Content Superheroes to the Rescue!

I enjoyed being interviewed recently about how my two passions for Content Strategy and super-heroes come together in the latest podcast from [A].

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Listen in and get a sneak preview of some of the ideas I’ll be talking about at the upcoming The LavaCon Conference.

 

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A Timely Reminder – Intelligent Content Conference

This timely reminder arrived in my email this morning.

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Intelligent Content is one of my favorite conferences and I always enjoy speaking there. This year I’ll be talking about Building a Business Driven Globalization Strategy For Content.

So if you haven’t registered yet, I recommend that you hop over to the Intelligent Content Conference website and do so immediately.

See you in San Jose.

10 Commandments of Storytelling Applied to Technical Content.

I originally wrote this blog post back in 2009, but as it’s come up a few times in various conference conversations during the past few weeks – I thought it might be worth an update and repost.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I’m a strong advocate of storytelling in all forms of communications. I believe that it applies as much to technical or marketing communication as it does to your favorite novel or movie. So I decided to see if I could apply screenwriting guru, Robert McKee’s 10 Commandments of Storytelling to Technical Documentation.

1. Thou shalt not take the crisis or climax out of the protagonists hands. So who is the “protagonist” of your documentation? It could be your product, but the most likely candidate is that your “protagonist” is the person using your documentation. Your documentation should be written in such a way that your protagonist can use the information so that they feel that they have solved the crisis (or put more prosaically, overcome the problem they have) themselves based on the knowledge you have presented. Another story telling trick, often cited by screen-writer Todd Alcot, that is worth remembering – ask yourself “What does the protagonist want?”

2. Thou shalt not make life easy for the protagonist. This seems contrary to the very purpose of Technical Documentation. Isn’t it our job to make life easier? Yes it is. But in certain types of documentation, such as training materials, you may want to include challenges, and then guide the reader through them. This way you can build a sense of accomplishment as the reader progresses through the material.

3. Thou shalt not use false mystery or surprise. Don’t hold back anything that is integral to full understanding of the product or service you are writing about. But also make sure to reveal information in a logical manner that is considerate of the reader’s needs. Make sure they have the information they need to know, at the time they need it.

4. Thou shalt respect thine audience. The first rule of any sort of writing is “know your audience.” Know them, and respect their level of knowledge. If you are writing something for experts, then you may not need to include the basic information that you might use for a more general consumer market. The use of conditional text is a great way to handle different topics and statements designed for different audiences within a common documentation set.

5. Thou shalt have a god-like knowledge of your universe. A joke I often use is “What’s the definition of an ‘expert’?” – The answer is “it’s a person who has read two more pages in the manual than you have.” So what does that make the person who wrote the manual in the first place? We may not know everything about what we are documenting, but we should give the reader the confidence that we do.

6. Thou shall use complexity rather than complication. Most of what we write about in Tech Doc, is by its very nature, complex. We should take that complexity and break it down into logical steps and topics that can guide the reader. We should never use complexity as an excuse for making the documentation complicated.

7. Thou shalt take your character to the end of the line. We learn in grade school that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The same applies to documentation too. The narrative should guide the reader through the process, or information, in such a way that it flows logically, and that at the end they know more, or have achieved more, than when they started.

8. Thou shalt not write on the nose dialog. Wait, I hear you asking, there’s no dialog in Tech Doc – so how does this apply? Well the definition of “on the nose dialog” relates to the scene when a character says aloud, exactly what he is thinking or describes what is happening around him. So how does this apply to Tech Doc? Do you have sections of doc that are restating the obvious? Try reading your docs out aloud? Is it boring and repetitious? Try altering sentence lengths. Don’t think anyone ever listens to docs as if it was dialog? As a teenager I spent hours working under cars while a buddy nearby would read the steps from the manual for me to follow. How about a visually impaired customer using a reading device?

9. Thou shalt dramatize thine exposition. Put simply “show don’t tell.” In prose this means have your characters reacting to an event, not talking about it. But isn’t our job to tell people how to do something? Yes it is, but the key word is “how.” Replace long descriptive texts on operational theory with a few active steps the user can take themselves, that demonstrates the product, and they will gain a quicker understanding. People learn more by doing than they do by being told.

