The Top 6 Problems People Have with Technical Communicators

Good technical communication provides many benefits, from writing that people can understand immediately to needed information that’s easy to find. However, there are a few challenges when it comes to handling technical communicators:

1. Many in the industry can’t handle technical content

In my experience, about half of the technical communicators out there can’t actually deal with technical content. It can be a challenge to sort the good from the bad. To do so, it usually requires some kind of testing of the technical communicator’s abilities before committing to a full-scale project with them.

2. Sometimes technical communicators can be antisocial

Good writing requires some amount of isolation. That’s something that all technical communicators have to be able to deal with. But a good technical communicator has to prioritize relationships as well, since most of their work usually involves interviews and other forms of information gathering.

3. Lack of ability to use technical communicators effectively

You may know that you need help writing stuff up, but how do you make sure that you use that help well, and get the most bang for your buck. There are a variety of best practices, many of which are covered on this website. One helpful policy is to make sure that the technical communicators themselves know industry best practices, and have company policies that are in line with those best practices. An informal survey on LinkedIn indicated that 48% of issues technical communicators experience involve management being unclear on how to work well with technical communicators.

4. Technical communication help costs money

This one is what it is. Some are willing to pay for highly qualified help, and some aren’t. To avoid spending money on bad help should be the goal, so strongly consider including metrics in your progress that realistically assess the impact that the technical communicator is making.

5. Believing that technical communicators don’t provide enough value

This may be related to #1. But some people just don’t believe in the value of technical communication generally, thinking that it’s just prettying up text. While some of these people may be lost causes as potential clients, others can be won over when they see examples of and research concerning effective technical communication. The same LinkedIn survey mentioned above indicated that fully 2/3 of issues that technical communicators experience are related to organizations undervaluing the contributions of their technical communicators.

6. Overemphasis on terminology

Some people place as their first requirement that a technical communicator has mastered a particular set of niche industry terminology. This can happen especially when erroneous beliefs about #1 and #5 have taken hold. However, since terminology can vary widely within a single project in a single company, this requirement has more to do with prestige than actual effectiveness.

Do you have any other categories to add to this list? Let us know!

How to Use Technical Communicators Effectively

Purpose

The purpose of this article is to help you examine technical communicators you might want to work with to see if they know their stuff, and to help you use those technical communicators well once you find them. 

Test them up front

Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with a technical communicator/tech writer in the past. Or maybe you’re not sure if the person or company that wants to write your manual or other document can do the job. That’s a reasonable concern. So what do you do?

Linscomb & Williams, a top-25 money management company in Houston, was faced with that situation a few years ago. They wanted to rewrite some of their client documentation in Plain English. But they needed someone who could do that while keeping the information technically correct.

Linscomb & Williams solicited bids from several bids from potential vendors, whom they asked to submit a small section of text from their disclosure document, rewritten in Plain English. Rewriting the text didn’t take the potential vendors very long, and it was a small enough section that the bid proposals didn’t amount to Linscomb & Williams trying to get free work done. But it was enough for them to evaluate how clear the revised text would be to their customers. They tested the text on several audiences, which they asked to rate the text in several areas of clarity.

In that case, EDI got the project. But what if EDI’s tone or method of laying out information didn’t match what Linscomb & Williams was aiming for? Then they would have had the opportunity to select another vendor that fit their culture better. Taking the time to test out potential vendors up front helped Linscomb & Williams make a good decision. You wouldn’t install software without testing it, would you? The principles of software testing, as described in this Amy Vetter article in CPA Practice Advisor, transfer to the testing and selection of a technical communication vendor. 

Get them involved up front

A December 2006 Aberdeen Group report states that project documentation meets expectations 92% of the time when technical communicators are involved up front. When the writers are involved later, the success rate for the documentation falls off precipitously.

You want to involve the technical communicators early and often in the project discussions. This will help them to gain a clear understanding of where you’re trying to head with the project, and therefore, with the documentation. It will also give them a chance to guide decisions that will impact documentation, so that the end result is high-quality, usable content.

Have you struggled with a writer who is so introverted that all they want to do is sit in the dark and write? This is a way to help them be a connected part of the team.

Don’t try to make the technical communicator a subject matter expert

I run into business people all the time who are looking for a technical communicator who is well-versed in the lingo that they use in their business. I’ll admit, for the sake of prestige a technical communicator may need to know some terminology in order to get their foot in the door. It can be helpful for a technical communicator embedded for years in a single department to become as much of a subject matter expert in that department’s subject matter as possible. Of course, the benefits of this knowledge tail off if the technical communicator begins to lose their objectivity, as tends to happen with anyone who is too close to any subject material.

But subject matter expertise is generally less important, or even possible, for individual projects. You probably know way more about your business, your clients, and your terminology, in the context of your project, than any technical communicator ever will. A good technical communicator knows more about planning documentation, structuring documents, and producing clear writing than you do (assuming that’s not your profession).

So let them do their thing. The best documentation usually comes from a pairing of motivated subject matter experts and technical communicators who are very good at drawing out the correct information, and expressing it clearly in writing. 

