President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

Recently, my department at work has been deciding how to update our newsletter. In researching best practices for business to business electronic newsletters, I found that although there are many sites that touch on the topic, relatively few have a concise but complete list. I thought I would share a couple of websites that I visited and some of the tips I gleaned. Of course, as each project has different needs and audiences, not all of the tips may apply to your own enewsletter circumstances.

    • Skimming and Scanning Along–Most people read online content by jumping around the page and only stopping when they pick up something of interest. One stat I saw was that people spend under a minute (!) reading a newsletter. To facilitate this type of reading, think about how you can make it easy to quickly review a page to find the information that is most important and applicable to the reader. For instance, make use of descriptive headers to jump to sections of interest, bold and underline styles for important information, and plenty of whitespace to avoid crowding. As is for mobile and online writing, short paragraphs are key.
    • Short is Sweet–Building upon the idea of short paragraphs being easier to scroll through and comprehend, having a shorter article and even entire newsletter length is also advantageous. The suggested number of articles and words per article vary, but the idea remains the same: people can only absorb so much information. I know that when I look at a newsletter and it seems long and overwhelming, I’m more likely to skip completely that muddle through. Of course, this all depends on the purpose and audience of the newsletter. Speaking of…
    • Know Thy Audience–This idea came up quite frequently among the top tips lists I read. Of course, being technical writers, I think we all have this tattooed in our memories. So, no need to elaborate.
    • Give them a Call (to Action)–Sometimes it’s hard to remember that amongst all the great information you’ve laid out for a reader, it’s not completely obvious what they need to do next. But, to get the response you want, you need to tell the audience what they need to do in no uncertain terms. For me, I always think about those medical benefit or financial letters I receive. There seems to be a lot of information that may or may not be useful, so I’m always grateful for that bolded text “There is no action needed on your part” or “You must complete this form.” Maybe the call to action is more vague (Join us on Twitter!) but audiences appreciate knowing what they need to do nonetheless.
    • Image isn’t Everything–Sure, fancy graphics and background make the final product look pretty. But, it’s not always the best move. For one thing, too many images can distract from the content. In other cases, for compatibility or security reasons, email services block images. So, all that time spent turns into empty boxes. This isn’t saying that you shouldn’t consider the aesthetics of the final version, but, like a lot of things, don’t overdo it.
    • Keep it Fresh–No one likes stale content. And, enewsletters shouldn’t be different. Even if you want to mix older pieces in with the new stuff, make sure there’s a distinction and the more current content is more prominently displayed. That last point is important and brings us to…
    • Remember the Triangle–As anyone who took Journalism 101 will tell you, the inverted pyramid is king (or pharaoh) of article construction. Front load the story to have the big takeaway, the latest news, and the 5 Ws in the first ‘graph (to continue using the lingo). If people only read one thing (and sometimes they will), at least they have the most important information. Expanding this to the entire newsletter, put the most important stories up top (or use a table of content with hyperlinks). This becomes even more vital for how enewsletters are first read: in a preview pane. If that small box doesn’t have something that catches a reader’s eye, off to the trash folder it goes, unread.

 

Want to keep reading up on this? Here are some of the websites I visited:

I hope this helped you if you were considering how to best update your enewsletter. Do you have any advice or suggestions to share? Email info@stc-sf.org.

Thanks, Leah

 

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

At our June meeting, presenters Dee and Pamela gave a great presentation about information delivery in the age of interaction. Besides sharing some useful and thought-provoking information, the presentation included some terrific graphics. One slide of the Dos Equis Guy giving advice (Google “I don’t always test my code” for a laugh) got a great response. But, it was the slide of various Facebook mantras, for lack of a better word, that got me thinking. Although written more for programming, I thought it was interesting to consider how those ideas bleed into technical communication.

Done is Better Than Perfect

I’ve been working in the highly regulated financial and biotech industries for a while. So, right off the bat, I wouldn’t say that non-perfection has ever been a goal. In fact, it may be the opposite: Perfect is Better Than Done. When safety or privacy is at stake, double checking the documentation that last time (even if you’re down to the wire) has always served me well. It’s hard to be the person to say “hold up, let’s think this through” when everyone wants to get something out the door. But, having a level head in chaotic environment is just what is needed sometimes.

Although more than slightly pretentious, I once proudly carried a bag with “Someone still cares about quality” on it. I think that I take pride in being the person on the team who wants a perfect result more than a quick one. As we live in the real world, that’s easier said (or screen printed on a bag) than done. Nevertheless, I still strive to keep that in mind, and I always appreciate it when I work with a kindred spirit.

What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid

I think that this question has resonated with a lot of people outside of their career. In fact, it’s taken up a life of it’s own for a campaign for young women. But, I think it’s also a valuable question to ask at work. By thinking outside of your comfort zone or usual company box, it makes you question more often and with less timidity. I think one of the most cringe-inducing phrases is “well, that’s how we’ve always done it.” Yes, consistency is important, especially in documentation, but the foolish sort is also the hobgoblin of little minds, according to the good man Emerson. I’ve found that freeing myself of what the department did in the past often leads to more efficient and effective processes and output.

To look at it another way, the idea of not being afraid of making mistakes is a powerful thought when you’re stuck in the how-do-I-start-this-document mud. I recently went to the Richard Diebenkorn exhibit at the De Young. There, amongst the art he created during his time in Berkeley, was his “Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting.” The one that resonated most with me and the one I think connects to the saying was “Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.” It makes me think of what I do when I am faced with a blank page and that horrible blinking cursor: I take a breath and start writing, unafraid. Luckily for us writers, there’s a delete button.

