Drinking from the Fire Hose

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Image source: DanSkognes.com

This week my days will be spent “drinking from the fire hose,” a colorful turn of phrase that usually hits when a technical communicator is about to dive into a new job or project and has to assimilate a lot of information in a short amount of time.

Reading the information is one thing. Organizing it is something else. Fortunately, certain types of information lend themselves to specific organizational strategies. Another way to cope with a large volume of information is to focus on the task at hand. The application for your information–status report, marketing material, training session–will help you sort the wheat from the chaff and allow you to concentrate on what’s most important.

However, all that organizing comes later, after you’ve drunk from the fire hose. The important thing when you’re in meetings taking notes or reading a pile of paper is to get it all in your head first. Collect, then sort. If you’re in meetings with subject matter experts (SMEs), you have an opportunity to do some preliminary sorting by asking leading questions:

  • What’s most important about X?
  • How does X relate to Y?
  • Is (your audience) going to know that or want to know that?

Your audience, situation, and intended outcome will help you bring the flood of information down to a manageable size. In the meantime, my best advice for surviving fire-hose mode includes:

  • Listen carefully
  • Take good notes–use your own mental shorthand if you have to, and then translate the information back to proper form later
  • Try to absorb and understand as you go along and ask if you have a question, but don’t stress yourself out trying to understand everything right in the moment–drinking from the fire hose is about absorbing information; making sense out of it is a subsequent activity
  • Record a SME session if you’re concerned about missing something, but ask their permission first
  • If you’re a pen-and-paper person, as I often am, make certain you have plenty of paper and backup pens

Best of luck…and drink up!

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Things To Do When You Start a New Job

I’ll be starting a new contract position today. The position comes with more responsibility than I’ve had in a while, but my approach on the first day won’t be much different from how I act on the first day of any other job.

Listening

Yes, I am being brought aboard as a consultant, but the customer’s needs come first. Before I can contribute, I need to know what I’m getting into and what they need from me. I could go in guns blazing, but that would strike some as arrogant. For the first week or more, I will listen more than speak. That also helps with…

Learning

For the next few weeks (or months), I will be in “sponge mode,” trying to absorb all the information around me from subject matter experts and printed materials. In my experience, there are three primary fields of study for any job: people, process, and product. People include, subject matter experts, managers, their personalities, and how they interact (“politics” would be another “P”). Processes include both how the content affects the customer as well how I am expected to function in the workplace. Product is simply the content itself, which is perhaps one third of what needs to be learned in the process of technical writing.

Assimilating

This “quiet” approach going into a new workplace isn’t just a professional attitude, but it’s more or less a function of my introverted personality. For instance, I’ve got a bit of a quirky sense of humor, so I try to tone that down until I understand what sorts of humor are acceptable in a workplace and when it seems appropriate to let one of my quips fly. I don’t clam up completely–I do try to be friendly with everyone, from the bosses to the administrative assistants at the front office. I consider friendliness to be essential to how I do my work. It reduces friction and is more likely to result in a good first impression.

These seem pretty basic, don’t they? Now I just need to practice what I preach and get down to business.

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Nice Guys (or Gals) Finish When They Want To

“Nice guys finish last.” You still hear that a lot, especially in “corporate” settings. As someone who’s got a reputation for being “nice” on occasion, I happen to disagree with this notion.

“Nice” can mean many things: polite, genuine, honest, well-meaning, mild-mannered, non-combative, what have you. None of those definitions requires you to be a doormat.

I went into an interview once to see what the work was about. It turned out (the ad was vaguely written) the position was selling stocks. The guy who was interviewing me did everything possible to sell me on the job, including get in my face by walking around the desk to poke me in the chest and literally prod me into a job I didn’t want. From the moment I heard, “Are you a man or not?” I laughed in the guy’s face.

I said, “You’ve obviously got the wrong guy. I won’t be taking this job.” I thanked him for his time and walked out of the interview.

In much the same way, I almost walked away from buying a used car because I had anywhere from one to three dudes playing every game in the book, from taking my car keys to (again) stepping around the desk and trying to use physical proximity to intimidate me into buying the car I already knew I wanted. “What can I do to get you do buy this car today?” the point man finally asked.

