Kirk St.Amant Discusses the New Challenges of Global Communication
By Savannah Defreese | STC Member and Elizabeth Sonewald
Although Aristotle proved the earth was round in 330 BCE, modern global communication has leveled the ground once again. Technical communicators must now consider audiences at an international level, while collaborations and information exchange can happen in real time, heedless of the physical barriers of space. These modern horizons pose new challenges for the field of technical communication.
While current technical communicators can modify their expertise to accommodate this globalization, young professionals entering the field must start from square one as they acclimate to a larger, more far-reaching field than anyone before them. They must combine the experience of the past with the tools of the future.
Where do these two worlds of technical communication meet? In professionals and teachers like Dr. Kirk St.Amant. Dr. St.Amant’s research offers insights on how to penetrate and become successful in this international realm of technical communication.
We interviewed Dr. St.Amant over breakfast, the morning after he arrived in Knoxville to give presentations as the Spring 2016 Rhetoric Series Speaker for the Division of Rhetoric, Writing, & Linguistics in the University of Tennessee Department of English. Rather than presenting a transcript of the interview, in this article we describe our encounter with this scholar and quote him as appropriate, as he discusses his work and ideas.
St.Amant, who specializes in the fields of technical communication and international studies, has focused his research on how to contend with these new challenges in global communication. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the complexity of cultures, which “are composed of cultures within them.”
St.Amant’s research focuses on ways to communicate across these cultural layers. Two of these communication concepts, personas and friction points, provide approaches that can improve our understanding of global audiences and lead to more effective technical communication.
In this global age, communicators write for vast audiences with varying cultures, languages, and beliefs. In addition to these complex factors, communicators must now deal with multiple technologies—different devices, software interfaces, and varieties of internet and data access. Understanding the rapidly changing array of communication technologies and the emerging nuances of global audiences are essential skills for communicators.
Dr. St.Amant has researched a technique that helps communicators more effectively reach their audiences by categorizing and understanding these complexities. This technique is known as understanding personas.
According to St.Amant, before the advent of the personas approach, communicators relied mostly on demographic data to understand their audiences. He explained that, while demographics are critical in defining who your audience is, they are thin on context. St.Amant identifies personas as the key to contextualizing demographic data.
He described the persona method as “grafting ethnographic research onto demographics.” He expanded on this, saying, “So we look at how a person lives the course of daily life, at what point in time will she use this technology, at what point in time would she access this information, and based upon that, you design not just for her but for the context in which she’s using something, the context of use.” This “context of use” provides communicators with a comprehensive understanding of their audience, thus equipping them to design and tailor a communication product.
Understanding personas requires careful observation and research of your audience. In his article “Designing Globally, Working Locally,” St.Amant identifies what data are necessary to create a persona: demographic, contextual, behavioral, and attitudinal data. In order to collect that data, St.Amant suggests a “mixed methods approach,” including surveys, observations, and interviews or focus groups to more effectively reach audiences. It is best to interact with several individuals in order to create a thorough and accurate representation of your audience (Getto and St.Amant 2014).
Though it requires meticulous research, the persona method helps communicators remember the human element of global audiences. To illustrate this, St.Amant uses an example of a reader consulting medical instructions in an emergency, saying, “Chances are, when most people turn to emergency medical instructions, are going be under duress. At that point in time, are they going to want to read a very standard generic laundry list of what to do? Or do they want information packaged in a specific way, to find it very quickly? That’s the benefit a persona brings. You get to keep that human being in mind—that human being will have different emotional states, they’ll be suffering different stresses and duress during the time they’re using something.”
In this example, the readability and accessibility of medical instructions can truly mean life or death. It is in situations like these that the persona method becomes pivotal. It focuses on who that reader will be and equally on the possible contexts in which she will be using the instructions. In this way, St.Amant argues, the persona method helps us remember something critical about our audiences: “They are human, they’re going to be under pressure from human frailties.” Personas helps communicators identify the best ways to deliver information, especially as they face broader audiences.
