A report from ASTC (NSW) 2011 day 1 morning
I’m at the 2011 conference of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (ASTC), New South Wales branch. It’s great to get together with other technical writers, greet old friends and meet new people. It’s also great to talk about the things that matter to us as technical communication professionals. Here are my notes from the morning of day 1.
President’s welcome, by Bede Sunter
Bede Sunter, president of the ASTC, opened the conference by with a concise description of the role of technical communicators: Supplying information of value. He briefly discussed the role of technical communicators and its relationship with the Plain Language movement. After welcoming everyone, he handed over to Pam Peters
Beyond words, by Pam Peters
The key note presentation was by Pam Peters, adjunct professor in linguistics at Macquarie University. Pam has contributed to a number of dictionaries and written style guides such as The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage. She introduced herself saying that she was here as a linguist who is increasingly interested in visual communication, and the visual dimensions of language as used for communication purposes.
Pam’s presentation discussed contrastive typography, its decorative uses, and most relevantly its functional uses as a resource for communication. One example was the use of visuals to clarify architectural terms. These visuals may be as simple as a picture. Or they may be diagrams for showing the relationships between different terms. She showed us a tree structure to represent the classification of windows by their shape. Shape is just one of the ways in which we can describe windows. This was part of the “term bank” that Pam and her team are developing. Another example was a concept map, similar to a mind map or a data relationship diagram, showing the relationships between facets of sustainable architecture.
Pam discussed the benefits of tabular information: It is both wide band (a lot of information) and gives the reader control. The reader can decide what to focus on. She illustrated this with a table that Tufte had created for a criminal trial, showing the types of crimes committed by witnesses in the trial. Evidently this table had a big effect on the outcome of the trial. Other graphs showed the causes of death over a given timeline. Again, the graphs were created by Tufte.
Pam closed by saying that the visual elements are parallel methods of communication to the words and numbers. If you can use these elements meaningfully and strategically, you can become a multimodal communicator. This is the way everyone wants to go.
Keeping your customer happy – it takes more than words, by Elizabeth Abbott
Elizabeth Abbott is director of TechWriter Placement and Services. She mentioned that she gets lots and lots of feedback about the way her company’s contractors interact with clients. She stressed that this is a very important part of our job, for people who have permanent roles as well as contractors. The focus of Elizabeth’s talk was on understanding non-verbal cues: Listening to the customers, giving and receiving feedback, and body language. A good question to ask yourself, when dealing with a customer, is: “What can I do to make this person successful?”
Elizabeth’s talk was very informative, and given by someone who obviously has a lot of experience in this field and has thought about it and formulated her guidelines with skill and care.
A bit of everything – multiple platforms with minimal editing, by David Whitbread
Author of The Design Manual, David Whitbread presented a session on “a bit of everything”. This is something that most of us are doing these days. A big concern is versioning. By that, David means which version of the information are we delivering. How can we come up with one definitive version, or one definitive document, and then feed it out to the various media? This was the subtext of David’s talk, including metadata tagging and visual media.
David started with the capture and curation of content. Curation is a new term, but it is really what authors have always done. He talked about using podcasts as a way of quickly capturing information from subject matter experts. Within ten minutes, he has a good chunk of content. The lawyers with whom he’s been using this technique are very happy with this process, because it’s much faster than text capture and it gives the lawyers control over the content. Transcripts then provide the textual element. A similar process is used to reuse the presentations given by the lawyers at conferences.
Navigation and labelling are essential for helping people fin dthe information they need. Headings must signpost the information. Semantic tagging is useful for gathering related information and pushing it out in a different way. For example, you could label all headings as heading1, heading2 etc. You could also label all quotations as such. This is the metadata that is useful for sending out summaries, or content targeted at specific audiences, and so on.
David says that design is going to get easier, because now we’re designing the pieces of the document. How they will finally appear is determined by a number of factors, including the users’ choices, the output medium, the browser, the device, and more. Technology plays a big part in how design will become simpler. See the example of The Guardian mobile app. The source files for the Guardian pages are scanned by the software, and it works out how to display the article for the app. The designers just go in and add the final touches. David recommends that we look at the reviews of The Guardian app, in CreativeReview and other locations. (Here is one that I found: http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2011/october/port-guardian-ipad-apps)
We want our messages to gracefully reflow to suit the technology of the user. The Guardian app is a great example of this.
David’s talk also skimmed over findability and accessibility, branding and marketing, websites and social media, and film and sound.
Workshops to webinars – the future of training for technical communicators? By Steve Moss
Steve Moss is president of the Technical Communicators Association, New Zealand (TCANZ). His session covered the strengths and weaknesses of webinars and workshops as training tools. The notes that Steve gave us in the conference workbook are very comprehensive indeed, and will be very useful for anyone intending to run such a training session. TCANZ has run over 60 workshops and webinars over the last few years. The presentation contained the tips and techniques that Steve and his team have learned about the process of organising and running workshops and webinars, with a focus on webinars. They have run five webinars since 2010, including sessions with presenters in the UK, US and New Zealand.
This was a very informative talk, covering all you need to know about planning and holding a webinar or workshop.
Off to lunch
It’s lunch time. More news from ASTC (NSW) 2011 in my next post.