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Dateline Houston is the newsletter of the Houston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, a nonprofit organization. Ten issues are published each year (September through June).

Luette Arrowsmith

Cathy Bettoney
Melanie Boston
Jamie Diamandopoulos
Jim Hunt

President, Cindy Pao

Vice President, Nicole Wycislo

All chapter leaders

Copyright & Reprints
Address Changes


Vol 44, Issue 3

January/February 2005


Ideas for Avoiding Confusion in an International Virtual Office

by Jeff Staples, Independent Contractor

Last month, part one of this article discussed several cultural factors that may cause confusion or problems in an international virtual office. This article discusses ways to avoid confusion in an international virtual office.

In communicating, especially between cultures, members in an international virtual office need to possess a willingness to learn about/experience other cultures and other practices. For example, some cultures may respond to messages (e-mail or phone) promptly while others may take hours or days to respond. This could result in frustration as the cultures correspond with each other. Thus, having tolerance for others and practices that may be different from your own is essential for anyone dealing with intercultural communication, such as in an international virtual office.

In addition, a company cannot dictate another country's laws or practices and online communication is still generally free of laws governing its use (and misuse). Therefore, to address these issues, the company and/or virtual office should establish its own guidelines for online communication. The company can have its legal department write the guidelines for legal interpretation and have each team member sign a disclosure based on the guidelines.

To help avoid confusion/problems in an international virtual office, management should consider the following ideas:

  • Establish guidelines for the virtual office and its members on copyright and privacy issues. For example, create guidelines on the use and distribution of information exchanged among members.
  • Develop a disclosure agreement for the virtual office that each member will sign. The agreement can help prevent (or protect against) members disclosing any information gathered through office activities to other individuals or companies not affiliated with the office/team.
  • Develop a mission statement for the activities/projects handled by the virtual office and its members to gain the members support for the goals of the team. (Getting people on-board with the mission of the team and getting people to believe in what the team is doing may hinder any efforts by members to “hurt” the team by sharing information to others or using the information in the wrong manner.)
  • If English is designated as the “office language,” members need to identify the dialect of English that they use. In addition, they need to “either familiarize themselves with potentially troublesome expressions or have a native speaker of that dialect of English review the [communication] to help ensure that the correct message is conveyed” (St. Amant 2000, 83).
  • With e-mail and phone being the team member's primary means of communication, members should take care in preparing and conveying their written and oral communication. For example, e-mail text can be cold and, if the communication is not written carefully, the person receiving the communication can easily interpret the text the wrong way.
  • Identify the numeric representations that will be used, or that may be implied. For example, when representing a date, always spell out the month. And for time references, come to an agreement about using AM and PM or a 24-hour clock (which helps avoid the confusion that can occur when using AM and PM).

Any communication interaction can result in confusion if there are any differences with the individuals involved. In addition to such basic differences as personality and characteristics, cultural differences can also lead to confusion when communicating.

Edward Hall and Geert Hofstede constructed dimensional models that provide a good basis for gathering general information about cultures/countries. For example, Hall identifies the dimension of high- and low-context cultures. As these cultures communicate with each other online, they will need to be open to each other's various modes of communication.

As with any communication, the more you know about the other person helps you to deliver and receive information in the most effective manner.


St. Amant, Kirk. “Success in the International Virtual Office.” Idea Group Publishing. 2000.

The Death of the Technical Author?

Ellis Pratt, Sales and Marketing, Cherryleaf House

Technical authors do not have high prominence in the workplace, and they don't have the best of images (as can be seen in the movie, “The Technical Writer”). Today, many technical authors are struggling to find new employment in the current IT sector, and one can find messages on Internet newsgroups that question the future employment prospects for technical authors in North America and Europe . Some wonder whether the role of the technical author will disappear, as other careers have in the past. In this article, we look at the problems faced by technical authors in defining their role, and we make some recommendations for the future.

The Problems

Technical authors face the following issues:

Overlapping technologies mean overlapping job roles.

Technologies and software are developing in a way that means that the boundaries between the programmer, the technical author, the Web developer, and the trainer are becoming blurred. For example, the online Help that will ship with the next release of Windows (code name Longhorn) may look more like a Web site or a computer-based tutorial (CBT) system than the type of Help files we currently see. This means that some technical authors feel that they are being “crowded out” and losing their jobs as their work is taken on by others within the organization.

The work can be done in other ways.

