Category Archives: Book reviews

Talking of technical communicators who write books

Many technical writers do other types of writing too. This week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting one of them in person. Cynthia Chin-Lee is a manager in information development at Oracle, and also the author of a number of books. She made me a present of two of them – such a generous gesture.

One of the books Cynthia gave me is Amelia to Zora, Twenty-Six Women Who Changed the World. Cynthia is the author, and the illustrations are by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy.

Amelia to Zora - book cover

Each page is about a woman who’s done amazing, beautiful, world-changing things with her life. Cynthia has managed to pack an enormous amount into just a few words about each person, with a quotation from each one. The illustrations by Megan and Sean are unusual and lovely. My favourite is the page about Imogen Cunningham, a photographer:

Amelia to Zora - a page in the book

The second book Cynthia gave me is Operation Marriage, a story about a family of four: two mothers and two children. The mothers are gay, and at the start of the book they haven’t yet married. When they first decided to commit their lives to each other, marriage of gay couples was not legal in their part of the world. The story tells how their two children get together to persuade them to marry.

Cynthia Chin-Lee is the author and Lea Lyon is the illustrator.

Operation Marriage - book cover

The story is sensitively and neatly told, and the illustrations are just gorgeous. This is my favourite page, showing the family settled down on the couch to watch a video of the mothers’ commitment ceremony:

You can find details of the books on Cynthia’s website. Thank you Cynthia for a thoughtful gift.

Book review – Non-Mortuus by Zola

Book coverI’ve just finished reading a new book called Non-Mortuus, by Zola. Are you a fan of vampire fiction, villains who turn out to be heroes or vice versa, and fast-paced action interspersed with thought-provoking otherworldliness? Then I think you’ll enjoy this book!

What’s it about? Vampires and vampire hunters. That seems straightforward. But the going gets a bit murky when you and the characters discover it’s hard to draw the line between undead and hunter.

It’s a good-sized book, coming in at nearly 450 pages. A good length to get you fully engaged in the characters and the world that the author sets up. And Zola has set up a very convincing world for you and the characters to make your own.

The book is full of detailed descriptions of locations, such as the streets of Lisbon in chapter 2, and the busy sidewalks of Calcutta (Kolkata) in chapter 25. I found these descriptions very interesting, and they add to the feeling that you’re in a real world.

Here I’d like to make a quick disclosure: Zola is a friend of mine. I bought the book because he wrote it. I read it with ever-growing pleasure.

The book is written in three parts, each narrated by a different character. The first is Aníbal Ferreira Silva, a trained hunter in the Order, and sworn to track down and kill the non-mortuus (vampires) of this world. The second part of the book is written in the voice of Eleanor, also known as Elle. She’s a non-mortuus. And the third narrator is Billy Ray, another of the hunters.

The author, Zola, is writing in his second language. His first is Croatian. This leads to an odd turn of phrase every now and then. It adds to the atmosphere of the book, especially in the first part where the narrator is Aníbal, who is also not English. I’d recommend a little more proof-reading to fix some grammatical and spelling errors, especially in the parts where Billy Ray, an American, is the narrator.

Billy Ray’s section is quite different in pace and style. There’s much more swash-buckling action as the book comes to its climax. I loved the characterisation in the book. Aníbal is very human in his foibles and strengths. Elle is cute though a little cold…

I recommend this book for its authoritative voice, sound theming, engaging characters, and good placement in geography and time. Zola cleverly introduces new plot elements throughout the book, with well-timed revelations about the Order and non-mortuus alike.

So, suspend your disbelief (I found that easy, right from the start) and enjoy the ride with Zola,  Aníbal, Eleanor and Billy Ray. Let me know if you survive. Mua-ha-ha…

Book review – SOCIALIZED! How the most successful businesses harness the power of social

Book review - Socialized!I’ve just finished reading Mark Fidelman’s book “SOCIALIZED! How the most successful businesses harness the power of social”. The publisher offered me a copy of the book for review, an offer which I accepted with alacrity and pleasure.