Focus on the value of the writing, not the hourly rate

If you’re just looking at your writer as someone who produces content as a commodity, then you probably won’t get much bang for your buck. You’ll likely wind up wondering if it makes sense to pay a technical communicator to produce content.

There are several reasons why people have this attitude issue.

One is that technical communicators are often tasked with documenting features, not benefits. So your customers wind up seeing lots of information about your equipment. But they don’t have much insight into how your products or services can help them, uniquely. That kind of writing doesn’t produce the results you’re looking for.

Another is that people are used to asking technical communicators to merely carry out solutions, rather than asking them to solve problems. As with everyone who works for you, if you can get them focused on solving problems themselves, rather than just carrying out your detailed game plan, you will get more bang for your buck.

Also, if you don’t determine what the value of the work is supposed to be ahead of time, you may not see much value in the work at the end of the project. Be sure to carefully define what it means for the documentation for the project to be “successful”.

If you’re still not sure if your technical communicators are producing what they need to, look into using metrics to compare one technical communicator’s work with another’s. Just keep in mind, no metric is foolproof. You need to include both quality and speed, as well as other factors that are applicable to your business (see this article from idratherbewriting for more information).

Finally, show your technical communicator(s) that you value their work. If you are focused on seeing value in their work, they will be more inclined to do so, also.

Tell them when it’s due when you ask for their help

This is an obvious one. But we miss it all the time, don’t we? If your technical communicator doesn’t ask when something is due when you ask for their help with it, then tell them. All kinds of chaos ensue when technical communicators don’t know what their deadlines are.

Learn to use scribes

Were you not expecting this one? If you’re going to use technical communicators effectively, you need to learn to use them in new ways.

A scribe, also known as a technographer or a chart writer, can make you look like a genius in meetings that you lead.

A scribe’s task is to take things off of your plate during a meeting, so that you can focus your efforts on driving the discussion. These tasks may include:

·   Recording action items and key decisions

·   Taking minutes

·   Running the computer/projector

·   Manipulating documents during the meeting

In the fall 2014 issue of Pragmatic Marketing, instructor Dave Daniels says:

It’s not necessary to invite every member to every meeting, but be sure to indicate who is required to attend and who is optional. Include someone to track time and document action items, issues, and decisions. This frees the leader to focus on driving the meeting. When an action item is raised, document it, assign it and set a date for completion. When an issue is identified, document it and assign it. Likewise, when a decision is made, document it.

Of course, organizing your meeting well helps you get the most out of your scribe. Make sure that everyone knows the meeting’s goals ahead of time, and has been given enough information to prepare to contribute. Only invite the people who need to be there, and focus your efforts on getting key stakeholders to the meeting. Make it personal.

A scribe can be your right hand man or woman in a meeting. They are an almost invisible, valuable aid. Use one.

Did we miss any keys to using technical communicators effectively? Let us know! 

What is Technical Communication?

The problem

I’ve never been able to make what I do sound macho. I’ve never been able to make it sound cool.

If I tell you that “I capture and arrange technical content in ways that help businesses make good decisions,” does that make your head spin? If I say “I work on processes and procedures,” does that make me sound about as interesting as a rock?

People ask me what I do. What do I tell them?

What LinkedIn says

I recently asked the Technical Writer LinkedIn group how they explained what they did. 

By my rough calculation, 54% defined what they did in terms of deliverables (example: I write the manuals that no one reads.) Another 17% focused on how they make information clear, while another 15% focused on how they translate information from one group (say, engineers) to another (say, the general public). About 6% had some other response (yes, I know this doesn’t add up to 100%, but I’m rounding numbers here).

Three respondents said they introduce themselves as a tech writer, but that when they get the inevitable glazed stare, they explain what they do in some other way.

 So, most tech writers seem to define themselves in terms of the deliverables they produce. Is that healthy? It’s simple. But is it how I should define my own work?

The key

What first attracted me to technical communication was the challenge. When someone uses your document, do they get the information they need? Do they know how to complete the procedure? Do they understand how you do business? Do they get what your business can do for them?

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to good technical communication than just writing good documents. What good is your document if no one winds up reading it? A document can be well-written, but if it’s buried someplace where no one will see it, then you’ve wasted money. If you don’t begin with the end in mind, you will write junk.

Here’s the real question you have to answer: When clients, employees, or regulators need some specific information about your business, can they find it? If so, that’s good technical communication, whether that information is in a procedure, a brochure, or any other medium. How do I convey to people that what I really do is make that communication clear?

What it’s not

One of the most important things to realize is that technical communication isn’t a tech writer sitting off in a corner, writing stuff. And it’s not just fixing typos and formatting the words in a certain way. People who do that are important. But doing those things doesn’t make them a technical communicator.

A true technical communicator must be able to:

·   Understand the problem that the business is facing

·   Come up with the best ways to measure whether the documentation works

·   Extract the information they need

·   Communicate the right information to solve that problem

·   Be able to see the big picture, and decide whether or not the way they are handling the content will be effective down the line

Why I love it

Even if it’s hard to explain, and even if no one ever hands me a medal or retires my jersey, what I and other (good) technical communicators do is still amazing.