From time to time, new software or technology will lead some technology evangelists to claim that you can do away with the need for “man-made” user assistance. Common themes appear and reappear with each technology wave, with people claiming that:

  • They can make software that is so intuitive to use that users will never need online Help.
  • Programmers can write the documentation to the standard needed.
  • Special software can be used to create user assistance by looking at the lines of code.
  • Information can be dumped into an information store, and special search software can be used to retrieve the information that people need.
  • Computer-based tutorials can provide all the assistance that people need.

It's a specialist job and a lonely one.

Many are in an environment where he or she is the only technical author in the organization, and this can mean that their career path is unclear.

Their contribution to the business can be uncertain.

Some people perceive what technical authors produce to be a necessary evil—something that needs to be provided but is not of any great value. So they look to keep costs, and consequently the quality, to a minimum.

So What Do Technical Authors Do That Is of Value to the Organization?

We believe that technical authors, as well as specialist documentation companies, are valuable to organizations in the following ways:

They explain technical information to a nontechnical audience in an unambiguous way.

Enabling people to understand is a fundamental part of producing user assistance and is the authoring part of technical authoring. And as life is getting more complex, it seems unlikely that software will ever be developed that is so intuitive to use that users will never need any assistance.

They organize information so that people can find the information that they need.

We call this skill information design or information development . We believe that these skills in information design have a wider application to the business than just the development of user manuals, procedures documents, and Help files. These skills—organizing information and providing the means by which people get that information—can help organizations fight and win the battle of information overload.

Our Recommendations

We offer the following suggestions:

Technical authors' skills should be applied more widely across an organization.

In other words, create an Information Design department.

We suggest that the role of the technical author should be redefined as information designer and that the Technical Publications department should be redefined as the Information Design department. Doing this should help make it clearer to everyone that technical authoring skills—making large amounts of unstructured information more useful— can be applied elsewhere in the organization.

IT departments, quality assurance managers, marketing executives, and Webmasters don't have information design skills. The technical author (or information designer) does have these skills and can offer these skills to anyone in the organization that has to deal with large amounts of unstructured information.

Carry out usability testing to measure the value of what technical authors produce.

You should use some form of measurement if you want to place a value on something. Jakob Nielsen ( www.useit.com ) has described how to carry out meaningful usability studies with a small amount of effort. So test to see what happens if users don't have any documentation and how they react to different types of user assistance.

Get involved in the development of new software at an earlier stage.

As online user assistance becomes more tightly integrated with the software, the technical author should be more tightly integrated with the development of the software, right from the beginning of the process.

Acquire the additional skills needed.

The technical authoring role today requires more than just writing. It requires skills in online information design and usability. In the future, it could require skills in writing JavaScript and developing e-learning content. You can probably avoid the need to manipulate code if you use the most popular Help authoring tools. Nevertheless, ongoing developments probably mean that technical authors will require more training.

Use the right tools for the job.

The latest software from the main software vendors in the technical authoring field provide more than just an authoring environment. Many tools now include content management, e-learning, scripting, and support for output across a range of media. The vendors seem to have a good appreciation of the key issues surrounding the provision of user assistance and large documents.


The overlapping of technologies and the uncertainty of the contribution of the technical author means that the boundaries between this and other positions in organizations are becoming blurred. Technical authors have skills that organizations still need. Indeed, their skills can be applied to new areas, which means that it's time to take a new perspective on the role. So maybe we need to say "The technical author is dead. Long live the information designer."

E-mail: ellis@cherryleaf.com

Learning XML

by Renee Schurtz, STC Puget Sound Chapter

Lately you may have noticed the increase in newsletter articles, seminars, and STC meeting topics that relate to XML. If you haven't been keeping up, you might be wondering, “What's all the fuss about XML?” Or, “Why do I need to learn this if my job doesn't have anything to do with XML?” If you haven't kept up, you might be interested to know why you should.

What Is XML?

Early in its life cycle, Extensible Markup Language (XML) was seen by some as an excellent technology for technical writers. “At this point, all signs indicate that XML offers the potential of being an ideal tool for tech writers to learn and use. In fact, tech writers are ideal candidates for using this technology because we already have the information development, design, and presentation skills necessary to develop these structured document formats,” Deborah S. Ray recently stated on the TECHWR-L Web site.

