Tuesday’s afternoon sessions started with a pair of “Spotlight Talks,” shorter presentations paired together for one session. Chyrstal Mincey, in Know Your Client’s Language, spoke about the need as a government contractor to know your client in depth. “Client needs can vary from project to project and agency to agency,” she said. In addition to knowing the client, you almost must try to understand the full context: your client’s bosses, any conflicts of interest, goals, and expectations. She advised attendees to make sure they know the client’s guidelines and style guides and encouraged them to learn more about the client as a person and how they work.
In the second Spotlight, So You Think You Know What Your Readers Want, Yoel Strimling focused on what he called “the f word”: Feedback. “Feedback makes writing documentation worthwhile,” he explained. “We need to know if the documentation meets our readers’ needs.” He cautioned that feedback, to be helpful, needed to be direct, meaningful, and actionable.
Yoel took attendees through a study, where he asked both how readers define documentation quality and how writers think readers define documentation quality. While both parties said that documentation needed to be accurate, easy to understand, and relevant, writers diverged from readers in one key area: writers severely underestimated the reader’s desire for documentation to be valuable. That means, he said, documentation that will help the readers do their jobs better. Focusing on that aspect of documentation can be extremely helpful.
The next session had Wendy Wagner-Smith presenting Cut through the Clutter: Using Plain Language to Gain the Cutting Edge. Wendy had a number of helpful handouts for attendees that demonstrated ways to reword sentences or phrases so they better meet the definition of plain language: communication that the audience or readers understands the first time they hear or read it. Using plain language, she said, helps the reader find what they need, understand the information they find, and use the information to do what they need.
She cautioned the plain language doesn’t mean simply dumbing down your words or cutting things shorter. It involves knowing your audience and what they need, then writing clearly and concisely toward that goal. “Our mantra today is Clarity, Clarity, Clarity,” she reminded repeatedly.
To close out the day, Melissa Breker (a self-labeled “professional stakeholder and hand holder”) presented Collaboration, Communication, and Credibility: Building Stronger Content Teams. She pointed out that teams often struggle with poor planning, poor communication, and poor collaboration. That results, of course, in poor content. But instead of transforming content, she insisted, transform content teams. “We need to align people and process,” she explained.
Melissa explained the need to plan, communicate, and collaborate with team members, and discussed how getting to know your team members and how they work can help with those goals. “It’s about sharing versus telling,” she insisted. “It’s about listening.” She pointed out how establishing a RACI model (who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) can be extremely valuable in making sure the process flows smoothly. Another valuable tool she covered was a content clinic. “Ask your team what’s working and what’s not working,” she said, “and then ask follow-up questions to get more details.”