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Technical Writer as Conversation Stopper, and Other Notes from the STC Summit in Philadelphia

by Tom Johnson on Jun 7, 2008
categories: technical-writing

On the eve of the highlight conference of the year, I'm out with two colleagues at a grill in Philadelphia, and the waitress is chit-chatting with us more than usual when I mention, in the context of the conversation, that we are all technical writers.

"So you like work for the government? Tell me no," she says.

And then in a split-second, she walks off, completely uninterested about our profession.

Through this and many other experiences, I have learned that telling someone you're a technical writer is the best way to end a conversation. My manager Kurt agrees, calling it narcolepsy in a bottle. You say "I'm a technical writer," and instantly the person listening falls asleep.

This seems a bit of a mystery to me. Is it really that boring of a career?

At night I'm in my hotel bed flipping through the conference proceedings — abstracts of many of the presentations that experts from around the world will be giving. By page 38 (of about 250), after skimming for at least 30 minutes, I'm drowsy with newfound narcolepsy. My eyes become tired and before I know it, I'm gone.

Fast forward four days later, post-STC conference.

If giving the conference a grade, my colleagues and I all agree that it deserves a B-. The tracks had a good variety of topics and speakers, the time slots were well-spaced out, and the conference venue itself had perks — right next to the Reading Terminal Market, in the heart of downtown Philadelphia.

But I didn't come away with much new learning. I don't mean to be critical. Perhaps my learning preference isn't suited to conference style sessions. It's a hard target — trying to hit the audience's interests and knowledge level. Time and again I left a session without the high of having learned anything new.

To be fair, you probably get out of the conference what you put into it. And there's always the value of the social networking that takes place between and after sessions, right? Unless you attend the open jam [karaoke], dance [for married people?], STC annual meeting [snooze], honors banquet [clap clap clap clap clap], and pub crawl [Mormons don't drink], there's plenty of time to define your own social agenda.

We ended up eating at different downtown restaurants (Marathon Grill, The Continental, Hard Rock Café), walking around the UPenn campus, watching Iron Man, and exploring a bit of Philadelphia. If you don't arrive with friends, it's your challenge to make them. The night of the dance, I did venture out into the hotel lobby to see that two technical writers did make a special connection.

Having missed Ze Frank's closing keynote last year, I made a special effort this year to ensure my plane didn't leave early. Richard Wurman's talk, however, lacked … the quality of being worthwhile. His strongest message was to ask questions when you don't understand something, because doing so will "change your life."

He had a 100 slide Flash-based PowerPoint that he quickly flipped through, allowing us to read the first 10 words of a paragraph on each screen before saying "Next" to the one driving the show. Soon an audience member took over the job of shouting "Next," and it devolved from there. Kurt ducked out half way through, saying "I'm done." We found him asleep in the lobby afterwards.

One highlight of the conference was meeting with Ed Rutkowski, Intercom's editor, to brainstorm ideas for the 2008 calendar. I'm one of six people on a new Intercom advisory panel (submit advice here). I can honestly say that Ed is a sharp guy who is organized and dedicated. The Intercom has been and remains one of STC's greatest values.

In addition to thematic considerations, my strongest recommendation for Intercom is to add a parallel online format that allows readers to directly interact. The print magazine is good, but I'd prefer to read it online, like a blog, and comment below the article.

Part of this idea depends on the upcoming new STC website, which was supposed to be unveiled at the conference. However, rather than any kind of unveiling, STC leaders merely repeated that they are still working on it.

Another cool part of the conference this year was the #stc2008 tweme. For the first time in STC conference history, a handful of Twitterers tweeted off and on during the conference sessions. On three separate occasions, I twittered about a session I was in, only to find another Twitterer was in the same session twittering his or her reactions too.

Less than 1% of the attendees were on Twitter, but even with small numbers we witnessed the emergence of a powerful, connecting medium. Most of the Twitterers included the tag #stc2008 in their tweets, which allowed each tweet to be aggregated at I set this as my home page during the conference. The only problem was that the wireless at Philadelphia's convention center was spotty, only available in about half of the session rooms and for a fee in the hotel.

A few people at the conference asked me if I was interviewing people this year for podcasts. If you remember, last year I interviewed about 20 people. At Doc Train West 2008 I interviewed 10 people (they were longer interviews). This year at STC I didn't interview anyone.

I had several reasons for not interviewing. First, I was burned out with interviewing from Doc Train. Second, I was presenting in two different sessions — a panel on marketing yourself in a web 2.0 world, and a presentation on podcasting. It's difficult to present and podcast (and blog and attend sessions and hang out with friends and explore Philadelphia) at the same time.

But more importantly, I'm tired of the interview format. I've done too many of them. I'm getting bored with it. I'm not turning from podcasting, but I want to try a new approach. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that approach is. Maybe a format like Leo Laporte's TWIT, or DIggnation, or column-style podcasting like David Pogue, or who knows, maybe something entirely new. I know that right now I need a new approach.

I'm also a bit exhausted. During the past two months, I've made six different presentations: two to STC chapters (Intermountain and Phoenix), two at Doc Train, and two at the STC Summit. During one conference session interim, I asked Sarah O'Keefe how she maintains the stamina to talk with visitors at her booth all day, make numerous presentations, and live blog the sessions she attends. Her answer: It's my job.

As Wurman was saying Next, Next, Next to each slide in his closing keynote, and explaining that he was an abrasive old man, I was dying for the conference to end. Well, the conference went on for another day, because our plane arrived late, and so we missed our connecting flight in Dallas. Homeland security confiscated our tiny Benjamin Franklin snow globe at the security gate. And if that wasn't enough, it turns out when a plane is delayed due to bad weather, the airline doesn't have to pay for your hotel. Instead, they give you a 20% discount on some two-star remotely located hotel whose shuttle never arrives. This meant my colleagues and I had a lot of time for discussion late at night at Denny's, during which Ben admitted that his "fun-meter" was broken.

I usually find some worthwhile epiphany after a conference. This time it was unexpected. While I was cutting my steak at Dennys — 1:00 am, tired, out of laughter — I felt that I was indeed moving on to some new online territory. Exactly what I didn't know. But I knew that I had reached the limit of where I was before, and it was time to walk a new web 2.0 path.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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