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STC Summit Atlanta Adventures: The Agony and Ecstasy of Presenting

by Tom Johnson on May 8, 2009
categories: technical-writing

STC Summit in Atlanta
STC Summit in Atlanta

This week I returned from the annual STC Summit in Atlanta. Every year is always a series of adventures at these conferences. I'd never been to Atlanta before. I arrived a day early, because I was originally scheduled to give a workshop on blogging, but it was canceled due to lack of participants. Attendance at the STC Summit overall was down by about 35%. I was relieved, however, at not having to put together a long workshop in addition to three conference presentations.

As soon as I got to the hotel, I ran into Alan Houser, the program chair of the conference, who asked if I wanted to eat dinner. I attribute much of my good luck in getting conference proposals carefully considered to the fact that Alan is a long-time listener of my podcasts.

The next day I decided to get some exercise. I'd been reading about a Run-n-Shoot Athletic Center, which had 10 indoor basketball gyms. The concierge confirmed the place existed, even though they never answered their phone. I took a train and then bus out into the West End to find the place. Getting outside the downtown district with all the fancy hotel and conference centers was an eye-opener, reminding me of scenes from the Bronx.

When I finally got to the address, the Run-n-Shoot center had been converted into a fitness center, the gyms converted to bowling alleys and skating rinks and playlands. The only remaining basketball court had a limited court time that ended a few hours ago.

I returned to the hotel and worked on my presentations some more. A couple of years ago, I was converted to a visual-based method of presenting. I hate extended bullets on slides, so my slides consist of nothing more than a title and an image.

To find the right images, I sometimes drag icons from Visio into Illustrator, make a few tweaks, drag them to Photoshop, make some more adjustments, flatten them, and then insert them into PowerPoint. The way I set up my blogging presentation, each slide was supposed to trigger a story, and then I had several points to cover, which I hoped to magically remember during the presentation without having a bulleted lists on the slide. This flexibility allowed me to go with the flow as I presented.

As I looked through the program, I realized that for some reason my presentation was an hour and a half instead of an hour. I only prepared for an hour and wondered when they might have told me my presentation was supposed to be 90 minutes instead of 60. They probably did tell me at some point—long ago—but my email inbox has a constant stream of messages that I often miss. I decided to splice in some tips on blog usability that I'd given in another presentation, just in case.

The Sunday before the conference begins is Leadership day. A few years ago I attended Leadership Day in Minneapolis and was excited about it, since I was a new chapter president at the time. This time around, however, I found my interest anemic almost from the start. Even with the first speaker, I surfed on my Windows mobile instead. It turns out the Society is either $500,000 or a million dollars in debt, and plans to rely partly on chapter finances to make it through. (Since our chapter seems to have an annual budget of $5 anyway, the restricted budget didn't seem to have much impact, but quite a few people were vocal about it.)

After slipping away from Leadership Day, I returned to my hotel room to work on my presentation, to read more of Gladwell's Outliers (which had totally hooked me on the plane), and to nap a bit.

The opening keynote by David Pogue the next morning was engaging and completely interesting—not so much because of his message, which was about the power of simplicity, but because of his theatrical, dynamic style. He knows how to deliver a keynote. I was laughing, shaking my head in agreement, twittering about it. The whole place was mesmerized. His presentation skills filled me a bit with dread towards my upcoming presentations, because I knew I couldn't present like that.

Later that evening, I ran into Kirsty Taylor from Australia. I knew her from comments on my blog and Twitter, but she really is a fan of my wife's blog, She said she had some gifts from Australia for Shannon and the kids. This amazed me—that she'd brought gifts all the way from Australia. I know I have a lot of blog readers, but my wife has blog disciples. I later interviewed Kirsty for a podcast, asking her why some blogs inspire devoted followers while others, like mine, simply invite casual attention. Not surprisingly, it's the personal aspect of the blog, she said. Speaking to the reader's heart and revealing appropriately, she explained.

When I presented on blogging, the session was full. I found I was able to remember most of what I planned to say, and not having bullet-by-bullet points on slides resulted in a conversation-like style, someone later told me. I breathed well and didn't run out of content for the full hour and a half. My back started to hurt, though, from standing in the same general place so long.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to present on a topic I'm so passionate about. There are many things I'm somewhat knowledgeable about, but only a few things I'm truly passionate about. Blogging is one of them. My passion for it was apparent, and this enthusiasm made any nervousness disappear.

It seemed that after my blogging session, I ran into people I knew everywhere. Not just people who listened to the session, but people who had been following my blog, people in past chapters, past conferences, people whose blogs I followed, or people I knew from Twitter, and so on. I could hardly walk through a room without running into someone I knew, or encountering someone who knew me and wanted to say hello. My colleagues later told me that I was "amazingly social," even though I find that comment surprising still.

