Why “Golden Rule” Leadership Doesn’t Always Succeed

One thing I’ve noticed about leadership is that it resembles the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.” That’s great if your leader thinks like you, not so great if they prefer a different manner of communicating or giving/receiving orders.

So as an introverted, quiet worker who prefers to work alone, my leadership habits–on those rare occasions where I allow myself to be in a leadership position–reflect my desire to be left alone as much as possible. In practice this means:

  • Providing a minimum of instruction, guidance, and supervision. This approach assumes that a) my subordinates have the ability, knowledge, and self-discipline to do what I’m asking them to do without my input.  I also assume that people prefer to use their creativity as much as possible.
  • Few to no meetings. Meetings for the sake of meetings are not my favorite things. Time spent in a meeting means time you’re not being productive.
  • More communication by email. Email is asynchronous, meaning it doesn’t have to be answered right away. It’s also quieter and less likely to wander off-topic.

This approach is not without drawbacks, however. New employees, for example, need more guidance, even if they have the professional skills because they lack experience with the material or an organization’s preferred communication methods. In addition, some individuals are not as fully confident in their ability to do something new or unusual.

Some people are extroverts and need to do their thinking aloud, among other people. They might have questions not covered by the minimalist guidance given up front.

Also, some folks find email “cold,” unfeeling, and uncaring. They like and prefer social interaction, even–or especially–if the conversation wanders off-topic.

In those situations where I’ve been in leadership positions, I’ve fallen prey to all of the above assumptions and misunderstandings. And whatever your particular personality makeup, you need to remember that not everyone thinks about or responds to the world the way you do.

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Philosophers of the Workplace

A while back, I suggested that the future will need technical writers because, among other things, we can act as a “philosopher of the internet age.” I wanted to expand on that subject a bit.

Before I settled on Heroic Technical Writing as the name for this blog, I considered “Philosophical” Technical Writing, as I am interested in philosophy as a subject, and I see tech writing as a philosophical discipline. It’s my goal to be observant of the philosophical context behind the content I write. Think I’m kidding? Read on!

***

As I noted in my last post, technical communication skills can be applied to event management, among other lines of work. My experience with Science Cheerleader is a case in point. While we can now boast of over 300 current and former NFL or NBA cheerleaders with science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degrees/careers, the organization is still in the growing phase.

For much of the last five years, in fact, it’s been Darlene Cavalier and me doing everything from marketing and outreach to event and database management. Because the organization and budget started out small, we made up much of our infrastructure as we went along. As a result, I accidentally used or learned a lot of what HR people would call “transferable skills.”

Information Design

One key technical communication skill I’ve been able to apply at Science Cheerleader is information organization–anything from creating forms to setting up our original “database” of contacts in Excel form. When it came time to bring in a programmer to build an actual database, I got first dibs on describing how it should function and what should be included in it–mostly based on my experiences with the needs of the organization.

Along the way, I’ve also worked on interview templates, event agendas, forms, and blog posts. In each of these cases, the trick has been to put information in useful and usable format so that it can be acted upon later. Usability is important because as we grow, we are building a network of regional coordinators to facilitate and expand upon what we put in place. Therefore, the documents I create and save need to be organized, accessible, and easy to modify.

In my more technical writing jobs, I’ve put together spreadsheets or graphs for anything from tracking competitor products to engineering requirements to sharing performance data. The important common skill used in all of these is putting data into a format that makes sense to the reader.

Writing in Different “Voices”

When I support engineers in my day job, it might not surprise you to learn that I “speak” with a different voice when addressing Science Cheerleaders or their website readers. Engineering writing tends to be more direct and sans emotion (unless I’m doing marketing copy, which is a whole different thing).

Cheerleading writing is, well, perkier for one thing. Upbeat is another good word. Darlene and I both came from the Disney system, so that vibe and attitude carries over to ScienceCheerleader.com and our interactions with the cheerleaders. The tone is upbeat, action-oriented, positive, and supportive (“You can do this! It’ll be great!”) This attitude is especially important because the Science Cheerleaders are, for the most part, volunteers.

The audience for the SciCheer website is primarily girls ages 10 and up who are cheerleading and who might or might not have an interest in pursuing a STEM career. Again, the tone is upbeat and positive, with an eye toward inspiring interest (“This is pretty cool!”). Secondary audiences include the parents of cheerleaders and female scientists who want to see what we’re up to.

Understanding What is Said and How

I learn a great deal about my clients based on the words they use to describe themselves and their work. For example, a federal agency will be careful to emphasize its competence, judicious use of taxpayer resources, and careful operating within the law.