XML is a markup language that was designed to be an alternative to HTML as the language used to manage content on the World Wide Web. Unlike HTML, it enables the writer to create customizable tags, or labels, if you will, that make sense for use with the writer's content. This feature allows the writer to create a document or system that is content based or designed around the content, rather than a document or system that is designed around the limitations of HTML's inflexible tags. Currently, technical writers use XML predominantly as a way to create content in one file format that can be reused for different purposes and transferred to many formats such as printed manuals or Web pages. XML's flexibility has driven its application to other uses such as Web services, transferring data from one system to another, or ensuring that data exchange between systems is valid.

Why Should Technical Writers Learn XML?

The proliferation of various applications of XML has increased dramatically in the last few years, not the least of which is Content Management (CM). Demand for CM services will increase significantly in the next few years. In 2003, http://theWhir.com, reported that “...content management services represent an attractive growth segment for the information technology services industry.… Worldwide content management services spending will increase to more than $7.5 billion in 2007, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.8 percent.… A huge installation, customization, and training opportunity will occur during the forecast period as a new content infrastructure emerges.” Installation, customization, and training all sound like areas with potential job opportunities for technical writers and communicators. And guess what technology is compatible with many of the CM programs on the market today, and is expected to be an integral part of the growth and evolution of CM? XML.

If futuristic projections aren't good enough reasons to learn XML, some of the more practical and “here and now” reasons may be. Although there are a variety of reasons to use XML that are beyond the scope of this article, some of those most common to technical writers are included.

Reusability of content may be the single biggest reason to learn and use XML. Whether you will be plugging it into specific CM software or a less formal system of managing content, once created, the same content can be used repeatedly for different purposes and in different output formats such as Web pages, handheld devices, PDF documents, online manuals, or printer materials. This feature of XML also lends itself nicely for use in a single-source system.

Customization is another reason to use XML. Creating customizable tags and structure for your content allows you to create a system that will meet very specific needs for you or your customers. At the very least, learning about the various components of XML such as tags, elements, and attributes will give you the ability to participate (politics aside) with other team members during the planning stages of the next content management or other system that will affect you. Increasing your ability to communicate with developers and other subject matter experts is an added benefit.

Receiving a significantly higher salary can result from having XML skills. According to http://online-learning.com, technical writers with XML skills “can add an extra $19K” to their salaries. The skill set that will be expected with this higher salary may include the ability to develop XML documents, understand and work with DTDs (Document Type Definitions) and schemas, and create and work with style sheets that interact with the XML documents. If you're ready for the challenge and growth of learning a new technology, you can expect a higher salary after gaining XML experience and skill.

XML's independence of proprietary platforms and formats and its ever increasing application in the workplace means that its use will continue to grow, and with it the likelihood that you will interact with it to some degree. It sounds like it's time to start learning XML.

Information Technology:Benefits to Nursing and Patient Care

by Penny Clowe, Graduate student, University of Houston–Downtown

Nurses seek to reduce medication errors and increase patient safety. The Electronic Medical Records system (EMR) helps by serving as a foundation for a patient-focused information system. Nurses are required by their state practice act to follow “general” standards of documentation to ensure patient safety. Using EMR documentation software, nurses institute a plan of care and establish patient information management. The medical records hold all patient information regarding status, care, medication, procedures, test results, and doctor's orders that encompass the patient's hospitalization period. EMR software stores and manages this information through patient data pathways (location specific links).

Health information, because of its importance to all caregivers and health information managers (HIM), must be viewed as a universal document. Through EMR, this information becomes important for case management, as well as case reviews. EMR software tracks patient variances and provides patient care summaries specific to each provider (nurse, physician, x-ray technician, and others).

Complete information is vital to patient safety because it must be accessed for patient care decisions. The transition from handwritten documentation to EMR also improves safety and reliability of document interpretation. EMR allows instant retrieval of data for cross-tracking patient information and compiling patient summaries. For instance, EMR records and stores patient care errors, and hospitals use this data to improve error prevention strategies. EMR's data, if recorded and stored in a consistent manner, enhances interpretation and makes insurance coding easier.

The exchange of patient records between hospital departments necessitates universal care vocabularies. EMR provides that opportunity. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) promotes the use of these vocabularies and classifications. For instance, an order received for a medication could read “x2d,” which could be interpreted as “x two days” or “x two doses.” EMR software terminology would not accept this coding, and the software program would enforce user conformity by requiring complete, approved data information. The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), together with nurses, physicians and other integral providers of care, will define the use of abbreviations and the need for a universal style.