When we do what we do, a company’s clients understand what the company does for them. When we do what we do, the other CPAs suddenly get what the first CPA was talking about. When we do what we do, businesses that were spending too much time training and hunting down information can focus on growing their business.

That’s why we’ll keep doing this, helping more and more businesses be understood.

Help!

If you have any advice on making my profession sound cool, or if you need help solving a technical communication problem, contact us!

Documentation Is Insurance

The cause

Brain drain has become a bigger and bigger problem at organizations of all sizes in recent years. The Baby Boomer generation is retiring, and new faces, without the same level of experience, are stepping in to take their place.

The new hires are different. Often, they will not stay with a company for as long as their predecessors did. So we are left with a double whammy of retiring, senior employees, along with incoming, new employees who may not stay as long.

The problem

Knowledge is the life blood of any company or organization. Without it, there is no business. So this departure of knowledge, which is getting faster and faster, can kill a business, or cripple a non-profit. The fact that more Baby Boomers are retiring, creating a need for more hiring, just makes the problem worse.

Think about the employees that work at your company. If your administrative assistant was suddenly gone, or whoever handles a key part of your business contracted a serious disease, would someone know how to cover every key aspect of that employee’s role at your company?

Common remedies

There are ways to address these issues, especially at larger companies. If you have two employees working on the same business segment, you will probably be okay if one of them leaves. The remaining employee can teach a replacement what to do.

If a company is part of a well-connected network, that also makes the problem smaller. If your expert in such-and-such aspect of your operations is out, but you know just who to call, you should be in decent shape. And if you have an office manager who has a good grasp of what everyone is doing, then all the better.

Certainly, many companies offer online training to new hires, or employees who are moving into a new role in the agency. The documents and other learning items that are provided can help offset the loss of an employee.

Also, doing a good job when interviewing candidates is critical. If you ask the right questions, you can have a better idea of whether a person wants to stay with your company for a long time, or if they plan to use your company as a temporary stop. Their resume has a lot to say about that.

When those remedies don’t work

These responses to employee turnover can be very helpful. However, there are two circumstances in which these methods aren’t enough:

·   When the company is small, without much overlap in job duties

·   When key employees have work processes that are not covered in generic training

It’s great to have multiple people covering the same exact area of your business. But what if you just have one person doing commercial insurance, or maintenance of a particular piece of machinery? If someone has to fill in for them, will the replacement know the steps to take to get their work done? Will they know exactly whom to call for help?

And what about your key, high-ranking employees? They are responsible for tasks that are not covered in any generic insurance training. If another employee steps in after they leave, will the new employee know about those unique tasks, and how to complete them?

How to make sure you have the right information

There are ways to fill in these gaps, and to prevent so much information from leaving your business. Think of it as taking out an insurance policy on your company. If there is a problem (and there always is), you will be better prepared if you follow these steps:

1.      Identify your critical business information. Spend some time brainstorming your most critical processes.

During a given week, or year, what has to happen to make your business go? What information is in the head of just one employee?

2.      Plan to capture the information. Once you know the information you need to capture, you should prepare your resources. Make sure that your key employees know that they need to devote time to developing this new “insurance policy.”

You should also make sure that your employees aren’t afraid of being replaced. Really, you think they are extremely important. So important that you’re trying to reduce the risk that would come if they walked away.

3.      Get it written up. If someone in your company has a good sense of your needs, and how to get everything written down and distributed, have that person get the information together. Otherwise, look for outside help from someone trained to capture the information that is critical to your business.

4.      Update the documents periodically. Businesses are always changing, and you will need to update the documents on a regular basis. The intervals for reviews may vary, depending on how much your key business tasks change in a given year.

If you follow these steps, you will be much better prepared should you lose a key employee, or if you need to train an employee on a particular aspect of your business.

6 Qualities I Look for in a Technical Communicator

In hiring technical communicators, I’ve come to value these 6 qualities. Many other capabilities might be critical depending on the role and project, but I generally see these as core abilities, regardless:

  1. Training

I have benefited greatly from formal training via undergraduate and graduate studies. However, most technical communicators fall into the business because:

  • They are good at making information work for people
  • They aren’t good at making information work for people, but over time they’ve bluffed their way into a technical communicator role

Regardless, most people don’t set out at 18 or 20 years old with the goal of becoming a technical communicator. Still, I need to see that the candidate has intentionally improved their skills and their understanding of technical communication. If the candidate is just flying by the seat of their pants and doing whatever makes sense to them, they probably have some strange preconceived notions that might be difficult to overcome.

2. Experience

The more experience the better, in my book – of course, you have to pay for relevant experience. Since I’m open to alternate ways of solving technical communication problems, the ideas that experienced technical communicators bring to the table are invaluable to me. Of course, in some organizations these alternate methodologies are perceived as a hindrance.

Now, there’s value in hiring new technical communicators, of course. They are sometimes hungrier, and if they are educated they can bring some helpful best practices and current research into the intellectual mix. Of course, the lack of experience can be a temporary limitation. I remember applying for entry-level jobs when I was coming out of college, and saying to myself, as many of my compatriots did, “You want 2-5 years of experience? How am I supposed to get that if everyone wants 2-5 years of experience before they’ll hire me?” 