10. Thou shalt rewrite. Do I need to explain this one? Plan your schedule with time to write, have someone else review, and rewrite. Best of all scenarios is to write, have someone actually use your draft to accomplish the tasks you have written about, get feedback. Better yet, watch them try to use your docs. Then go back and rewrite based on your observations. They say that any good piece of art is never finished. Writing is art, even Tech Writing. You can always improve on what you’ve done.

Know Your Muppets.

I may have been the only one in the room who noticed, or even cared, but it annoyed me.

During a recent presentation by a top industry analyst they referenced an on-line marketing campaign that had featured The Muppets. On one PowerPoint slide there was a picture of Kermit The Frog.

The analyst proudly said something along the lines of “As you can see this campaign was aimed at children because it uses the characters from Sesame Street.”

My geek-alert radar triggered at the mistake. Kermit is of course not a Sesame Street character, but  the leader of The Muppets. It was an innocent enough mistake, even an understandable one. But it was compounded by the fact that I knew a little about the campaign being referenced, which was in fact not aimed at children, but their parents.

The consultant immediately dropped a couple of notches on my internal credibility monitor.

In fact during the day the same consultant made a few pop-culture references, and I could tell that they didn’t really understand the context of what they were saying.

This got me thinking about my own presentations. I’m a self confessed geek, I even have a T-shirt declaring the fact, so I have a tendency to pepper my conversations with pop-culture references. The same applies to a lot of presentations I do, more so in public conferences than during internal meetings. But, I always make sure those references are related to things I know about; I’d never make an on-line gaming or baseball reference as I have no interest, or reference, for either.

If you do make some sort of external reference when presenting to an audience, then make sure it’s factually correct and applies in context, because if you don’t there is bound to be someone in the audience who will spot your error. And that error will undermine everything else you say.

The same applies to the content you produce and deliver to your audience online. The best content is that which engages the audience and provides value. To deliver that sort of value we often produce content that puts our products or services in the context of the customer’s story and experience. We talk about, and reference, their industry, their process, their culture. If we get any part of that wrong, the customer will notice and it will undermine everything else we claim about our products.

Before you put out any sort of content that makes external references make sure you know your Muppets!

A Tale of Two Cities (and Conferences)


It is the best of times, it is the worst of times*. Or at least that’s the impression about the state of the content development industry that came across during two different publishing conferences I have attended in the last few weeks. Hosted in two cities that couldn’t have been more diverse, Palm Springs, CA and Austin, TX, the conferences were opposite reflections of their locations.

Palm Springs CA can perhaps be summed up by the fact that the city’s greatest attraction appears to be an aging vaudeville theater that boasts that it is home to the World’s oldest chorus line! This, the city not the theater chorus line, was the venue for the 2012 Intelligent Content Conference (ICC12), a vibrant well programmed exchange of ideas that drew attendees from various aspects of the enterprise content development world, especially from service information, business process, and marketing; along with new technology practitioners, leading consultants, and content strategists. This group understood that the real value of the new publishing model was in the content itself (hence the title of the conference.)

The underlying feeling coming away from this conference was that the attendees thought that this was indeed the “best of times” to be in content development. The biggest revolution in content development and delivery since the invention of the printing press is opening up an incalculable number of opportunities to redefine both the business model, and the way we tell our stories and interact with those who consume them.

Austin, TX on the opening day of the annual SXSW Interactive conference gives off that same vibe of excitement and opportunity as leading thinkers, futurists, innovators, and entrepreneurs descend on the Texas capital to discuss the future of the web. Part of this year’s opening day events included a one-day mini-conference based on O’Reilly’s Tools of Change (TOC) annual publishing industry get together in New York. As expected the majority of attendees where from the worlds of traditional book and magazine publishing. The contrast between this crowd and the attendees at Intelligent Content, and the larger SXSW crowd, couldn’t have been more marked. The underlying vibe that I picked up at the TOC day was one of confusion, and even panic.

The first speaker, mobile designer Josh Clark, provided one of the best summaries on how to approach the new publishing paradigm when he said that “Your product is called content, everything else is a container.” He also went on to say that “Mobile isn’t about Apps. An App isn’t a strategy.” Yet nearly every other speaker, and question from the audience, ignored this great advice. The focus of most conversations was firmly on the delivery process and medium, not about the thing actually being delivered, the content. And during the sessions I was at I never heard a single word about how to add value to the content by making it intelligent

My feeling was that most of the TOC audience this is “the worst of times,” as things are changing too fast to understand, and the traditional business model no longer works.