This is an inspirational book. Read it for an injection of excitement. It’s also a practical book. Read it for its action plans and social business playbook, and for the many real-life stories that illustrate the pitfalls and triumphs of organisations navigating our brave new world of social media and organisational change.

First impressions

The copy on the inside cover is excellent.

It’s not about the platform, it’s about the people.

Hire people who can bend the latest technologies in innovative ways to achieve your purpose. People who will not be afraid, nor complacent, when the next new thing comes along.

I opted for a printed copy of the book rather than an ebook. It’s a pleasant hard-cover format. The cover design combines a light and airy colour scheme with an interesting, detail-filled graphic. The book is easy to hold, and feels satisfyingly smooth and soft to the touch. The fonts chosen for the content are easy on the eye. Congratulations to Mark and the publishing team on a well-presented and attractive book.

Diving in

In this post, I’d like to take you on a tour of the bits of the book that leapt out and grabbed my attention. But the book is jam-packed with information. When you read it, you’ll find plenty more sections that speak to your specific environment, whether you are already part of a social business or just want to be.

At this point, you may be wondering exactly what a “social business” is. On page xiv of the book is this definition:

“[Social businesses] are businesses that have learned the philosophy and strategy of using social technologies to create more adaptive businesses. Think of a new kind of business that’s agile enough to capture new opportunities, can change shape when confronted with threats, and can call on vibrant communities to support its initiatives.”

Mark goes on to explain that such organisations cultivate internal social networks (digital villages) as well as external ones. But how? The aim of the book is to give the reader a playbook for the social era, to answer just that question.

Getting started with a social mindset

Right on page 1, Mark compares the old and new ways of doing business. In the old way, still prevalent in many organisations, the mindset among top-level management is “do as I say”. The new way is, “I want to hear your opinion”.

Executives must recognise that, to succeed, they must harness the wisdom of the organisation they run. They must set up a cultural framework to gather and manage this wisdom. Part of that framework is formed by collaborative and social technology platforms. Mark makes this bold assertion (page 14):

Some people argue that we should focus more on developing the skills of people and not on the technology to support them, but that is completely false. Technology can be used to influence people’s behavior – it always has.

(There’s a bit of a tension here with what’s on the inside cover: “It’s not about the platform. it’s about the people”. I only noticed the contradiction when reading through this post just before publishing it. I think it’s true that the skills and technology complement each other. They’re pretty entangled, actually. Have we reached cyberpunk utopia? We’re pretty close.)

Mark also puts the interesting and persuasive notion that you need an internal social culture before an external social business will work (page 100).

Six steps towards a business case

The book goes on to present guidelines on using social tools such as Twitter and Facebook. It’s not good enough to use them as just another advertising channel. The key is to interact with customers via those channels, and to give real and valuable information.

Pages 28-36 describe how to build a case for becoming a social business:

  • Find the types of people you need (they have cute names like “social butterfly” and “quant”)
  • Define the vision
  • Find the gaps
  • Set your goals
  • Create a purpose to rally around
  • Build and present the business case

How would your company fare in transforming to a social business?

A survey on page 44 provides an interesting exercise in determining your company’s culture, and then deciding how easily it could transform itself into a social business. The book describes 5 cultural profiles, some of which will make the transformation more easily than others.

(In my own responses to this survey, Atlassian comes in as a mix between profile 1 and profile 5. Interesting – the two extremes, in terms of Mark’s assessment of ability to become a social business. Of course, as Mark points out, individual experiences differ, as do experiences in different business units within the same company.)

The story of IBM

The book tells the fascinating story of how IBM dragged itself out of a pit by revolutionising its social strategies (page 53 onwards). A large part of its success comes from the development of BlueIQ, a centre of competence for social initiatives and collaboration. The aim was to share success stories, methods and patterns, and train volunteers from other areas to become more collaborative and social. More and more people took part, and culture change was underway. Cultural change going viral!