Nurses benefit from EMR facilitation of patient data. From this EMR data, nurses obtain rapid overall pictures of patient status. Today, the computer records patient data during emergency situations through wireless monitoring. In the past, nurses hand-documented information while simultaneously attending to the emergency. The EMR advantage to patient data access improves decision-making such as detecting patterns and changes in patient status. Pop-up warnings alert nursing staff to abnormalities. Doctors, as well, manage patient care off site through the Web by observing the patient status information.

Most of the new technology increases patient safety and simplifies the care routine, but some technology can create extra steps for the nursing staff. One example is a new bar-code system for administering medication. The nurse scans a bracelet worn by the patient and scans the medication to verify the match. The extra steps of scanning bar codes and carrying the bar-code reader are minor inconveniences compared to the safety benefits.

Regardless of computer efficiency, standardized nursing documentation must allow for nursing clinical judgments. The nursing process implies that nurses administer care and manage the information regarding that care. Current electronic trends indicate that a computer will suggest nursing diagnosis and care plan implementations. The EMR benefit as a means to record and store information and organize data is undeniable; however, the nurse's observations and intuitive understanding of the patient should not be compromised by computer-generated patient care. While Electronic Medical Records manage patient information, the nurse interprets patient information to provide safe and compassionate patient care.


Van de Castle, Barbara, Jeongeun, Kim, Mavilde L.G. Pedreira, Pava, Abel, Goossen, William, Bates, David W. 2004. Information technology and patient safety in nursing practice. International Journal of Medical Informatics. Vol. 73. 543-546.

World, Heather. 2004. Off the charts. Nurseweek. September 20, 2004 .

Penny Clowe graduated from Washburn University in 1979, obtaining a bachelor of science in nursing. She has worked predominantly in the cardiovascular field of nursing. Currently, she attends graduate school full-time at UHD and is majoring in Professional Writing and Technical Communications.

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Recent Posts:

Regular Features

From the President

Taking Time to Laugh

Cindy Pao, Information Developer, BMC Software, Inc.

Knock, knock! Who's there? Banana. Banana who? Knock, knock! Who's there? Banana. Banana who? Knock, knock! WHO'S THERE?! Orange . Orange who? Orange you glad I didn't say banana again?

Did you laugh?

If you did, chances are you have a child in your life somewhere. Isn't that a great thing?!

My kids like to stick their hands in the air through the open sun roof and yell “Wheeeee!” when we go down hills and over highway overpass bridges. Now, I've got to admit to you, I didn't really appreciate their joy the first few times they did it, and it was because my driving nerves were usually fried by the time I had to drive over that bridge. But, think about it. How often do you get to go on a roller coaster ride? Chances are, you drive over bridges a lot more often. Take 30 seconds to enjoy going downhill—maybe without taking your hands off the steering wheel, but do scream “Wheeee!” Your kids will get a kick out of you, and you might feel less inclined to sock the driver in the car next to you.

What else makes you laugh?

Now I'd like you to take a minute to remember the last time you had a really good belly laugh. I love good belly laughs! Even though my stomach may ache and I feel light-headed, I know that I was not stressed for that moment in time.

Here are some things that make me laugh:

  • jokes told by kids!
    Yeah, they're corny, but they don't have off-color language in them, and the kids love telling them!
  • quoting lines from Disney movies.
    My favorite right now is from The Emperor's New Groove : “Well it's a good thing you're not a big, fat guy, or this'd be REALLY difficult!”
  • Dan Ackroyd as Julia Child, having cut her finger while boning a chicken, and bleeding profusely (at least that's how I remember it)
  • America 's Funniest Videos – when people aren't hurting themselves
  • Bill Cosby doing a stand-up comedy routine, especially the chicken heart that ate New York City
  • some of the jokes my aunt sends to me

Why does it matter?

The next time you're having a rough day or writer's block, try to find something to make you laugh! Let the laughter clear your head and bring back a positive attitude.

Let other people wonder what you're up to.

Future attractions

We're going to be busy as a chapter in January!

The regular chapter meeting happens on January 11, followed closely by the Employment workshop on January 15.

The STC Houston Board meeting takes place in Houston on Friday and Saturday, January 21 and 22. Join me at the Canyon Café on Friday evening for a reception where you can visit with the Board.

And mark your calendar for the STC Houston Awards Banquet, which happens on Friday, February 4, at the Houston Club.

Stay tuned to the STC Houston web site and your e-mail for announcements about all of these events.

