A Few Ways to Make the Next STC Summit Better, #stc10

Last week I attended the STC Summit in Dallas, as did about 700+ other people. Overall I thought the conference was as good as it has been for the last several years. Others said the conference was even better than past years. There’s a lot that is definitely working well with these conferences. Below are five things I felt went well at the STC Summit and five ways to make the next STC Summit even better.

What Went Well at the Summit

Here is my list of what I thought worked well.

+ Workshops were well-attended.

I had a dozen people in my WordPress workshop on Sunday. Overall I believe the workshops were well-attended and successful, especially compared to last year. Last year my workshop was canceled due to lack of attendees. I’m not sure how many other workshops were canceled last year, but the conference organizers reduced prices and changed time slots for workshops this year, and as a result, attendance boosted.

+ Sessions were recorded.

I skipped a couple of sessions at the conference — one because I was preparing for my presentation. And another because I was tired from lack of sleep. Other times I found myself in sessions wishing I were in other sessions. It’s comforting to know that in six weeks I’ll be able to go back and listen to those sessions I missed. As I filled out evaluations and looked at all the sessions, I realized how many intriguing-sounding sessions I missed throughout the conference. Knowing I can access recordings of these sessions makes me feel both relieved and motivated to keep learning from the Summit.

From a presenter’s perspective, the recording process was practically invisible. I didn’t have to use any software (they intercepted the video feed), and I could run my presentation from my own computer, which was nice because I used PowerPoint 2010. It was also convenient to have the tech guy on site during my session to handle any technical problems if they arose.

+ Tweetup was excellent

Robert Armstrong organized a tweetup on Monday night that I thought went extremely well. Apparently some attendees were upset about a beer keg that contained Bud Light rather than draft beer, but since I don’t drink, I only learned about this later. I liked the informal venue of the tweetup and the casual conversations I had with about a dozen people that night. Here’s a photo someone took from the balcony of Croc and Rock, where we held the tweetup.

Monday night Tweetup

Monday night Tweetup at Croc and Rock. I'm at the bottom right, talking to Kirsty Taylor from Australia.

+ Lots of time between sessions

Between every session we had about a half an hour of time to interact with others, browse the expo, get a snack, or check twitter (in wifi zones). I especially enjoyed this padding of time because it allowed me to interview people for videocasts. I do value the time to interact with conference attendees during these breaks. When sessions have only 10 or 15 minute breaks before the next session, there isn’t enough time to do that. Thirty minutes, on the other hand, is perfect.

+ The idea of taking a topic for the BoK

One of the bulletin boards promoting the STC Body of Knowledge initiative had topics that people could take and write articles about. Although this bulletin board was a little vague and poorly positioned, theoretically the idea was brilliant. About 80 people took topics and promised to write STC Body of Knowledge articles. I support the Body of Knowledge initiative, and even though I don’t plan to write articles for it (yet), I thought this was a good strategy for collecting content and increasing visibility.

What Could Be Better

Here’s my list of how to improve the Summit for next year.

– Kill the teleprompters

During the opening session on Sunday afternoon, the STC president and executive director welcomed the members and provided various remarks that they read from a teleprompter. I’m sure teleprompters could work well in some scenarios and with more training, but too often the result is a speaker reading a script to an audience. Everyone I asked at the conference said they disliked the teleprompter effect. It feels a bit fake and stilted. No speaker who used the teleprompters said anything sophisticated enough to warrant the use of teleprompter technology. (I really can’t see Mike Hughes reading from a teleprompter next year. It’s just not his style.) Speakers would be better off without teleprompters next year.

– Cut the length of presentations in half

One of the conference organizers I spoke with said the sessions were all set to 75 minutes in length for two reasons: (a) 75 minutes is enough time to dive deeply into a topic and allow enough discussion to be worthwhile, and (b) making all presentations 75 minutes long makes it easier to schedule the sessions.

Maybe it’s my reduced attention span that times out after a half hour, but after 30 minutes, I’ve gotten most of what I will get out of a presentation. The rest is just endurance. Also, my purpose in going to a session isn’t to dive deeply into a topic. It’s to be introduced to a new idea. It’s like walking into Costco on Saturday and trying 15 different food samples. That’s the purpose of a conference, in my opinion. You try foods you would otherwise never buy. And it opens you up to new thoughts.

