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We can all be trainers–with support.¬†

 

“Ever hear of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? MORONS!”

Scott Abel recently wrote an article titled, “Why Thought Leaders Aren’t Usually The Best Trainers,” in which he makes a valid point that not all thought leaders who push out books and PowerPoint slides are trainers or teachers. I get that. He backs up his thesis with some facts to support this. And yes, it wouldn’t hurt for those who are thought leaders who haven’t had to go out in the world to present their expertise to learn some fundamentals of teaching/training.

However, I feel Scott has done a disservice here. Sure, I admit I’ve seen some of the thought leaders he’s described, people who are incredibly brilliant and have a lot of great information to share, droning on with dull PowerPoint slides and who don’t know how to present it in a compelling way to actually feel like you learned something. It sounds like much of my entire higher ed education. I’m willing to bet that many of these thought leaders merely wanted to write a book to share knowledge, and didn’t think that they’d end up training people on their methods or data necessarily.

But with method that Scott used to frame his position, I feel like this article is a big slam against half the thought leaders in our industry, simply because they haven’t had those educational fundamentals instilled in them at times or the presentation skills he seeks. In doing this, his commentary implies, in my opinion, that those with the expertise shouldn’t even bother, because without these skills to be a trainer, you’re not worth the time or effort. “Learn to teach/train, or don’t waste my time.” That’s not quite right.

The thing to keep in mind is that understanding different learning styles, etc. takes TIME, as well as trial and error. It’s not something learned in a day, and most thought leaders aren’t going to go back to school to get an education degree. It’s not rocket science either. Budding educators are even given time–a learning curve of their own–to student teach before being sent out to teach. In the corporate world, there is no learning curve before being sent out in the world. You are thrown to the wolves and told, “Okay, you know this, you are an expert on XYZ. GO TRAIN.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t “train the trainer” programs or other resources out there that we can learn from, but I’m willing to bet that more experts are let loose to learn how to train others by trial and error, rather than be guided themselves. At least they go out there and try, which is more than I can say for others.

To understand my perspective, you have to understand that I am an educator’s daughter. My father did some form of teaching either on the high school or university level for over 40 years, and in his spare time, his idea of “fun” was reading books about learning styles and testing the theories on his kids. (Ask me sometime about family vacations at historic cemeteries instead of the beach. ūüėē) I also have learning disabilities, which provides a different perspective. I have trained others, including those with learning disabilities as well. There is no right or wrong way to teach if the information is learned. Just as there are different learning styles, there are different ways to teach. As long as comprehension is accomplished, then the task has been completed.

I have been a trainer, and still consider myself a trainer. I don’t know how good a trainer I am, but I know I’ve had my successes and failures in teaching people different concepts. I do know that there are many times I have to re-explain a concept to a learner in a different way so that they understand a concept.

In the end, I’ve realized that as a trainer, the process of learning is a two-way communication. As a trainer/teacher, you can present all the facts you want, but if no conversation ensues as a result, then the lesson has failed. At the end of every presentation, workshop, or one-on-on training I’ve ever done, I’ve always invited the students to not only ask questions, but to share their insights or experiences as well. My goal is that students come away with learning something new as well as validating their own knowledge, since I find that to be the best learning for me. It’s a good deal for me as a trainer because I learn how I can explain concepts better to students, as well as gain some new perspectives.

So rather than be a motivating article to spur thought leaders to improve their skills, I thought it was discouraging towards thought leaders. As a community, tech comm should be more pro-active in lifting those thought leaders who have the great ideas into being BETTER teachers. Writing their books is already an effort on their part to teach us, and many write excellent resources. Summoning up the courage to train people on these concepts can be hard enough. I have no disagreement with encouraging those who are going to share their ideas publicly to get some foundational training in how to train and learn how to assess comprehension. But build those budding trainers up, don’t tear them down. Tell them what they did right, but give them constructive criticism. I’m willing to bet that they will appreciate it, and get better over time.

The expression of “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” ran through my head as I read Scott’s article and while writing this post. I always thought that this expression was rather insulting to the many teachers I know. In so many respects, teachers are more capable than those that “do”. But conversely, there are “do-ers” that can’t teach, just as there are teachers that can’t “do”. ¬†Scott himself is a university instructor and trainer. Does that mean he can’t do what he lectures about? Of course not. He’s an expert in his field, plus he’s evidentially taken the time over years to learn the most effective ways to teach for his audience. Not everyone makes that same effort, or for that matter, is expected to do that. Thought leaders do need to learn some teaching fundamentals, but we shouldn’t diminish their contributions simply because they aren’t the best trainers.

As I said, as a community, let’s work on raising thought leaders to their fullest potential, which includes encouraging that two-way conversation related to learning, which will help them become better teachers and trainers. After all, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle didn’t have written books or PowerPoint to share their ideas, and they were revered teachers because of discussions. Let’s work on that, instead.

