Is Content King? – A social view of the TWIA conference 2015

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[Note: This article was published in the recent edition of Context, a quarterly TWIA/ASTC publication]

I recently attended the first national TWIA conference in Melbourne, on 23–24 October. The conference venue, the Rendezvous Hotel, is located on Flinders Street, one of Melbourne’s busiest streets. Against the background of the clattering of Melbourne’s A, B and W class trams ferrying tourists around the CBD, over 70 technical writers, information designers, technical authors and business analysts attended, participated in, and contributed to the conference.

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The conference theme, ‘Content is King’, was suggested by Sue Woolley. Very timely. In a day and age where a lot of tech writers have to learn new tools, technologies and systems to present information effectively to their audiences, we often overlook the key component. Content. It is the very engine that drives the technical documentation vehicle. So, it was pretty much back to the basics with this conference theme, with a few important scenic routes (e.g. customer feedback, user metrics) along the way.

I’ve been to a few conferences in Australia and overseas and, almost every time, one of the first things I check out is not only how the presentations will help me personally or at work (this one is a no-brainer), but also how the various sessions are scheduled. Much as I like learning, it helps to have the presentations I’d like to attend spaced out, in order to avoid conference burnout. That, and opportunities to talk to other delegates and presenters when, how and wherever I can.

It’s all about the content. And cats.

Janet Taylor had done a fabulous job of selecting the presenters and sessions and scheduling them over the two days. She should know; she has been doing this for the better part of 8–10 years. The technical writing community in Australia is close-knit, very receptive and encouraging. The presentations and the audience interaction reflected this in equal proportions. Most of the sessions were very interactive and audience-engaging.

In a presentation on creating documentation from source code, a delegate queried Grant Noble, ‘How did you get your developers to write good comments for docs?’ ‘Very slowly’, came the reply. With the abundance of help authoring and content creating tools available, it was a presentation on Microsoft Word, especially setting it up correctly for maximum effectiveness, that got the most audible gasps and sighs. This was followed by more ‘a-ha!’ moments on Day 2 when Andrew Lockett demonstrated customising Word to use it effectively.

What happens when all that wonderful content we create is published? How are the customers using it? Are there patterns you can identify in their use of the content? Are they providing any feedback or commentary on the effectiveness of the content? I personally found the customer metrics, feedback and analytics sessions on Day 2 the most interesting because the presenters addressed these very ‘post-first-publish’ issues. A lot of tech writers, regardless of their experience or the industry they work in, go through similar issues. Non-cooperative subject matter experts (SMEs), suspicious managers and monosyllabic developers can do their best to throw a spanner in the works, yet we persist.

Overall, a lot of presentations were well received.

(Maybe it was because they featured a conference-standard prescribed number of cat photos, but that’s a correlation I am unable to validate!)

#ContentIsKing

My personal favourite activity during conferences in the last couple of years is live tweeting. Not only does it help keep non-attendees in touch with what’s happening at the conference, I also find it is a great tool for making personal notes. It is an excellent way to let the organisers know what worked (and what didn’t). Believe me when I say the world is listening, especially conference-related tweeting.

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Often, I hear something useful in a presentation and tweet about/re-tweet it to the larger tech writing community, getting opinions, feedback and in some cases, answers.

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Prizes

While Madcap Software was the main sponsor for the TWIA conference, there were a few other door prizes. And what good ones too!

Madcap

Main sponsors Madcap had a door prize of the latest MadPak Professional Suite, which was won by Sheetal McGregor of Frontier Software. I was called upon to present this prize.

Contented

Contented, who provide online business and technical digital writing courses, provided a door prize that went to Elizabeth Gibson of AssetOwl. Her name was drawn by Kylie Weaver.

PerfectIt

PerfectIt, an editing add-in for MS Word, helps you create error-free content. Anthony Wilkinson from Boeing picked up this prize, presented by Rhonda Bracey.

TP3

Brian O’Donnell picked up the first of the TP3 prizes during the conference – the TP3 learning course. Sue Woolley was another recipient of a TP3 prize. These prizes were presented by Andrea Marlan, General Manager, TP3.