Most of the sessions I attended didn’t go deeper as time progressed. Instead they simply covered more ground and became longer. In other words, they moved laterally, not vertically. If you pick the wrong session and unluckily sit near the front, you may be trapped there for the whole 75 minutes. Overall I didn’t feel that I attended that many sessions. I would have much preferred a tour through a landscape of ideas, moving at a faster pace, maybe 30 or 45 minutes in length with each session, rather than 75 minutes.

The shortened time span would also force presenters to get more quickly to the point. I tried to do the same with my videocasts. I knew I only had about 5 minutes, so I jumped straight to the difficult questions I wanted to explore. In contrast, when people have a lot of time, they belabor the point.

– Provide ubiquitous wifi

Someone told me it would have cost about $17,000 or more to have wifi present throughout the conference. I’m not sure how vendors get away with prices like these, or if that’s just the norm and it costs this much to provide bandwidth at a hotel. But as one person I talked with said, I would prefer wifi over fancy ballrooms with chandeliers and elaborate setups (such as the lighted backdrop and big stage at the opening keynote). The irony about hotels is that inexpensive hotels usually give you wifi for free, but expensive hotels restrict wifi and make you pay for access.

I don’t need to stay at the fanciest hotel in Dallas. Perhaps a less expensive venue would allow for more wifi capability? I know the STC has hotels are selected out years in advance, so I doubt this will change much. And inexpensive hotels don’t also have conference-accommodating spaces. Still, I wanted more wifi.

– Remove the “thank-you, thank-you, thank-you” mentality with vendors

During the general welcome speeches and state of the society speeches, there was too much gratitude expressed to the vendors. I believe one slide even said “thank you, thank you, thank you” to the vendors. Or maybe that was to the conference attendees. Either way, I felt there was too much groveling. I think vendors will come to the STC regardless of whether this groveling mentality is present. Attendees will peruse the expo regardless of whether they’re encouraged multiple times to do so.

Some of my colleagues also grew tired of the “We’re still here!!!! applaud loud” mentality as well. It seemed repeated so often that I started to wonder just how close the STC was to complete dissolution.

– Provide more sessions on visual communication and video

There weren’t any sessions on video (except for my session on voiceover, which wasn’t focused much on video). Why is this? It seems like a major gap to me both at the conference and in the technical communication field in general. More technical writers need to be providing video deliverables, and there should be more sessions on video at the conference.

In addition to video, we also need more sessions on visual communication. The one session I attended on visual communication was packed to standing room only, which no doubt points to the interest in that area. In contrast, there were more sessions on wikis and DITA than I cared to count.


Overall, as I said in the beginning, the STC Summit in Dallas was a worthwhile conference — as good or better than it was in Atlanta and Philadelphia and Minnesota (the other three I’ve attended). I’m always glad I attend it. The sheer number of people I meet and interact with is socially flooring.

I have one bonus tip that I doubt will ever be implemented, but it’s a novel idea I’ll pass on. You know how at wedding parties the host sometimes passes out disposable cameras and allows the guests to snap photos of everyone? And then the guests hand in the cameras at the end? Wouldn’t it be cool to do the same with pocket camcorders at the Summit? Maybe provide 5 or so Flips that people can borrow for a while and then return full? I bet the results would be interesting. Then again, given the lack of interest in video, the Flip camcorders may collect dust on a poorly positioned and vaguely worded booth.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • http://techcommdood.com Bill Swallow

    Good snapshot, Tom. I hope that STC rethinks it’s Summit location strategy for when the “deal” with Hyatt runs out. Perhaps team with other conference planners to develop a set criteria for acceptance. If these large hotels start losing business due to price gouging like we saw with wi-fi, perhaps they’ll change their pricing.

    Regarding the beer issue at Gators, the sponsor had paid $200 for a keg of Shiner Bock, a local craft beer. Gators, at the start of the event, said they couldn’t get it and put Bud Light on instead (costs about half as much). They then conveniently ran out of the Bud Light an hour later, and magically produced a keg of Shiner Bock that they then sold at $4 per cup. Classic bait and switch. Of course, it didn’t matter what the keg was because the event was great regardless. But if I was the sponsor I’d be quite upset over the ripoff. That said, I advise those local to Dallas or those visiting to take your business elsewhere to a more ethical establishment.

  • http://www.janetswisher.com Janet Swisher

    Nice summary, Tom.

