Relevance is the Key

It was a busy week for us. Amidst the lockdown and the pandemic, we managed to see the doctor adn got our medical certificates done. Then, over the weekend, we traveled to our hometown. I did all the planning, packing, and traveling to and from the hospital in the work breaks. This helped me manage the work, meetings, and other priorities. But the writer’s brain continued to work as usual, and thoughts continued to spin their web. So came this post.

While creating the guidelines for writers in my team, I realized how important it was to write crisp instructions. The guidelines were for reference. But most writers would go to the wiki not before, but while preparing the content. They would be more productive and busy in writing their content than digging into my referential one. Relevance was the key.

And, based on the little head pounding that I did on the subject, I zeroed-in on this:

Contextual Relevance

The profession of writing is an interesting one, for it teaches us more re-writing than writing. Staying true to the context is, therefore, second nature to us. You will not find a single sentence that doesn’t serve the purpose, the core, the topic. There could be more than one sentence to stress the importance of the point.

When creating the content, I reckon that we focus on writing about what the readers are searching for. We must write about what leads the readers to look for. We join context and content: the resolution to their problems, the remedy to their pain, the destination to their journey of searching for information.

Emotional Relevance

How empowered was the reader after going through your content? Could they make a decision? Could they press the button? Did they feel as empowered as you wanted them to? Or are they still looking for something they thought after looking at the title of your content? Ask yourself questions like these. Check your content to see the possible impact of it on the lives of the readers. One of the results of your writing the content is empowerment. Ensure that readers feel confident after going through it.

Strategic Relevance

Your content should help them see the whole picture in a logical sequence. The readers have embarked on a journey, remember? So they are entitled to see from where they have come, where they are currently, and to where they may lead. The clarity of steps is the clarity of mind, at least in the context of instructions.

Critical Relevance

Just as important as it is to know whether or not to press the button, it is equally important to see if it would solve the problem or lead to the next step. Instructional content is seldom laid on the same foundation as that of creative writing. That’s because creative writing doesn’t always have to deal with the What’s-in-it-for-me question. So the result of instructions is a definitive outcome measured in tangible or intangible results: it could be pressing that button or reaching the end of the instructions.

Conclusion

Yesterday, while talking to one of my ex-teammates and long-term friends, I shared some ideas on how they could get started with their work. I told him that one of the best ways to learn was to teach.

I just realized that the inverse of it is equally true, too. One of the best ways to teach anything is to learn to do it. And while I will continue to polish the writing and editing guidelines and add more reference-worthy points to it, I will continue to keep things relevant.

There aren’t many ways in which technical writing and creative writing differ, but for want of the outcome of actions. Relevance is critical when it comes to measuring the result. Isn’t it?

Top 3 Tips for Writing Crisp Sentences

My friends often email me seeking help with writing. This post adds to the reply I gave to one of my friends who asked:

What should I look for to construct better sentences?

I assume the question relates more to work-related writing (jotting thoughts down) than speaking. So, I am slightly changing the question to fit it as the topic for the post. 😊

Here are my top 3 suggestions for writing better sentences:

Tip 1: Give Action Points

Whether it is emails, meeting notes, Sprint retrospections, or a web chat with a colleague, clarity in communication is of the utmost importance. Be clear with what you wish to say. Write, then read (and, if required, re-write). Then, send. But, please mind the gap; there is a difference between being straightforward and being offensive.

Tip 2: Use Active Voice

Consider that Ram is preparing meeting minutes. This is what he writes as an action item:

Inputs on project estimation must be given.

See how he skips mentioning the doer in this passive sentence. That’s usually with every passive sentence. Let us rephrase this to introduce active voice (and hence the doer):

Shyam needs to give inputs to the PMO for project estimation.

See how sentences in the active voice clearly define responsibilities? Had Ram circulated an email with a passive sentence, we wouldn’t even know Shyam was supposed to share his inputs.

But, should we always construct sentences in the active voice?