And that’s where I believe the disconnect between these two groups originates – with the business model.

In the corporate world the development of content is a key part of any business process (In fact in THE CONTENT POOL book I put forward that it is THE key component), and that while it may not always be recognized as such, it is generally developed irrespective of the delivery platform. Yes particular platforms may be specified, but they are more a matter of convenience and familiarity than an integral part of the company’s overall business model. The value to the organization is implicitly in the content, not the delivery model.

In traditional publishing, no matter what lip service is paid to content, it is the delivery mechanism that provides the value. The business model of traditional publishing is built around the infrastructure and process to move pieces of paper from the printer, to the warehouse, to the retail outlet, and eventually into your hands as a consumer. It is only you, as a consumer, who then derives any value from what was on that paper – the content.

While the corporate world sees new delivery models as an opportunity to provide more and more intelligent content, traditional publishing sees it as a disruptive event to a centuries old infrastructure.

The best of times; the worst of times.

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* With apologies to Charles Dickens for the paraphrasing. – “A Tale of Two Cities” was originally published concurrently in two separate formats – In the weekly magazine All Year Round without illustrations , and in collected monthly installments with illustrations by regular Dickens artist Halbot Browne (from which the illustration at the top of this post is taken.) Dickens was a master of realizing the value of his content over format often publishing new works in various formats and platforms to reach the widest possible audience, before eventually publishing the full work as a novel.

If he were around today, I’m sure he would be one of the pioneers of digital publishing.

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THE CONTENT POOL book – Just a week away.

I’m looking forward to the Intelligent Content Conference in Palm Springs next week for several reasons.

And top of that list is the fact that the conference will be the location for the official launch for my latest book, THE CONTENT POOL, which in many ways is based on this blog. (Cover above.)

Today Scott Abel posted an interview with me abut the book, and the ICC12 launch, at his Content Wrangler site.

I mention in the interview that we will be publishing a special limited edition of THE CONTENT POOL for conference attendees. The ICC12 Edition will be limited to just 100 copies and will include an exclusive chapter linked to the panel on “Making a Business Case for Innovation” which I will be participating in at the conference.

If you are heading to Palm Springs next week for ICC12 I look forward to seeing you.

If you can’t make the conference the standard edition of THE CONTENT POOL is available for pre-order.

Every Presentation, Ever: A Communication Failure?

I have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of my professional life either giving, or sitting through presentations. I have seen every one of the communication failures parodied in this video.

After I’d watched the video and smiled in recognition, and even winced occasionally about things know I’ve done in the past. I started thinking about the title.

Is every presentation ever given an exercise in communications failure?

I would submit that the vast majority are – sure there are good ones (see the various TED talks for instance), but most presentations are simply a dry regurgitation of facts and ideas that could be better expressed in much more entertaining and different ways.

How?

By focusing on the speaker, not on the PowerPoint.

Think about the conference sessions you remember most – I bet it was the ones with the energtic, passionate, articulate speakers, rather than the ones with the prettiest slides. I have seen a growing trend amongst top rated speakers and presenters to just use single image slides acting as a backdrop to a particular point as a way of getting the audience to focus on them and the message they are delivering. I even have spoken to several other regular conference speakers about dropping the use of slides altogether, but conference organizers seem to get scared when you say you don’t have any slides.

During the course of the year I attend two distinct types of industry events, first there are the technical and business conferences, then as a pop-culture writer there are the the various conventions. For as long as I have been attending science-fiction and comics conventions the default way of communicating with the audience is to have a panel of guests discuss a particular topic in which they have a stated interest, or experience. No PowerPoints, just people discussing what they know and what they are passionate about. The results are invariably both enlightening and entertaining.

Yet business conferences are still dominated by the “person in front of a slide deck” model. – Why? Over the last couple of years I’ve been lucky enough to be invited in a few business conferences that have experimented with the panel approach (usually just one or two in a program dominated by presentations), and in every case they have been well received, and a joy to participate in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need a panel to get that same effect. I mentioned the TED talks earlier – many of the most viewed videos are of a single person on stage, just talking. Sharing ideas with a passion.

Of all the presentations I have ever sat through the most spell-binding was from graphic design guru Edward Tufte who spoke for a whole day on the subject of graphics, and never once used a PowerPoint slide.

Instead of “presenting” information and hiding behind slide decks we should be encouraging expression of ideas, conversations, and discussion. – That’s what communication is really about.