(In the meantime, if you are inspired to improve your training skills, I’m sure there are plenty of resources out there that can help. I think my first stop would be searching through SlideShare to see if there are any pointers out there. I would also watch any video or listen to audio presentations done by those who I think are good trainers, and figure out why I respond to their methods. How was the information presented? What verbal tone did they use? Things like that. Emulate your favorite teachers, because they evidently did something right.)

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Trust your Instincts!

Mind_Blown_AwayIt’s amazing the kind of revelations you can have in the slight delirium of being sick.

At this writing, I’m suffering from a bad cold. I’ve had worse, but this one has still knocked me down enough that I’m not getting much sleep at night, so I’m definitely feeling “out of it”. ¬†Yesterday, after I had finished working for the day, I tried to take a nap to help. Instead, I couldn’t sleep not only because I was coughing, but I had a hundred thoughts running through my head. For some odd reason, I started thinking about a job that I had years ago. In the many years I’ve worked, it was the only job in which I was outright dismissed. I don’t mean laid off or my contract ended. I was sacked. That was about fourteen years ago. Now, granted, I was miserable in that job, and cried every day. I was trying to figure a way out of the job, but they let me go instead. I didn’t like that, because I wanted to go out on my terms, not theirs, and they were really rude when letting me go.

I was a project manager for a global news agency, working on a business project that they had. I was still very green as a project manager, and I know I was their second choice when hiring. I had the option to take another job for an e-learning firm, which in retrospect I probably should’ve taken, but hindsight is 20/20. ¬†It was an industry I was unfamiliar with, and my manager was not exactly very good at explaining to me what he wanted me to do with the project. I was rather intimidated by him, so even if I asked questions, I got unclear answers, and I got the impression he didn’t like to be bothered.

But as I was thinking about this situation yesterday and how rotten I felt at that job, I remembered an initiative that I tried that my manager thought was a waste of time, but in retrospect I know was actually on the cutting edge. ¬†Since the job I had before this particular job was as a content project manager creating web courses for one of the first e-learning dot-coms out there, I put my knowledge to use. ¬†The news agency was sending me and others out to various clients and newspapers to personally train others on¬†how to use our specialized CMS product used to place advertising information. I got the notion that we could save some money and time out of the office if we created a basic online tutorial that anyone could access. Pretty good thinking, right? I created the course, and presented it to my boss. He had some others review it with him, and they ripped it to shreds. No, it wasn’t perfect, but heck, it was on the right track, but they weren’t going to admit that. Without any guidance or constructive feedback about my own project or any others I was working on, I was eventually let go. The job has haunted me for years. It’s taken me almost¬†a decade and a half to¬†regain some of the confidence I had back then when I first started that job.

As I laid in bed yesterday trying to nap, I realized that in the long run, I had done something right. The news agency was not smart enough to see the benefits. I knew e-learning was the way to go, and the simple tutorial I created would have saved thousands of dollars in travel costs for the company. It was forward thinking for 14 years ago.  Many companies today are still getting on board with online training, yet here I was trying to bring this global news agency into the 21st century ahead of the rest. They missed out.

The point of this story is this: don’t be afraid to be forward thinking when it comes to tech comm. I try to stay on top of the latest trends and thoughts about different tech comm and e-learning topics because I know that this brings value to a company. Whether it’s adopting DITA practices in content strategy, or employing m-learning, forward thinking is what is going to eventually separate the innovation of one company from another. ¬†Granted, not all higher-ups are going to always listen to your forward thinking, but it takes only one time for someone to hear you and help move things forward in a positive direction. ¬†Hanging back in the past and taking the attitude of “This is the way we’ve always done it” isn’t going to work anymore. Technology is moving too fast to keep that attitude. Yes, there’s some risk involved, since no one knows what’s going to work best and be adopted as a standard in the future. ¬†Unless you take that first step, you are never going to find out.

Being a technical communicator these days means being on the cutting edge, and finding new ways to disseminate content, whether it be print or digital. Your customers are keeping up with new technologies and methodologies, so you should too.

I can look back now at that news agency job and realize that while I might have failed at that job, I did some things right. I look back at other jobs as well where I made forward-thinking suggestions that weren’t taken while I was there. I would often find out after I left that I was on the right track, and their inability to act would catch¬†them off-guard later. ¬†Be the one to speak up.

One reason I like the job I have now is that I can speak up and put ideas forward. Some are accepted, and some aren’t, but at least they are considered. In some instances, a¬†company knows they have to move forward, but they don’t have the resources or support, but they continue to push the initiative. I feel better knowing that I’m taking pro-active steps to move in new directions, which benefit both me and my company in the long run.

Have you had any realizations that you were ahead of the curve after the fact? Share your insights in the comments.

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Adobe Day at LavaCon 2012 Roundup!

This post is just a quick summary of the Adobe Day at LavaCon 2012 series from this past week. As you see, there was so much information that it took six posts to try to summarize the event!