No. In cases when you generalize or do not have any recipient for actions, you may use the passive voice. For example:

The velocity improved for the Sprint.

In this case, because the velocity improved for the entire team, we are sure that each one of the teammates contributed more. You may also use the passive voice for highlighting facts and figures. In the same example:

The velocity improved by over 5% for the Sprint.

Also:

An average of 5% capacity is reserved for holidays.

(Considering reservation of capacity to be a known item for capacity planning.)

Tip 3: Remove Needless Words

There are words that do not add to the meaning or intensity of the words they accompany. For example, “very” and “really”. However, approach this tip with caution.

Consider this example:

This cake takes very good.

We might as well get rid of “very”, and the cake will still taste equally good. But, by no means should you take this as a rule of thumb for deleting all occurrences of “very”. The very purpose of “very” (pun intended) is to intensify something that already exists.

If, however, there is a rule of thumb, it is to seek brevity. Look for opportunities to shorten or, at least, vary the length of your sentences. This means you give the reader more opportunities to flow with the rhythm of the words, take sufficient pauses, and contemplate on what they read.

Bonus Tip: Listen to Your Mental Ears

I really like such sections—another exception to Tip#3. Readers would usually jump over to this section first. If you too did just that, welcome aboard. As I share my top 3 tips for writing better sentences, I see that most of us already know the tips. The problem is they don’t know how to put that knowledge into practice.

How do we identify what and when to change?

I’d say listen to your mental ears. They are never wrong. You can always check for the meanings of words or phrases you are not sure of. Look at your write-ups the next day. Take a print out and read out loud. Project the write-ups on a bigger screen. Let someone else read your write-ups out loud to you. Take a break and re-read your write-ups. There’s a lot that can come in handy. But, nothing beats the joy of rewriting. Before I release my posts, I write and rewrite them in the proportion of 1:4.

Conclusion

Let us revise:

  • Enlist actionable items. I just did that.
  • Use active voice, but don’t be offensive.
  • Remove words that do not affect or contribute to the meaning of your sentences.

Sub-topics like “varying lengths of sentences” demand a post of their own. We can even experiment with including a combination of words that produce lyrical or homophonic composition: “she sells seashells”.

To sum up this post, here’s what I have: it all depends on finding the sweet spot where meet relevance and comprehension.

Happy writing.

Contribution to STC India Annual Conference 2018

Since the last few years, I have been regularly contributing to the STC India Annual Conferences.

This year though, I was loaded with work. After I gave up the co-editorship for Indus, the STC India chapter magazine, I could free up some schedule for the blog. So, I could schedule articles and posts beforehand and be more active on my blog (site).

Late November, about three days before the release of the newsletter, I received a request to write an article for this year’s Annual Conference’s newsletter. Of all the time I was given, this is what I could manage.

I am happy that my article fits well with the others. And, happier, because I could deliver within the given time. Hope you too will like reading it. 🙂

Give Some Space

Sorry for a clickbait title… I wanted one with a play of words.

The article isn’t really aimed at people who are old enough to have learned (learnt for those who speak the English English) typing on typewriters, but also for those who are still taught to use two spaces after every sentence.

The trend has (almost) changed. In the past, people used two spaces for a reason: typewriters had monospace fonts that inserted equal, not proportional, spaces for all letters. So, the “i” consumed as much space as “w” or “m”. The obvious confusion was when sentences ended. So, it was required that the writers insert two spaces after sentences to visibly mark the end of sentences.

Why this post? Now, in 2018? Well, I still come across write-ups from people who use two spaces. I have seen people encourage two spaces, especially in legal documents. I see some people use double spaces in résumés and personal profiles that are not just printed, but shared digitally, as well. In technical publications, we encourage the use of a single space after sentences because we use proportional fonts.

We are increasingly sharing information digitally. Given that context, I’d encourage you to give only space after a period (full stop in the UK English) or any punctuation mark toward the end of a sentence. Not two.