To solve this problem, I have sometimes taken both experienced and new technical communicators through a similar process. After an interview, if I think there might be a good fit, I run a background check and hire the person as a part-time contractor. They make a few extra bucks for a few weeks while I evaluate their work on a couple of different projects. I need to see that they can handle whatever I throw at them.

Now, this is an unusual arrangement in the business world. Why would I have them perform a small amount of actual work before I hire them as employees? Because of the two bullets under Training above. About 50 percent of technical communicators practicing today provide good value. The other half don’t know what they are doing, and probably never will. Due to the fact that both kinds of technical communicators – real and fake – interview about the same, I can’t make a hiring decision based on the interview alone.

Of course, this arrangement might not work for all candidates, even all qualified candidates. I’m fine with that. I’ll miss out on a few good candidates in order to weed out a huge number of bad, or at least incompetent, apples.

This might be too radical of an approach for you. However, perhaps you could consider a 90-day observation period after hiring, at the end of which you make a pass-fail evaluation in regards to the technical communicator’s contributions. The new hire should have begun making substantive contributions by that point. If they haven’t, they’re out.

3. Balance of passion and peace

There are a couple of extreme attitudes I try to avoid when finding a good candidate:

  • “Yes, I’d like to work. Or not. Maybe I’ll retire soon. Whatever works.”
  • “Please, please, please give me a job! I’ll take anything.”

The candidate must be ready to go great guns while working for me. But if they’re desperate, there’s probably a reason – perhaps they’re not very good.    

4. Honesty

“Honest. Friendly. Elite.” These are Elite Documentation’s three company values.

Everyone says they value honesty. But what does honesty really mean in a business context, and how do you determine if a candidate is honest?

Certainly, you can check references and verify the candidate’s resume. But for EDI, honesty means doing what you say you’re going to do, and not doing what you say you won’t do. To see if the proof is in the pudding, you have to work with someone for a bit. You can do that through part-time work, or a 90-day trial period, if you’re more comfortable with that.

5. Friendliness

Is this a typical company value? I don’t know that it is. But when it comes to our workplace, our clients’ offices, networking events, or conferences, I want EDI to have a well-deserved reputation for being warm and welcoming, to new people or old friends. I want everyone – clients, vendors, competition – to be comfortable with us.

Not everyone can help us get there. When I was in high school, my mother began molding me from a person who often ignored others, and was fine with being ignored, to someone who sought out ways to brighten up someone’s day. Not everyone had that kind of Mama!

Again, people put their best foot forward during an interview, but you have to watch them over time. Not for months and months, but at least for a little while. Does the candidate greet others, even those they don’t know well, in the hall? When a new person approaches the table or the group, does the candidate focus on welcoming in the new person? These are important clues as to whether the candidate will help to create a welcoming atmosphere.

6. Elite performance

I figure a lot of this one out during the test period I describe in the Experience section above. 

Talent matters. As Fran Tarkenton, Hall of Fame quarterback, once said, “The great ones are great from the beginning.” It takes a certain amount of talent to produce great work. You have to be able to write without errors, to diagnose errors easily, to organize content at the drop of a hat, and to be comfortable dealing with any kind of content or objective. You also have to be ready to learn learn new content substantively when needed.

Of course, many of these abilities can be developed over time, assuming a certain baseline of capability. The main thing is to have a mindset towards constant improvement. We aspire to be elite at all times, and if in any way we fall short of that standard, we search our souls and get better. We have to have people working for us who have the same mindset.

How do you ensure that candidates have the qualities you’re looking for? Do you have any suggestions as to how we could improve our methodologies? Contact us!

Documentation at OTC 2021

This is a follow-up article to our Report on Trends at OTC 2021. It hones in on the documentation that vendors provided at OTC 2021.

Introduction

General trends

The metric

The awards

Introduction

I visited 469 vendor booths on the floor of OTC 2021. I gathered data on all of them, and picked up documents from 30, so that I could analyze what’s changed since I last attended OTC, and what trends are catching on. I picked up a wide sampling of documents, though I did not use any sort of structured methodology for sampling.

QR codes

More companies are embedding QR codes directly in their documentation. Most, like American Personnel Resources, used a single QR code, while one or two (such as Zaetric) used several. Combining QR codes with printed documentation allows you to give visitors both a digital and physical takeaway, which combines the benefits of both mediums in one package.

Asian reliance on big, beautiful booklets

When I first visited OTC over a decade ago, it seemed like there were big stacks of big documents on every table. No longer. While most companies (88%) still provide printed docs, those docs are generally smaller.

That’s not true for much of the Asian documentation I saw, at least as far as Japan and China go. Wison provided a gorgeous book with 28 8.5 x 11 pages. The Inpex corporate brochure weighed in at a comparatively light 8 8.5 x 11 pages. Pages that were 8.5 x 11 were the rule for the Chinese and Japanese documents I saw or sampled. That was still the the most popular size for other companies, though there were plenty of exceptions (about 75% of printed docs used the 8.5 x 11 format).