If you have ideas and suggestions for other activities and projects, please contact one of the Administrative Council members. You can send me an e-mail at president@stc-houston.org or find the e-mail address of the other members in the credits of this newsletter.

One last thought

What's the difference between strange and weird?

About two-and-a-half years.

Mysteriously, that's the age difference between my sister and me.

Which one am I?

From the Editor

by Luette Arrowsmith, Team Leader Technical Documentation, SYSCO Corporation

Happy New Year! I hope each of you enjoyed the holidays with ribbons and bows, packages and family get-togethers. Regardless of your religion, I hope the joy and peace of the season is upon you and remains throughout the next twelve months. 

And how many of you made resolutions? Have you made the commitment that goes along with them so that you can experience the success that comes when you follow through? 

For me, I hope this year brings peace, health, and time enough to reward my newsletter team. They work so hard each month to bring you a quality newsletter and aren't paid a cent.  So, if any of you reading this want to help and join a great group, please e-mail me, luette_a@hotmail.com, or someone on the team.

Chapter News

November Program Meeting

Building Our Pillars of Professionalism

by Deborah Long, Courseware Editor, BMC Software Business School

What a treat to have the charismatic John Sweney of Brookwoods Group in our midst at STC Houston's November program meeting! As more of our members are finding employment (yes, in the domestic Technical Communication field), it is time to shift focus to building and practicing “professionalism” on the job.

John gave us a mini-version of his seminar entitled “Pillars of Professionalism,” with highlights that emphasized the five things (pillars) that we each bring to the table: talent, skills, knowledge, experience, and reputation. His background information touched on biology and genetics as determinants of what he calls our hard-wired talents. As it turns out, however, reputation is actually the most valuable (yet the most fragile and most easily damaged) asset that we have.

The main advice John gave was to leverage our various talents, or strengths, to build a firm foundation upon which we can then add skills, knowledge, and experience. He suggested that a good place to start is to take a talent inventory. He also recommended being responsible, reliable, credible, and trustworthy. These and other attributes help hiring managers to predict the fit of potential new employees into a work group. As an example, John pointed to a particular HR test that measures personality by percentages of dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance (otherwise known as DISC).

The websites www.hiresuccess.com and www.strengthsfinder.com were mentioned as useful links for personality typing and strength assessment purposes. And some interesting books were recommended for further reading (such as, First, Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman; and Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, PhD).

To learn more about John Sweney and the Brookwoods Group, go to www.brookwoods.com .

Next time, come to our program meeting and find out for yourself what's happening!

Yearly Awards Banquet

by Lisa Alvarado

Wow! The STC Houston competitions for the 2004–2005 year are coming to an end soon, and what an exciting year it has been. Significant changes in the judging of books, specifically those delivered in PDF, presented challenges. In addition, judges in Houston experienced a slightly different format. All of these changes were designed to give the most rewarding experience to everyone involved, from submitters to judges, and it is safe to say that this year's competition has been a success. All of the judging by our trading partner, the Atlanta chapter, is complete, and we expect to hear the details about the winners soon.

So where is the best place to see all of the winning entries and congratulate their contributors? The STC Houston Awards Banquet, of course! This year, we will celebrate our competition winners and all of our wonderful volunteers at our annual awards banquet on Friday, February 4, 2004. New for this year is the venue. This year's banquet will be held at The Houston Club, 811 Rusk, in the heart of the newly revitalized Downtown Houston. This location is a great place to meet new folks, communicate with old friends, and enjoy some delicious food—all while viewing winning entries. Look for your invitation to arrive soon!

New Members

by Lisetta Lavy

Elaine Wiggins

Originally from Mississippi, Elaine is a graduate of the University of Mississippi with a degree in Computer Science/Business Administration.

She worked in the IT industry for about 15 years (mostly in systems and software support). Her most recent corporate job was with BMC Software, Inc., as a Software Support Analyst. However, she is currently trying to make the transition to freelance writer/independent technical writer while continuing to use her technical experience as well as her love for writing and working with people.

Elaine now works as the Program Coordinator for a nonprofit organization for children, Keep Kicking It, Inc. She coordinates fund-raising events, creates informational brochures, writes press releases, and provides Web content and updates for the organization's Web site.

She is enjoying her new work and hopes that, through her affiliation with STC , she can find a way to continue to make a living doing what she loves to do.