From Micropoetry to Tech Comm: Connecting the Dots

In only 2015—quite recently, I know—I learned about Haikus. But, it took me three more years to begin to understand Haiku and the other forms of micropoetry. You might have read some of my recent experiments with writing micropoetry—like this and that.

So, this post is about the insights that micropoetry shares with technical communication:

  • Sometimes, a lot of solitary moments teach you more than an experience that lasts for a length of time. Micropoetry is one such experience of wisdom that lies within a moment. It is either result- or experience-oriented because each word or line carries an action or empathy.
  • This one matches the Pyramid Approach in technical communication. We communicate the most important information first; everything else Similar goes for micropoetry, just that there is no “everything else” in this case.
  • Words count; count the words. Usually, the lesser the better. Simple.
  • Words weigh based on their definition. Word also weigh based on the intention with which we apply them within a sentence. The latter is the reason people perceive the same word differently in different situations. So, for the sake of the composition, we must keep the right word in the right place.
  • Stories move us. Stories empower us. Stories educate us. All three apply to micropoetry and to technical communication alike.

What are your thoughts? As always, I am curious.

Don’t Redesign

Yeah, you read it right.

How many times have you seen me make changes to my site’s template? The last time I made those changes was about a year back. I made the design simpler and more readable. Or so I thought. My mom found it difficult to locate her favorite articles on the blog. For long, she would navigate to them from the dropdowns that I have now done away with.

I know exactly what you are thinking. Unfortunately, revamping the look ‘n’ feel hasn’t improved the inbound traffic. The new template has only improved the presentability. So, it is now easier to categorize and tag the released posts by month and year. But, it makes it horrible for repeat readers—like you, there—who wish to select, search for, or read content they liked. Does that mean people hate change?

Yes, people hate change; no, they don’t.

Those of you who are new to my site MIGHT find the new design easier to navigate. But those who have spent time with the content might reject the outright changes. Familiarity is the word in context. It is just that the design had become a part of your physical and mental memory. For repeat users, they knew what they wanted from the content, they knew what I delivered, and they knew how to get to it.

For you, too, slamming on a new UI might ruin this flow for your readers, who are then more likely to take more time to locate something.

So, what’s the way around?

Here is the trick: familiarity trumps functionality. I have stated this in my book, too. If you wish to redesign, consider first reconfiguring the core design. Your design is purposeful. All you need is reconfigure it.

In most cases, all you need to do is progressively improve the things under the skin, rather than get a new skin. I find it to be a Win-Win. Bring a new change under the hood. This means the consumers get a familiar UI, with performance tweaks as perks. And. you get a chance to rollback if (and when) required. It takes time to take effect. But, it is a better approach.

Happy writing.

Wayfinding My Writing

As I sit to write this, I mentally pat my back for writing on something that has deserved this attention for long. A lot of curious minds have asked this to me: “What and how do you write? What, exactly, is technical writing?” I say, “Well, I write to empower and express. I write about stuff.” And, that’s what a technical writer does—write about stuff. I continue, “Just that the ‘stuff’ is technical in nature.”
If you are a writer, you too must have had a thought and an urge to communicate it. This post is born out of that urge.
We cannot ‘not communicate’. (We discussed double negatives recently.) That is, we ALWAYS communicate—even when we don’t. They say you could tell a lot about someone by knowing only four of their friends. If that’s the case, imagine how much will you know about me if I were to show you how I write? Conventionally, writing involves thinking (planning and structuring), writing and rewriting, editing, and publishing. For your ease of understanding, I sum that up into persistence, structure, and perspective.

Persistence

I did not become a writer overnight. You know that. No one can learn to write overnight. Persistence is the word in context; we must work our way up the learning curve. We must keep investing in ourselves. The persistent I am with my writing, the steeper my learning curve is. I have seen a lot of improvement in my storytelling over the years. The same goes for everyone.