Keeping my tone level, I said, “Nothing. If I get my loan approved, I’ll come back tomorrow and buy it. If I don’t, I won’t.” So then it became a challenge for these guys to sell it to me right there and then. If there wasn’t a challenge, there wasn’t a point to their job, I guess. I asked for my keys and left.

I came back the next day, check in hand, talked to a different salesman, and left with the car I wanted without a lot of hassle. The first salesman scowled at me as I left. He had the sale day before, but I had taken the fun out of it for him because he couldn’t force me to do things his way. Pity.

So lesson #1 about “nice” people: just because they’re not acting aggressively  doesn’t mean that they lack strength. 

I’ve also faced situations where I wanted something and was faced with resistance of some sort, whether it was a hotel rate I was promised, an insurance policy I wanted to cancel, or a complaint I wanted resolved. In such cases, again, I’ve had to restrain my temper because half of some folks’ game is to get you to lose your temper so you can be seen as the unreasonable “aggressor” and give them an excuse not to respond to you.

Regardless, my method of argument usually involves getting an unhelpful party to live up to their promises, rules, or reputation. Or, failing that, I ask to speak to someone’s manager and repeat the process up the chain…without raising my voice.

Lesson #2 about “nice” people: just because we’re not yelling or pushing people around doesn’t mean that we’re not upset or not persistent. We still want to get our way.

All this is not to say that I will never raise my voice. I once got angry enough at a peer who was not doing what I asked that my volume, pitch, and harsh language became severely elevated. I had a headache from the argument for two weeks afterward. It was not one of my prouder moments, but weeks of trying to be “reasonable” had gotten me nowhere and in the end the work got done. I made the decision after that point not to yell any further–the goal was to get the work done, not come across as a raving lunatic.

Lesson #3 about “nice” people: eventually, you will push us too far, and then be prepared for the thunderbolt.

I guess the point of this little essay is to encourage those of you who are (or are told you are) “nice” not to surrender to more aggressive people around you because of your preferred behavior or temperament.

You don’t need to yell and scream to get your way. If you do–like a parent trying to enforce discipline–make it memorable and infrequent. You can use your easygoing nature or quiet persistence to get your way more often than not. Being nice reduces friction with those around you and makes them more disposed to be agreeable with you on a regular basis. Having a reputation for being an S.O.B., not so much. However, there will come those moments where nice is not enough. That’s when firmness and persistence can be your best, boldest tools.

Final lesson: You might be nice, that doesn’t mean you’re not serious about getting what you want.

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Finding Customers vs. Customers Finding You

One thing I’m discovering about this freelancing business is that it is difficult to predict who my customers will be. There are the businesses I planned to support (aerospace, high-tech), and then there are the people who find me. The latter group includes some of my nonprofit work but also space people.

The advantage of customers you seek out is that you generally know their business and what is expected of you.

What I’m coming to learn about customers who find me, however, is that I get into lines of business I would never have considered on my own. I am a bit of a space geek and tend to forget that there are other lines of work out there. It is in this way that I’ve found myself writing for an entrepreneur focused on automotive technology, a boxing gym, and now an instructional design team looking for help with leading a management training project.

Another nice thing about being asked to work “outside my range” is it’s a bit flattering. Obviously if someone is asking for services that I don’t normally provide, that’s a sign that they see something in me that’s capable of doing it, which is also gratifying because they most likely had the opportunity to hire someone who does work in that business and picked me instead.

Of course the big challenge, when stepping out of one’s comfort zone, is to maintain the humble spirit of a learner. If you keep challenging yourself–and it looks like I’ll be doing that well into the future–you prevent yourself from becoming complacent and you keep learning something new.

New customers can help you do that–often when you least expect it!

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I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends (and Family)

MaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svgI’m still catching up from my space conference and having family (Mom & Little Sister) in town this past weekend, so this will be a shorter entry than usual.