St.Amant explains that, where the persona approach focuses on individuals, the concept of friction points builds on that hyper-focused view to encompass the global sphere. Friction points are areas that “slow or stop the flow of information,” and they encompass everything from the larger legal structure to the kind of mobile technology people use in their day-to-day lives.
To illustrate how these friction points are layered, St.Amant describes a series of concentric circles. “Think of culture as existing in concentric circles that affect friction points. Let’s start with the foundation: what is culture? Culture is basically a worldview. It’s how you look at the world and organize stuff in it: what is worth paying attention to, what is worth talking about—that’s our culture. And that, in and of itself, creates friction points, because we have different opinions. But our culture tells us, ‘This is how you play nice.’ And so we have rules for engagement.”
St.Amant continued, “That’s the primary sphere. The secondary sphere is intercultural. So you have two different cultural groups in proximity; in this case let’s talk about two different cultures in the same country. In Canada: French and English. In the United States: A large Hispanic population. Two different cultures, different worldviews. Those different worldviews are going to create different friction points in terms of what we talk about and how we talk about it. What matters to me is not necessarily what matters to you, and we’ve got different rules of engagement. So the friction points there are cultural or linguistic.
“Now let’s move to the next sphere: international. So we’ve moved outside of a country, and now we’re talking about geopolitical spheres. Not only do I have to account for culture and language, I’ve also got to account for politics, economics, and geography. So those legalistic aspects, those economic aspects, become friction points.
“Let’s push it all the way out: the largest sphere is global. We’re going to do everything all at once, all across the world—that’s infrastructure. So those infrastructures become friction points on a vast scale. The level of this concentric framework that you look at begins to reveal the friction points, and once you know the level, you can begin to identify the friction points it contains.”
As technical communicators become more aware of existing friction points, they will be better able to address them. Focusing on friction points and personas are ways of examining both broad cultural ideas and specific, personal circumstances in order to craft effective communication.
As St.Amant explains, “The problem historically with intercultural communication has been something called the monolith—that is, all cultures have been treated like these monolithic entities. But recognizing personas and friction points and spheres is a way of looking at culture as more complex than that. We all know that cultures are comprised of cultures within them, and cultures are comprised of groups and individuals. That’s where personas come in, looking more closely at people within a culture rather than letting them be faceless entities, demographic statistics. And friction points: what kinds of different experiences do different individuals in different cultures encounter as a result of their different worldviews? These approaches help defeat the monolithic approach, where communication is ineffectively generalized. So that’s kind of the big challenge: How do we break up the monolith and become more effective communicators on a global scale?”
The struggles that St.Amant describes are sure to continue as technology continues to pull the edges of the earth closer together. As he says, “That’s a phenomenon that happens with every generation, but between my generation and yours, the speed with which it has happened and the global proliferation is incredible, and my generation can’t keep pace with it. It’s extremely challenging to understand these dynamics, but it requires these kinds of partnerships, where generations have to work together to do these things.”
Constantly changing and emerging technologies, economic shifts, and cultural differences will continue to create friction, but generational partnerships—and new approaches to communication—offer solutions. Awareness of friction points and personas provides analytical tools for emerging technical communicators who must grapple with the benefits and challenges created by our exciting global connections.
Getto, Guiseppe, and Kirk St.Amant. “Designing Globally, Working Locally: Using Personas to Develop Online Communication Products for International Users.” Communication Design Quarterly. 3.1. (2014): 24–46.
St.Amant, Kirk. Personal Interview. 28 March 2016.
SAVANNAH DEFREESE (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Proposal Coordinator with DPRA in Knoxville, Tennessee. Savannah writes, edits, and coordinates proposals for federal and international business opportunities. She serves as President of the East Tennessee Chapter of STC.
ELIZABETH SONEWALD (email@example.com) has a BA in English with a technical communication concentration from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.