While the Asian docs set a high standard for beauty, the quality of the English writing within them lagged behind all other groups. This is traditional, and likely stems from English’s heightened dissimilarity to Japanese and Chinese in comparison with, say, Italian. Still, a quick edit by a native speaker could eliminate most of the gap. Regardless, the textual aberrations did not overcome the otherwise high quality and aesthetic value of the Asian docs.

Re-use

Wison’s gorgeous offering excepted, very few companies seem to have created new documents for OTC this year. When I saw publication dates, they were typically from several years ago. With this in mind, unless the information in your docs is time-bound, it’s probably best not to include a publication date. Regardless, including a QR code in the doc itself helps to ensure that a visitor has access to the latest information on your company.

The metric

I rated the 30 documents based on 4 categories:

Organization: Does my eye know where to go? Can I find information by scanning instead of having to read every line?

Graphics: How high-quality and relevant are the graphics? Do they make me want to open up the doc?

Text: Is the text written in plain English? Does it flow clearly, with some pop? Is the size appropriate?

Material: How does it feel in my hand? Is it resistant to damage?

I also captured the page size used for each document, and the total number of pages, including covers.

Trends in the text itself

I was pleased to see that passive voice writing only obscured the content of a couple of documents. This has traditionally been a problem in writing related to the oil and gas industry, so it’s good to see that problem assuage.

However, a few other writing problems plagued a high volume of documents:

Extraneous capitalization (37%): It’s correct to capitalize proper nouns. However, when you begin to capitalize every word you view as “important”, capitalization starts losing its meaning. Use this tool sparingly, and only when necessary.

Egregious typos or grammatical errors (30%): We all make mistakes. But when sentences become hard to read due to the volume or severity of writing errors, we need to go to an editor. If companies don’t have one in-house, they can get a qualified technical editor to make sure their docs are free of embarrassing errors. Not paying, for example, $100 to make sure a flyer or website won’t embarrass a small business, seems like a needless risk.

Non-standardized bullets (27%): Basically, every bullet in a bulleted list should start with the same part of speech (such as a noun or verb). This ensures that the person reading your document can move through your list with minimal mental effort. If you go back and forth between leading off with verbs, nouns, numbers, etc., the reader has to shift their mental logic around, making it more likely that they will misunderstand – or discard – your document.

In addition, a couple of companies still used double-spaces after periods, a practice that was generally discarded decades ago (as we no longer use typewriters).

The awards

Here are the Documentation Awards for OTC 2021:

Most eye-catching

Wison developed their 28-page brochure especially for OTC. They took the time required to craft a visual masterpiece. The vivid cover layout was followed by a vast array of beautiful images, making the booklet worthy of a spot on the coffee table in your living room.

Best use of color

Roxtec didn’t just have some of the most useful demos on the exhibit floor. Their muted, mesmerizing blue color scheme adds delight as you travel through their 40-page tome.

Most innovative layout

There is a tie! First, Biosolvit’s economical layout and paper choice scream “Recycle!” And that’s perfect, since their product materials come from discarded biomass. Ingenius.

The Ghana Investment Promotion Centre’s passport-style booklet made me chuckle when I picked it up. The booklet feels great, and is packed with relevant information and excellent photography. What a great hook!

Best writing

Ah, this one is near and dear to my heart. There were several top competitors, mostly in the computer technology space (think TeamViewer, though Roxtec scored high for a physical product company).

I’m going to give the nod to Pandata Tech. The writing in their 1-page flyer was clear, direct, and energetic, providing a potent blend of information and presentation. Way to go, guys!

Congrats to all the companies who brought well-organized, beautiful, creative, and well-written docs to OTC in 2021! May 2022 be even better!

Report on Trends at OTC 2021

Contents

Introduction

General trends

Digitization

Few demos for professional organizations and educational institutions

Re-use

Updated gifts

Scaled-down booths (with really cool features)

Focus on human trafficking

Streamlined slides – and no takeaways

Region-specific trends

Docs

Demos

Gifts

Less overseas traveling

Trends over time

Introduction

I wanted to know what had changed since the last time I attended OTC, and how different countries and organizations compared in what they were doing in their space. To do that, I visited 469 booths. The official vendor tally was 548; the difference is likely due to vendors who either didn’t show up, participated virtually, or combined their booth with that of one or more other vendors. I tallied data in 3 categories:

Docs: The company has printed documents sitting out for people to take.

Demos: The company has their products sitting out for people to interact with.

Gifts: The company has takeaways such as promo materials, candy, or food sitting out for people to take.

A few clarifying notes: Many items that companies showcased did not fit these categories. For example, if a company had a great-looking model of an oil rig in their booth, but customers could not touch or interact with it, that didn’t make it into my tally. Likewise, many companies, especially those that deal in products, had videos playing on screens in their booths. But if a visitor would simply be expected to watch the video, it didn’t meet my definition of “demo”, and thus I didn’t include it. More analysis of video use would be interesting.

However, I can make one point strongly: If you’re going to use screens to show your products or services, make sure they’re set up low enough, or on the outer edge of your booth, so that they don’t block your view of visitors as they walk in front of your booth. When I walk by a booth, and see that the vendor’s face is hidden behind a screen, the connection just doesn’t happen between us.

