Thursday, August 2, 2012

The beginning and the end... or at least, the pause

The adventure started nearly two years ago when Marie, Terri, Susyn, Susan, and I met at a career development meeting. We were all in search of a new beginning, and decided that the road would be easier if we joined forces. Week after week, we supported each other in defining then chasing our career goals.

As varied as our experiences and target jobs may have been, we had common aspirations. And so the idea came up of starting this blog, where we would all contribute our reflexions on a subject we were all passionate about: words and communication.

The blog provided a space where we could gather portfolio pieces and write new pieces highlighting our skills, strengths, and experience in each of our professions.

Beyond these individual contributions, we constructed a mini mosaic of opinions on topics such as story telling or voice, on which we would successively write, bringing to the table either a nuance or a radically different point of view with each new post.

Writing down and sharing our thoughts through this blog served as powerful starting blocks from which we all sprung into new adventures and rewarding activities.

The goal has now been met--we are well on our way along our respective paths, and have thus decided that we would no longer update Words Et Cetera. We want to keep this blog open, however, as the demonstration of a successful and empowering collaboration. And as every writer knows, the itch of writing some more is never far... The "end" may really just be a pause...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Welcome to Qatar

I'm in the Souq, the marketplace in downtown Doha, the capital of Qatar. Men in their long white gowns--or brown mouse colored ones--with their red and white or white headdresses--go by. And women in their black abeyas and hair all covered and sometimes faces too.... Hookah pipes are passed freely in cafes with fruit juices everywhere.... Although everything is familiar, nothing is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Technical Writing and the Corporate Voice

A good portion of a company's image can be defined without a single word, or with very few words. Think of ads (Apple's for example), trademarks (Nike's "just do it"), a website's design, a product's packaging, etc. These visuals showcase not only the company's products, but many aspects of the company's identity (or at least the public side of its identity) in a strong and very identifiable way. However, if much can be conveyed without words, every word a company publishes, whether in print or on the web, also has an impact on its image. Matthew Stibbe wrote a great article on the subject in his blog Bad Language, in which he writes that
"Finding a corporate voice and using it consistently adds weight and distinctiveness to a brand. Good writing enhances a brand in different ways. It can reinforce the reader's idea of what the brand stands for."
The examples Stibbe uses, from Google's "I'm feeling lucky" to Amazon's cues that reassure buyers and incite them to click that final "place order" button, are all direct (and short) messages sent to the end user. But can the unique voice of a company also transpire in its most technical documents? How does a 100+ page user's manual differ from one company to the next? And is it identifiable to the company past the logo on the front page? In other words, does the document use the corporate voice? Technical writers follow so many rules, dictated by widely-distributed style guides and other manuals, and are so constrained by the technical nature of their documents' content, that they don't seem to have much legroom for branding. Needless to say, however, that a few minutes of research will prove just the opposite. 

Take a look at these (randomly chosen) smartphone user guides, for example.
The visual design (layout, colors, fonts, etc.) of these publications sets the tone. But look at the choice of information architecture. What information comes first? Is it an overview of the phone, a series of obscure commands, or several pages of legal material? What other topics are covered in the document? How are they organized? Is the emphasis on the phone's hardware or its applications? Compare the choices of words (in particular those that have an impact on the reader's emotions, such as "important," "troubleshooting," "warning," "not," "cannot," etc., or, on the opposite, "you can"). Compare the use of graphics and tables. These guides are very different from one another, aren't they?

Defining a corporate voice and maintaining a uniform voice across a myriad of technical publications takes a lot of effort and coordination at all levels of a company. A few tools that help: corporate style guides, document templates, unified outlines, clear objectives... and good communication between Marcom, Tech Pubs, and other departments.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Compelling Blogs

I’d like to recommend a talk by Diane Jacob at Word Camp, SF.

She made some really important points about what makes compelling blog reading.

1. Personal story telling

a. About your life as if you were telling a friend: the experiences you have; the people in your life

2. Beautiful Photos

a. Well cropped

b. Repeating shapes

c. Conveying an emotional response

We are all longing for human connection so these techniques speak to this need of our readers. Thanks Diane.

Word Camp SF was held at the Mission Bay Conference Center shown in this Google Maps image, along with my name tag.

Word Camp was held at the Mission Bay Conference Center shown in this Google Maps image, along with my name tag.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Do We Mean By Voice?

What do we mean when we refer to a writer's voice? Do we mean word choice, the length of sentences, the use of pronouns, the rhythm of the sentences, the literalness of the language? What do we actually mean?

When singers talk about using voice, they--above all--are referring to the timbre of a voice: that quality of a person's voice that makes it instantaneously recognizable. Think of Frank Sinatra.... Think of Orson Welles, especially in his later years, marketing wine. Think of George W. Bush's drawl.

How do you develop a voice? When I studied voice, my teacher told me to sing softly and quietly, so that my natural voice would come out clearly, free of any impulses to imitate the other voices that I heard. I was to focus on developing my voice, not making it Joan Baez's or anyone else's....

Writing teachers often encourage their students to keep journals, composed of writing that they do regularly for themselves. In a sense, keeping a journal is like singing quietly. As a singers progress and their unique voices become stronger, they begin to sing with bolder, louder voices. For writers, the process is often the same. Through journal writing and taking other opportunities to write, a writer's voice can evolve from a more generic sound to one that is much more unique to the particular writer.

