There and back again – Notes from the STC Summit 2012 conference

I have just got back from speaking and attending the Society for Technical Communication’s annual conference in Chicago – STC Summit 12. While my body is back in London, my brain is still partly still halfway across the Atlantic, which might explain any incoherence in this post.


As there can be ten sessions running in parallel, each attendees’ experience can be unique. However, it is possible to spot the major themes of the conference. These were:

  • content delivered on mobile devices,
  • using HTML 5,
  • intelligent/adaptive content (the content that’s delivered to users differs depending on the context and the user), and
  • using video.

Another theme was: what ever technology changes are likely to appear on the horizon, Technical Communicators are in a good position to handle them. Certainly compared to the Publishing industry.


The “Beyond the bleeding edge” themed presentations were very impressive. Mozilla’s Popcorn project could have a big impact on Technical Authors. The popularity of the Web site, and the rapid growth of the company, shows how popular instruction manuals can be if they are accessible on the Web. It also shows what can happen if you don’t publish your content on the Web – someone may reverse engineer the content and publish it on their site.

I also really enjoyed Karen McGrane’s presentation on the approaches the Publishing and News industries are taking to tackle the issue of mobile content.

Thanks to social media, you have a friend in every city

Primarily thanks to Twitter, there were many people I felt I knew already. I was looking forward to finally meeting people such as Rahel Baillie, Val Swisher, Rhyne Armstrong, Janet Swisher, Andrea Wenger, Anker Jain, Joe Gollner, Larry Kunz, Alan Houser and John Hedtke. I didn’t get a chance to say hello to everyone – I missed Scott Abel and Rachel Houghton, for example. Even though Americans are welcoming by their nature, it does help to be connected to people via Twitter.

Differences between European conferences

It’s the first time I’ve spoken at a conference in the USA, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities between it and the European conferences I speak at.

The STC Summit is bigger than any other similar conference, apart from tekom (in Germany). At the same time, I was speaking, delegates could attend nine other presentations. Some of the presentations, particularly the “beyond the bleeding edge” presentations were more “advanced” than I’ve seen at any European conference.

The conference also has “lightning talks” – three nine x 20 5 minute presentations one after the other. These forced the speakers to be succinct and this format worked very well. There were also a lot of talks on personal promotion – finding jobs, networking, selling yourself etc.

This year’s ISTC (STC equivalent in the UK) conference, “Technical Communication UK”, has a little on mobile content and nothing on HTML 5 or intelligent content. The UAEurope conference seems to be much closer to the STC themes – perhaps because so many of the speakers are from the USA.

Another difference was the number of students and people under 30 attending the conference. The STC places a lot of emphasis on research, professional development and awards, which was good to see.

The elephants in the room

There was a consensus that DITA and other forms of XML were the way to go, but no-one really challenged this belief. Often, content has a short “shelf-life” and consequently little value, so a cheap, quick and dirty solution may be the best solution. DITA is still really weak in terms of the outputs it delivers.

America most definitely has an obesity problem – having another meal an hour after the first, huge portions and cheese sprinkled on everything. So does Britain, but on a different scale. It’s worrying to see the direction in which Britain may go.

There was also a belief that we’ll live in a world of a myriad of mobile devices  – that the 80:20 rule won’t apply. I wonder if just a few devices will end up dominating the marketplace.

There still seems to be an awful lot of people who are not publishing their content to the Web, and if you’re not on Google, you’re invisible. The rise of mobile devices may well be the catalyst for this to change.

Final thoughts

I look forward to watching the recordings of the presentations I missed – the STC’s Summit@aClick site will contain the recordings in 6-8 weeks time. I’m pleased I took up this offer to speak at this event. I found the event was informal, informative and full of humour.



Ellis, thank you so much for coming and being part of the STC Summit program. I heard many positive comments about your session.

One slight clarification about presentation formats you mentioned… The Summit lightning talks are 5 minute presentations (not 20). Each lightning talk session provides nine 5-minute, and each presentation has 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. The speaker paces their presentation to stay in sync with the slides. We have another format (progressions), that are 20 minute discussions. During a progression, attendees go to a room with 6-10 discussion tables. Attendees select a table topic to attend and take part in a 20 minute discussion. Then, attendees get up and go to a different table. Within the one hour session, each speaker presents their topic 3 times, and attendees get to take part in 3 different topics.

Thank you again for sharing your knowledge and experience with the STC Summit 2012 attendees. I enjoyed our discussions and I hope to see you again at the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta 5-8 May, 2013.

Larry Kunz

Likewise, Ellis, I was very glad to meet you in person – and in fact sit beside you during the keynote session.

The event was enhanced by your presence and by the superb presentation that you gave. Speaking of which: you won’t receive your speaker evaluations for many months, so I’ll use this forum to repeat a comment that I made in my evaluation: I hope that you’ll take that “Brief History of Tech Comm” video and put it onto YouTube or someplace similar. It’s a marvelous piece of work, and it would work equally well as part of your presentation or as a stand-alone entity.

Like Paul, I hope to see you again in 2013 in Atlanta.


Indeed. It certainly wasn’t a definitive list – there were many many others .
I’d also like to thank the chairman, the director, my agent, my stylist…. 😉

Neil Perlin

Hi Ellis,

Glad you enjoyed the Bleeding Edge sessions. I was very pleased with them, and there’s going to be one more in the form of a webinar in the fall.



Did you title the post “There and back again” after having witnessed people eating “second breakfast”?

I wish I could have made it for the whole conference. Hopefully I can be in the list of people met for the next one.

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