It’s likely that, at a few booths, documentation, demo materials, or gifts were hidden beneath a table. In such cases, I didn’t go hunting about to try to uncover them. As information must be findable in order to have any value at all, so the materials that vendors bring to conferences must be readily available to visitors to have value, from a marketing perspective, generally.

I compiled this data for both region-specific pavilions, and a general “Other” category. “Other” includes both domestic U.S. organizations and any foreign companies who were not part of a marked region-specific pavilion.

One note – by tallying data for these categories, I’m not suggesting how many companies “did it right”. If, for example, Aramco and McDermott feel that they get more value by providing a beautiful booth and focusing on capturing visitors contact information digitally, that’s fine. Canary, on the other hand, provides both a project video screen behind their booth, and a PC-based demo. In this report I’m providing analysis and ideas for how organizations might think about or improve their booths. Providing printed docs, demos, and gifts isn’t going to be the ideal for every booth.

Digitization

The first time I attended OTC, it seemed that everyone had multiple stacks of printed documents on their table. Many organizations now use QR codes to provide information to visitors. Pandata used a digital business card to send information into visitors’ phones. QR codes are certainly cheaper and more efficient than paper docs.

However, the majority of booths (413 of 468, or 88%) still provided some form of paper documentation. There are risks to QR codes: some visitors may have security concerns, and if visitors don’t take the time to add notes to what they scanned in between booths (assuming their phone allows them to do so), their connection with your organization may be lost, and they may not be able to follow up.

In my opinion, the smoothest combination seemed to be a digital information sharing option, plus a small, high-quality printed document. A small, powerful document makes it less likely that visitors will discard it after they get tired of carrying it. It also provides a tactile connection to your organization that provides a good follow-up option. Additionally, some visitors simply prefer either a digital or a printed option, so having a reasonable version of both makes sense. So having a QR code include in a small, high-document might be optimal.

Postcards were reasonably popular this year. They provide an example of physically manageable documentation that could be paired with digital information capture methods such as QR codes.

Ultimately, the days of having big stacks of thick printed docs at one’s booth seem to be drawing to a close.

Few demos for professional organizations and educational institutions

Most booths for professional associations (SNAME, ASCE, IADC, Columbia Southern University, and others) contained printed documents and gifts. However, they very rarely if ever had a video component, much less a demo (overall percentage of booths with demos was 61%, with product-based companies leading the way, and professional and educational groups lagging far behind). Part of that makes sense – would a video of an educational luncheon be compelling?

If one of these organizations could bring an interactive demo, such as a brief computer-based test that visitors could complete for prizes, to the conference, it would set them apart from every other organization in their area of the conference.

Re-use

Most companies re-used their documentation and promotional materials from 2019 – or before. Part of that trend is probably the result of the difficulty in having promo materials shipped from China right now.

One of the most outstanding exceptions to the re-use rule was provided by Wison, whose marketing department created a beautiful brochure specifically for OTC this year.

Updated gifts

IFP probably had the most practical, and perhaps best, gift on the floor. With water fountains closed, they provided bottled water, which was certainly needed in the humid Houston weather. Ideal Electric and TeamViewer competed for the “Most Useful Gift” prize with their phone charging options. Perhaps the best pen I’ve ever seen at a conference was provided by Kuraray. DLPS offered perhaps the most unique gift with their turbans. Ghanans are proud of their chocolate, and multiple booths provided authentic Ghanan chocolate bars.

There was more hand sanitizer and other sanitary products than I remember in prior years. As OTC requested that vendors minimize what they hand out, the volume of gifts may have been down slightly. As some vendors pointed out to me, promotional materials are great to remind someone of a conversation. But if someone comes by looking for takeaways, they’re probably not who you want to be talking to, anyway.

Scaled-down booths (with really cool features)

Some organizations didn’t build out their booths as much as in prior years (and a few didn’t show up at all, since businesses paid for their spot last year, and were given a free spot for this year after last year’s conference was canceled). However, there was plenty of booth architecture and tech to marvel at this year. Aramco’s spiral staircase, leading to a private seating area above, was perhaps the most impressive sight. Holloway also had an impressive upper area. ICI’s intimidating drone was an eye-catcher, as was Gordon’s robotic “dog” as it marched around the showroom floor.

Streamlined slides – and no takeaways

I’m used to seeing a fair amount of Death by PowerPoint at OTC. However, the slides I saw this year in the handful of sessions I attended were more simpler and clearer than what I’m used to at the conference. Part of this was due to the fact that presenters were often remote, and screen spaces were needed for spaces, not paragraphs of text. Much of this trend is positive, but it may be going too far. When you don’t leave attendees with any sort of takeaway, you risk them forgetting everything you said.

Focus on human trafficking

United Against Human Trafficking had a booth set up outside of the exhibition hall, where they educated visitors on various aspects of the fight against human trafficking. They used a spinning wheel to focus visitors’ attention on various aspects of the fight. Perhaps some of that interactivity could work for some of the professional organizations and educational institutions at the conference. Houston is a hub for human trafficking, so this focus is helpful.

