is I have to get to a place in my life where I can be happy with what I do, and do what I enjoy. That’s easier said than done. To that end, I’m going to focus more on building up my independent consulting business, which I had intended to start after that long-term contract ended in 2015. I got majorly side-tracked in 2016, so 2017 is going to be focused on getting back on track with that. No agency contract distractions like in the past year. I’m going to do it on my own, using entrepreneurship and networking skills. It may be slow going to start, but I have a few good leads so far. Time will tell if they work out successfully. I know I’ll put my full efforts into any projects I do get. I’ll also be learning, both independently and with help, how to run a successful business. Hopefully, this will encourage the spark for me to write here more often about things that are going on that I see in tech comm, and how I view things that I’m learning in the process. I had a recent head-start with my adventures in learning DITA. My initial plans are to continue to train and practice using DITA. I’m also going to be learning Drupal next month, as that seems to be a widely used CMS in my area with some of the leading employers in the area. I’m hoping that adding DITA and Drupal to my “arsenal” of skills will be helpful for my business. I’ll attending CONDUIT and the STC Summit for sure this year, strengthening my professional ties and knowledge. I’ll be working hard still for the STC-PMC, as I intend to run for President of the group this year (we’ll see how that goes!).
Outside of my professional life, there are some hurdles along the way as well, but my goal this year is, well, to get through this year unscathed, or better off than I am now. I don’t mean just financially or professionally, but personally as well. It’s going to be a rebuilding year, and I hope that this time next year, I’ll be a little more upbeat about things, and I will have been able to share more with you over the course of the year.
What are your professional goals this year? Include your comments below.
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