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Movies and Tech Docs to the Rescue

By Ugur Akinci

When I was growing up during the 1960s back in Ankara, Turkey, I probably was the only kid in my neighborhood who knew who Jeff Chandler or Gregory Peck was.

When I said, “well, Spencer Tracy is like the American Jean Gabin,” people looked at me like I was from Mars.

I knew that Rock Hudson and Doris Day lived in a beautiful house with a manicured lawn and a swimming pool. They quarreled a lot but made nice at the end.

Although Alain Delon killed a lot of people in his French film noir flicks, I still somehow liked the guy, together with Jean Paul Belmondo. And Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Anita Ekberg, and Marilyn Monroe were so divinely beautiful; I thought they also had to be punch-drunk happy 24-7 (!). Yes, I was an incurable movie fan and addict when I was just ten or twelve. Just a naïve boy in love with the world of make-believe and all things gorgeous.

On those slow, boring summer afternoons with nothing to do, Guzin Yucel, the best grandmother anyone ever had, used to squeeze a few Turkish liras into my hand and off I would disappear into the cool, dark, magic womb of the Inci Sinemasi (Pearl Movie Theater) just around the corner. Those summer afternoon doubleheaders have as much to do with the man that I am today as probably anything else.

Since then, I not only continued to watch and enjoy movies with a passion (and discovering the gems of Polish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese/Hong Kong films along the way), but also wrote six feature screenplays (none produced), collected a respectable library of screenplay books, and wrote at least a hundred movie reviews for different websites.

Now, as a Fortune 500 technical writer, I realize that whether I was enjoying movies or worrying about the details of a technical document and trying to get it right, I was always after the same goal: trying to make some order out of a rather chaotic world.

What is narrative if not a crutch that tells us the world is okay, that things will turn out well in the end (like in a Rock Hudson/Doris Day film), and that we are not as helpless against the tide of the time and the elements as we sometimes think we are?

As the late Blake Snyder captured and expressed so well, all movies are actually an attempt to “save the cat”:

  1. In Act 1, you get the cat up in a tree.
  2. In Act 2, you try anything and everything under the sun to save the cat.
  3. In Act 3, you get the cat down the tree and we all take a deep breath.

Is technical documentation really any different?

  1. There is a problem. It’s usually not a cat in a tree but something like “we have to explain how to configure this system to an audience who doesn’t know what client-server architecture is and we need to do it by Monday!”
  2. We develop tools and strategies to solve the problem. It’s not the ladder that goes up a tree but a help file, a user guide, a Web presentation, a PPT file, a video clip, a webinar, etc.
  3. We solve the problem (hopefully). Our customers tell us that they “get it” and they can make the system work. We all take a deep breath.

In both movies and technical documentation, I savor this inescapable feeling that the chaos has lost and order has won again. That’s why both fields are deeply therapeutic for me. I have no doubts whatsoever that, since the very first hunting story was embellished around a campfire 10,000 years ago and the first bone was shaped into an ax, we survived as a species thanks to the power of narration and procedural description.

Now the classical “stars” are no more and documentation is more and more evolving (or “devolving,” according to some) into a crowd-sourced participatory process. But I remain an ardent fan of both platforms and earn a good living on one. The campfire is blazing even at midday and the stories continue nonstop.

Now, could you pass the popcorn please?

Ugur Akinci is the owner of the technical communication portal, www.TechnicalCommunicationCenter.com

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