When you look carefully at what different regions brought to the conference, and how regions compare with one another, trends appear, some obvious, some not.

Docs

Even with the move towards digital, nearly 90% of both region-specific pavilion companies (65 of 75) and other companies (348 of 394) set out printed docs for visitors.

The Japanese pavilion provided excellent examples of the larger, thicker documentation that one traditionally finds at a conference like OTC. They also provided bags to carry these docs, which is a logical pairing. This particular high-quality job is also an example of the document re-use prevalent at the conference.

Demos

Foreign pavilions were far less likely to bring demo products to OTC. However, while around 30-40% of Brazilian, French, Italian, and Canadian booths had demos, Japan, Ghana, and Guyana had none. It’s understandable that foreign companies would have fewer demos – it’s harder for them to ship in a section of pipeline than it is for an American company. But though Ghana, Guyana, and especially Japan had enough room for demos, none of them provided any. There may have been logistical issues. But in an environment where you provide something that none of the booths around you provide, you really stand out.

Gifts

Region-specific pavilion booths provided gifts at a rate of 57%, while other companies provided gifts 62% of the time. Since only 19% of region-specific pavilion companies provided demos, as opposed to 68% of other companies, region-specific companies may have used gifts more often to offset some of the potential value gap created in their booths by the lack of demo materials.

Less overseas traveling

Many international vendors and visitors were unable to attend this year due to travel restrictions. Since it’s relatively easy for domestic companies to engage with domestic customers throughout the year, many told me that they rely on OTC to provide them the opportunity to connect with foreign customers. With less international travel this year, there were fewer opportunities to do that this year.

Hopefully, travel restrictions will have been removed by next year, and businesses will be able to make those connections again.

Obviously, OTC was smaller in 2021 than in 2019. Many experienced vendors told me that they’re used to being packed into their space, with a constant flow of visitors. This year, they had plenty of room, and were looking to generate traffic.

Perhaps some of the ideas in this report can help companies capture a greater share of available visitors. On Monday, I got the feeling that I was absorbing more time from salespeople than I deserved as an observing non-customer. However, as Tuesday progressed, I noticed that the same salespeople who had spoken with me the day before were now absorbed in conversations with potential customers. This gave me confidence that organizations were getting in the groove, beginning to generate the value that makes coming to OTC worthwhile.

Stay tuned for my breakdown of the quality and contents of this year’s printed documentation!

What Technical Communicators Can Learn from the Airline Industry

The higher the risk, the more you need good documentation. In perhaps no industry is this more true than in the airline industry.

Early on in the industry, pilots were held to be remarkably smart people. Part of the aura of a pilot was that they were expected to be able to hold any needed flying or plane maintenance procedures in their heads.This tradition grew up as a result of the example of the first pilots. The Wright Brothers performed extensive checks on their aircraft, and were intimately familiar with all aspects of their equipment. However, the Wrights’ machines were comparatively simple. As aircraft grew more and more complex, pilots were expected to store and execute more and more, and increasingly complex, procedures. 

That all changed in 1935. Two pilots for an important Boeing Model 299 test flight neglected to check one piece of equipment. Essentially, they forgot to check a single box in their mental checklist. This resulted in the malfunction of a key control mechanism, and a fiery crash.

In the wake of the crash, the industry realized that expecting pilots to remember many complex procedures was asking for trouble. The stakes were just too high.

Airlines, and the Air Force, developed detailed, written checklists for a variety of piloting and maintenance tasks. These checklists reduced risks by ensuring that pilots’ memories were not overtaxed. As Air Force Magazine points out, a checklist is an “informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention.”

Moviegoers were treated to a great example of these checklists (collected in a QRH, or Quick Reference Handbook) in the 2016 movie Sully, which detailed the miraculous landing of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. As you can see in the video here (starting at 17:30), the two pilots of the failing craft carefully consulted the book of procedures in landing their craft safely in the water.

Checklists (and other documentation) are chiefly useful when a situation isn’t optimal. When equipment malfunctions in an unusual way, when you have a new person in a role, or when risk is high, documentation becomes essential. 

A note of caution, though: checklists don’t work for everything. When you need substantive product documentation that describes how to implement or use an entire system, a checklist may not be enough. As this article from the Nielsen Norman Group points out, some companies make the mistake of substituting feature checklists for substantive information on how to use or understand the product or service. For more guidance on using checklists well, see this article.

Still, used properly, checklists and other documentation can reduce risk and increase efficiency. That’s what we help you do!

Plain Language and COVID-19

It’s always important to use plain language in communicating with your intended audience. But it’s even more critical when emotions are running high. That’s certainly the case during this COVID-19 crisis. So what can you do to ensure that you communicate in plain language during a time of trouble?

General guidance

Here are the basic rules to follow to ensure that you’re ready to apply plain language principles during a crisis:

Be prepared 

Be Prepared.png

Scar was right. (More about how this image relates to plain language later.)

You need to be properly trained to communicate via plain language before a crisis hits. It’s hard to learn any new skillset on the fly (though we can make it easier). 

