• All about the humanity of communication.

    All about the humanity of communication.

I’m on my LinkedIn account every day. I get a lot out of it. I decided early on that to stay connected, nationally and internationally, I had to spend more time on LinkedIn. After all, it is the leading social media site for professionals, at least in North America. (In Europe, it’s XING. These same principles apply with most professional sites, though.)

The purpose of LinkedIn is, of course, linking to other professionals. It is these connections— and the extended contacts that it engenders— that form the robust network from which you all can benefit. To get the most out of LinkedIn, you must grow your connections.

value-of-linkedin-connectionsCultivating these connections takes time and consideration. It is, however, time well spent. Why? Your connections are a valuable resource that can assist you with professional dilemmas. But, as with all social media, this assistance is a two-way street; be prepared and open to help the contacts in your network as well.

Your LinkedIn network includes your first-degree connections (your direct connections) and your group connections, plus your second- and third-degree connections (people in your connection’s immediate network).

How Your LinkedIn Network Can Benefit You. You can add connections in many different ways. I’ll discuss a number of ways and present a rationale for each method. But first, let’s look at how you can benefit from your network. You can:

  • Get introduced to someone in a connection’s network.
  • Ask a connection a question to help solve a problem.
  • Learn from a connection’s expertise and even get advice.
  • Engage in a discussion about a topic of mutual interest.
  • Recruit a connection to help you get a job or contract in their company. (Your connections can tell you who hires technical communicators, the names of key people on the front lines, of the types of jobs that are being offered, and where you stand after you’ve submitted a resume or project offer.)
  • Request that your profile be forwarded to one of your connection’s contacts.
  • Ask that others keep you in mind when they see projects of interest to you.

With benefits such as these, you can start to see the value of a large, robust network.

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Recently, I received this email from one of my LinkedIn groups: “Whether you are looking to improve your prospects in your current job or career, are looking for a new one, or are looking for great candidates to fill your available positions, the LinkedIn Job & Career Network is the place to be!” So I clicked the link and became a member. At last glance, the group had 65 jobs listed.

This prompted me (and co-author Ed Marshall) to investigate LinkedIn as a place to get work (jobs or contracts). And I discovered it is a great resource! As of February 2010, using-linkedin-to-get-workLinkedIn’s membership exceeded 50 million. Through LinkedIn you can look for work, research companies, and easily promote yourself in job searches. But first, you must create a thorough profile of yourself and gather professional connections.

Create and Continuously Update Your Profile. Your profile is basically your online résumé, so make it a living document of your professional life. But treat your profile differently from your résumé by being more creative and expressive. Write in the first person, fill it out completely (LinkedIn displays a percent-complete meter for you to gauge your progress), and include all your relevant jobs and education. Make sure your summary not only explains who you are (your features), but more importantly what your employer or clients get from your expertise (their benefits).

Include a professional photo, head shot only, and use the same one you would use in other settings. Write an update of what you are doing at least once a week, or more often if you’d like: announce what you are working on, awards you received, whether you are looking for work (more on that later), and whatever else you think would be of interest to your connections and anyone else who might be viewing your profile. (Tip: Bookmark LinkedIn and add it to your browser’s toolbar for quick access.)

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What is it about social media that is so intriguing? Is it the possibility of communicating with someone halfway around the world, befriending someone you have never met, discovering people you might never have known, sharing intimate details of your life and learning the same about others, conversing with a large number of people all at once, all of whom share a common interest? Or is it simply being enlightened about new thoughts and ideas, discovering new horizons, and boldly going where you could never have gone before?

As it turns out, it’s all of these reasons and much more. I’m just enthralled with social media, as are many of you. In fact, I asked a number of colleagues to share their thoughts on social media. Some are from New England where I live, a few others scattered across the United States and Canada, and a couple from around the world; some older, some  why-social-media-is-wonderful-1younger. They had a lot to tell me.

So here, for your edification, enlightenment, and enjoyment, I present a treatise on social media and its role in communication.

Is Social Media Preferable to Face-to-Face Communication? Social media enables you to broadcast your messages to a larger audience, not just a single person, in an electronically social manner. You can:

  • Easily start a dialogue or a group discussion.
  • Use services like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.
  • Use blogs, wikis, and other collaboration tools.
  • Post photos, audio files, and video files.