Structure

Let me introduce Structure in context of the words I often co-locate: thought and process. To share a good thought process, here is what I experiment with:
  • Composition:
    • Some still follow the good-old method of PREP: Point-Reason-Example-Point. I usually follow Point (or Premise)-Rationale-Example-Conclusion for most of my blog posts. Here and here are a couple of examples.
    • Start-Body-End composition: Here, both the Start and End should be on a strong note, and the body should contain the logic to support your opinion.
  • Flow:
    • Sequential flow. Here, one paragraph leads to another. This also means breaking down a task into logical steps by creating a structure of information. This one applies to technical communication or instructional designing.
    • Topical flow. Here, the first paragraph is usually the best (or the most informative), followed by mutually-exclusive paragraphs of supporting information. This one applies to technical communication—this is also called the pyramid approach. Pyramid, because we discuss the most important information first.
    • Rhythmic flow. Here, sentences sound lyrical, yet the composition of words is logical and thematic. This one applies to creative writing.
Your structure is how you wish to communicate a message: remember, it is the reason you often co-locate thought and process.

Perspective

The example of finding a glass half-filled versus half-empty drives home the point: perspective is important. Important, I say, because it is your write-up. And, anything that you are describing should contain your words from your point of view. Some of us choose to stick to the realistic view of the glass being half empty. Some optimistically opine it to be half full. Others choose to poetically (Scientifically, is it?) consider it as one half filled with water, and the other half, with air. None of us are wrong.

A Point to Ponder

In my work time, I do action-driven writing. For some of my previous employers, I have also done empathy-driven writing, where each piece has a corresponding appeal. This kind of writing is easier to read (I find it to be that way.) and doesn’t always need people to have technical knowledge. Those of you who deal with the content side of the story will know what I am talking about.
And then there is storytelling—novel-ish writing. In some writer’s works that I have read, the description is so true that I remain awestruck. The empathy reflects on me. I become sad when the writing is sad. I become happy when the writing is likewise. It is blissful to realize that a few pieces of writing can make you admire the flow of emotions. I am lost in contemplation for some time. I have to take a couple of deep breaths before I can gather myself to come back to the remaining sections from the writer.

Conclusion

Words don’t convey anything until you give them the required context and structure. This means you must permit for their association—with either action or empathy. By permitting for associations, you can make words your silent ambassadors.
The thing about good writing is that both sense and simplicity lay its core. Your writing doesn’t always have to be thematic, emotional, or pinching. It must be reflective and truthful. All you should do is figure out if and how you can locate your inner self through your writing.
Happy writing.

This Post Ain’t Got Nothing

Usually, double negatives are absolute No-No anywhere. But, I bring this up for discussion because I see some of us use them—in workplaces and outside. Now, why would we use them? Because we hear people around us using them. Simple logic: if everyone is using it, it must be right. Oh, you can blame it on Hollywood’s portrayal of the good Ol’ Texas ranches and Cowboys, too.

A double negative is when you use two negatives together. For example, “I don’t know nothing.” The trouble is that there are exactly two interpretations of it. First, the obvious deduction “I know, at least, something.” And, second, its distant cousin, “I, literally, don’t know anything.” It is quite possible that while you wished to say (and mean) the latter one, you end up being understood as meaning the first one. It is confusing.

So, AVOID using it. How do you avoid using it? Simple. Use one negative expression. Just say (and, hopefully, mean) “I don’t know anything”.

But, not always will you or can you avoid. For example, “She didn’t go unnoticed in the party”. In this case, we wish to say that there, indeed, was someone who took a notice of her. You should dare to use a double negative only in situations like these. I say dare for a reason: look at the title of this post. Did you see how in some cases two negatives make a positive?

Let us say, the English and math do have something in common. The exception is, two “minuses” don’t always make a “plus” in the English language.

Happy writing.

Be Content with Content

Be Content with Content

I would be amiss if I were to begin without defining the word content. That’s because it gives both a purpose and a premise to the topic: being content is feeling satisfied with your possessions or situations. But why this play of words in the title, you may ask. Here is why I rant…

Let us go back in time. Not far back into the world of typewriters and hand-written manuals. A couple of decades ago: when the concept of single-sourcing originated. I hadn’t joined the technical writing workforce then. Back then, the requirements were simple: get a single-sourcing tool to create everything from within one source. Then, use that source to generate the content for all formats. A lot has changed since. Yet the idea is to have a single repository generate the content. Just that we have complicated the process of creating and managing that content.

