The way we communicate

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over the way we communicate. Every now and then, people say that we (people in general, our generation, the younger generation, the Internet denizens, …) are losing the ability to concentrate for more than a few nanoseconds at a time. We accuse ourselves of not reading anything, of losing energy and switching context too quickly. You’ve heard all this before.

But I think that’s wrong. Instead, we’re radically changing the way we gather and consume knowledge.

Asynchronous, extended and creative information gathering

We communicate asynchronously. We take information from a wide number of sources, and munge it together. And we do it creatively.

Our attention span is not shorter, but rather much more extended than before. We pick up thoughts, drop them, then pick them up again later, not minding too much if they’ve changed a bit in the meantime.

Also, we use the cloud for much of our communication. In our household, which is probably fairly typical, there are devices lying around all over the show. I pick up my mobile phone when I want personal access to my social sites. But if I’m in the living room and just want to read some blogs or search for some info, I will pick up the family iPad if it’s closer. When I want desktop apps and a bigger keyboard, I boot up my Windows PC. If an Apple Mac is lying around, I’ll open it up for quicker access to the web. (Macs boot up so much more quickly than Windows PCs.)

Our communication is more fluid than it’s ever been. And more technical.

The science of technical communication needs to take this into account.

We’re there already

Now I’m putting on my “technical communicator” hat. By accident or by design, many of us have slipped into multi-channel mode already. In illustration, here are some of the channels in which I answer customers’ questions and pass on hints and tips:

  • Wiki-based documentation
  • Community question-and-answer forum
  • Twitter
  • Corporate blog
  • Personal blog
  • Email
  • Webinars
  • Skype calls
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Conferences
  • User group meetings
  • Special-interest social sites
  • A book

What do technical communicators need?

It’s tempting to say that we need a tool that helps us find, manage and present all these sources of information in a useful way.

Do we need a new tool, or do we need to learn how to use the channels that people are already using to communicate?

What do we have already that comes close? What would the ideal solution look like?

Perhaps what I’m looking for is there already. It’s called the Internet, with Google smoothed over the top. Perhaps what I’m looking for is the Semantic Web.

But I can’t help thinking that those are too vast and therefore not helpful. Do we need a tool that fits the needs of technical communication in particular? But tools get out of date so quickly, specialist tools in particular.

Do we need clever technical communicators who keep abreast of new technology, whether it’s developed for us or not, and constantly devise ways to use it to give our readers what they need?

Yes, that’s it. And that’s why we’ll never be without a job.

End of my rambling train of thought

What do you think of all that? šŸ™‚

A tranquil scene from a ramble on Sydney Harbour North Head

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 19 June 2012, in technical writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Linda Stone has been exploring this You may find it of interest

    • Hallo Ellis

      Thanks! I started watching the video on the bus this morning. I hope to finish the last 10 minutes on the bus this evening. (Talk about a case in point!)

      I like these words of hers:
      “Attention expressed collectively defines a community.”

      I’m looking forward to her conclusions, which I hope will be in those crucial last 10 minutes. šŸ™‚


    • I’ve watched the rest of the presentation. I like the path she defines in the type of workers we are. We started as data workers. Then information workers. Now moving through knowledge and understanding workers towards becoming wisdom workers. Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by ethics, principles, purpose, memory and projection. Cool.

      And the idea that companies need to get in touch with the current dominant attention paradigm, rather than getting stuck in the attention parading that was dominant at their birth. A bit of jargon there, but I get what she’s saying.

      Well worth the time!

  2. Ann-Charlotte

    I think the answer is wiki! šŸ™‚

    • Hallo Ann-Charlotte

      Heh heh, yes! Wikis do a great job of incorporating input from other web services. I think we need more along the lines of creating metadata, and organising content based on that metadata.

      And another thing wikis do well is promote and implement innovation. So with any luck wikis will just get better and better.

      Cheers, Sarah

  3. The first section: what a refreshing perspective. šŸ™‚ I’ve noticed that many people seem to espouse the ideas in the Intro without ever stopping to question if they are actually true.

  4. Excellent post! I enjoyed it very much.

  5. I agree – asynchronous, extended and creative indeed. My habits are close to yours in use of e-devices. I love the immediacy of all the new channels of information. Keep the great blogs and webinars coming.

  6. Sarah, I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. A big part of that is how we communicate and how we proceed from processing ideas and information to solving problems. It definitely turns the obligatory “this generation just doesn’t ______ any more” or “multi-tasking is for kids who can’t focus!” on its head.

    • Hallo Daniel
      That looks like a very interesting book. There are some great reviews, and a shocker review too. Are you planning to blog about it when you’ve finished reading? I’d love to hear your conclusions about the book and what you got out of it.
      Cheers, Sarah

  7. Hi Sarah,
    You forgot one… when I’m in the living room and I want to share something with my family and visitors I grab the Google TV remote and display it on my big screen TV…

    Great article, Thanks!


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