Social media allows you to interact with thousands of people who share similar interests regardless of time, distance, schedule, language, position, or experience—people you do not know and would never know. This is simply not possible with face-to-face communication.

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Twitter is all about sending and receiving 140-character (or less) comments. In other words, short text messages. Twitter is based on a bird metaphor. So, in Twitter-speak, messages are called “tweets.” This appears to be the electronic equivalent of the phrase, “Oh, a little birdie told me,” which is what my mother used to tell me whenever I wanted to know the source of her knowledge about some transgression of mine that she gleefully related, with a wry smile.

Twitter is also all about you following other Twitter users and other Twitter users following you. You must have followers to receive tweets. You receive tweets from the people you are following.

If you are not yet using Twitter, here are some basics to get you started. It’s quick and easy to establish an account and set up your home page. For experienced Twitter users, perhaps you’ll pick up some useful tips.

on-twitteringTweeting. Tweets can be about virtually anything. Twitter suggests answering the question, “What are you doing?” But as one well-known wag put it, “Who cares what you’re doing right now, anyway?” I heartily concur. So if you’re not answering Twitter’s query, what do you tweet? You tweet anything that your followers will find worthwhile, and perhaps their followers as well, and their followers, and on and on. Why? Because tweets can be retweeted— in other words, sent along to other followers. Tweeting can quickly become viral.

Whenever you send a tweet, Twitter increases your “Updates” counter on your home page. (I don’t know why Twitter just doesn’t call these “Tweets,” but, oh well.) This counter is a good way to tell if someone is actually sending tweets. When you visit their Twitter page, you can browse through their tweets and assess their value.

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The year you were born has a profound effect on how well you “get” social media and how comfortable you feel communicating through its numerous channels. The generations—Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y—all perceive and employ social media in markedly different ways. Understanding how these generations grew up sheds light on why this is so. It’s enlightening to appreciate everyone’s background and where people are coming from, since these are the people you communicate with every day.

north-shore-rainbowsBaby Boomers. Most Baby Boomers simply don’t get social media. And why should they? Born at least 50 years ago, Boomers grew up when the interstate highway system was just being built; when many telephones were shared party lines; when calling long distance required operator assistance and was saved for Sunday afternoons (reserved for the few family members living out of town); when all your friends lived in your neighborhood and you went to their house to talk with them; when television was black and white, had only three stations, and was only broadcast during the day; when letters were written regularly; when essay test questions were answered by hand in “blue books”; when the library was for conducting research; and when record players spun 45s of Elvis embodying the breathtaking new sound of rock ’n’ roll.

In that existence was a lot of time for personal interaction, face-to-face talking, and the patience for waiting. Social media is alien to that Boomer existence. Boomers ask: Where’s my privacy? How can I thrive with all these interruptions? Can’t I just talk to you? Do I really need to know what you are doing right now?!

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The value a technical communicator brings to an enterprise has never been higher

The number of technical writers is on the decline. So says the United States Department of Labor, the government agency that tracks such things. In its place rises the technical communicator.

It only makaena-pointkes sense. Certainly the need for simple, clear technical information has never been greater. The complexity of this information is ever increasing. To satisfy these evolving needs, the skill set of a technical writer falls short. Today’s world demands the skills of a professional technical communicator.

The evolution of the technical communicator. The Department of Labor maintains hundreds of descriptions in their Standard Occupational Classification system. This is how they describe a technical writer:

Write technical materials, such as equipment manuals, appendices, or operating and maintenance instructions. May assist in layout work.

This description is more than 70 years old. Perhaps it accurately described the work of technical writers then — but certainly not now. The work of the technical writer has evolved over the past 30 years.

The task of the technical writer gained in complexity with the advent of the desktop computer and access to software by the masses. This complexity broke open about 10 years ago with the World Wide Web and exploded like the Big Bang in this new millennium as the Web became the indispensable source for information.

A new occupational title was needed: Technical Communicator.

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Monday, 7:30 AM: I sit at my office desk on a lovely Vermont morning, preparing for my workday, head down, focused, planning web edits, help text, and user guide additions when the phone rings, startling me.

“I need a favor,” the voice begins, without preamble, dangling that last word. Urgency fills the air, then “Dude! A big favor.”

tech-comm-in-social-media-3It’s Sallie, the trainer I had been contracted to work with over the past year. I smile. We are friends. Sallie travels a lot and time together, even a phone call, is precious.

