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Maintaining Your Principles While On the Job

figure balancing a check in one hand and an X in another hand, showing right versus wrongOoh…she’s going into controversial territory here… (Well, yeah, I am. What’s new?)

I’ve heard some people say that the COVID-19 pandemic and world events really has them looking at life very differently now on a number of levels. One of those levels for me has been dealing with how do a show the world my principles in a positive light? How do I practice my principles through my actions? These are tough ethical and moral questions for anyone, but this time period in my life and our world’s history is truly bringing this to the forefront, for sure.

As there’s a good segment of technical communicators out there who are looking for work due to the pandemic, it’s a good time to be thinking about those things. For me, it’s not only doing what’s right for me and looking for jobs that appreciate what I can offer and that I can enjoy my work, but also what they are doing. As I get older, sticking to some of my principles gets to be a bigger issue, and how I can apply my values within my work and still stay true to my beliefs and sleep at night knowing that I hopefully did the right thing through my work.

Now, looking at my work history, I didn’t always work for places that always had a good reputation. At the time, I kept a blind eye that as long as I wasn’t part of that segment of the business doing the “dirty work” thinking I was okay. As I’ve gotten older, I can’t do that so much anymore. I have to feel okay that what I do serves a better cause overall, and that I can agree with the company’s mission and ethics. We all have different levels of where we stand on issues, so in some instances this can be hard. For example, if you are a person who is strongly against fossil fuels, but the industry where you live is primarily gas and oil, then there are going to be difficulties. But if you also knew about the things that the company is doing to make cleaner fuels and other earth-positive products, you might not be quite as strict about where you work. It’s a slippery slope.

It also applies to the people you work with as well. I’ve been fortunate that most of the people that I’ve worked with hold the same values that I do, and that makes work easier as well when dealing with others. If you come from the same or a similar perspective on something, interpersonal relationships with others is easier. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you generally know that if someone’s holistic ethical approach is the same as yours, you’re going to be fine.

As I continue to find my next gig, this becomes important to me. I don’t want to apply to a company that supports causes that go against my standards. I don’t want to work for a company that cheats people or treats them poorly–whether they be their employees, consultants, or even their customers. I prefer to work for companies that do look out for those who work for them and their customers, and make it a point to make it part of their internal conversations.

Like I said, it’s a slippery slope navigating in this crazy world right now, but it’s something we should all be conscious of. Where do you want to be? What do you want to support? Is where you work a place that supports the betterment of others and helps elevate us all? Our principles and ethics can slide. What might be a deal breaker for you isn’t for me, and vice versa. And that’s okay. But we should all be conscious of this, especially in tech comm work. Why? It’s actually part of our job, if you think about it. We write manuals, how-to guides, policies and procedures, training, and a host of other forms of content that are meant to help others get things done on an equal level, or at least provide a means of balancing things so things can be equal. Localization and globalization is part of that. It’s built into what we do.

So, as you continue, just think about how influential technical communicators can be in this respect. And make choices that are right for you, and right for the world that you want to leave behind.

What are your thoughts? Include them below.

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Content in the Age of Coronavirus

Man watching TV intensely Welcome to day 4-ish of my self-quarantine from the coronavirus pandemic. I say 4-ish because I went out on Sunday, but once I came back, I’ve stayed home every since. I went for a walk with my husband around the neighborhood yesterday for a little bit of fresh air, but now most of the weather is expected to be wet and soggy for most of the next week, so other than a doctor’s appointment that hasn’t been cancelled yet, I plan to stay indoors.

This post was inspired by something that I just watched on Twitter. Normally, I don’t watch Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show much (we’re more Late Show with Stephen Colbert people), but I saw he had posted a “home edition” post, and I was curious. I didn’t watch the whole thing, but he said something in his conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda in passing that perked my ears up. He mentioned that right now, it’s “all about the content”.

BAM!

In the conditions that all of us are in right now, with most of us on self-imposed quarantines, many don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t doing their work from home or helping their kids with schoolwork. Being generally sequestered indefinitely, they yearn for content to keep them abreast of what’s going on in the world as well as something to entertain them to help pass the time. Many business-related companies that have means of broadcasting through webinars or the like are already taking advantage of this, and trying to help the “cause” of needing content to help people get through these times. So many people are not used to staying at home for long periods of time, unless they’ve been seriously ill, or snowed in from a blizzard or other natural disaster. Perhaps because I’m a bit of an introvert, and I’ve worked from home for a long time, I’m used to staying home and not going out for long stretches of time. I am a natural couch potato–my mother used to criticize me for it, but I’ve always loved watching TV to watch all the comedies, action shows, and documentaries I could. I swear half of my knowledge comes from pop culture from those years of intensely watching TV from the 1970s-1990s especially.