After my blogging presentation ended, I started thinking about my next presentation—a 20 minute presentation about usability ("What you learn by watching others use your documentation") in the Usability SIG progression. Usability is not my strength, but I'd given a videocast and written a post or two on the topic, which caught the attention of a SIG coordinator and he invited me to speak at a progression table.

I remembered a video I'd taken of Jane being frustrated at the computer, and I decided to use it to open up a few observations about what users do when they're frustrated. Mainly, they don't use help, even when they're wringing their hands and cringing. I recommended moving the help into the interface, following some pointers Mike Hughes gave me in a podcast months before.

Progressions work differently from normal presentations. About six different presenters have round tables that seat a dozen people. Participants go from table to table, switching tables three times during the hour.

My table was next to some well-known experts in the field—Ginny Redish, Caroline Jarrett, Karen Bachman, Whitney Quesenbury, Chauncey Wilson, and Mary Deaton. Almost every one of them has either written books on usability or works as a usability consultant. When the SIG progression leader introduced me, she said, "And at the back table, we have the famous Tom Johnson …"

I thought this was funny, but it turned out to be somewhat true. It seemed that practically everyone knew me from my blog or podcasts. Even people I didn't think knew me later added, casually during a conversation, "I feel like I'm in one of your podcasts, listening to your voice."

My presentation wasn't outstanding, but I don't think it was bad either. Some said that overall the progression was the best progression they attended (I'm not sure if the same people actually came to my table). But I have to admit the progression format turns me off a little. It's noisy. It's weird. It's short and seems rushed. Not many other people I met liked the progression format either.

I had one more presentation to give, this one a co-presentation with my Gryphon Mountain colleague about quick reference guides. Co-presentations, I've decided, are actually more difficult than single presentations, because you have to make sure the other presenter is prepared and that he or she won't overlap topics, that your handoffs will be seamless, that you will appear as one rather than switching back and forth in awkward ways.

Also, I was a little concerned because my colleague was fairly new to presenting. He'd never presented at the Summit before, and he had a soft-spoken voice that made him hard to hear. I told him to speak up and avoid slipping into a monotone rhythm. He had a few note cards he used to remember his points on various slides, as did I.

The presentation wasn't until late in the next day, so we still had some time. While walking about the vendor expo and meeting with people, I ran into incoming STC Toronto president Anna Parker-Richards, who I didn't know. But as she was talking to me, I asked her about her chapter's new meeting model, in which they charge $100 to $150 per meeting (or "event"). What she explained—the "Five and Five Model"—was so interesting I decided to record a podcast with her right there. That interview got me in the mood to record other podcasts, and soon I started carrying around my Zoom H4 recorder everywhere.

I interviewed Ginny Redish about her book Letting Go of the Words (which is really about writing web content). I interviewed Caroline Jarrett about her book on forms (Forms that Work) and why forms are important and interesting. I talked with Mike Hamilton about Madcap's upcoming Flare-DITA solution, to Alan Porter about his book, the History of the Illustrated James Bond (and how James Bond relates perfectly to technical communicators). I talked with Sarah O'Keefe about her latest study on the state of structured authoring. I even spoke with some guy from the Netherlands and his method for prototyping with refrigerator magnets.

Tracking people down for podcasts is mostly a matter of chance. If I ever had a conversation with someone who was particularly interesting, addressing something new, such as a book or study or trend, I pulled out my recorder and asked if I could do a podcast right there. (When it comes to podcasting, I have no reservations about approaching a total stranger and interviewing him or her for a podcast. It makes the conference so much fun.)

Our quick reference guide session was scheduled for 5 p.m. on Tuesday—unfortunately at the end of the day, when everyone is tired. My colleague and I skipped some of the afternoon sessions to prepare. He practiced in the room, saying aloud his parts. On one slide I thought he had too many points for the lack of visuals, so I asked if he could make the commentary during some of the example slides. I rehearsed what I planned to say about design, but had to ultimately concede that, as much as I tried explaining it, design was like music. You could try to describe and explain how it works, but it was slippery and hard to pin down. Designs that work just feel right, regardless of any specific principles.

At five o'clock, the room was packed. No chairs were empty, people stood at the back and sides of the room, and there were even about 7 or 8 people watching from the hallway.

The lapel microphone wouldn't stick on my colleague's floppy shirt collar, so he held it in his hand. I buttoned up my shirt collar a notch so the lapel mic would be closer to my mouth. It worked, even if I looked nerdy. The room lacked a wireless mouse clicker, but at the last minute Jackie Damrau (who received a president's award at the conference) retrieved one from her hotel room for us.

To start the presentation, my colleague began reading, in a funny voice, a cartoon he'd drawn. This made people laugh. Then we launched into the presentation. It went well for about the first 20 minutes, and more and more people started coming into the room. I could hardly believe how popular the session was.

Little by little, raised hands started to appear in the audience. First one hand, and then another, and another. It seemed everyone had questions to ask, which we tried to answer. Some of our answers related to slides to come, but I thought it best to give the answer now, with full elaboration, rather than wait. I think that proved to be a bit of mistake, because too many questions can kill the flow and rhythm of a presentation. For everyone that asks a question, there's another person that doesn't want to listen to someone asking a question.