The technology platforms

Mark lists the primary social platforms that companies use to support their digital villages: SharePoint, Jive, Yammer, SAP Streamwork, IBM Connections, with Chatter and, and Drupal (page 74).

(I was a bit surprised that Confluence isn’t in the list. I guess there’s an opportunity for Atlassian there.) 🙂

Titbits for technical communicators

If you’re a technical communicator, like me, you’ll find plenty of points in the book that ring true. Here are a few:

  • 28% of people who follow a brand on Twitter do it because they want content. 61% want to be first to know information about the brand.
  • There’s an entire section describing how “content really is king” (pages 114-7).  It’s what technical communicators know from the bottom of our hearts. Mark makes some great points about creating simple, powerful content.
  • Businesses need to “hire fantastic writers and a content creation team… Don’t skimp here. Their ability to shape the organization’s story has never been greater” (page 166).

Oh yeah. 😉

The playbook

Chapter 6 is all about developing a “playbook” and using it to drive your social business plan. The playbook outlines the strategies you want to follow. You will continuously update and refine it based on feedback and results. For me, the core of this chapter is on pages 148 to 167. Here Mark lays down the 15 best practices to follow in your social business playbook.

The social employee

Are you an employee who wants to take an active part in catapulting your company into the social business stratosphere? Some people would say that’s part of our duty to our employers now. Chapter 7 is all about the rise of the social employee, good reading for managers and team members alike.

Nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

What happens when things go wrong? And they can go wrong in a big way, when social media are in play. Throughout the book, Mark tells stories of social successes and failures, using real life examples. For the failures, he analyses what went wrong and why, and how the organisation concerned could have acted differently. On pages 243-4, he gives a strategic synthesis of measures you can take to protect your organisation.

Any suggestions for the next edition of the book?

The book has a number of examples of “the 10 ways to do this” or “the five rules for that”. It became a little difficult to differentiate between them and to remember where in the book they occurred.

The table of contents is very high level – it contains just the chapter names. Perhaps a more detailed table of contents would help the reader gain an organised view of the content, and find specific bits again later.

It would also be extremely useful to have a separate list of all the “10 ways” etc sets. They are very valuable and it would be great to have the overview and be able to find them quickly.

Did I say “suggestions for the next edition”? Yes, because this is an excellent and timely book. It’s easy to read and packed with useful information and guidelines. I’m sure there’ll plenty of demand for it now, and for an update in a year or so.

In conclusion

Mark ends the book by saying, “I, for one, am excited about our world’s future. ” An exciting future, yes. And a bit scary. I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about handling both those aspects of social business.

The book is SOCIALIZED! How the Most Successful Businesses Harness the Power of Social by Mark Fidelman, published by Bibliomotion, 2013.

Book reviews for “Confluence, Tech Comm, Chocolate”

A number of people have written reviews of my book, Confluence, Tech Comm, Chocolate: A wiki as platform extraordinaire for technical communication. The reviews are thoughtful, quirky, in-depth, and creative. I love the variety of styles. Here’s a roundup, for those who’d like to know more about the book or simply to see what people are saying about it.

The latest is a review with a difference. It’s by Randall Ward of Appfire Technologies. He has called it a “book review and wine/chocolate pairing guide“. If you’re the slightest bit interested in wine, chocolate, or wikis, you’ve got to read Randall’s post.  😉

All reviews to date:

More reviews will probably appear after the date of this post, as people start receiving their copies of the book. To see the latest reviews, drop in on this wiki page: Book reviews and blog posts and webinars and more.

Thanks so much to everyone who has spent the time and energy writing up a review!

Who cares about content – a review of “The Content Pool”

Who cares about content? I do. Passionately. But then I’m a technical writer, so that’s only natural. However, more and more organisations are beginning to realise the value of their content, be it the words and images on their websites, their product documentation, online forums, or any other way in which they make their presence known. Content, especially online content, is their primary way of interacting with customers and potential customers.