“Sallie, I thought you were in California?” I ask.

“I am.” I’m perplexed a bit by this, but quickly gather the situation.

“You are? What is it, 4:30 AM there? You’re not at the client’s site working? Are you?” I fire these questions off in rapid succession.

“Yes. To all of that.” There’s a pause. “That’s why I need the big favor.”

The favor was simple to explain but certainly not simple to complete.

The Project. Before going to California, Sallie was creating new course descriptions and customizing existing ones for a new client. That was the favor: could I complete this project for him?

I had recently created some of these course descriptions myself, so I understood the content. What I didn’t know, at least at this point, was that Sallie had barely begun. The course descriptions Sallie had already outlined needed to be changed; all the new course descriptions still needed to be created. In other words, I was starting from scratch.

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Today, business communication is simple.

You can communicate through email, instant messaging, your Web site, Web portals, Web casting, Web cams, streaming video, streaming audio, pod casting, video conferencing, phone conferencing, instant messaging, text messaging—not to mention mailing, telephoning, faxing, and myriads of other emerging methods—through an ever emerging plethora of electronic devices. Communication moves fast and furious, information is easy to find, easy to send, and easy to receive. Never before have you had so many options. Technology makes it faster and easier to communicate to a wider audience.

Or does it?

reflecting-treeWhile there are more methods than ever to send a message, are you really reaching your audience? And isn’t that the point? Too much communication today is focused around sending a message, telling what you want an audience to hear. But is it really something they want to hear; are they really listening to your message?

A constant barrage of messages inundate, interrupt, and overwhelm. Cell phones buzz often at inappropriate times; emails pop up to interrupt our thought flow and then contain links to even more annoying messages; web sites display annoying motion to distract and pop ups to sell unwanted items and services. It is information overload: so much to receive, so much to sort through for relevance, and so much left over to discard.

Besides having more ways to deliver messages, the methods are becoming more complicated to use. Do you know how to use all this technology, and when it is most appropriate to, say, email someone rather than phone them, send an electronic file rather than a printed version?

Take the telephone, a tool for having a conversation. Simple to use? Consider this example.

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On becoming visible

You check into a hotel. How do you know your room is clean? You visit a lawyer. How do you know she is competent? You stop at a tailor’s shop. How do you know he will sew a hem correctly? We encounter services like these every day. Since services are a process, not a tangible product, how do we evaluate them?

By what we see.

marketing-your-serviceIn a very specific way, it is what we see—the visual clues—that represent a service. The chocolate on your pillow, the plaques on the wall, the ribbon tape measure—they all identify the quality of a service and the expertise of the practitioner.

Current and prospective clients evaluate independent technical communicators the same way: by what they see. Why? Because we provide a service too—it’s at the core of what we do. We inform readers; we instruct them on how to perform certain tasks; we persuade them to act in a certain way. While much of our work centers on the written word—our product— marketing our service requires more than that: We must also pay attention to how customers perceive our service. So, independent contractors and consultants must carefully create, present, and manage the visual clues and nonverbal behaviors that represent our services.

Your goal: to have clients perceive you as an expert practitioner and better appreciate the service (and by extension, the product) you deliver.

Let’s examine this goal a bit more. I’ll start with the difference between marketing a product and a service; next, I’ll focus on some specific visual clues that can speak highly about your service; and finally I’ll present some nonverbal behaviors that embody you, the practitioner.

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Knowing who is in your audience enables you to better connect with them

My first time presenting to a meaningful audience happened within my first year at IBM. I had joined the company right out of college, so I was still young and, well, unseasoned. I didn’t really know what I was doing except trying to explain concepts.

guardI learned two important lessons that day. One, you don’t always know what you think you know until you have to explain it to someone else, or in this case, to a bunch of someone elses. Two, it’s critical to know who those someone elses are when you are presenting; in other words, who is your audience.

It’s also critical to know all of this before you present. I’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a closer look at each of these lessons.

Knowing what you think you know. In my experience, there are three tiers of knowing.

1. You think you know what you are talking about. This is delusional, because in your own mind, you are convinced you completely understand a concept, or completely enough that you can discuss it cogently whenever the time arises. Except, you don’t.

2. You know what you are talking about, and can hold an intelligent conversation with others who already have a bit of an understanding of what you are talking about. This tier is also a bit delusional because while you have hold of a concept, it’s still not a solid grasp.

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