Ask the Keynotes

By Nicky Bleiel | Associate Fellow

The STC Annual Conference (also known as the Technical Communication Summit) has been fortunate to host many distinguished keynote speakers over the years. I asked them what advice they had for technical communicators and what they admired most about the profession.

What advice do you have for technical communicators?

“Experiment. Learn anything that anyone will teach you. Dabble. Test. Take on risk. Fail quickly and often. Be radically open about what you’re learning because your success comes from not being afraid to fail. Earn trust through humility because it helps you lead with empathy. Teach others so that we can all stop punishing failure and start rewarding learning. Start with the work, but expand your scope to the process, to teams, to culture, to organizations, and beyond. And never, ever let anyone diminish you or your work or tell you what you can’t do.”­
—Jonathon Colman, Product UX/Content Strategist, Facebook, 2014 Opening Keynote

“Make sure you have tools in your arsenal to deal with your inner critic when it pops up, because no matter who we are or how good we are at what we do, it’s almost always there. If you find yourself sliding into perfectionism, remind yourself that “done is good.” If you’re procrastinating on a piece, remember that resisting the work feels far worse than finally doing it. And finally, if you ever feel like an impostor, remember the impostor syndrome paradox: that you only experience impostor syndrome when you are competent and skilled. Don’t let your inner critic keep you from doing the great work that you are capable of! Also, communicate what you need to, but still let your personality and sense of humor shine through. Just because it’s technical doesn’t mean you can’t put a bit of you into it. Doing so will make the content more accessible and relatable, much more of a pleasure to read. And don’t we all want more enjoyable reading experiences, technical or otherwise?”
—Denise Jacobs; Speaker, Author, and Creativity Evangelist; 2015 Closing Keynote

“This may seem counterintuitive, but … embrace jargon. Jargon is only problematic when it isn’t explained. When writers take the time to gloss jargon terms and set them in the proper context, the terms stop being barriers and instead welcome outsiders into the community of knowledge. Give your readers the necessary vocabulary to discuss highly specific topics efficiently and idiomatically. Knowing the ‘right’ word for something in a field is an intellectual pleasure, and it saves a lot of circumlocution and vagueness. At Wordnik, we spend a lot of time looking for well-written sentences that explain unusual or highly-technical terms (we call them ‘free-range definitions’) and we use them in place of dictionary definitions for words that haven’t yet been defined in traditional dictionaries. So make more of them, please!”
—Erin McKean, Lexicographer, Founder of Wordnik.com, TED Speaker, 2010 Opening Keynote and Honorary Fellow

Jonathon Colman
Denise Jacobs
Erin McKean

“As a technical writer, you most likely work in a highly analytical field writing and distilling volumes of complex information. There are times when someone may read a thoughtful 300-page manual with dense copy and figures, but today content needs to be more easily digestible than that. Research shows that attention spans are getting shorter, which means that information needs to be in smaller, more scannable chunks.”
—Nancy Duarte, CEO, Duarte Design, TED Speaker, 2015 Opening Keynote

“Laugh more! We take ourselves so very seriously, but communication is about connecting people and being deadly serious all the time rarely helps. If you can find ways to make fun of yourself, your profession or even your project, you’ll free yourself to find better ways to think, behave, and to write.”
—Scott Berkun, Best-selling author and popular speaker, 2012 Opening Keynote

“First and foremost, understand the science. And admit to yourself when you don’t understand a component … and then have a conversation with a communicative expert to better comprehend the phenomena.”
—Felice Frankel, Science Photographer, Research Scientist in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005 Keynote and Honorary Fellow

“The coming challenge for technical communicators will be to design the complicated dance we will all play with AIs and bots. Will these services be sensitive subtle coaches and guardian angels, or obnoxious, dominating, Trumpian and controlling?”
—David Rose, Instructor and Researcher at the MIT Media Lab, 2016 Opening Keynote

Nancy Duarte
Scott Berkun
Felice Frankel
David Rose
Simon Singh
Vinton Cerf

“I think feedback is crucial, whether it is technical communication or anything else. I actively seek feedback from several people, perhaps with different perspectives, such as a fellow writer, a typical reader and an expert in the particular field that I am writing about. I emphasize the need for honesty, even if it means that some of the comments will be very negative. Dishonest feedback is worse than no feedback at all.”
—Simon Singh; Author, Journalist, and TV Producer; 2007 Keynote and Honorary Fellow

“Know your audience. Find ways to relate your message to their experience. Use easily grasped metaphors that are accurate enough that if used to reason about a system or process or product, the conclusions based on the metaphor will hold well for the real thing. For example, I use “electronic postcards” to explain the behavior of Internet packets and protocols.”
—Vinton Cerf, one of the “Fathers of the Internet” along with TCP/IP co-inventor Robert Kahn, 2006 Co-Keynote (with Robert Kahn) and Honorary Fellow

What do you admire most about the profession of technical communication?

“Technical communicators are agents of clarity sent to the front lines of an unclear world, fighting against both entropy and ambiguity. By simplifying that which is complex, by “making the unclear clear,” as Abby Covert puts it, you’re enabling people not just to understand more, but also to do more and even to be more. I can’t imagine a more noble, fulfilling pursuit—other than teaching technical communication, of course.”
—Jonathon Colman

“Technical communicators deserve our thanks and admiration because the work they do is largely underappreciated. Technical communicators perform essential work, for little or no recognition, under deadline pressure and often in low-information conditions. Good technical communication is like air: we need it to live (or at least to live well!), but we only really notice it when something’s wrong with it. I’m glad the STC exists to help give recognition and support the technical communicators! They deserve it.”
—Erin McKean

“Imparting real understanding of complex and esoteric things. Done well this is an art. Alan Alda is really good at it.”
—Vinton Cerf