An entrepreneurial company will emphasize newness, excitement, lean-and-mean operations, and flexibility.

A larger, more established corporation, in addition to whatever its primary culture is, will be more prone to use words that emphasize solidity, trustworthiness, and quality.

A nonprofit will focus on the importance of its cause, its dedication, and its accomplishments.

Whatever words are used–verbally or in text–constitute the ideals of the organization.

Philosophy as a Career

Technical communication embodies most or all of the philosophical disciplines. Organizing information, in philosophical terms, might be seen as the business form of logic and epistemology, i.e., understanding how to frame and integrate knowledge. Writing in different voices can be seen as a mix of epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and even metaphysics, as you’re shaping words to convey and advance particular ideals.

In all these ways, I’d argue, technical communicators serve as practicing philosophers. It is our job to integrate the content (logos), integrity (ethos), and emotions (pathos) of the organization we represent. And if you’re supporting all three in a worthy cause, you can enjoy the pleasure of having your work coincide with your beliefs. That’s a pretty good way to live.

Posted in audience, engineering, freelancing, philosophy, technical writing | Tagged | 3 Comments

Tech Writing and Event Management

Several years ago, when I was a bit more foolish, I got the bright idea to run a conference. While I learned about a year or two into the process that running things was not something I enjoyed, a friend and I managed to assemble a team to execute a plan we’d proposed and I got up in front of a board and pitched. The event–850 attendees over four days, with 20 companies exhibiting–went off pretty well, despite tornadoes blasting through Alabama a month before and any number of little crises before and after that. The point here isn’t to brag, but to explain how the skills I need to do technical writing also can be applied to event management.

Managing Constraints

There’s really no way around this: a conference will have a deadline. You know it’s going to happen, and for how long (usually). This constrains your choices–do you want to bring in Celebrity X six months from now? Their schedule might be backlogged a year. Or they might charge a hefty speaking fee when you’ve got a nonprofit-constrained budget. You either have to pass on that idea or find another source of money. Or you might have visions of booking space at the fanciest hotel and conference center in town, but they might not have the space you need–or their rates might be too high.

Regardless of your specific constraints, time is non-negotiable, so you have to get realistic estimates for how long it will take to do something. For example, you will often have deadlines that hit before the event itself–deposits for floor space, food and beverage, or booth equipment (“pipe and drape”).

Event management is very much about constraint management–how much can you accomplish within a given amount of time, money, space, and personnel?

Working with People

Events–especially conferences–are all about people: what will they learn while they’re there? What will they experience? How will they interact? And that’s merely the “guest experience” side of things. Event management has an equally critical component, which is the staff side–everything that has to be done “backstage” to ensure that the guests have a great experience.

The dynamics of team management are much different in a nonprofit vs. a for-profit environment. I’ve worked in both, and I would say that nonprofit event and team management are much more difficult challenges than for-profit enterprises simply because the incentives are much different.

In a for-profit event, the incentives are very straightforward: everyone is there to collect a paycheck. Also, most of the time you are dealing with trained/experienced professionals who expect to do work to a specific level of quality or they don’t get paid. Management in such environments can be a little more top-down and uncompromising about getting work done on time or on spec.

In a nonprofit environment, you are dealing with volunteers, who might have any number of motivations for being there. They are not there for a paycheck, and most of them (up to and including the conference chair) are probably not getting paid. That means their stake in showing up and performing is often less because they can walk away at any time. This calls for leadership, which means inspiring people collectively and individually to do what you need them to do.

Another big task was recruiting people–and for that task, my co-chair and I did our best to find people who had actual or similar experience and a willingness to do the work. The result was a self-running operation that allowed me to hide in the office for hours at a time while the conference hummed along without me.

Having a Purpose or Theme

A theme isn’t just something an English lit teacher wanted in your early term papers: it’s a call to action for you and your team. What is the aim of your event? What is the message? What type of experience do you want your participants to have?

For example, the theme of the conference I chaired was “From the Ground Up!” The point of this theme was to focus on Huntsville, Alabama, as a place where all aspects of the space exploration enterprise could be found and done. I was gung-ho to show Huntsville as a place where the space industry could and should still “do business.” Because of this attitude, I placed greater emphasis than previous conferences on bringing big aerospace companies into the exhibit hall, something that hadn’t happened for a while.

ISDC2011_150x150dateThe branding carried over to things like the logo design, where a graphic designer friend created an excellent Art Deco variation of the NASA logo using non-traditional coloring (many space conferences use blue or black) and a rocket ship orbiting a giant cotton boll. All credit for the artwork goes to my friend Tina, but my Disney experience with theming resulted in insisting that the logo went everywhere–letterhead, website, event signage, etc.