    I agree that not every topic needs 75 minutes. Having shorter sessions and fewer simultaneous tracks would allow having the same number of presentations, while reducing the number of conflicting sessions and enabling attendees to derive more value while at the conference. It’s fine to have 8(!) track themes, but they don’t need to all have sessions in every slot.

    Providing wifi for large numbers of people is expensive and hard. I recently presented at the Texas Linux Fest, which had a bunch of techies planning for half as many attendees in a smaller space for a single day. A lot of the resources were donated or loaned, so I can’t give you a total cost figure, but it was significant. This article about Southern California Linux Expo’s network gives some idea of the scale and issues involved:

    I suspect the groveling to vendors came about because their sponsorship helped keep the conference afloat. However, they’re clearly getting value for their money, or they wouldn’t be there. (TechSmith skipped STC10 in favor of O’Reilly Web 2.0 Expo.) I don’t know how much Adobe paid for their “platinum” sponsorship, but it must have been a big pile of money, given that they got to do a live ad during the opening session, and had presentations in every time slot. I think that level of catering to vendors is excessive. I’d like to see the folks from Google not only come back and give presentations, but also be a sponsor. Google provides an essential tool for our readers, as well as for tech writers themselves.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      It’s funny that you mention Google. At the closing banquet, by chance I happened to sit at a table of attendees who all worked at Google. About 7 or so “Googlers,” as they refer to themselves, attended. They did seem interesting in submitting a proposal for a session next year. I was really curious to know whether their allotted 20 percent of free time for creative exploration and play resulted in a higher degree of documentation-related innovations. Given that the conference will be held in Sacramento next year, I expect a high number of attendees from the Silicon Valley area, including Google, to attend and participate in the conference.

      Thanks for the note about TechSmith at O’Reilly. I wasn’t sure where they appeared at instead of STC, but that sounds like a good conference for them to have a presence at anyway.

      Re the concurrent sessions per slot, I agree with you here. It is frustrating to have 10 sessions or so running concurrently. I would much rather have shorter sessions with the ability to attend more of them.

      It was great talking with you at the conference.

  • Brandon D

    Hey…good review. I agree about the visual communication and video. I really enjoyed your session on voice-overs. And part of me wished that TechSmith’s Camtasia crew would have been there to do a session on…well anything regarding improving videos. That would be a vendor session I would actually attend!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Brandon, I totally agree that TechSmith should do some sessions at the next conference. I know several people there whose sessions would be highly attended. Thanks for the feedback on my voiceover session.

  • http://blog.paulpehrson.com Paul

    Thanks, Tom for the recap.

    I totally understand what you said about the “We’re still here!” stuff. On leadership day, the entire board jumped out of their chairs and started hi-5-ing each other and people at neighboring tables. It felt very stilted and looked very dumb. I was embarrassed for them. I think it is okay to acknowledge the hard year the organization had, but we have apparently passed the crisis, so let’s just move on.

    I also wish that TechSmith had attended the conference. That is a vendor I’d have really enjoyed talking to. There were way too many translation vendors for my taste (but then again, we don’t use translation vendors where I work).

    I hope that in the future STC looks at incorporating sessions on technology including video into the conference. I even think that they should consider adding a multi-media track for the next conference. I nominate Tom Johnson to be the track manager!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      I agree about the idea of a multimedia track, though my wife forbids me from ever volunteering my time without monetary compensation. Every time I say something like, hey, I’m thinking of doing this …. she asks if I will get paid to do it. But no one is asking me anyway, so this is a moot point.

      Re the high fives, yeah, if those are planned in advance, it doesn’t quite work. Plus that sort of physical exuberance doesn’t seem to fit the technical communicator crowd. But I wasn’t there, so I can’t really comment. I’m glad you attended Leadership Day and got a lot out of it. I enjoyed the sessions I attended.

  • http://www.dillpickers.com viqui_dill

    Nicely said, Tom. I agree with your observations wholeheartedly!

    But … you forgot to include one of the best things about the summit – your presentation on Developing a personal voice in audio.

    I really got a lot out of your talk and bought a bag of green apples as a result.

    Thanks for your talk and for this post! Rock on.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Thanks Viqui for the feedback. You know, I haven’t actually tried the green apples myself. My wife and kids seem to favor the Delicious kind. But I found that there are all kinds of rituals among voiceover professionals in improving their voice.

