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State of the Digital Art: An Interview with Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

By Paul Perrotta | Guest Interviewer

Content expert Scott Abel is known throughout the technical communication industry (and beyond) for spotlighting trends, methodologies, and technologies that can help to solve (or highlight) problems in business communication. His company, The Content Wrangler, has grown from a single-person contracting firm to a global media company providing industry research, in-person and Web-based conferences and educational events, and a series of influential books with XML Press. A month before conducting his popular annual conference this past November, Information Development World 2017, Scott was diagnosed with (and had surgery to remove) a not-so-small cancer tumor in his brain. I’m Paul Perrotta, and I’m filling in for Scott this issue while he’s on medical leave. Read this interview for a glimpse at what Scott sees as industry trends and how his surprising cancer diagnosis has affected his life, both personal and professional.

Paul Perrotta: For two decades now, you’ve been speaking about technical communication content, and you’ve been advocating for effective and efficient production and delivery. What changes have you seen?

Scott Abel: That’s right, for about twenty years I’ve been singing a similar refrain: content should be respected as the potentially powerful asset it is—it should be created, managed, translated, and delivered efficiently and effectively. Its management should be governed and its rules enforced—consistently—and, where beneficial, automatically.

PP: You’re a frequent presenter at content industry events not only in technical communication, but beyond that as well. How have you been able to work your way into tangentially related content events? What makes you interesting as a presenter to those event organizers and their attendees?

SA: Technical communication best practices and methods are needed outside of the technical communication department. Most content creators (in tangentially related fields) have never heard of topics like single-source publishing, progressive disclosure, structured authoring, component content reuse, or intelligent content. I repackage technical communication success/horror stories and use them to engage content professionals in other fields.

It’s relatively easy to get accepted to speak at all types of conferences. My strategy involves mapping what I know and want to talk about to the theme of the event, the expected audience, and the focus of the event organizer. For example, if I want to get noticed by manufacturers, I could go to a conference filled with technical writers and pitch my ideas to them, hoping that some of them work in the manufacturing sector. But that isn’t likely to get me noticed by many new prospects. Instead, I could repackage my talk on how to produce multiple content deliverables simultaneously from a single source and refocus it on creating a content factory, something that sounds attractive to manufacturing conference organizers. As it turns out, my job is about providing allure. The more alluring my topic is—the more unique, the more innovative, the more intriguing, and the easier it is for them to understand—the more likely they are to accept me.

Of course, it also helps that I have a trail of content on the internet to back up my request. Conference organizers can find evidence (the most important of which is video of my delivering previous talks), the hundreds of articles (and several books) I have written or contributed to, and my social media presence—these all add credence to my authority.

PP: You’ve always been a confident, energetic—and perhaps even edgy—presenter, whether it’s at STC, LavaCon, tekom Europe, tekom India, or Localization World events around the globe. Attendees at your talks find it hard to resist your enthusiasm for hot topics and your desire to see others tackle content challenges in a strategic way. Lately you’ve incorporated a sometimes intimate storytelling angle into your presentations. How did that come about? How is it working?

SA: Again, here is a great place for neuroscience to enter the equation. I took a workshop on neuroscience and presentations two years ago. That really opened my eyes to the important role neuroscience should play in determining what we communicate, when, and how.

In the class, I gave a talk in front of a crowd. After my talk, we took 10-minute break. When each attendee returned to the room, they were videotaped answering a few brief questions about my session. These weren’t the results I would have anticipated. While almost everyone said they enjoyed my presentation (98%), and many people thought I was knowledgeable (99%), believable (97%), and funny (96%), few could actually recollect what the main point of my talk. I later learned that’s because I wasn’t creating content that maps easily to the way the human brain is wired. I failed to provide the attendees with attention triggers (to alert them to the relevance of the talk) nor with memory magnets (things that make attendees remember the main point I was trying to make).