So, this is an opportunity to either appreciate the content that is out there or start creating your own. I’ve been watching documentaries, movies, and TV shows that were on my watch list for the longest time, and I’m starting to read some books again. At the same time,  I’m working with my programming chair/vice-president of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter and another STC person on creating other content and events to go on virtually in the coming months.

Now, you might think that you need to have fancy equipment and lighting and audio to create content. Nope. Heck, this blog post is content. It’s taking up some of your time, and giving you something to think about, doesn’t it? Additionally, it’s not about the “bling”. Again the point is the content itself. What is the big message? What value does the content–whether it be text, video, audio, or whatever–have? Does it need to be “perfect” in order to get that main message through? In my opinion, it doesn’t not have to be glitzy. It’s nice when it is, but it doesn’t have to be. All content, as we’ve been told by content marketers, is about storytelling. Yes, that procedure manual you are writing or those instructions that you are writing as a technical writer are still telling a story. Any kind of entertainment we watch right now is content and it’s storytelling. Content storytelling comes in infinite forms, after all.

Photo of TechCommGeekMom and hubby walking in their neighborhood.
Here’s my contribution. Here’s a photo of me and my husband taking a walk around our neighborhood. It’s usually this quiet around here for the most part anyway. We didn’t stay six feet apart for long!

What kind of content are you either going to consume or create today? For me, it’s watching a mini-series on Hulu, then watching Star Trek: Picard and the Ready Room later today. I might create some storytelling by submitting my resume to another job opening. I know I’ve definitely been having conversations via social media and instant messaging with friends and family during this time. For me, most of this is generally the same as usual–I fill my life with content. Content is storytelling, but it’s also how you fill your life with experiences. Going out for a walk to get some fresh air is still absorbing content–you are using all your senses to create your story of taking that walk outside. You can translate that into further content by either video recording that walk, taking photos along the way, or writing about it later. No matter how it’s processed, it’s content.

So, while it’s frustrating to be sequestered for this long, we all know it’s for our own health and for the greater good of the PLANET. Coronavirus has definitely hit my area, and with my bad asthma, I’m hesitant to leave the house–other than a neighborhood walk–for anything for the most part. I know a lot of people are having a hard time with this, but we really are in this together. My recommendation is to concentrate on the good content that is out there. Be aware of the “doom and gloom” to be educated, but focus on the better stuff. Pay attention to how others are helping each other. Look at the content that people are putting out to ensure that you are recognized, loved, helped, and that your mind is staying active. Watch webinars and video conferences. This is a great opportunity to hone your verbal and written communications skills because working from home involves better communications skills than when you are in the office. Appreciate and enjoy all the entertainment and education that the media offers. You know I learned how to cook better over the years from watching a lot of the Food Network? My husband I have learned a lot about DIY projects and real estate from watching HGTV. It’s an opportunity for you to read all those books that you’ve been collecting to read and “will get to eventually”. This is time to spend with your families. This is a time to break out your creative side and draw, paint, knit…whatever. Learn to exercise at home doing something different–there are plenty of “dance parties” and yoga classes online where you don’t need equipment. Use this time to absorb content that will help you be a better person when you emerge from the quarantines. It will help distract you from the doom and gloom. Contribute content when you can, even if it’s a one-to-one instant message conversation with a friend, or an email. I know an email checking in on my parents lifted their spirits that I was checking in on them. Or heck, a blog post. 🙂

It’s all about the content right now. Learn to absorb and appreciate what’s out there right now that we can use, and help contribute positive content to share.

What are your thoughts? Include your comments below.

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Glassblowing and tech comm–what’s the connection?

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.

What do you think? Include your comments below.

 

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Content Strategists are the Marie Kondos of Tech Comm

Marie Kondo, folding a shirt.
Even Marie Kondo knows that content strategists know their stuff when it comes to content.

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.

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How do we determine the bounds of digital literacy?