Share the Knowledge

by Gary Foster, Employment Committee Manager

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) Houston Chapter will host an Employment and Free Agent Share the Knowledge (STK) event on Saturday, January 15. The STK will be at the Tomball Church of Christ, 29510 Tomball Parkway (249) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

STC Houston's Employment Committee and Consultants and Independent Contractors Special Interest Group (CIC SIG) have partnered to plan an event jam-packed with exciting presentations.

Employment STK

9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

  • Marketing Yourself in Today's Job Market
  • Demonstrating Your Value to Employers (How to Keep Your Job)
  • Creating Online Resumes & Conducting an Internet Job Search
  • Interviewing Effectively
  • Resume and Portfolio Reviews


1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

  • Setting Up a Business Structure
  • Developing a Sales Strategy for Your Business
  • Independence: Reality Check for Free Agents
  • Financial Security for Free Agents: Insurance and Retirement Packages
  • Resume and Portfolio Reviews

The morning presentations (9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.) will focus on obtaining and keeping employment. The second half of the day (1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.) will feature presentations geared towards free agents (consultants and independent contractors).

Admission is free and refreshments will be served.

Please RSVP for one or both events by sending an e-mail message to mcsmith@houston.rr.com . Be sure to include the number of people attending and their names. This will allow us to print name badges and will give us a head-count for amenities.

For additional information, please call Gary Foster (office 713-625-4410, cell 281-543-4996) or Jocelyn Williams (office 713-656-0683, cell 832-689-1530).

Society News

Highlights of 2004 STC Annual Conference

Cindy Pao, Information Developer, BMC Software, Inc.

This article summarizes the sessions that I attended at the 51 st Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication in Baltimore, Maryland, from May 9 through 12, 2004.

I attended sessions on Leadership Day (Sunday, May 9), as well as technical sessions on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Most of the sessions I attended provided handouts, which I can share. Some sessions also have papers in the Proceedings (on CD), which I can also share.

Leadership Day

As incoming chapter president, I attended Leadership Day to gain knowledge from other chapter leaders.

The opening session provided an update on STC's transformation, as well the names of the chapters that won a Chapter Achievement award. STC Houston won a Chapter of Excellence award! Yeah!

After the opening session, I attended breakout sessions. These sessions gave me a lot of ideas I'd like to see STC Houston implement.

Innovative Chapter Development Ideas

STC Orlando has invented several ways to recognize their members. For example, the Jaffe Award recognizes the best technical communicator in the Orlando chapter. Members are nominated by their managers, and a panel of judges evaluates the strengths (no negatives) of the nominee. The chapter announces the winner of the Jaffe Award toward the end of the calendar year, just in time to boost membership renewal. Another program that interests me is STC Orlando's “Active Member” program, in which the chapter tracks the involvement of its members. At the end of the year, members who have attended meetings and volunteered in the chapter are recognized by the chapter, and they also receive a nifty shirt.

Art of Begging

I almost forgot that I attended this session, so I'm glad I read through my notes again. A lot of what the St. Louis chapter does would work well in our own chapter. STC St. Louis takes their big projects and breaks them up into smaller tasks. When they recruit volunteers, they do so directly, rather than using e-mail or their Web site. They also try to match the activity to a person, and they try to recruit a whole committee at once (rather than a committee manager who has to turn around and recruit members). STC St. Louis asks large employers in the area to come to a program meeting and talk about a completed project—a kind of lessons-learned session. They also ask these employers to sponsor the meeting. So they really spend a lot of time getting both the technical communicators and their employers involved in the chapter.

Marathon of Chapter Presidency

Two very important points came from this session:

First, the chapter president can't do everything; I need to pick a couple of things I'd like to accomplish, and find other people to help out with the rest.

Second, The chapter president must have something outside of STC to turn to for stress relief.

Technical Sessions

Personally, my favorite part of the conference is the technical sessions. I get a lot of new ideas for my projects, refresh my understanding of key technical communication concepts, and get some new knowledge. This year I also attended some sessions that I felt would help me with chapter operations.

Dealing with Genes by Maxine Singer

Dr. Singer is STC's 2004 Honorary Fellow, and she gave a talk about words and their meanings. As I look at my notes from her session, I see the science that was in her talk. My notes look a lot like the notes that a student would take in science class.

Dr. Singer is an excellent speaker, and it is easy to see why STC chose her as its Honorary Fellow.