The “businesslike” atmosphere meant that I tried to emphasize a professional attitude in the training and attire of volunteers. “We want to make Huntsville look good, like a place people can do business!” Beyond that, I left the details to darn near everyone else. We had higher-than-average attendance, which wasn’t bad for a recession and a time when NASA was undergoing budget cuts and other exciting challenges. The theme kept me (if not everyone else) focused.

Final Thoughts: Keeping Things Organized

The International Space Development Conference was a huge challenge, personally and professionally. It forced me out of my comfort zone, required me to acquire a smart phone to track all my appointments and to-do items, and gave me enough exposure to leadership to realize that I don’t enjoy it, but the results were good, even if the closing luncheon was interrupted by a tornado.

Is that a tornado siren I'm hearing? Yes, yes it is.

Is that a tornado siren I’m hearing? Yes, yes it is.

What kept me on task were the various tools and structures I kept in my head and computer to keep things organized and in balance when the unexpected occurred.

Bottom line? The same skill sets that allow you to organize large, complex documents involving multiple subject matter experts can also be employed in activities outside the technical writer’s realm.

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Tech Writer for Hire

Need someone who likes to learn quickly and get the words just right? Perhaps you don’t have the budget for a new hire, but you need a contract technical writer. I am currently available for hire as a value-adding team member.

My primary expertise includes proposals, white papers, reports, fact sheets, marketing materials, and communication plans.

I operate locally out of Central Florida and remotely for customers across the U.S. I am able to travel as well, if needed. I can be reached via email: bart_leahy [at] hotmail.com!

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Alphabet Soup and Working in the Technology Business

alphabet-soup

Source: NPR

For the first Christmas I spent at Marshall Space Flight Center, I gave Ares Project Managers Steve Cook and Dan Dumbacher each a small gift bag. Inside each bag was a can of alphabet soup, “as a way of returning the favor,” I told them. My boss let me get away with it because, while I was being a smartass, I was at least getting along with my customers.

But seriously: I spent the first six months filling up my head with acronyms, filling up one handwritten journal per month as I tried to understand the hieroglyphics and codes that engineers used while designing and building large space systems.

If you want to be a technical writer, you have to do this as a simple survival mechanism. It’s how you learn the language your subject matter experts are speaking.

NASA’s been famous for generating long lists of acronyms, which serve the very useful purpose of avoiding having to say “polybutadiene acrylonitrile” (PBAN) or “space shuttle main engine” (SSME) every time they come up in conversation. Surprisingly, though, I didn’t learn the acronym-collection process at NASA first, but at Walt Disney World, of all places. I collected acronyms for my own reference, and then, when coworkers saw what I was doing, they wanted a copy. A lot of my personal acronym lists became shared documents because they’re necessary, not just for individual documents but everyday use.

The acronym list I maintained for the Ares Projects was 48 pages long. I’ve heard that the list for the Space Launch System (SLS) has exceeded that. Regardless of the project, whether it be aerospace, information technology, biotechnology, energy, or any other technical field, the discipline you’re supporting will have its own specialized language and mental shorthand. The better you learn that language, the better–not just how things are spelled, but how they’re pronounced (for example, a Design Specification for Natural Environments or DSNE, is pronounced “Disney”). The acronyms of technology are only proliferating, so the better you prepare yourself, the more likely you’ll be able to understand and respond when someone asks you to “edit the Disney” one day.

***

Bonus Feature: Some aerospace acronyms just for you. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, just to give you some clue as to how these Acronym Lists work.

ARC  Ames Research Center
CDR  Critical Design Review
DFRC  Dryden Flight Research Center (this has probably changed–Dryden was renamed for astronaut Neil Armstrong in the last year or two, but acronym inertia is sticky)
GSFC Goddard Space Flight Center
ECLSS Environmental Control and Life Support System
EELV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle
ELV  Expendable Launch Vehicle
FRR  Flight Readiness Review
GEO  Geosynchronous Orbit
GOX  Gaseous Oxygen
GRC  Glenn Research Center
HEO  High Earth Orbit
HTPB Hydroxyl-Terminated Polybutadiene
ISS  International Space Station
JPL  Jet Propulsion Laboratory
JSC  Johnson Space Center
KSC  Kennedy Space Center
LAS  Launch Abort System
LCC  Launch Control Center
LEO  Low-Earth Orbit
LH2  Liquid Hydrogen
LOX  Liquid Oxygen (also LO2)
MAF  Michoud Assembly Facility
MCC  Mission Control Center
MCR  Mission Concept Review
MEO  Medium Earth Orbit
MMH  Monomethyl Hydrazine
MMOD Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris
MPCV Multipurpose Crew Vehicle
MSA  Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle-to-Stage Adapter (this is an example of an acronym within an acronym)
MSFC Marshall Space Flight Center
NTO  Nitrogen Tetroxide
PBAN Polybutadiene Acrylonitrile
PDR  Preliminary Design Review
RLV  Reusable Launch Vehicle
RSRM Reusable Solid Rocket Motor
SLS  Space Launch System
SSC  Stennis Space Center
SSME Space Shuttle Main Engine (now known as the RS-25, the main engines for the SLS)
VAB  Vehicle Assembly Building
VTOVL Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing
WSTF White Sands Test Facility

