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STC 2008: Day Two, June 2

June 2, 2008

Three out of four ain’t bad, and the fourth wasn’t awful, just not excellent. Rather that drag you through all four sessions, I’ll summarize the highlights from the three I got the most from.

The opening Keynote speaker was Howard Rheingold, who gave an interesting talk that centered on the way mobile communication (texting, cell phones, etc.) is changing human interaction. In addition to being an interesting speech, I found his use of graphics compelling. Instead of the usual bullet points that echo what the speaker is saying, he used graphics that reinforced his points, along with a video sequence, which was nicely synchronized with the speech despite some minor technical problems.

In the afternoon, I attended two panel discussions, the first was titled Content Management Systems Why Can’t I just Pick One. Participants included Steve Manning of the Rockley Group, Rahel Bailie of Intentional Systems, Nancy Kotkin of Independence Blue Cross, and the moderator, Alan Houser of Group Wellesley.

They spent some time talking about different kinds of Content Management Systems, including Document Management Systems, which primarily store completed documents; Web Content Management Systems, which support web sites; Component Content Management Systems, which support authoring of components. The latter was until recently a niche market that didn’t even have an industry standard name.

The rub for technical communicators is that IT departments typically think of the “big gun” Document or Web Content Management Systems when they think about CMS’s. This leads the IT folks to think they’ve solved the content management problem, even though these two types of CMS’s typically are not set up for editing, storage, and retrieval of components.

Alan then asked the participants some questions, starting with, “How do you assess a customer’s needs?” He further honed this to, “what’s your first question”? The clearest answer to that came from Steve, who asks, “what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?” As I heard at DocTrain, and have heard elsewhere this week, customers typically put the cart before the horse here, asking questions like, “what’s the best CMS?” before they even have the slightest idea what they’re trying to do. Steve estimated that as many as two out of five CMS projects fail, for exactly this reason, though he hastened to add that his company’s failure rate is “nil.”

The next question came from an audience member, who asked about granularity. This caused a fair amount of discussion, with a couple of interesting points: Nancy commented that she’s seen projects hit serious problems because they could not agree on the degree of granularity needed. She also said that she’s found that technical writers have an easier time working with fine-grained structures than training developers. The latter tend to see their output as more of a narrative than the former.

Most of the remaining discussion centered around what you should do if your company is starting the search for a CMS, or in a worse case, has already chosen a CMS. Consensus was that you must get involved with the acquisition and help make sure a sound business decision is made. Since IT departments have different needs from technical communication, it’s important to be part of the decision as early as possible. If you get in after a decision gets made, you need to do the same analysis, then see how well the chosen system meets your needs.

Bottom line all around is to look at the problem you’re solving, evaluate needs, and make sure you’re part of the decision making team when/if a CMS selection is occurring.

The second panel was Evangelizing, Proselytizing, and Preaching: Strategies for Marketing Yourself and Your Expertice to Others. The moderator was Scott Abel, with panelists Ann Rockley, Rahel Bailie, Chris Hester, and Tom Johnson. Scott ran a tight, well organized panel. He began by asking each panelist for a favorite marketing tactic. Chris and Tom, who are employees, both suggested “inserting” yourself into meetings and taking the user’s perspective in those meetings.

Ann and Rahel, who are independent consultants, suggested being active with STC and to share knowledge. Early in her career, Ann was a member of STC and an active networker. When she was laid off from her job, she was quickly able to find contracting employment because of her contacts. Now, she doesn’t do “traditional” marketing. She continues to share information, attend conferences, and network. She has been able to build a strong reputation through those means.

Rahel is a prolific writer who uses blog and forum posts, conference attendance, and her web site as outreach. However, she doesn’t see the web site as an ad. Instead, she sees it as providing information that can give prospective customers a taste of what she does and how she does it. Someone looking at her site can get a good idea of whether her company will be a good fit for their needs.

Other good suggestions for “self” marketing, both inside and outside you company, included:

  • Make sure the engineers you work with understand what you do and what value you add.
  • Blog internally and use other internal communication vehicles to establish your credentials as a communicator and user advocate.
  • Chris regularly meets with senior staff and shows them the work her team is doing. She also has one-on-one meetings with senior staff where her objective is to make sure she 1) understands their needs and 2) is meeting them.
  • Tom has had great success with podcasting, and commented that there are very few technical communicators doing podcasts. There’s an opportunity to establish a niche using podcasting, and few people are taking advantage of that opportunity. (I’ll be starting my podcast shortly 🙂

While these communication techniques are powerful, each of the panelists conceded that you need to prioritize your efforts; doing everything they suggest would leave no time for “real work.” Ann tends to limit blogging, using twitter, etc. She also drops “optional” activities she doesn’t enjoy. Rahel has stopped detailed filing of information (she keeps material unfiled; she finds that locating material when she infrequently needs it takes less time that filing it carefully). Chris compartmentalizes and batches activity (TIVO helps). Tom doesn’t consider most of this to be work; he clearly enjoys the podcasting and other “marketing” activities.

The final question was how they put together their “elevator” pitch. The conclusion was that it takes time, practice, lots of metaphors, more time, and more practice. No one found this easy, though all found it essential.

That’s all for now. Another good day, though with all the available activities, it’s easy to feel like you’re missing something important, regardless of how valuable the sessions you attend turn out to be.

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One comment

  1. Rick, I noticed you in the audience during this panel. I really appreciate your session posts and of course read this one with an even greater interest. Thanks for taking the time to post such a thorough writeup. I remember our discussion at Doc Train, and at the time I didn’t realize you were such a prolific blogger. Keep it up.



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