Getting Started in Usability and Information Design

This progression dealt with usability from a beginner's perspective. Robin Clark presented Integrating User Experience into Task Analysis , during which she talked about task analysis, user analysis, and tying those two things together so that we document solutions and scenarios. Elizabeth Murphy presented Usability by Design at the U.S. Census Bureau , where she discussed a project that the Census Bureau undertook to improve their Web site. Finally, Susan Tacker talked about Becoming a Fearless User Advocate , where our group identified effective strategies that technical communicators can use to become user advocates.

I enjoyed this progression because the speakers have obviously worked with their users—something all of us do not get the chance to do.

Our Favorite Language Bloopers

Leah Guren subtitled her presentation “Around the World in an English Haze,” and it was easy to see why. This session was a funny look at signs, menus, packaging, and user interface errors—in English—that Leah has gathered from around the world.

This was a wonderful session to see in the afternoon!

Designing Information Deliverables Using a User-Topic Matrix

During this workshop, Alexia Idoura showed us what a user-topic matrix is and how to use it to design documentation. We were given information about a new television and asked to identify user roles and topics that the users might need in the product documentation. Then we used a grid to record the user roles and match them to the topics.

I liked learning about the matrix. However, I need more information if I want to use it in my work.

Traceability Matrix: Taking the Guesswork Out of Fulfilling User

This demonstration showed how Solvay Pharmaceuticals used a traceability matrix to help produce documentation for a new application. The traceability matrix takes user and functional requirements, design specifications, and testing references and brings them together in one document. This document helps demonstrate that the finished product will meet the users' requirements, provides a single source for project tracking, and helps keep the project on time.

This session was OK, but I don't think I can fully appreciate the matrix yet.

Section 508 for Dummies

This progression, conducted by members of the AccessAbility Special Interest Group (SIG), provided guidelines for developing information products that conform to the government's Section 508 requirements. Rosemary Gibert gave an “Overview of Section 508 and the Law,” where she defined what information products must conform to Section 508 and where technical communicators can go to find more information. Lori Gillen presented “Conducting a Usability Test for People with Hearing Impairments,” where she identified some guidelines for building accessible Web sites and told us about a good Web site that is accessible. Last, we heard about the “Top 5 Roadblocks to Accessibility.”

This progression could have been better. A number of the scheduled speakers did not attend, leaving those who showed in the lurch.

White Papers in Your Future

Beau Cain talked about how technical communicators can expand their portfolios by developing white papers. He defined ten types of white papers and gave some references that provide more information.

Beau has a great speaking style that made the attendees want to participate in the talk, and we did just that!

Writing Clear, Concise Instructions

During this workshop, Alexa Campbell talked about the basics of writing good instructions. She actually began the session by defining instructions as explanations of how to do things. Then she went on to tell us that instructions should be given in numbered or ordered lists. At the end of the session, Alexa gave us some exercises in which we picked apart some instructions and figured out how to make them clearer.

As I reviewed my notes from this session, I realized how valuable the information is. I need to blow up my notes and hang them on my office wall!

Mentoring, Coaching, and Encouraging Creative Thinking

I attended this session because I wanted to get some more information for STC Houston's own mentoring program. Mentoring is a power-free facilitation of learning for both the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring programs can be either formal or informal, but there should be a mentoring agreement.

I didn't get as much out of this session by by Elizabeth Bailey, Vanadis Crawford, and Stephanie Morgan as I thought I would. Unfortunately, a mentoring program within a company has more emphasis behind it because the program is probably part of someone's objectives. If STC Houston is to succeed with its own mentoring program, we have to get more members involved.

Honors Banquet

For fun at the conference, I attended the Honors Banquet. STC Houston was well represented at the banquet with me, Jim Hunt, Jocelyn Williams, Linda King, Rebecca Taylor, George Slaughter, and Linda Oestreich attending. We were all thrilled that Jim was made an Associate Fellow and that STC Houston was recognized as a Chapter of Excellence!

After dinner, there was dancing, and Jim managed to teach me to two-step. I still have two left feet, but I feel like I have a bit more style now.

Keep in Touch

If you'd like to look at any of my notes, handouts, or the Proceedings CD, let me know. You can send me an e-mail at president@stc-houston.org .

STC Board of Directors Welcomed to the Bayou City

by George Slaughter, Senior Technical Writer, The Integrity Group

STC Houston welcomes the STC Board of Directors to Houston for its January, 2005 meeting. Approximately 20-25 Society officials are expected, including elected Board members, assistants to the president, STC Executive Director Peter Herbst, among other STC leaders.