When I first single-sourced my product’s contents, I felt the need of creating a central repository for storing and generating the content—the likes of PDFs and CHMs. With that was born my organization’s server where resided the content. But, my requirements didn’t stop at that. I continued to remodel (or so I thought) my work processes to redefine the way I maintained that content. Then came XML, which helped me to tool-proof the product’s documentation.

Who knows, someday I may even put my head into Application Programming Interface (API), Internet of Things (IoT), and others. Did you notice how the story is becoming more about the tools of the trade than about the traded content? Sooner or later it will be about some other “hot” technology. As I continue to choose a (better) combination of tools and methodologies, I continue to steer farther away from the focus on the content. This could be your story, too.

Progressive and Cyclical User Requirements

User Requirements are Progressive and Cyclical

A side note: a seamless user experience is easier to put on to paper than to put into practice. Agreed. Also, agreed that these days we have tools that we can use to instantly connect with our users. So, we can know which sections of our documentation get the most views. Or, which ones are the most or the least helpful.

From where I look, tools and methodologies originated to save our time and effort. But now, it looks like we have lost ourselves in managing them rather than the content. Let us not focus only on creating a content-management ecosystem. Instead, let us create a problem-solving ecosystem. Let us not forget that the users’ requirements are progressive and cyclical: the target for usability changes frequently.

It all starts with answering “why” and ends with exploring the answers for “what’s next”. Such content that continues to bridge this gap of “why” and “what’s next” is truly satisfying. A tool will only enable us to create quality content. It isn’t an end, but surely a means to an end. Let us solve users’ problems and be content with (the focus on) content.

Handy Tips for Impromptu Speeches

Handy Tips for Impromptu Speeches

Here’s one post on a special request from a follower. For our company’s recent communicator’s club meeting, we organized for some impromptu speeches. Each of the speakers had their own style. While I cannot say that one spoke better the other, the effect on audience told more than we could gauge. Later, a few wished for us to provide them a handy reference list for such impromptu speeches. Hence this post.

The organizer, Sanjeev Patra, helped me prepare this list:

A good impromptu speech should have these three points:

  • A central idea: The speech should revolve around a theme. This theme, or central idea, should hold your sentences together.
  • A structure: This means that your speech should have a definite start, middle, and end. We encourage speakers to construct their speeches in the PREP format: Point, Rationale, Example, and Point. Begin with a broader definition of your point. Make the introduction emphatic and attention-grabbing. For example, begin with a quote, a question, or a story. Then, give the rationale and its supporting example. Toward the end, state your point again. Make sure you prepare well for the speech, even when you are short of time.
  • A conclusion: Conclude with a summary and a thought.

Here’s what you might consider including in your speech:

  • Personalization: Remember, your speech is your story that has your thoughts. Make sure you include an inspiration; something that made you a better person.
  • KISS: We all know what the expanded form is, but for the sake of clarity, let me share that with you again. Keep it Succinct and Simple. Yes, I know you are thinking, “but, it’s supposed to mean keep it short and sweet.” The word succinct means that your message should be crisp but accurate. So, when you share your story, make sure it is simple, short, and accurate.
  • Suspense: This one is important. On a lot of occasions, speakers end up becoming predictable with their stories; the audience can guess what’s next on the speaker’s list. Have an element of surprise and unpredictability.
  • Friendliness: Even if you don’t know and wish, you pass on the same energy to your audience. So, when you have a negative energy, that is you feel disturbed, unhappy, scared, or unsure, you pass on the same negativity to your audience. On the contrary, your image, as a speaker, should be that of a person who welcomes sharing. Remain positive. Stand straight. Look at all the audiences. If possible, name a few in your conversation. Your positive posture and body language will do half of the job for you.

It is time to rock!