by Linda King, Project Manager, Hewlett-Packard Company
The November "Lessons from the Desert" conference—planned and hosted jointly in Phoenix by the STC Phoenix chapter and STC's international Instructional Design and Learning SIG—was a real treat for those fortunate enough to attend. In fact, the small scale of this STC Region 5 conference (2 days and 100 attendees) and the excellent conference facilities made this an exceptional opportunity to meet and share ideas with other technical communicators from across the country, including a half dozen leaders of STC at the Society level. For example, I had dinner one night with Suzanna Laurent, the current Society president, and two Society board members. I also networked with folks representing a broad spectrum of industries, including two from one of my company's vendors.
Because the ID&L SIG cosponsored this event, many conference sessions addressed topics of primary interest to professional trainers and instructional designers. I attended other sessions with more direct application to my current projects. I'd like to share some "nuggets" that I captured in those sessions.
The keynote address by scientist and children's author Conrad J. Storad provided delightful examples of how to analyze a target audience and convey scientific and technical information to them in creative ways. Conrad's target audience is children in kindergarten, first, and second grades. His books, such as Don't Call Me Pig and Lizards for Lunch, are wonderful teaching tools for parents who have children in that age group.
In the "Motion-Media Script Design for Technical Communicators" session, Martin Shelton discussed the psychology of film and emphasized that film and video are kinetic visual media. The mind grasps kinetic images very quickly, but it processes words slowly. In waiting for words to catch up to the visual images, the viewer's mind wanders and information is lost. Shelton said that for optimal communication, at least 75 percent of a "show" should be visual. He emphasized that the storyboard is the basic script format, that it should be developed before the audio script to identify the visual images needed to communicate as much as possible, and that words should be used to communicate only additional information that the audience must know for full understanding. Shelton noted that the power of film and video is that they can manipulate time and space to juxtapose things effectively. He concluded that the keys to effective film and video are to keep them short, simple, and straightforward.
In the session "Riding the Harmonic Convergence of Instructional Design, Training, and Technical Communication," Mark Hanigan discussed how former lines of demarcation among the three professions are fading. He emphasized that technical communicators need to stop thinking of themselves as writers, editors, trainers, etc., and start thinking of themselves as project resources who can wear multiple hats to provide greater value and achieve career growth.
"Surviving the Wild SME Bird Encounter" and "The Writer/SME Survival Kit" sessions were about how to work more effectively with SMEs (subject matter experts). Key points the speakers made included the importance of
understanding the various personalities of SMEs to determine how best to collaborate with them
using the same skills that we use in developing deliverables to prepare for collaboration with SMEs
contributing in any way we can to enhance the product or deliverable
"watching the SME's back" (that is, finding possible errors and then privately and tactfully giving him or her the opportunity to quietly fix the problem)
making SMEs understand the value that technical communicators can add to projects
"Risk-Resilient Remedies for Technical Communicators" was a hands-on workshop that emphasized the importance of doing thorough risk assessments and managing the risks to project timelines, budgets, and success. The speaker, Karen Graden, led us through exercises of risk analysis, risk prevention, and risk remediation on hypothetical projects. She gave participants a very useful form for analyzing project risks.
In "Magical Numbers: The Seven-Plus-or-Minus-Two Myth," Jean-luc Doumont debunked the long-standing premise that the ideal number of items in a list, sections in a document, or ideas in a section is 7 plus or minus 2. He clearly demonstrated that readers can recognize and recall no more than five items in a list (possibly six for a few people) unless the items are clustered into small groups with significant space between the groups. He particularly emphasized and illustrated the importance of this concept for designing effective websites.
In the optional "STC Community Leadership Workshop," four key leaders of STC at the Society level shared their ideas about what it takes to be a good leader and how to recruit volunteers. These are some of the traits identified as vital in a successful leader:
Strong personal character: Get to know the personalities of the people you lead, and work with them accordingly.
Integrity: Build trust in yourself, and build the trust of others.
Perseverance: Never give up; identify your shortcomings and do something about them.
Genuine listener: Be fully present when you interact with others.
Flexibility: When something happens, view it as an opportunity. Pay attention to and address the needs of others. Feel protective of your people (volunteers, direct reports, etc.).