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Writing as Conversation -- Brainsparks Podcast with Ginny Redish

by Tom Johnson on Sep 5, 2009 •
categories: creativity technical-writing

In a recent User Interface Engineering Brainsparks podcast, Jared Spool interviews Ginny Redish about her book, [amazon-product type="text" text="Letting Go of the Words: Writing as Conversation"]0123694868[/amazon-product], as it applies to interface design. This podcast was one of the best I've listened to all week. In the podcast, Ginny explains how your content should be like the answer to a user's questions. Not styled as an FAQ, but written anticipating and responding to questions the user might have in particular situations.

Ginny says that imagining personas is key to coming up with questions for the conversation. But you can't truly envision all the concerns, needs, and questions your users will have by imagining the user alone. She says you have to also imagine the user in a specific situation. For example, not just "John is a 35-year-old frequent flier executive who often uses the website to book his latest flights." But rather, "John, a 35-year-old frequently flier executive who uses the website to book his latest flights, suddenly has a need to quickly cancel his flight and get a refund." When you imagine the scenario, the conversation for the content is more apparent.

I actually tried this the other day at work for a product I'm documenting, and it did make the project more real. I had a stronger purpose, because I wasn't just writing instructions, I was helping a user solve problems, and I was figuring out the best way to solve those problems for the specific type of situation.

Ginny also says the metaphor of the web is wrong. Typically, people create websites thinking that that a website is a filing cabinet for their documents. Instead, we should think of a website as a phone, a medium for conversation. Users call you up needing specific information and answers. You talk with them, responding to their questions.

I think Ginny is right on target with her idea of writing as conversation. On a related note, I've noticed that most of my blog posts are conversations with the blogs I've read or the podcasts I've listened to. Reading and listening is such a tremendous generator for ideas. What develops from engagement is response. And response is ultimately conversation. When I realized that, I began to see how critical reading and consuming content was as a means for having something to say. It's not usual that we have something new to say, but that we have a response to something someone already said.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.