In the presenters’ corner

The conference boasted some excellent presenters from around Australia (and overseas). I had the opportunity to chat to a few presenters during the conference and found out some really interesting and cool titbits about their interests and what they like doing outside their sphere of skills.

Grant Noble, when not trying to make sense of developer-written documents/comments, is an avid cyclist and a beer maker. He enjoys long weekend rides on his bicycle, especially those that culminate in a good coffee with his friends. He also enjoys experimenting with various flavours in his home-brewed ciders and beer and takes his craft quite seriously.

Rhonda Bracey is into quilting when she is not rescuing an organisation from inexplicable and inexcusable MS Word issues. She prefers to carry her quilt equipment wherever she goes, enjoys attending (and organising) quilt competitions, and making quilts that are distributed to various charity organisations.

Dave Gash has been honing his vocals and practicing his strings long before he started alternating his time with consulting as a technical communicator at companies like Microsoft and Google. His band, Good Mojo, is a regular at San Diego venues.

Gerry Gaffney is passionate about UX. And that’s an understatement. He lives and breathes user experience. And then some more. He is currently the director of the User Experience Professionals Association.

Un-conference

I find conferences a good place to meet other similar-minded people who don’t mind chatting about technical writing.

A few delegates at the conference had attended tech writing conferences before, most notably those organised by the ASTC(NSW) [now TWIA] and AODC. Although it hasn’t been held for a few years now, quite a few people still have fond memories of the AODC (Tony Self, are you listening?). Vasanthi Govindasamy, who travelled from Malaysia, excitedly mentioned this was her first conference in Australia. Although she was keen on attending a conference, Vasanthi was not aware of any such tech writing specific events in Malaysia or surrounding areas and was very glad to attend the TWIA conference in Melbourne.

A crucial element of any conference is the food, and for some that can be a real deal-breaker. Fortunately, the conference venue managers and the café had excelled in that area. Along with bite-sized servings of fruit, nuts and healthy snack mix at each table throughout the conference, the breaks were well catered by the staff and thoroughly appreciated by the delegates. Jam-filled lamingtons, pastries, danishes and scones rounded out the short breaks.

Lamingtons Scones

Lunch at the Straits Café took the conference dining to a new level. On offer was an excellent spread of salads, fresh fruits, mains, cut sandwiches and cheese platters. A number of delegates specifically mentioned that the food on offer throughout the conference was outstanding.

The networking dinner on Day 1 provided more opportunities to get a feel for what other writers faced, what they were working on and how they were winning over non-believers, one document at a time. I was seated on a table with Craig Simms and Carlee Potter from Campaign Monitor and it was interesting to hear how they were creating and managing content and getting the required support from their managers. Rob Phillips, seated at the same table, gave us a few great examples of how and where the written language has deviated from being Plain English to something that has become overly complicated, confusing and, subsequently, simply unusable.

The very core of a conference is networking. While there may be a lot of useful takeaways from the presentations, delegates relish the opportunity to chat to other technical writers and find out about who’s doing what in their respective projects. I tend to also pick up a lot of information on tools, processes, and opportunities/jobs going with various organisations. It is also a good place for organisations offering technical writing courses and services to meet and find out about the talent available in the market.

Summary

We discussed content in its barest form, heard about Plain English, tools (that was always going to come up!), tracking and getting customer feedback, finding meaning out of developer source code; we took comfort in knowing that there is yet hope for MS Word as a tool using various customisations; we understood how Information Typing and Safe Web Fonts work; and we learnt why things such as Frequently Asked Questions should not be a part of technical documentation.

It was a good opportunity to meet ex-managers, fellow tech writers and potential future colleagues. The venue for the conference was easily accessible. We had two excellent chairpersons (Gerry Gaffney and Kylie Weaver) on the two days and the audience was warm, friendly and appreciative of the things we have to collectively go through every single day.

Overall, I enjoyed the TWIA conference and look forward to attending the next one.

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