I’ve just finished reading Alan Porter’s new book, The Content Pool: Leveraging Your Company’s Largest Hidden Asset, published by XML Press. It’s a great read, in Alan’s inimitable story-telling style. If you’re in any way involved in the world of business and its content, then this book will give you plenty of points to think about.

Content matters

The book’s theme is that content is a strategic business asset and should be treated as such. In fact, the final chapter makes the case for appointing a Chief Content Officer (CCO) so that content is managed at senior executive level.

Kudos to Alan for identifying this topic and running with it. It’s a topic that all organisations need to pay attention to. High-quality content, well managed, is especially of critical importance to commercial organisations that target a globally distributed customer base. Wise and smart content management is the way to make and save $$.

Great stories

Thoughout the book you will find stories drawn from Alan’s own experience, illustrating his points and making the book a joy to read. It’s like sitting down at the fireside with a friend, discussing your troubles and mulling over the possible solutions.

This is a great quotation: “I’m a writer. I take the truth and give it scope.” (From the film “A Knight’s Tale”, quoted on page 82.)

I loved chapter 11, “Answers are the Answer”, and its tale of the purple monkey (page 134). A senior technical writer at a certain organisation was convinced that no-one ever read the “Description and Operation” documents that he produced.  So he had taken to adding the words “purple monkey” in the middle of the documents, completely out of context and in the middle of a sentence. No-one ever complained.

New perspectives…

On page 36, Alan writes, “With all this talk of the future and new media, don’t forget about your legacy information and your older, or disconnected, audience. Paper is still the default for the vast majority of people in the world. It is still the best user interface and delivery mechanism ever created.”

Those are good words. They gave me a new perspective on paper.

Alan makes the point that we need to design content that will still be readable in a few years’ time. And that will also be available on that legacy format, paper. For that reason, we should develop content in a presentation-neutral format.

…leading to my own musings

This led me to thinking about longevity of content. How true is it that our content needs to stand the test of time? Some of it must, of course. But perhaps the vast majority is disposable, as is so much else we use. I guess that part of content management is the ability to recognise and delineate the content that needs to be in a format that will survive.

Focus on questions and considerations

In some sections of the book, I thought that perhaps there was plenty of attention paid to the problems an organisation faces concerning its content, but perhaps not enough information about the solutions. An example is chapter 4, which talks about the language we use in our content and the problems we may encounter if we get it wrong. Only one solution is proposed: the use of a controlled language, which I think may not suit all environments. Chapter 6, on collaboration, is also a bit light on the “how to” details. Chapter 13 is about choosing a technical solution: a tool or platform for content development and management. It has good information about the questions you need to consider, but no details about the technologies available and the relative capabilities of each.

On the other hand, the book makes you think. That’s what you want a book to do.

What about the picture on the cover?

Ellis Pratt has written a great review of The Content Pool over on the Cherryleaf Technical Author’s Blog. But I disagree with Ellis about the picture on the cover of the book. Douglas Potter has done an excellent job. The book is attractive and engaging, and the artwork reflects the informal style of the content.

What do you think? (Purple monkey.)

Highly recommended sections of the book

Chapter 9 has a useful section on the points to consider when choosing a new standard for your content and for the processes that surround its production. Pages 104-9 list the questions to ask, followed by the tasks to follow when pursuing your selection strategy.

Chapter 12 covers user-generated content. It’s a very useful introduction to this complex topic. Alan also touches on the question of integrating a platform that allows user contributions with a more structured authoring environment, as recommended in the earlier section on round tripping in chapter 10.

Summing it up

Sit back, grab a glass of something warm and comfortable, and settle in for a good read. By the end of the book you’ll have a much clearer understanding of what content is, why it’s so important to an organisation’s well being, and the points to consider when setting out to improve your content management strategies.

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