Eat up, your soup’s getting cold!

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Writing White Papers

White papers are a regular output in the technical world–especially in the aerospace and defense industries. This post will cover some of the basics, such as, what exactly is a white paper, and why would you or your organization want to write one, and what’s the format?

A white paper is a short document, usually 2-10 pages, that proposes a solution to a particular problem–technical, political, social, or other. In the case of a solution to a technical issue, a company will share just enough proprietary information to provide the general outline of their solution (unless they classify it or add a bunch of proprietary notices to it). The idea with a white paper is usually to attract attention: “Hey, we’ve got this great idea, ask me for more!” And the “more” would be, for example, a formal proposal for paid work.

Below is one format for white papers I used at NASA, along with the content and length guidance. Some of the language is mine, some of it was forwarded to me.

ABC Widget for Solving Problem X

Executive Summary

This is an overall summary of your white paper. Ideally, this should be written last to make certain that you’ve covered all of the main points of your proposal—the problem being solved, summary of technical approach, benefits of your approach, and a bottom-line cost and schedule. Your paper title should be short, descriptive, and easily understood for a non-technical audience (3-4 paragraphs, no more than one page).

Introduction

This should be a short paragraph or two (2-4 sentences each) describing the problem you are attempting to solve.

Background

This section should describe why the problem you are solving important and to whom—i.e., who needs this solution and what benefit(s) they derive from it, what approaches have been used to date, and why a new approach is needed (3-5 paragraphs).

Methodology

Here is where you describe your approach to solving the problem at hand. This should include the physical/technological principles involved in your solution, what the individual components will do, and what the anticipated results/outputs would be. In addition to a description of your approach, this section should note where your solution results in innovations or improvements in the following areas:

  • Technology
  • Management
  • Integration
  • Cost
  • Schedule

If you are using this white paper as the basis for a proposal, this is a good place to do a “sanity check” on your content to make certain that you are answering the questions the solicitation is asking.

Other items you might wish to cover are:

  • Description of the team—personnel and key partners—who you are, what sorts of similar problems you’ve solved previously, and why you are ideally situated to solve the problem you intend to solve
  • Description of facilities—labs, special test equipment (STE), or other facilities your team has access to that will help you execute your solution
  • Description of costs and schedule—what your solution will cost to implement, what that money buys, and how long it will take to execute

(5-7 pages)

Conclusion

The conclusion should summarize the key advantages and the benefits of your approach (3-5 sentences).

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Graphic Design and the Technical Communicator

“I do neat, not pretty.”

That’s what I tell all my visually minded friends and coworkers. My idea of doing something different is changing up the fonts on the standard Word templates, so I’m obviously not the guy you go to if you want something visually awe-inspiring. And, mercifully, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in organizations where I could work with a graphic designer.

So what could I possibly have to say about graphic design in a technical communication environment? More than you might imagine, actually.

What is a technical writer doing graphic design for, anyway?

In one- or two-person proposal shops, you don’t always have the luxury of having a graphic designer on hand to help make things neat and pretty. Take heart–if the project were that demanding of graphics, the company/department would hire one or bring one in for a special project. But for regular documents, such as correspondence, reports, or proposals, there aren’t always a lot of pictures, but there is a need for some graphic design.

Text Formatting

U.S. Government proposals usually have a set format:

  • 8 1/2 X 11 inch paper
  • 1 inch margins all around the text
  • 12 point font for body text (typically Times New Roman, but if not, you can try something else like Book Antigua, Georgia, or Calibri)
  • 10 point fonts for captions
  • Headings for individual sections

Given all these basic features, it’s important to be acquainted with the basic formatting features in Microsoft Word–still the default word-processing program for much of the U.S. business world. These basic functions, then, include setting margins, fonts, and headings.