A few blogs ago, I wrote about having iPad lust. I gave into my passions last week. I'm using Dragon Dictation now to write this blog entry about voice by actually using my voice to dictate. When you write, can you hear your own voice speaking the words in your head? Listen to yourself, and ask yourself what you sound like.

The first step in developing your own voice is to recognize that you have one and then go looking for it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

He said, you always….

At NASA, a public relations officer, who was writing an official press release for my project, asked me “Who, what, when, where and why?”. Trite, I know, but it was concise.
The answers to those questions give the reader information. As a writer you can also decide which voice you will use to answer these questions. A reporter or PR person might use quotes from various sources. (I used to get my civil servant to give me a quote on the NASA perspective and a participant quote to show the user’s perspective.)
I have come to realize that the reader will have an emotional response to the voice of an article and while voice has a subtle impact on communication. Voice is worth considering.
I was recently doing a comparative analysis of Human Resource sites and I noticed that different voices were used. The older style pages used 1st person plural. “We offer.., we provide…, we want…” are some examples of sentence beginnings. The employer is a bit patronizing here, even if they are paying the bills. This approach does not get directly to the directions for the employee to access and participate in the HR programs so that information has to be added.
The more current sites were using 2nd person. “You can access this…., you must choose…,” and even declarative statements like “Click on…., Decide….”
This style is direct, empowering, and time saving for the employee. It doesn’t really ask the employee to acknowledge the benevolence of the employer, but in this economy, employee indebtedness goes without saying.
Do you consider the emotion response to voice when you write? Tell me about what you’re doing?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How I became a technical writer

One of my favorite bedtime stories1, when I was little, was about a dog who could read the newspaper, talk, walk on two legs, prepare his own dinner... This smart dog lived by one and only principle: "marche au hasard, tu arriveras bien quelque part," which translates to: "walk at random, you'll end up somewhere." This seems like the worst advice a kid can get in a world where the most successful people are those who have clear (and written) goals. Yet it stayed with me. The way I interpreted it was: if you trust your instincts, if you let the path open in front of you, you can't go wrong. Life will take you where you fit best, because you will naturally follow your most favorable path.

Years later, as I entered college, the senior students "welcomed" all of us freshmen on campus with a hazing in the form of a series of tests and challenges (similar to what students do to enter fraternities here, albeit in a subdued fashion. Still, I spent a day covered in paint and shaving cream, collecting coins at a light stop in the middle of Lyon... But I digress). One of the assignments (which I took very seriously), was to find the best adjective to describe oneself. I came up with "optimistic". I think this explains why I understood Mister Dog's advice the way I did.

So the optimistic and waiting-to-see-what-life-will-offer little girl grew up without knowing what her professional life would be like. I was very good at maths and science, which were the most revered disciplines in my family, so I studied to become an engineer. I didn't think much of it, but it turned out to be a pretty good choice. It was intellectually challenging, rewarding in many ways. I was missing the other disciplines I'd been exposed to in high school (philosophy being my favorite; arts, music, history and literature not far behind), but there wasn't time for everything.

Life became interesting when I first moved to California. The words "Silicon Valley" sounded really magical in the late 1990's, so I came to San Jose for a six-month internship before my final year in grad school2. Discovering a new culture (many cultures, actually, as everyone I met came from a different corner of the world) was extraordinary. My horizon expanded in ways I had never anticipated. Speaking and writing in English every day also reinforced my interest in languages. I came back to Lyon to finish my master's degree, spent six months in Munich to immerse myself in one more culture and capitalize on a dozen years of learning German, then decided I had to see more of California.

For the following eight years, I worked as a digital design engineer and as an engineering manager in the Bay Area. However, as years past, I realized that the most enjoyable part of my work was to communicate with others and explain what I had designed or was about to design. Creating new algorithms gave me nightmares—working through the details of the implementation was just as stressful. But writing about the whole creation was pure joy. I started thinking that if one day I could devote my entire time to writing, it would be ideal. I didn't know yet about a profession called technical writing.

Meanwhile, I traveled all around the United States in my spare time. I started blogging about my adventures (in French, here) to share my enthusiasm with family members and friends. Being away also helped me see France in a new light and I wanted to share at least one aspect of my "frenchness" with my new friends on this side of the pond. So I started blogging about my favorite recipes (in English, here). This was another unconscious attempt at "technical" (or at least procedural) writing.

Slowly but surely, all these experiences and aspirations started converging. As Mister Dog had predicted, my seemingly disconnected adventures in engineering and writing, and my interest in languages and novelties, all pointed me in the direction of technical communication. I ended up somewhere unexpected, unplanned, yet perfectly fitting.

1 After a little research, I'm finding out that the book is Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, by Margaret Wise Brown (Golden Press, 1952). I had the French translation, Monsieur Chien. Now I need to buy the book and see what Crispin's Crispian (that's the dog's name) was saying in the original version.

2 If you're wondering, there isn't really a concept of college and graduate school in France. All the curriculum is done in a so-called "Grande Ecole", or engineering school, which takes students from high school to master's level in five very full years.