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

May 11, 2010 • conference videocasts, general

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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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.