So, what do you think? Are these mantras applicable in our tech comm world. Do you have any of your own? Contact us through email, Twitter, LinkedIn, and MySTC to share.

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

My favorite part of coming to our monthly meetings, besides seeing the familiar faces, is when a couple weeks or months after the meeting I have an opportunity to implement what I learned during a previous meeting. There have been a couple of such occurrences recently that I’d like to share with you.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a film camera, or what the kids today are referring to as an “analog” camera. (Insert eye roll here.) Not having loaded film in over a decade, I needed some guidance. Sadly, the manual, or more accurately the leaflet, was both incorrect and incomplete. But, thinking of our February meeting on instructional videos, I turned to YouTube. And there I found several good Samaritans who had made a suite of videos about my model of camera. Although I wish a couple of the video posters had come to our meeting to learn some tips, I got the information I needed. From unpacking the box, loading/unloading, and taking the first picture, You Tube had it covered where the manual and company website fell short. It both brought a real life application to the information I learned at the meeting and gave me something to think about concerning the future of how people get instructions.

Another meeting was about LinkedIn and, specifically, getting yourself noticed. Again, a couple of months after the meeting, I ended up catching up with a couple of friends who were looking for a new job opportunity. It was a great feeling to be able to offer some usable and helpful information that I learned during the meeting to my friends. Luckily, that meeting’s presenter, Andrew Davis, did a great job in giving some specific and rememberable tricks of the trade that I could pass along. I went into the meeting just thinking I could improve my own LinkedIn game, but as it turned out later, I actually left the meeting with information that could help a wider audience.

Do you have a similar experience about taking what you learned from a meeting and applying it during work or play hours? Tell us on Twitter @STCSanFrancisco, MySTC San Francisco Chapter, or info@stc-sf.org. We’d love to hear from you!

Thanks, Leah

 

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

 

Recently, there was a thread on the STC LinkedIn Group called “Don’t Touch it!; Technical Writers Have a Sense on Humor.” Although the title referenced an oddly documented (and possibly constructed) vacuum cleaner, I like to think of the title of the discussion thread more as exhibit A that we aren’t serious grammar police all the time.

I’m sure we’ve all got some comedy material about the Oxford comma. We keep some crumpled unintentionally hilarious instruction printout somewhere in our desk. We laugh at Scott Adams’ Tina the Technical Writer’sexasperation. Besides a knowledge of communication best practices and what DITA is, humor about technical writing is one of the things that bonds us communicators together.

I know that it’s one of the things I’ve missed not working in a technical writing team these last couple years–and one of the things I’m looking forward to starting my new job with a large tech writing department.

Humor is not always the best reaction, however. I remember during my first writing job, an important email from the department head had gone out with a wrong hyperlink. An annoyed and frantic co-worker hurriedly explained the situation to me, as I hadn’t worked on the original email. I heartily laughed (to re-emphasize, wrong reaction) and told her that due to everyone clicking the wrong link, it had overloaded the server. Sensing she didn’t share my amusement (tough crowd!), I quickly shifted gears to explain how we could update the website’s link to match the email’s link while the server was recovering without anyone being the wiser.

So, you can see that with my tendency for nervous joking, I was happy that there’s evidence of other technical communicators who have a sense of humor. Now I just have to find the right moment to launch into my joke about DITA Von Teese, the XML data burlesque model.

Thanks, Leah

President’s News and Notes

By Leah Scampoli

On 26 January, I volunteered at the TC Camp, a technical communication “unconference” put on by friend of the chapter Liz Fraley. After manning the welcome desk during the morning, I attended the workshop “A Step-by-Step Guide to Preparing for a Legacy Conversion Project” presented by Linda Morone and Rhonda Wainwright of Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL).

I wanted to learn more about this topic because my company is in the process of choosing a content management system and moving away from the current network folder system. Anytime you make a major process change in the department, it can feel intimidating and daunting. But, by the end of the workshop, Linda and Rhonda gave me the confidence to tackle the challenges of switching to the new system with gusto!

Although the workshop covered a lot of topics around data conversion, some of the information presented could be applied to other types of projects. For instance, before beginning a project you need to allow plenty of time for the preparation process. This critical planning phase can include:

Setting Priorities — Before you begin a project, it’s important to define what is important to your company, department and content. Whether it be reusability, safety/legal requirements, search-ability or availability, you and the project stakeholders need to focus on how to accommodate the unique requirements of your situation. For instance, since I work in a regulated environment, making sure the process complies to specific regulations is important. Another element of the priority discussion is managing everyone’s expectations about what the project will–and won’t–accomplish.

Organizing the Team — Identifying and all agreeing upon some basic information about the project team is vital to avoid resource shortfall. This means choosing the appropriate team members and discussing the responsibilities of everyone. Then, having a frank talk about everyone’s bandwidth and who will manage the deliverables. Finally, deciding what parts can be done in house and what is better left to outside vendors.

Avoiding Pitfalls — This seems almost impossible because what project doesn’t eventually succumb to some type of setback? But, it’s important to think about it early and often to avoid derailment. Continuing from the previous topic, it’s important that the team checks in to make sure that everyone has adequate resources to complete their tasks. These check in meetings also allow everyone to discuss what needs to happen if a team member will be out of the office (and how to re-arrange responsibilities to keep the project on track). Finally, build in extra time into your schedule if something does go wrong. And if things do go all swimmingly, wouldn’t it be nice to not be rushed at the end?

I learned a lot from the workshop, and I am really looking forward to implementing the ideas in my own job. I encourage you to check out the DCL website for webinars, white papers and more about data conversion. Also, although the TC camp has folded up the tent, check out the TC Camp website for newsletter archives.

Thanks, Leah