In Their Own Words: Dan Voss Talks About the Summit

by Kevin Cuddihy on 18 April 2014

Last year, Your Friendly Neighborhood Blogger asked attendees at the 2013 Summit to speak for a little bit on camera about what they enjoyed, what they learned, and what they got out of their participation in our annual conference. Periodically over the next month we’ll be sharing some of these with you to help show you what you missed and hopefully get you to attend this year’s event!

Online registration for the 2014 Summit, taking place 18-21 May in Phoenix, AZ (starts just one month from today, if you can believe it!) is only open until 30 April; after that date, all registrations must take place on-site in Phoenix and at a higher rate. The current registration rate for members is $1,075 and $1,350 for nonmembers.

Below we hear from Dan Voss, one of last year’s President’s Award honorees, on what he thought of the Summit. See you in Phoenix!


I’m just back from speaking at the Visma Developer Day conference in Riga, Latvia. Visma is a Norwegian software company that organizes an annual two-day conference for its developers, and it invites keynote speakers to talk about trends, managing teams, and so on. So I found myself on Monday morning standing up in front of 500 developers I’d never met before, in a foreign country, and really enjoying myself.

Public speaking is often mentioned by people when they’re asked to list life’s most unpleasant experiences, but actually it’s something that can be fun. If you get the opportunity to speak at the STC Summit or a similar conference, I really do hope you take it.

Let me try and convince you.

Dealing with the wall of faces

One of the most daunting parts of speaking is looking out at tens or even hundreds of faces. It can feel like there’s a barrier between you and them. Most people are comfortable talking to one or two people around a table, so the trick is to treat it as a similar situation.

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Summit ’14: Talking with Marcia Riefer Johnston

by Kevin Cuddihy on 17 April 2014

When Marcia was 12, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since. To share her love of writing, she has written a book of essays: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them). Marcia studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She has taught technical writing in Cornell University’s Engineering School, and she has run a tech-writing business for … a long time. Once a member of the Central New York STC chapter, Marcia now serves as secretary of the Willamette Valley chapter in Portland, Oregon.  Marcia joins us for the Summit this year with two sessions, Write Tight(er)—Part 1: The Technique and Write Tight(er)—Part 2: Applying the Technique. Conference Chair Chris Hester spoke with her recently about her sessions and more.

Tell me about the sessions you’re doing for us this year.

The idea for this workshop grew from two of my book chapters: “To Be or Not To Be” and “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Shovel.” These chapters give tips for writing concisely, tips that I use every day to tighten everything I write. These tips work for writers at any level doing any kind of writing. Even writers who already know these things can benefit from a refresher.

I’ve given this presentation and workshop a number of times. I enjoy doing it. People have a good time and they leave with a technique they can use immediately. It gives me a good feeling to hear from them afterward, to know that they found value in what I had to share.

Complete the sentence: “You should absolutely plan on attending these sessions if you  …”

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Alan Alda Named STC Honorary Fellow

by Kevin Cuddihy on 16 April 2014

STC is proud to announce Alan Alda as the 2014 Honorary Fellow. Alan will be accepting the honor via a taped message at the 2014 Technical Communication Summit during the Opening General Session on Sunday, 18 May.

His citation reads:

For your long-standing and continuing effort to emphasize and promote the importance of good scientific communication and teach scientists to communicate clearly and simply, with both The Flame Challenge and the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science.

Alda is the idea behind, namesake of, and a visiting professor at Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The mission, from their website, states, “The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science works to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.” Together Alda and the Center host the annual Flame Challenge, which asks scientists from around the world to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old.

“I can’t think of anyone who deserves this honor more, and I am both humbled and thrilled to be presenting it to him (virtually) at the Summit in Phoenix,” said STC President Nicky Bleiel. “His yearly Flame Challenge and his work at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science show how deeply he embraces the core principles of technical communication, since both projects strive to make the complex clear and to communicate that information effectively. Mr. Alda is not only a great actor, he is a technical communicator.”

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The other day, I ran into my son’s preschool teachers having lunch at a fast food restaurant. It had been a while since I had seen them, and they asked me how my son was doing. I was able to tell them that he was doing well and what school he was going to. The encounter would sound mundane enough but it was a little different, as these were special education preschool teachers and it had been several years since either of him had seen him. It made me realize that it had been about 10 years since we had started the journey of having him become part of the special education program in our school district, and how far he’s come since these ladies had been trying to help him communicate (my son couldn’t talk, unlike now) and socialize with other children. We wouldn’t find out for another six years that my son was on the autism spectrum, because he had functioned at such a high level for years.

April is recognized as Autism Awareness Month. It brings to the forefront, most of all in my mind, communications issues that autistic people often have. There are those who are non-verbal yet have everyday thoughts in their heads, but those thoughts can’t come out without the assistance of technology. A great example of that is Carly Fleischmann, who is an autistic young woman who’s been able to write about being a non-verbal autistic young adult through her blog and her book. There are also autistic writers and speakers who can vocalize without any problem and are able to explain how autistic minds work with images and sound as well as words, like Temple Grandin.  Reading about the perspectives of autistic people provides a very different view of a world that requires all senses in order to process information.

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Surviving the Summit: Arriving

by Kevin Cuddihy on 15 April 2014

Last week we debuted a new guest blogger, Geoff Hart. Geoff is a veteran of many conferences, including a number of STC Summits. We’ll be publishing a weekly post from him on Surviving the Summit: tips on how to get the most out of the Summit, or any conference you attend.

