Below is a transcript of our podcast episode Promoting technical communication to the general public:
Welcome to the Cherryleaf podcast. In this episode, we’re going to look at explaining technical communication, and promoting its value to the wider general public.
Because that’s the question the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (the ISTC) had to address recently. The ISTC is the professional body in United Kingdom for technical communicators. The role of the ISTC is to improve standards and, of course, to evangelise, to promote technical communication as a career. And Cherryleaf helps support the ISTC. We’re a Business Affiliate of the ISTC, we have someone who contributes the news blog section to their free monthly newsletter, called InfoPlus+, and we also have a member on the ISTC Council contributing to the marketing of the profession.
One of the activities the ISTC carries out is to attend the University of Cambridge careers fair. This is an annual career fair for undergraduates and schoolchildren, and the ISTC has, each year, a stand promoting technical communication and helping the students become aware that there is this profession called technical communicators. And that leads to a question every year: how do you explain technical communication to this type of audience? And in the past there’s been leaflets and flyers explaining what technical communicators do, and the value that technical communication can provide. There’s been a graphic novel explaining the difficulties an organisation can get into with poor communication and how technical communicators can help, and the areas in which they can help.
When it came to discussing what to have on the stand at the University one idea that came up was to use Lego and to build a piece of Lego. These days if you want to do a model of one of the Star Wars characters or Batman, then typically you’ll find 80 pieces in that pack. And to put it together correctly and accurately, you need the instructions to go through and guide you through doing it. With so many pieces, it can be very difficult just to wing it and try and make it without any instructions whatsoever.
So Lego is a good metaphor and a good discussion topic: to help understand, to explain technical communication. That we have a goal. We know what we want to achieve. And with all these different pieces, you need help and guidance to help you get through that, or help the spot where things have gone wrong.
And the Lego documentation is very good. It also gives you an opportunity, if you want to discuss in a little more detail, how Lego have approached this problem. What have they done to make it easier for children from six years upwards to create these models. And within Lego instructions, you have things like:
- They don’t use words, they tend to use pictures
- They stick as much as possible to one perspective; one view of the bricks of the model
- That the diagrams are three-dimensional
- It’s designed in a format that is small so the pages can be turned by somebody who is only six years old
- They use colour and shading
- They document every step, they don’t omit anything
So it can help people appreciate some of the subtleties and finer aspects of how technical documentation is created.
And this issue of promoting the value of technical communication evangelising arises in the other ways in which the ISTC promotes itself, primarily the ISTC website, istc.org dot.uk.
And again, how on a website can you promote technical communication to the general public. And so we came up with the idea could we apply this idea of Lego, and incorporate it into a video, and use that as the way of explaining the value of technical communication and what technical communication is.
So that involves a trip down to the supermarket to buy some Lego, to see what we could get with our pocket money. And for £9 we bought the TIE Striker Micro Fighter, and used that to create a little 90 second video. So, the idea of the video is to show the box and the model that can be created and the parts that come in the box – all 80 or so different pieces, to show the instructions, and to show what you get at the end. You get your completed TIE Striker Micro Fighter. And we also decided to show what can go wrong if you don’t follow the instructions, by creating a model by not following the instructions.
We decided to create this video in-house at Cherryleaf. There were a number of reasons for doing this. One was if we were to bring in professionals, there wouldn’t necessarily be enough time to get it done before the Cambridge Fair. We wouldn’t really be in a position to give an accurate detailed brief to a set of external professionals on quite what we wanted. In many ways it was case of experimenting. Having a very rough idea of what this video would contain, but not really knowing what all the things would be or how it look without actually doing it. We have a studio. We have lighting for the e-learning courses that we use so we use. That is a place for recording the video. So we began by showing the box. Showing the parts in the box. And to highlight that, to have the parts cascade onto a table. To show how many different parts there are.
The next stage was to create the model. And when it came to creating the model, we then discovered that there was a part missing. And it would be very easy to blame Lego and say that the part wasn’t in the pack. But unfortunately, we had video evidence, having recorded these parts cascade down. And that part was actually there, at that point. So, this delayed things overnight, and required somebody to come in with a box of Lego from home to find a suitable part, to replace this missing part.
One of the things when it comes to recording in this way is it is quite different from recording a learning material. You need a camera rather than a laptop camera. We needed really a rostrum camera to film pretty much from the top down. And with a bit of make do and mend, we managed to get around those particular issues.
So we had to find a volunteer to follow through the instructions, work on Lego for or an hour or so to put together this model. We filmed the model. And because we’d been using these parts from this box of Lego bits to fill in as the gap where this missing piece was, this also gave us the opportunity to customise it. So that when it came to creating the alternative version the model that didn’t quite work – because instructions weren’t followed. We were able to adapt this model of the TIE Striker, and make it clearly something completely different. And also stick a pole on it. And to illustrate what can happen if a product isn’t built correctly – by having it shaky and badly traveling through space, this TIE Striker.
To this video, we added a voiceover. Having illustrated the benefits of following instructions and the consequences if there are bad instructions if people don’t follow them correctly, we completed the video by talking about the ISTC what it does, the benefits for professional technical communicators joining the ISTC. And also for people who are doing technical communication, but this isn’t in their job title. The point that joining the ISTC could help them in their career. So the video was put together. It’s up on YouTube now, and we can listen to the audio track from the video:
“There are lots of times when we want to achieve something but we don’t know exactly how to do it. Technical communication is the term for the information that guides people in this situation to help us reach our goals without the right guidance sometimes things can go wrong technical communication is all around us it can be information written on the product itself
It can be help text for a software application, or guidance text in a dialog screen. It can be a quick reference card in a box, a getting started guide, a technical illustration, even a comic.
So what do you call someone who does technical communication for a job? Well, you’ll see them called technical authors, technical writers, information developers… A simpler term is just technical communicators. And the professional body for people who do technical communication is the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators.
if you’d like more information on technical communication and the value you can provide and technical communicators, and the skills that they offer, visit the ISTC’s website istc.org.dot.uk.
And if you do technical communication as part of your job, joining the ISTC could help your career.”
One thing you’ll notice is we didn’t add any background music, what’s sometimes called the audio bed. If you are involved in creating promotional videos, then that’s worth considering.
You can, if you have a budding musician in your organisation, get something composed in that way. In the past, on the Cherryleaf site, we’ve used audio tracks from a company called Melody Loops. And for a few pounds or a few pennies, and in some cases free of charge, you can download loops that can be two minutes long, one minute long, that are musical backgrounds. We decided not to use a background that was the preference from the ISTC Council members
If you do add a musical background, it can have an impact on those who are hearing-impaired. So that’s one aspect of it. Also with a lot of corporate videos, you end up selecting ukulele-based music or American soft rock. And the audio beds can be rather generic in that way. So, the decision was made to not have an audio bed.
We started this episode asking the question, how can we promote technical communication to the general public, to a wider audience? And I hope we’ve shown in this episode that Lego pieces are an effective way of doing that. It’s something that many people are familiar with. Your child and undergraduates or grown-up. In many ways, we’ve all played and used Lego and seen the instructions that come with it. And think of the effect if you’ve lost those instructions and you don’t know how to put it together.
You’ll find the link to the video on YouTube in the show notes. And one final request is if you have the time if you could pop over to Apple iTunes and the page for the Cherryleaf podcast. If you just give us a rating, star rating, or like it, that will help us enormously in promoting this podcast to other people interested in issues around technical communication.
Thank you for listening to this episode.