The Board meeting is open to STC members, with only certain activities held in executive session. The meeting sessions provide local members the opportunity to expand their social and professional networks, and see how the STC leadership works.

Planning the reception

STC Houston plans to host a welcome reception for Board members on Friday, January 21, 2005. As of this writing, the plan is to host the reception at Canyon Café, 5000 Westheimer, Suite 250. Menu includes Pancho’s Chicken Enchiladas, beef fajitas, and Adovo Pasta (a chicken pasta, only with chicken removed for our vegetarian guests). Side dishes include Southwestern rice, black beans, warm flour tortillas, and pico de gallo.

Soft drinks, water, tea, and coffee will be provided, and a cash bar will be available for guests wishing to enjoy other beverages.

Cost is $25, and members will be asked to RSVP and use PayPal to secure their tickets, following the same procedure for program meetings.

Securing the meeting

The Board holds its meetings in August, January, and May. The Society president chooses which cities will host the August and January Board meetings during his or her time in office. The Board holds its May meeting in the city hosting the STC Annual Conference. Often, when it becomes apparent who the president will be, chapters will begin lobbying to host the Board meetings.

To help persuade Andrea Ames, then the Society president-elect, to choose Houston as a meeting site, STC Houston sponsored a poetry-writing contest in which participants wrote poems touting Houston’s virtues. Holly Jahangiri, who works at Hewlett-Packard, submitted the winning entry.

Networking Opportunities

If you have a networking opportunity to share, please tell us! Go to www.stc-houston.org/contacteditor.htm.

Upcoming STC Seminars

The 2004–2005 seminar series is the Society's most ambitious to date. Among the scheduled presenters are members who have published widely, served at high levels in the Society, and received outstanding scores for their conference presentations. Following is a list of seminars scheduled for January and February. To view the complete 2004–2005 seminar schedule, visit stc.webex.com . Please note that registration closes 24 hours before each event.

January 12: Preemptive Project Planning

Presenter John Hedtke is the award-winning author of 23 books, the most recent being RoboHelp for the Web (book and CD, with Brenda Huettner). He has more than 25 years of experience in software and technical communications, including 7 years in technical publications management. He has developed and written documentation and books for many leading products and does consulting in writing, business, and processes for a variety of clients. A complete list of his books, articles, and projects can be found at http://www.hedtke.com . John frequently travels for lectures and guest appearances at conferences and seminars. A member of the Mid-Valley chapter, he is a fellow of the Society.

January 26: A Pound of Salt, A Pint of Blood – Getting the Most Out of Your Contractors to Ensure Project Success

Presenter Tom White is president of TJW Associates, Inc. in Beaverton , Oregon . For the past 20 years, he has developed information for technical audiences—writing software manuals, creating online documentation, designing training courses, and managing Web sites.
Having worked both sides of contracting—as a contractor and as a hiring manager—Tom knows first-hand the pitfalls of ill-conceived client and contractor relationships. Through successful contract management, Tom has also learned productive ways to get the most out of contract resources.
Tom is active in the Willamette Valley chapter of STC, and he has shared his experience about contracting in his popular Declaration of Independence™ seminars with those aspiring to become independent contractors. He can be reached at tomjwhite@comcast.net .

February 2: Low-Tech Analysis of Sentence Structure: The Sentence Diagram

Presenter Ann Jennings is director of the Professional Writing Program and an associate professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. She teaches technical editing, business and technical report writing, desktop publishing, and writing for the Web. A veteran of thirteen years in the financial services industry, she now consults in the areas of forensic editing and corporate training. Ann served as an expert witness on sentence diagramming in a federal lawsuit. Her “Teaching Tip” on staging a sentence-diagramming workshop was published in the May 2002 issue of Intercom. She has published technical articles, book reviews, feature stories, and short stories.

February 9: Adobe Acrobat 7.0

Information on this workshop was not available at press time. Check stc.webex.com for more information.

Each seminar costs $99 for STC members (the nonmember rate is $149). In addition to offering high-quality training at an affordable price, STC's seminar series features a quick and simple online registration process. Members can sign up for seminars and view detailed descriptions at stc.webex.com .

More information about presenters and seminars will appear in upcoming issues of Dateline Houston and on the STC Web site. Be sure to check the Web site frequently for an up-to-date list of seminars.

Copyright © 2006 Houston Chapter, Society for Technical Communication
P.O. Box 42051, Houston, TX 77242-2051 | 713-706-3434