Plan to arrive early and leave late, particularly for conventions held at times of year when flights are routinely delayed (e.g., winter, hurricane season, any flights passing through Chicago’s O’Hare airport). Apart from providing flex time to recover from missed or delayed flights, to overcome jet lag, and to get to know the venue, you’ll have a chance to visit a new city at someone else’s expense. I always book a vacation day so I can see the sights or visit local friends. Exploring the host city before, between, and after presentations also provides time to absorb what you’ve learned. You can’t do that if you’re constantly accumulating new facts and not giving them time to settle into comfortable patterns, thereby transforming short-term thoughts into long-term memories.

The afternoon or evening before the conference is when you should develop your plan of attack. (Preparing a strong preliminary plan will support your business case for attending the conference, but speaker schedules often change before the program is finalized.) Pick sessions that are most relevant to you, including those you used to make your case for attending. That’s Plan A. However, be sure to have Plan B and maybe Plan C available: speakers get sick, are called away by family crises, or sometimes describe their presentation poorly. Sometimes they’re just not very inspiring. If you spot the problem early, and if you’ve found another option just down the corridor, you can jog there quickly enough to catch most of the important points.

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Recognition Monday: Fellows and Associate Fellows

by Kevin Cuddihy on 14 April 2014

Today we start our build toward the Honors Banquet at the 2014 Technical Communication Summit. STC (and technical communication’s) best and brightest are celebrated at the Honor’s Banquet as part of the Summit. Here on STC’s Notebook, we’ll be highlighting a different set of honorees every week on Recognition Monday. The first set, below, are this year’s Fellows and Honorary Fellows, with their citations. Attending the Summit and want to help celebrate them in person? Sign up for the Honors Banquet when you register, or email Cheryl Miller if you’ve already registered for the Summit and want to add the Honors Banquet.

Associate Fellows

Beth Agnew

Citation: For a lifetime of continued dedication to technical communication as an ongoing learner, professor, and advocate, and for passionate promotion of both the profession and the practice.

Robert Rhyne Armstrong

Citation: For your pioneering work in the education of social media and social networking and the giving of your time and expertise to all levels of the technical communication communities and for your exemplary work in the student community.

Maria Antonieta Flores

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We’re seeing more changes in technical communication today than at any time in memory. We’re living in the future that we talked about just a few years ago. Explore the landscape of the new world of technical communication, and discover the skills and understanding you’ll need in order to thrive in it with the live Web seminar This Is the Future We Talked About, presented by Larry Kunz on Wednesday, 16 April, from 1:00-2:00 PM EDT (GMT-4).

Audiences expect to connect emotionally with the technical content they read, so we’ll talk about how we can create and nurture those connections. Audiences expect to access content on mobile devices—as well as in all of the traditional formats—so we’ll find out how to develop content that meets those expectations. We’ll also discuss the need to demonstrate value by creating content that contributes directly to the business’s bottom line.

We’ll spend much of our time examining the new technical communication workplace, where you’ll likely work as part of several distributed teams on projects that are increasingly shorter and more focused.

To thrive in this environment you’ll need to master, or at least be conversant in:

  • Structured authoring, which makes content more flexible: more adaptable to different mobile formats, and more easily arranged into different packages for different audiences.
  • Content strategy, the key to seeing content as a unified whole: not as separate books, brochures, and Web pages, but as information that supports the objectives of the business.
  • Information architecture, the tactics for carrying out the content strategy. Even if you never hold the job title, you’ll want to be able to ask the kinds of questions an information architect would ask.



Publishing Perspectives: Writing a Book Proposal

by Richard Hamilton on 11 April 2014

As a publisher, we receive a fair number of book proposals, and frankly, most of them are pretty bad. They range from proposals for books that are clearly outside our niche to proposals that look like they were dashed off during a lunch break. Almost all, even proposals for books that we have accepted, miss the most important point about writing a book proposal. A book proposal is a sales document. It is in essence a résumé for the book.

If you’re writing a sales document for a publisher, the number one selling point needs to be that your book is likely to sell a lot of copies. There are other reasons for publishing, for example, O’Reilly published DocBook 5: The Definitive Guide, even though it was unlikely to sell in large numbers, because they use DocBook, they had published the first edition, and they didn’t want to give up the second edition. However, that’s rare. Publishers want best sellers, and the best way to get your book published is to convince a publisher (or an agent) that your book will be a best seller in its category.

Structure of a proposal

A non-fiction book proposal needs to answer the following questions:

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Without a “stupid little checklist”* I launched a webinar without reducing my screen resolution, and participants could only see half of my screen. Later that week, I sent an invoice with a mistake in it, because I didn’t have a checklist to remind me to recalculate each line item. And finally, without a checklist to direct my editing, I missed some glaring errors in a document that I was editing for my best-paying client.

All these errors might compromise my credibility, but at least the consequences don’t affect life and death, right? Maybe. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, shows how checklists save lives in hospital surgical units; surgeons and nurses at Johns Hopkins used checklists for one year in 2001 and saw a drop in the ten-day line infection rate from 11 percent to zero. An extended test was estimated to have prevented 43 infections and 8 deaths, saving $2 million in costs (p. 39).

Since Gawande assumes that anything could go wrong and anything could be missed, he extends his discussion of the benefits of checklists to aviation and construction. And you, my fellow technical communicators, will instantly recognize what Gawande calls “checklists”: they are procedures! For us, this is Tech Writing 101.

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