Yes, you are seeing this correctly. There’s a blog posting from me. No need to double-blink in disbelief. I am still alive and well. I don’t always get much of a chance to write here because I’m busy! One of these days, I’ll try to catch up with what’s going on with me, but in summary, I’m busy teaching a technical editing class at NJIT, working a part-time gig for BASF, working a “freelance contract” with a pharmaceutical company as a digital content strategist, and working my tail off for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter as president, conference chair, sponsorship chair, and competition chair.  Not a lot of time to come up for air these days!

But as I do have a short moment right now to put these thoughts down, I thought I’d start this conversation, because it is a frequent topic that comes up again and again in all the things I’m working on these days.

Where are the boundary lines what constitutes digital literacy? Just like a person needing to know how to read and write, we live in an age where almost everything is done digitally these days.  You can’t do a lot of what you used to be able to do on paper or manually. You call a toll-free helpline, and you are most likely to get an automated chatbot responding to you before you can even get to a real person. Credit cards use chips increasingly more than the magnetic strips, or even use Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or the like. To get help for anything, most people go online to find answers through browser searches.  So where’s the line of what’s considered digitally literate and digitally illiterate?

I bring this up because I often get into discussions about what is acceptable and user-friendly UX, and what’s not. I usually follow the tech comm mantra of “know your audience”, so many of the audiences I have to deal with aren’t necessarily the most digitally savvy bunch. I’ll argue to include something to make interactivity with the site more apparent, whereas others will argue that it’s not necessary.

I also wonder about people who still can’t figure things out like social media, or GMail or Google Drive, or things like that. These have been around for a decade–or more! There are other apps and sites that have also been around for a long time, and people still have no clue how to begin to use them (and it’s more disturbing to me when it’s someone who has to either work with digital on a daily basis, write for digital, or is teaching digital).  Now, some may argue that it’s a generational thing, but I don’t agree. I know people who are my parents’ age (into their 70s) who have a better clue than I do about how to use digital, and are very good at it. And then I know people younger than me who have no idea how to use word processing or a simple spreadsheet. It runs the gamut.  Digital has been a part of society for at least the last 30 years, and there isn’t anybody who isn’t touched by it these days. Those who don’t adapt fall behind. Digital is pretty much everywhere, and it’s even easier to use now than it was in the decades before.

Case in point: I recently had to go for my yearly eye exam. My optometrist is still scheduling in a paper book, does her bookkeeping in a paper book (the receptionist writes out receipts rather than prints them out), and most of the records are still done solely on paper. Additionally, they don’t have an up-to-date database or access to one to look up insurance information. I was told that I didn’t have certain kind of coverage, but when the place that I got my glasses (a different place than my doctor) looked the information up, I did have the coverage. Why? They could access the information online more easily.  While it seems old-fashioned, my doctor is actually severely behind the times, and she’s going to have issues keeping up with more modern practices soon enough. She complains that there’s no software that meets her needs, but she doesn’t know that no software will meet ALL of her needs, and she needs to work with a vendor to customize things as much as possible so that it WILL meet her needs.

I also had to deal with someone for whom I had help them sign onto Google Drive and Gmail. I’ve told this person many times how to do it–in writing, no less–and they still can’t figure it out. I don’t think it’s my instructions, as others have used the same instructions without any issues. I think part of it is a conscientious mental block that person puts up, because they don’t want to learn.

So, this is why I ask…

As a society, we put great emphasis on the basics of learning how to read and write. Same thing for understanding the basics of mathematics. So what’s the functional literacy level for using digital? I will grant you that understanding how to use digital has evolved over time. But there’s a point where, even as technical writers, we need to be promoting better ways to be literate. For example, if you are on a webpage, and you see text that’s in a different color or especially if it’s underlined, wouldn’t that tell you that it’s a hyperlink, and it’s going to take you somewhere else or open another window? Then why do we still have text like, “Click here to view the video” instead of “View the video”–or better yet, if the title of the video is mentioned in the sentence, just hyperlink the video title? This is especially true when it comes to writing for mobile, as you can’t “click” on something, just as you can’t “tap” on a desktop/laptop interface unless you have a touch screen.  This is an example of something that’s incredibly basic, yet there are those who still don’t get it.

So how do we define the parameters of being digitally literate versus being digitally illiterate in this day and age? I know I have my own ideas, but I would like to hear yours.  How would you define these parameters? Include your comments below.