Still, the majority of people remained engaged and interested in what we had to say. The quick reference guide examples provided visual appeal and were practical. My colleague projected well and covered good ground. More than a dozen attendees stayed after to talk to us individually, and for the next day people complimented us on the presentation.

But later in the evening, when we returned to our hotel room and checked the STC 09 Twitter feed, a tweet did provide a bit of a downer, because the person said we needed a moderator, more concrete examples, and that we were more frustrating than interesting. Negative feedback is sometimes hard to take, but it is more instructive in the long run, and I could see how to improve our delivery the next time.

That night, even with the sour tweet, having completed all my presentations, I felt a burden lifted from me. At the same time I wanted to collapse from exhaustion. I went to dinner with my colleagues and a few new friends. I thought a woman who joined us (Trina) had a foreign accent, but she turned out to just be from Milwaukee. Another LDS technical writer from Connecticut (Chris Keeling) joined us. A former drill sergeant and game aficionado, he had a love for his old blind and deaf cat, which he gave an IV to every day, he explained. The cat also drooled on his head in the morning. He and another woman, coincidentally, were both former military intelligence officers who translated Russian, or something.

As the night ticked away, I couldn't help but feel satisfied both emotionally now that the presentations were over and physically now that I was eating.

After the final conference luncheon the next day, I still had a few more hours to kill. I had a goal to interview ten people for podcasts, and given my theme of recently published books, Karen Bachman recommended I talk with John Hedtke, who has published 26 books, his most recent one on Disaster Preparedness.

This was my first encounter with John. He was articulate and well-spoken. He explained why he wrote about disaster preparedness—"for the money," he said. I prodded him a little more. Perhaps you had a disaster in your own life that motivated you to explore this topic? I asked. No, he said. I really just wrote it for the money.

While I was talking with him, though, he mentioned that he wrote in the evenings and weekends, after work. You mean you have a regular day job besides your book writing projects? I asked.

Apparently, yes. Computer books (most of what he's written) have a short shelf-life, he explained. And most nonfiction books don't make back their advance checks, which are usually between six to ten thousand dollars. Listening to John made me think twice about book publishing.

Regardless of whether I ever write a book, I reflected on the idea for a while in a dreamy way—thinking about possibilities and topics and who might publish it and whether it would be in color or not. Shortly after my conversation with John, I flew home.

Overall, the Summit is always a good experience because it gets me engaged in the profession. It engages me with presentations, which requires my best thinking, organizing, and delivery skills. It engages me with podcasts, interviewing people on the spot, drilling deeper into their knowledge. It engages me with new ideas through sessions from experts and authorities in the field. And it engages me with a new environment, surrounding me with new friends and a new city. It is a short stretch of time, about four or five days, but its effects last throughout the year.

By the way, this year all presentations (except the progressions) were recorded. You can buy the presentations from the STC (called Summit@aClick) for a price (no one knows how much yet). I'm told that I can also post my own presentations on my blog for free, which I'll certainly do when they're available.

If you enjoyed this writeup, see my write-ups from previous conferences:


October 2014 followup:

As a follow-up to this post, John sent me the following note:

I'd also like to provide a follow-up to what I said at the time about writing computer books. (I remember you asking about me having a disaster in my life. :) ) Yes, it's true that most of my books didn't earn out their advances. I did have a few that did, but most did not. So, other than a sense of eternal foolish optimism, why would we want to ever write computer books?

Well, a case in point would be that book on disaster preparedness (which is still my last book to date). I really didn't make any money to speak of on this one. The book didn't get marketed at all, didn't have dazzling immediate sales, and got put out of print within a year (waaay too early but that's not surprising for publishing these days). In direct income for my efforts, I made about $2500 gross. Hardly enough for 6 months of work, even though it was really fascinating stuff.

Ah, but there's more to this story: summer of 2011, a contract job opened up in Portland for a disaster recovery writer. Oddly enough, I had a great tech writing resume AND I had this book to prove my chops as a DR writer. I went in, waved the book around, and got the job. So while I made only $2500 ~directly~ from that book, the contract I got as a result of having written that book netted me $175,000.

So even though the book may not fill your pockets with royalties, it's still able to open doors for you when looking for work in the future. Waving a book (or books!) around at an interview is a great differentiator if you're a writer, a trainer, a speaker, or a consultant. (Come to think of it, I also got the current day job--in the low 100s--because my two books on RoboHelp were sitting on my boss's desk when I came in to interview.) And there is no better closer for your interview than saying "I know you haven't had a chance to look at any of the samples I've shown you in any depth, so let me give you a copy of one of my books so you can peruse this in a more relaxed atmosphere." "How would you like it autographed?"

Peoples' eyes get big and round when you give 'em a book you've written. It's a real closer. :)

You can follow John Hedtke at

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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