In this case, I’ll just take a moment to encourage any of you working on your own to make sure that you make time in your schedule to stay in contact with your family. Not knowing your personal situation, if you don’t have blood relatives around, you should at least spend time with friends–the family you make for yourself–for some of the time when your not at work. Yes, even introverts.

Some of us can get to be workaholics, spending much of our energy and getting much of our stimulation on the job. That’s not entirely bad, in my mind. I heard a gentleman as eminent as former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin say something to the effect of “I don’t know anyone who’s truly successful who lives a ‘balanced’ life.” That might be taking things to an extreme, but the point resonated with me. That said, there are times when a dedicated, solitary careerist needs something as simple as free, non-work time in the company of people who care about their welfare regardless of what they do on the job.

Both of my parents, my stepmother, and my sister, for example, have only a vague notion of what I actually do to earn a living, but they can offer advice or encouragement on things like searching for customers or paying the bills. And sometimes I’m not even seeking advice–just a sympathetic ear. They don’t need to understand anything about aerospace engineering or instructional design–they just want to help me as a person, offering what support they can.

Love and belonging are smack in the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, after meeting physiological and safety needs…and note that it comes before self-esteem and self-actualization needs we would most likely acquire in the course of pursuing our careers. We might obtain the latter two without some sense of belonging, but it’s more difficult. If you don’t have that sort of relationship with your actual family, it’s important to meet those needs off the job–through friends or coworkers. We don’t work in a social vacuum (some astronauts, of course, work in a physical vacuum). If we’re doing paid, productive work, there is another person on the receiving end of what we create. In the end, our work is about or for people.

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Conference Networking

I’m attending the 43rd Space Congress this week, so today’s blurb will be short. If you’re interested in my thoughts/notes from the event, I’ll post them next week.

Most important thing I can suggest about networking at conferences is to carry business cards. Yes, it’s “old school,” but they’re still a primary means of exchanging contact information. They’ll be replaced in time, but old habits die hard. More later…

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Networking Online: How and Why You Should Make the Most of It

At the suggestion of reader and fellow technical communication consultant Larry Kunz, I thought I’d elaborate a bit on the use of networking to find full-time employment or customers.

In addition to spending a lot of time on the job, a lot of American office workers–and others!–spend a lot of time online. For instance, the average internet user spends nearly 2 hours a day interacting in online social networks. Multiply that out and it’s ~628 hours or 26 days a year swapping jokes, sharing blogs, or posting pictures of cats.

That’s a heck of a lot of time. Are you doing anything productive with it? If not, you should.

On the Positive Side…

Professional online networks–from LinkedIn forums to topical blogs and industry news sites–are places where you can contribute to the public conversations regarding your profession or industry. Do you have good ideas or a unique perspective that can cause one side or another to reconsider their position? You can, over the course of multiple conversations, be considered a respected “voice of authority” on a particular topic or range of topics. And if you don’t have any deep thoughts, you can always ask smart questions. You might even find yourself motivated enough to write a blog.

This process of putting your bright thoughts out there helps to build your “brand,” a.k.a. what people think of you when they hear your name. Odds are, if someone is considering hiring you, they’re going to do a little searching online to see what they’ll find. Wouldn’t you like that to be something brilliant?

On the Negative Side…

It’s entirely possible that you don’t spend your free time visiting blogs that relate to your day job. Perfectly understandable, you might be burned out after a long day of banking, human resources, or whatever. But even if you don’t “hang out” where your potential customers or employers do, a lot of your comments are still online, and they can get a good feel for how you behave based on what they see. Do you use a lot of profanity? Do you post a lot of pictures from your latest wild trip to Vegas? Do you complain about your bosses or coworkers?

The bottom line is that current and potential employers and customers surf the web, too. And if you’re posting online, nothing is private. The only way to avoid people seeing anything is to avoid the internet altogether, and even then other people will still post words and pictures over which you have no control. Good luck with that.

You might not be able to do anything about what other people post about you (though you can do things like untag yourself from photos your friends posted on Facebook). You can do something about the sorts of things you post. That goes a long way toward helping with your “first impression” in the game of online networking.

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