  • http://andreajwenger.com Andrea Wenger

    Great feedback, Tom. I have to disagree with you about the session length, though — I wouldn’t want the sessions to be shorter than 60 minutes. But that doesn’t mean that each presentation needs to be 60 minutes. Different speakers could speak on related subjects during that time — not concurrently, as in progressions, but in succession. I went to a session like that at my first STC conference, in 2000, and it was great.

    Totally agree with you about wifi. If hotels like the Hampton Inn can provide free wifi in every room, I don’t see why venues can’t provide free wifi in their conference areas. Wifi is like water to professional communicators.

    Your points about video are well taken. But on this subject, you’re way ahead of the rest of us. It’s only through watching your videos from the conference that I’ve come to realize how powerful and essential video is. Next year, the rest of us will be right there with you!

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Thanks for commenting, Andrea. The idea of having multiple presenters in one long time slot would work well, I think. Actually, your suggestion is somewhat brilliant, even. That’s how Neil Perlin handled the Beyond the Bleeding Edge session, and it worked well. If you were to hold one session for 30 minutes, and then break for 20 minutes, and then hold another session, and so on, that’s a lot of gap in time (150 minutes for 3 sessions). But holding three sessions within one 75 minute time slot, followed by a 30 minute break, you would get in more content in a compressed way (105 minutes for 3 sessions). Additionally, grouping several presenters into one session would still serve audience needs because presumably the sessions would be related.

      On a financial note, if the organizers were to accept twice as many people to the conference, I’m guessing it would increase the number of attendees as well.

  • http://prosekiln.com Melanie

    Great points. I wasn’t able to attend the workshops – I’d love to see more hands-on sessions/workshops during the regular Conference next time. Actually doing stuff on computers during the sessions. Yes, this would require ubiquitous WiFi.

    Awesome Summit, though.

  • http://ginafromtampa.wordpress.com/ Gina Fevrier


    Thanks very much for posting this. I liked the 75-minute sessions. I have so much to learn. I didn’t get a chance to attend other groups’ progressions, but I know that it was extremely difficult to get my points across in mine in only three 20-minute sessions (Engaging Users in our Wiki Docs Content Strategy).

    The wifi problem was a huge problem for me. I could get to the Web (although it was slower than my cable connection at home). But I couldn’t access my work network via VPN (Citrix) at all. It was about $25 for 72 hours and a waste, in my opinion.

    I didn’t like the choice of hotels. The Dallas downtown Hyatt was too far from places that I felt comfortable walking to on my own. Maybe next time we can find a place near some restaurants because I kind of felt trapped eating at the hotel all the time. I splurged and ate sushi at Wolfgang Puck’s attached to the hotel, but I’m embarrassed to say how much I spent.

    All-in-all, as a first-time STC Summit attendee, it was invaluable to me. Meeting people like you and Anne Gentle, sharing ideas with all of the other tech writers, and learning so much that there is no room for more for a while, was well worth it. I can’t wait until next year in Sacramento.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      Gina, it was good to meet you at the conference. I agree that the walking distance between the hotel and restaurants wasn’t ideal. There is a creepy and potentially dangerous stretch of nothing for several blocks before the West End district.

      Re the 75 minute sessions, there was quite a discussion about this on Twitter if you look at #stc10 on search.twitter.com. I guess the reactions are more mixed than I anticipated. Certainly for progressions you need that amount of time. I agree with you wholeheartedly there.

  • http://www.infoclarity.co.uk Haitham Razagui

    Hi Tom, the Flip camera idea is a good one. I’ve been involved with a corporate event in which groups were encouraged to apply for a Flip camera and record the event from their perspective. It’s fun and I found that the camera had a side benefit of helping to start conversations that might never have started (or started more awkwardly) otherwise.

  • http://xmlpress.net Richard Hamilton


    Excellent post. I twittered a suggestion for shorter sessions (60 mins), but on reflection I think there ought to be a range of session times offered, ranging from “no-time” poster presentations, to 4-5 “elevator” talks on similar topics in a 60-75 minute slot, to split sessions (2 30 or 3 20 minute talks in an hour), to full 60-75 minute sessions.

    Thinking back on the proposals I reviewed as the Management Track manager this year, I think that if we asked a couple of extra questions in the proposal form (like, “how long do you need?”:), it wouldn’t be hard to recommend a length for each talk.