 

Take advantage of customized training

Since extended in-person trainings are out of the question during a time when any moderately-sized gatherings are taboo, consider web-based trainings as an alternative. Even for groups that are swamped, it’s often possible to insert a lunch and learn training, or something similar. Be careful, though – not all in-person training translates well to webinars. You need to make sure the trainer is skilled in the online medium. And you should make sure the training relates specifically to the plain language issues you’re currently facing.

 

Review materials to ensure they comply

To stay sharp, you need to review your materials regularly to make sure overly complicated or unclear writing isn’t creeping in. In a crisis, you may not be able to review all your content, so make sure you’ve identified the most commonly used materials ahead of time.

 

Bring in some help

Okay, so maybe you can’t bring anyone in physically. But it’s important to have qualified plain language communicators on call when you do need some added plain language firepower.

 

Applying the principles

Now let’s look at how plain language principles apply during this crisis:

 

Write for your audience

This is really the core of all communication, right? But it’s even more critical right now. You may be creating content for a different audience now than you normally would. Even the regular users of your content may be in a more tense state than usual. That’s going to affect the information you present.

 

Organize the information

Do you understand the tasks that people who access your content are trying to complete? What questions might they have about COVID-19? Make sure you answer those questions specifically, up front.

 

Choose your words carefully

And images. For example, how many people recognize the image of Scar above, and the reference to the Lion King Disney movie? Probably most of you. But if you’re communicating information that will impact the health and safety of thousands or millions, you can’t afford to lose even 20% of your audience with an unclear cultural reference (I intentionally included the image above to illustrate this point).

 

Be concise

Users are almost always looking for specific information when they access your content. This is especially true for COVID-19 content. They’re trying to make important health decisions. No extra words, please.

 

Keep it conversational

This is a tricky one. As always, you should avoid writing to “sound smart”. But people aren’t looking for you to communicate about the crisis in wacky ways. Don’t outsmart yourself in how you present content, but it’s especially important to communicate in an orderly, distraction-free way.

 

Design for reading

In other words, convey your content in a way that people can find what they need quickly. Design so that they can find information right away. You can’t afford to focus on yourself.

 

Follow web standards

If your content is on the web, make sure you:

-Lead with the most important content

-Write in chunks

-Cut anything unnecessary

These guidelines are always important – parts are included in the guidelines above. But if you don’t follow these guidelines for crisis-related content, people will drop your site even more quickly than usual – perhaps never to return.

 

Test your assumptions

A wise software engineer once told me “The first version of anything stinks.” Unless you’ve put the information in front of real people who need it, there will be gaps and problems that you will not have anticipated ahead of time. So put your content in front of a small group of representative people whenever possible, before you release it to the general public (let us know if you need help with the logistics of gathering this feedback).

Going forward, make sure you provide a convenient feedback mechanism, so that people see right away how to contact you when something in your content doesn’t make sense to them.

Good luck, and stay safe!

The Value of STC

By Jordyn Sessoms & Daniel Maddux

Intro

This article addresses the the value and benefits of the Society for Technical Communications (STC). Individuals who are interested in accessing the “best-in-class” technical communication education, resources, and services can highly benefit by joining STC. To benefit fully from the employment, educational, and networking opportunities that STC membership provides, students, professionals, and organizations should consider becoming members.

 

Jobs and employees

STC is a great place to form connections, and potentially land a new gig. It’s also a great place to find high-quality employees if you’re hiring.

Daniel: However, in my experience, job-seekers, and employee-seekers, don’t make up the majority of attendees at most STC events. They are just part of a professionally diverse community. Most members simply enjoy learning and networking throughout their time with a particular employer.

 

Education

One of the chief benefits STC provides is the chance to take advantage of educational opportunities. Members can join chapters and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) to build lifelong relationships and access the global community. These groups hold regular meetings, which are usually open to the public, at which you can stay up to date on the newest trends and tools. Members can join by either geographical location or by area of interest. You can also access live webinars, online certification courses, and publications such as the Intercom and Technical Communication.

 

Certification

The STC offers numerous online certification courses. The STC currently provides six continuing education units. The length of the courses can vary and take up to several weeks to complete. The idea with certification is that you can show your dedication and legitimacy to employers, and thereby differentiate yourself when seeking a job. These offerings can also be useful as a means of keeping one’s skills sharp.

 

Support

One of the often unacknowledged benefits of participation in STC is the camaraderie and support found in STC communities. It’s surprising how tech writers across industries and organizational levels struggle with the same problems: lack of access to SMEs, having writing projects thrown over the wall, being the first people jettisoned in a downturn, etc. STC members know how to help you overcome these struggles.

 

Broad focus

STC is the only organization of its kind for general technical writing (though there’s AMWA for medical writers, APMP for proposal writers, the IEEE professional writing component, and the ATTW for tech comm teachers, among other groups. STC’s broad focus makes it an excellent source of best practices and learning across industries.

 

Conclusion

The STC provides access to optimal career development, professional networking, and professional and educational materials as it advances of theory and practice of technical communication. As a result, the society’s members spread throughout the field, benefitting various countries and industries. STC is a great candidate for individuals who are looking to join an organization that will provide them with excellent training and networking that they can put to use immediately in their jobs.