Also, if you’re not yet acquainted with Styles, I highly recommend working with them. Styles are automatic templates for things like body text, heading levels (Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3), titles, and captions. They save you the trouble of having to reset the font size, color, boldness, italicizing, etc.

As an extra bonus, MS Word’s Table of Contents function generates an automatic TOC based on styles. Therefore, if you’ve done your heading styles correctly, all level 1 headings will align to the left margin, level 2 headings will be indented one notch, level 3 headings will be indented another notch, and so forth. If you’re not careful with your Styles function, you can find entire paragraphs recreated in your TOC. (To fix that, go back to the original paragraph, select it, and change the Style back to “Normal,” which is your default body text style.)

Some general font guidelines that I follow:

  • Make your heading fonts distinct from your body text to make the page more easily navigable for the reader. However, don’t use MORE than two fonts (also called typefaces) in a document.
  • There’s ongoing debate about this, but I prefer using sans serif fonts for headings and serif fonts for body text. (See the image below for what this means.) I’ve seen studies that show sans serif fonts are more readable for long periods of time, but I know I get a headaches reading whole pages with nothing but Arial on them. Again, when in doubt–especially on a proposal–stick with slightly boring Times, Times New Roman, or Cambria serif fonts for body text. Typical sans serif fonts for headings include Helvetica, Arial, and Calibri. If you have a in-house style that has more fashionable but still customer-acceptable typefaces, by all means, go for it!
  • Avoid underlining in headings or body text unless told to do so–usually by an academic institution or specific magazine publishers. Use italic, bold, or both.

Page Layout

Okay, so you’ve gotten your fonts and styles to behave as you want. You’re all set, right? Not quite.

One thing to pay attention to is spacing (that is, the amount of space between lines of text in the same paragraph, space between paragraphs, and space between headings and paragraphs). Spacing between lines is often measured in points. 12 points is approximately equivalent to one full row of regular text. You can fully align your text along the left margin if you have a full 12-point gap between your paragraphs. If you have zero points between lines, paragraphs should be indented .25 or .5 inches.

You don’t want to crowd your text all together, so standard single spacing usually works just fine (again, with your paragraphs indented). If you’re printing something that others need to mark up with the dreaded red pen, you might go to 1.5 or double spacing.

Another item that I argue with engineers about is text alignment–left justified (“ragged right,” as this post is using) or full-page justified, where text stretches from margin to margin. My engineering friends prefer full justification because all the texts align with the margins; I favor left-justified because the spacing is consistent. Bottom line: unless you are given a guideline, there is no “rule” about justified text–just keep things consistent.

Last thing: don’t use Comic Sans for official documents. I’m not entirely certain why, but Comic Sans is the Rick Astley of fonts, and your graphic designer will lose her mind if she sees it on the page. Just trust me on this.

Graphics

Proposals sometimes get very few visuals, either due to page constraints or lack of time and money to develop the images. If you’ve got the time and the space, however (and graphics are permitted in the proposal), you should take the time to add them. Graphics, like white space, break up the page and give the reader a visual point of focus. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then it’s also important that your graphics help tell your proposal “story.” This is especially important if you’re proposing a complex piece of equipment that is difficult to describe.

A note on captioning graphics…one of my managers in the defense industry reminded me early in my time there not to just post a picture of a horse (for example) and label the caption, “A horse.” Captions should add some value, either explaining the graphic (“Control panel, top view”) or explaining why the subject of the graphic is important or interesting (“The Ares I-X test vehicle is the tallest launch vehicle NASA has flown since 1972″).

FSE Sep Test

This image, while visually interesting, doesn’t require a full-page treatment but could be inserted on one side of the page.

Images should be cropped and sized to best fit the page. A highly detailed graphic, such as an image with embedded text or multiple steps, could fit across an entire page width.

Ares I-X Flight Test

A detailed graphic like this would best be displayed across the full width of a page, or perhaps even given its own page!

Parting Thoughts

Again, the point with graphics and layout–especially in a proposal–is to make your pages visually interesting, neat, and readable. It can be easy to get carried away with lots of colors, fonts, and borders. If you’re showing off your company’s graphics capabilities, more power to you. However, if your goal is to tell a clear, understandable story, it’s better to err on the side of minimalism: two to three images per page, one big graphic, or a full page of smaller graphics–aligned in a way that doesn’t distract throw off the alignment of the text. If you’re creating a marketing brochure, you can of course get more creative with layout, colors, or text alignment. Visual appeal is useful for telling the story you want to tell; but your visuals shouldn’t distract the reader from what you’re trying to say.

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