Being in Portland, Oregon was great. It was my first trip there, and being a native Easterner, my thoughts pushed me to that pioneer spirit of moving westward in this country. Once there, I saw a hip, young, modern city, continuing to look towards the future.  The information I gathered at Adobe Day was general information that was endorsement-free, and practical information that I can use going forward as a technical communicator, and that by sharing it, I hope that others in the field will equally take on that pioneering spirit to advance what technical communications is all about, and bring the field to the next level.

To roundup the series, please go to these posts to get the full story of this great event. I hope to go to more events like this in the future!

As I said, I really enjoyed the event, and learned so much, and enjoyed not only listening to all the speakers, but also enjoyed so many people who are renowned enthusiasts and specialists in the technical communications field and talking “shop”. I rarely get to do that at home (although it does help to have an e-learning developer in the house who understands me), so this was a chance for me to learn from those who have been doing this for a while and not only have seen the changes, but are part of the movement to make changes going forward.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of blog posts. I still have many more to come–at least one more that is inspired by my trip out to Portland, and I look forward to bringing more curated content and commentary to you!

The autograph from my copy of
Sarah O’Keefe’s book,
Content Strategy 101.
Awesome!
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Adobe Day Presentations: Part II – Sarah O’Keefe and Content Strategy

Sarah O’Keefe
of Scriptorium Publishing

After an energetic first presentation by Scott Abel, second presenter Sarah O’Keefe, author of Content Strategy 101 and founder of Scriptorium Publishing, talked about “Developing a Technical Communication Content Strategy.”

Sarah started by telling us that many companies don’t understand the value of technical communication, so technical communicators need¬†to justify their approach. When writing up business cases for these justifications, technical communicators need to include what the current situation is, recommendations to improve the situation, costs associated with those recommendations, as well as the benefits and risks of taking the actions recommended.¬†¬†If there are regulatory and legal requirements, then there is the need to build a case for more efficient compliance in order to avoid legal complications.

Sarah expounded on how technical communication departments should talk to management about how technical communications can control costs. She explained that there is a myth that cheap documentation can be done. She busted that myth by explaining that cheap documentation is actually more expensive, as it can be limited in availability making it useless, it can be hard to understand and out of date, and it may not be translatable into other languages. The cost of bad content is high customer service volume,  lost sales, content duplication, huge global costs, and it can contradict marketing communications.

The solution, she said, is efficient development involving the reuse of content, using single sourcing and cross-departmental reuse of content, only tweaking text that is already available. She stressed that formatting and production are important! Using templates and various structures are helpful. She encouraged using tools for creating the needed output.  Sarah also said that localization is important as well, that translations are needed component of communication documentation. All these can help bring costs down significantly! Sarah gave an example of how a common obstacle to efficient customer service or tech phone support is often a monster-sized PDF that the support representatives need to read before providing service while on the phone! The process of having to read the long document while online with a customer is time consuming and not cost efficient.

Sarah encouraged technical communicators to work on collaborating and creating better working relationships with¬†other business departments such as tech support, training and marketing with technical content, as this will help to support those departments with pertinent information as well as help them to streamline information. Technical communication can be used to¬†support sales–read documentation before you buy! Technical communication¬†content also can help to increase visibility by creating searchable, findable and discoverable documentation, ¬†especially for Google or SEO purposes. Sarah recommended building user communities with technical communication¬†documentation, and making sure that technical communications aligns with business needs.

Sarah has further information which goes into greater detail both in her book, and on the book’s website, which is found at:¬†http://www.contentstrategy101.com¬†.

Sarah’s presentation was really good, in my opinion, because coming from my own experiences, much of what she explained was true, and as she said, the biggest battle is making management understand the value of having solid content strategy. One of my biggest issues at my last consulting job was exactly the scenario that Sarah described; marketing was not taking proper advantage of the technical communication documentation available, nor was it sharing resources and creating reuseable content. As a result, in-house documentation was long and overly customized when much of the information was the same or very similar (needed few tweaks), and the sales advisors that needed the information rarely looked at it because it was too long. When I made the recommendations about reuse or editing from a technical communications standpoint, I was ignored. Of course, I was only a consultant, and I wasn’t privy to understanding the departmental costs, but it did not feel good to know that some of the issues could be fixed with the kind of collaboration that Sarah described. In this respect, I could associate with what she was saying.

An aside note is that Sarah is a self-confessed chocoholic, and a fun part of her presentation was that she incorporated chocolate production into her presentation. To verify her chocoholic status, I was out with Sarah after the event, and caught her in the act of buying more chocolate at one of Portland’s chocolate boutiques:

Sarah O’Keefe buying more chocolate for inspiration!

I do think Sarah’s message is very clear. Technical communications has a lot of value, especially with structured content and reusable content, and as technical communicators, we need to push that agenda to management so that we can provide a bigger service to our clients and companies that they currently realize.

(Sarah–feel free to correct any of my interpretations in the comments below!)

Next post: Adobe Day Presentations: Part III ‚Äď Joe Welinske and Multi-screen Help Authoring