    Another possibility, which has been used in other conferences like WritersUA, is to have some time and space for attendees to talk about their projects informally. I’d suggest first come, first served, with no requirement other than signing up and being willing to be in a particular place at a particular time to talk about your topic to whoever stops by.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom Johnson

      I agree that the range of time sessions would better accommodate the different presentation content. However, I believe the conference organizer would find it much more difficult to gracefully orchestrate that variety. But maybe not. I would be interested to hear more about session length experiments at other conferences.

      Re the last idea you described, there was a session at the Summit that involved a one-on-one project review, though one had to apply ahead of time for space in the workshop. But I like the idea that you describe.

  • http://tonychung.ca Tony Chung

    Thanks for speaking from the perspctive of a presenter and workshop leader as well as a participant. I’m still working through my own thoughts as a first-time attendee.

    It’s good to know that you felt the recording technology at the conference worked seemlessly. You hold high standards so I trust your opinion. I also feel that I missed sessions I would have found valuable. There was one instance I read the room wrong and missed the session I’d planned for that block, and even sat up front. Fortunately, it turned out to be what I needed, anyway.

    For every block I wanted to see between three and five sessions. Rachel Houghton told me afterward that she was happy if my only complaint was that there was too much selection. I agree with that assessment. The program organizers ahould feel confident in their selection.

    Regarding the excess of wiki sessions and the absence of multimedia, you have to remember that STC as a whole is historically behind the times. Wiki collaboration was introduced in 2006, so now we’re seeing the growth of its exploration. It also proved a big draw at WritersUA this year.

    Additional presentations by UA and UX professionals, also in response to a perceived need, were met with questions bordering on harrassment by supposed senior members. The lack of respect was astounding, because so much of what we do depends on our understanding of our users.

    Cutting edge practitioners need to drive the program to include more sessions on video and multimedia. Alan Houser and the team are extremely open to feedback. I recall that he surveyed stcforum.org users for topics of interest for 2010 immediately after the 2009 Summit ended.

    Wi-Fi was the major pain point. I had the hotel’s own Wi-Fi package attached to my room, but it wasn’t available in the conference rooms. What was THAT all about? I would have complained if I had purchased that package.

    You didn’t mention anything about the Progression sessions, where we could pick 3 out of 6 or 7 table talks. I would have loved to see these recorded, even with camcorders. Fortunately I caught some video at oue LEGO workshop. http://youtube.com/user/tctechcom – go figure: “techcom” was already taken as a Google account!

    I’ve got more to say, so watch my blog.


  • Char James-Tanny

    I’m a bit nervous about shorter session lengths because I pack a lot into a 60- or 75-minute session…I want people to leave knowing how to do something. (And no one has ever written on their evaluations that they got bored during my session. It doesn’t mean that no one’s ever gotten bored, just that I don’t know about it.)

    Personally, if I’m going to a conference, I want to leave with more than an introduction to a whole bunch of things. I’m giving up my time to attend…if I only want brief intros to things, I can visit websites and read blogs. This doesn’t mean that all sessions have to be longer, but a conference made up of only 30-minute sessions doesn’t interest me, as a speaker or as an attendee.

    (For a counterpoint: I was one of the organizers of the Boston Accessibility Unconference this past Saturday. We ended up with four slots of 45-mins each. Some slots had two presentations, where each person had approx. 20 minutes to introduce a topic. Other slots had only one person for the entire 45 minutes. Several of the sessions went long…that is, they filled their 45 minutes and the 15-minute break and only stopped because the next session had to start. This worked really well for the most part. In other words, a mix of session lengths is good.)

    As far as wifi goes, big hotels provide it…at a cost. They can also host large conferences because they have the meeting space. Smaller hotels include it, but can’t handle large conferences. Big hotels work deals…fill so many room nights, get so many conference-related things for no charge. Small hotels don’t have that flexibility because they don’t have the conference-related things to offer to begin with.

    And if more audio/video-related sessions are desired, then someone needs to answer the call for proposals or send speaker suggestions to the program committee. (I don’t really do audio or video at a high-enough level to teach people about it, so I can’t help with this one.)

  • http://tonychung.ca Tony Chung

    To respond to Richard’s comment about informal sessions: It was at the DocTrain “Unconference” that provided the opportunity to met you, Anne Gentle, and Lisa Dyer, among others.