Since then, I have worked hard to start with an uncomfortable topic as an attention trigger (obesity and cancer have been recent triggers) and I make the presentation about me and my experience and how it could have been dramatically improved by adopting the main focus of my talk. After I clearly state the problem as a personal story, I make sure that I provide adequate evidence that the audience (or their customers) are likely to experience similar challenges. Once I get them hooked on the storyline, my job is to make my main point memorable.

Neuroscience research shows that attendees can only recall 10% of what you say during a presentation, which begs the question, “Why are we trying to say so much?” Researchers often point out that few presenters are equipped with neuroscience knowledge and their presentation approach is often shaped by the desire to prove to the audience they are knowledgeable by sharing far too much information that the audience simply won’t be able to process or recall. Then, the software we use to make slide decks complicates comprehension—after all, how does one compare and contrast two ideas using a bulleted list?

I adopted a personal storytelling approach over the past few years for two big reasons. To be successful as a presenter, I have to grab the attention of the audience and maintain it. Then, I have to use techniques designed to get them to remember the main point of my talk long after the conference is over. I failed at both of these goals most of the time. Neuroscience research shows that most attendees cannot remember most of what a presenter says on stage. They forget within as little as ten minutes.

By borrowing neuroscience principles, and applying them to presentations with a storyline (something familiar that gets their attention—things that make them happy, sad, angry, etc.), I am able to attract more attention from the audience to my talks and help ensure that the largest number of attendees possible remembered the main points of my talk.

PP: Scott, you have been an outspoken and passionate consumer advocate regarding content created by professional communicators. You’ve spent a lot of time recently in a hospital undergoing medical treatment. Can you tell us a little about your experience as a patient? How has it changed your vantage point on what professional communicators should focus on in order to provide the most value to their consumers?

SA: Content created for patients by insurance companies, hospitals, medical device manufacturers, doctors’ offices, and pharmaceutical companies can have negative impacts on the patient experience.

Before I was diagnosed with Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma and underwent brain surgery and nearly a dozen rounds of chemotherapy, I used to believe that customer support websites provided the worst content experiences because they are often an afterthought (not part of the product) and, far too often, they only regurgitate what was published previously elsewhere, without augmenting or improving it.

But I was wrong.

While customer and technical support sites are all likely to have room for improvement, the errors and omissions introduced by those who create them are nothing like the healthcare content that is almost universally confusing, overly focused on attempting to limit liability, and lacking in context and utility.

If I were to write a book on this subject (and I am), it would be called, Not Good Enough: The Failure of the American Healthcare System to Deliver Patient-Focused Information. The book would focus on the need for neuroscience-driven content strategies for communicating with patients. Insurance, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, hospitals, and medical device companies need to step up their game and learn to use science to communicate with patients who are often frightened, anxious, and unsure what will happen to them.

PP: Your first book, The Language of Content Strategy, was published in 2014 and was co-edited with STC Fellow Rahel Anne Bailie and co-created with fifty other contributors. Since then, you’ve produced several additional books using the same model. Can you talk a little bit about how The Language of… series came to be and what some upcoming topics might be?

SA: Rahel and I decided to help some members of the fast-growing content strategy sector avoid recreating new methods, tactics, tools, and techniques that technical communicators had honed over the previous two decades. We decided to showcase some of the best and the brightest in the technical communication content strategy sector to help elevate the profession and extend its reach and relevance into other content-producing arenas. We used the book project to create a multichannel deliverable (a book, an eBook, an audio book, a website, and a deck of terminology flashcards) to help us demonstrate the many concepts we believe content strategy professionals should understand to succeed; in other words, to practice what we preach.

Once we developed The Language of Content Strategy, we recognized that the approach we used could be mimicked by other editors to create their own The Language of… books. So far we’ve produced books using this same approach on topics including technical communication and localization. The next book in the series covers vocabulary words of importance to business and content pros who should understand the basics of cybersecurity. A subsequent release will cover the vocabulary of content design. We also have books in the works covering business storytelling, visual communication, and eLearning.

