Recently a fellow tech writer tweeted the following:
I realize that I sometimes come across as zealous about technical writing. This is how I've branded my online persona. And sure enough, although I don't participate in Zumba, after reading the tweet I couldn't help but consider the possible parallels between tech comm and Zumba.
As I understand it, Zumba is basically dance aerobics, set to upbeat Latin music. As a form of exercise, Zumba enjoys a lot of popularity in Utah. At least a dozen people at my local ward gather for weekly Zumba classes.
Does Zumba have any parallels with tech comm? Yes, quite a few! Here are eight ways that Zumba is like technical writing.
At its core, Zumba tries to make exercise fun. Running, jumping jacks, and other aerobic moves can be boring in their repetition. With Zumba, you're not just exercising. You're dancing. You're having a party. You're having a blast. It's fun.
Many approaches to learning with tech comm attempt the same end: to make an otherwise dull task fun. Gamification, interactive simulations, movies, mock scenarios, quizzes, and other learning techniques can help make reading the manual less of a chore.
Zumba separates out beginning from advanced classes, so that novices like me (if I were to ever show up at a Zumba class) wouldn't be completely blown away. (Well, even in the novice class I would still be blown away.)
Similarly, good tech comm separates out beginning from advanced material in the learning process. You don't throw new users into pages of complicated technical instructions when you're introducing them to an application. Instead, you provide them with basic, introductory material first, and then work up to more advanced techniques later.
Sarah Maddox replied to Michelle Sander's original tweet to note the parallel of rhythm between Zumba and tech writing:
I definitely agree about this parallel. In Zumba, the dance moves involve a variety of styles. Wikipedia says the dance moves include choreography from "hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue, mambo, martial arts, and some Bollywood and belly dance moves. Squats and lunges are also included" (Zumba).
Good writing uses alternating sentence structures to provide a sense of rhythm. Sometimes sentences are long. Others are short. Some begin with a noun, others with an introductory clause, or an appositive. Some sentences begin with the subject, while others kick off with a verb and lead up to the subject.
The variety of sentence structures can give your prose a rhythm that makes your content easier and more pleasing to read.
The dance moves in Zumba aren't easy. I'm not a dancer, and I've never done aerobics. If I wanted to learn Zumba, I would need someone to show me how. The moves are technical and involve a whole choreography to figure out. This is why Zumba classes have an instructor -- someone who provides complex information to people who want to learn.
In that sense, Zumba is just like tech comm, since software also involves technical know-how and procedures imparted by an instructor to learners. You teach the learners a technical concept and its associated tasks.
You can buy books on Zumba and read descriptions of dance moves and choreographies, but reading a book won't really teach you Zumba. You most likely need to watch a video of someone showing the dances and choreographies in action. Even then, just watching videos isn't enough. You won't learn Zumba until you actually try it.
Same with tech comm. You could read a manual to learn how a software program works, but watching a video can help you get a much better understanding. Ultimately, you need to jump into the application and try it yourself to have any success. We learn by doing.
My wife, Shannon, would like to do Zumba, but it hurts her knees. However, Shannon loves to do yoga. I prefer basketball over both Zumba and yoga. My daughter likes swimming. Here's my point: One form of exercise doesn't fit everyone. This is why we have so many different sports and physical activities, because people have different preferences for exercise.
Same with learning. Not everyone enjoys reading a fat manual. Some prefer video, others prefer live classroom instruction, others prefer webinars, others prefer podcasts and audio books. Some like experimenting through trial and error, some like workbook-like instruction, others like to ask their neighbor every time, etc. This is why it's important to provide a variety of learning materials to suit the many learning preferences.
As I mentioned earlier, Zumba incorporates a lot of different dances styles and moves. From hip-hop to Samba to martial arts to belly dancing to squats and lunges, Zumba pulls from a lot of different traditions and movements.
In tech comm, we have a similar trend with content curation. When technical writers follow content curation, they pull together sources from forums, blog posts, MVP contributors, wikis, official help topics, videos, social networks, pin boards, and any other sources that reference the topic. All of these disparate sources come together in one view for the reader.
You may have run across a concept called "homeostasis." When you repeat the same physical activity over and over, your body adapts to the activity and you get less results from doing it.
For example, if you ride your bike to work every day, for the first three months you may notice tremendous results. Your legs and ankles get stronger, you become quicker, and have more energy. But after a few months, your body grows accustomed to the activity and adapts to it, so you start to get less of a workout. You hit a fitness plateau and the health benefits decline. The activity becomes more normal for your body. This is why runners have to run farther and farther to get the same effect. On the bike, you either have to ride farther or pedal faster.
To avoid homeostasis, you can cross-train. When you keep switching up the physical activity, you avoid the routines that lead to homeostasis. Rotate your physical activities and your body will continue to see the benefits you want.
Zumba is the ultimately example of cross-training. You're not just doing the Samba or Merengue. You're not doing the same step aerobics routines again and again. You're engaging in dozens of different dance moves, each from different styles and routines.
A friend of mine who teaches Zumba regularly creates a new choreography every single month. This helps rejuvenate the students' interest -- because it helps them avoid repetition. But it also increases their physical results. The new routine provides the necessary cross-training for your body to avoid homeostasis.
Perhaps more than any other professional, technical communicators cross-trains. We play different roles at different times, and we rotate the roles on a regular enough basis that the job keeps our interest and provides career satisfaction. You start a project by exploring an application, reading the specs and understanding how it works. When you do these activities, you're in user mode.
After a while, you progress to a writing mode as you start to write down the step-by-step instructions, conceptual explanations, and other how-to information for what you've learned. You then switch over to information architect mode, where you start organizing the content into a logical, user-friendly way to try to increase the visibility of the content for users.
As you configure the styles of the outputs, from online help to PDF to mobile, you switch into designer mode. You work with stylesheets, typographies, colors, and other design elements. After design, you switch to publisher mode and transfer files to your server. You incorporate analytics and ensure the content responds quickly and displays well in the browser. You might troubleshoot technical issues with access, integrate single sign on, and provide dynamic links based on user profiles and languages.
With the help published, you switch to user champion mode as you listen to feedback from users on forums and other venues. You take this feedback back to the team and present it for consideration in future versions.
Technical writers dance all of these different routines -- user mode, writer mode, information architect mode, designer mode, publisher mode, user champion mode -- and many more. What other professional in IT does so many different types of activities and roles? And by playing these various roles, our interest gets rekindled.
Tell any tech writer that he or she must live in the same mode forever and you'll bore the writer to another career. It's the combination and constantly rotating roles/hats/functions/dance routines that gives life and enjoyment to the technical writer.
Okay, that's about it. Note: I credit Shannon for providing several of these parallels.
Before ending this post, I will note a few ways ways that Zumba differs from technical writing:
Here's a video on Zumba:
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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.