Our ability to produce these books with minimal effort is made possible because we use the lessons learned from multichannel XML publishing, component content management, and structured collaborative authoring. As the publisher, XML Press has worked with us—with the help of DITA expert and former IBMer Don Day—to create a toolkit that allows contributors to submit their content for review, editing, and approval, and that makes it easy for the publisher to push the content to multiple output formats with minimal handcrafting.

PP: You also conduct surveys of the technical communication industry on such topics as delivery channels and technologies. At your most recent Information Development World conference, you showcased the value of chatbots and voice-enabled interfaces. Did the idea for those new technologies come from the surveys? What else did you learn from your research?

SA: Indeed, our last two Information Development World events centered around helping technical communication teams understand how chatbots and voice interfaces (chatbots without a graphic user interface) work and what is needed to prepare and publish content to them. I knew instinctively that these technologies would begin to play an increased role in providing content to those who need it. It just made sense that consumers of all types, having gotten used to using chat apps and interactive voice assistants like Apple Siri, Google Home, and Amazon Alexa, would expect that content providers like technical documentation teams and customer support departments would need to design and prepare their content for these emerging channels.

The 2018 Chatbot Adoption Survey that we conducted found that 95% of content professionals surveyed say their companies are planning to adopt chatbots sometime before 2019. 50% of those respondents say those plans will result in a chatbot launch in the next 6 months, while 32% say they will launch in the next 12 months. 13% said they expect a chatbot to deliver content to their customers by mid-2019.
While respondents claim the companies for which they work will implement chatbots to deliver a wide variety of content, 65% say they will use chatbots to deliver customer support and technical documentation content to those who need it.
Similarly, 30% of respondents say they plan to use chatbots to deliver guided customer journeys designed specifically to help customers navigate a set of content to achieve a goal. 35% of respondents said that they believe their companies will also leverage chatbots to deliver marketing and sales content.
Among those respondents who say their employers do not plan to adopt chatbots, the top reason for this belief—“because chatbots cannot replace human support agents”—appears to indicate that there is widespread misunderstanding of what chatbots can—and should—do, and the value they might provide those who deploy them.

PP: To your mind, who are the most influential people in technical communications today?

SA: I don’t subscribe to the “most influential” list thing. Most of these lists are nothing more than marketing fodder for software brands hoping to get a little social media sharing love. Nothing more.

But, if I have to pick someone I find influential, I’d pick Robert J. Glushko. He is one of the most important, yet often under-recognized, experts in the field of technical communication. His work exploring document engineering and organizing information is getting widespread attention outside of our industry, but I seldom hear my technical communication peers cite his work or talk about the things he does. They’re missing some pretty important work as a result.

PP: What trends are shaping the future of technical communication today?

SA: Consumer choice is the biggest driver of change in the field of technical communication. The more choices our customers have, the higher our bar to success. Disruption is the new black, and those who innovate to keep pace will be the winners in the long run.

PP: What is the biggest challenge facing the discipline of technical communication today?

SA: The inability to adapt quickly to threats and opportunities.

PP: For those who haven’t yet discovered The Content Wrangler, where are the best places for readers to find you?

SA: Sign up for our email announcements on TheContentWrangler.com and consider joining The Content Wrangler Community on LinkedIn. You can also follow me on Twitter @ScottAbel. I also write a column about content on Medium.com and about thought leadership on forbes.com.

References

Abel, Scott. “Meet the Change Agents: An Interview with Dr. Carmen Simon.” Intercom, 63:9 (2016).

Glushko, Robert J., ed. The Discipline of Organizing. 4th edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.

Glushko, Robert J., and Tim McGrath. Document Engineering: Analyzing and Designing Documents for Business Informatics and Web Services. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Ramachandran, Tarakad S. “Primary CNS Lymphoma.” Medscape. January 19, 2018. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1157638-overview.

Simon, Carmen. Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions. NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016.

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