Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Because it's there...

Imagine an organization where the best minds in the Indian documentation industry put their heads together to thrash out solutions to everyday (writing) issues. Imagine if the Edwins, Suchis, Kumars, Basus, Gurus and everyone else who's made an impact in this field, all worked for a single organization.  Oh, stop dreaming and go back to work! Not going to happen. Because apparently, there was one law that Newton missed. One interpretation evidently says, the higher you go, the narrower your vision becomes. Or something to that effect. At least for some.

I've been enjoying tech writing conferences from 2007. I've attended all the STC events till date (from 2007) and all the TC world events in India as well. As promised, here's my take from the front seat.

Introducing.... in the blue corner, the 16 year old veteran, the STC India Chapter taking on the challenger, in the red corner, the 3 year old TC World India.

Round 1 - Value for Money: STC goes in with a quick left, right combination. With a 50 dollar membership, you can attend the main conference for 'free'. 1000 rupees more will get you the pre-conference too. TC world conferences are steeply priced, comparatively. I wish I knew who was making all the money. STC events manage to squeeze in more tracks as the duration of each track is usually less.  Which makes sense, keeping in mind the reducing attention spans. The breaks are also shorter. A lot of time is wasted at the TC World conferences.
TC World seems to have lost a few teeth in the first round.

Round 2 - Content: International does not automatically mean quality. We are in the communication business. Quite a few speakers, especially from non English (US/UK) speaking countries, struggle to express themselves at TC World despite all the hype created about the topic itself. I'm not saying they are all like that. But if you've had two experiences, one bad and the other good, which one is likely to stick in your head?
STC topics are selected by a panel of 'experts'. There's a call for papers and only the 'best' are selected. I don't know how it is done in TC World India. But whatever method they are bungling with seems to work once in a while. While we had Scott Abel talk in one event, another was wasted with some IT guy who became an MP. Novelty=10 Utility=0.
It's not going too well for TC World.
 
Round 3 - Attendance: Both these events are well attended. But TC World being restricted to Bangalore, obviously sees mostly local folks. But if you are looking at participants from outside India, it's the TC World conferences that has more participants from outside India.
With some good defensive moves from both contenders, this round is evenly matched.

Round 4 - Venues: STC walks away with the prize in this department as well. Sometimes. Don't think so? Visit Zuri. TC World on the other hand is getting predictable at the Taj Vivanta, Bangalore. When you get predictable in a bout, you get hurt.
Not looking too good for TC World again.

Round 5 - Sponsors: We have a few companies that jump at every opportunity. But generally, I find this area to be evenly matched.
STC is a little surprised at the way TC World is matching punch for punch now.

Round 6 - Salary Survey: Another reason to attend the STC event. But like I've repeated many times over, it would have made more sense to do it by role. Create at least two surveys, one for people managers and the other for individual contributors. Otherwise, it doesn't make much sense. People managers are usually paid more. It screws up the figures if this distinction is  not clearly made.
All that effort is making STC to sweat a little hard.

Round 7 - Maturity: So this one is going to hurt. At least one of these groups is run by a set of more mature people. The other group is busy in the censorship business determining what's good for its audience simply based on references to the opponent. Not on possible value that the content could mean to the audience. If there is a mention of the competitor, stuff just goes missing. It's a pity that some people can't/won't even try to see eye to eye. That's with or without heels.
Talking about eyes... TC World seems to have one black eye.

Round 8 - Food: This is probably the last item on the 'menu'. But in my personal experience, I found that food served at STC conferences to be a little more palatable. There's also more variety to select from. So if you have to choose to go for a conference and you've heard it all before, there's some hope for you if you've selected the STC event.
And what do we have? It's a Knock Out.

Actually, on viewing replays, the Knock out was a result of TC world tripping over their own shoelaces and landing on the head. Ouch.

What I'd like to see in these conferences

Innovation:
Innovation is not just about a flash mob dance, where the audience is left wondering about who's flashing and who's dancing. Neither is it about a flash drive. TC World often gives all participants a USB drive. While the idea itself is novel, never has it served the purpose it was intended for. Some of these drives even set off antivirus alarms. I kid you not! They've even contained outdated versions of presentations that were not even close to the ones that were actually shared by the presenter. Not to mention that the majority of presentations made, were missing! Concerned about privacy? Stop pulling my leg. You had no business putting up private content in the first place. It suddenly becomes private when someone asked for a copy? There were a couple of things that TC world tried. One was assuming that because this industry has more of the XY chromosome, they thought that kids were a concern. Day care on a Friday was arranged. And Murphy took care of the rest. So while I agree that the TC World organizers tried new things, how much of it actually worked, is another matter. I appreciate the STC organizers for at least seeking suggestions and ideas. Not simply conducting an event, without really understanding the audience and their needs. Try and be more participative. Even Hitler saw success, but it was only for a while.

#Event
Introduce (and talk about) a hash-tag for the event and encourage the audience to tweet their thoughts about each presentation as and when it happens. And there's a large screen that shows the tweets as they are sent out. This is being done in several other conferences. Perception is reality. Learn to manage it.

Promotion
Here's your chance to connect with your audience. Conducting video interviews with participants will be useful to promote the event next year. Nothing works as well as 'shot at the location'. Record feedback about the conference.

Eat the cake and have it
Video record all the tracks. And make them available at least to members. TC world had made an attempt to try this and there was also one STC conference in Pune where all tracks were recorded. But of course none of us got to see these recorded tracks. There's a wealth of information being shared. It kills some of us that we can't be at more than one place at the same time. Solve that problem for us.

Standards
Please ensure you have reviewed every presentation before the event. People don't always attribute the lack of standards to the speaker. It's shared with the STC or TC World brand. So guess who's taking the beating when something is not right? I'm still aghast when someone presents a deck that uses a yellow font on a white background. Worse, the font is minute, AND there are no telescopes in the conference kit! When selecting a speaker, make sure that the check box for 'common sense' is selected.

Time Management
For once, please keep time. You are disrespecting the punctual people when you wait for late-comers. Start on time, end on time. Don't insult yourself talking about the Indian Stretchable Time. Every time. Make sure there is sufficient time to scuttle between halls before each session starts. Orchestrate the tracks. Assist the speaker in managing time. We could have the 'smarties' walking around with a sign board that said 10 minutes left, or 5 minutes left. Just like they walk around before each boxing round. Let there be hard stops. You are allowed to knock out your audience, but only within the stipulated time. Otherwise, it's a foul!

Apps for Feedback
Collect feedback from your participants. Please don't use paper. Use apps. What? No smart phone? That person needs the feedback more than you do!

Encourage Carpooling to and from the venue
I'd go a step further and try and connect with folks coming from other parts of the country. Offer to take them around the city. If you have a couple of bedrooms that you could spare, you could invite them home. Not everyone gets sponsored by their companies. This good deed can maybe returned when the event happens in your city. Facilitate this collaboration.

A little heart for Corner Cases
Be considerate to special needs in your audiences. There was more than one occasion where there was this handicapped writer (he was visually impaired and had only one functional hand, but by golly, what a thought process he had!) Firstly, I think such folks should be given a discount in their registration dues. Secondly, imagine trying to eat all the wet stuff with one hand, holding the plate and cutlery. Lookout for such folks and make sure they are comfortable. Just a sandwich or roll should make them happy. It goes a long way to show that you care and that you've thought about everything. Also, there are several folks who lost their jobs recently. Can these events be considerate and allow such folks to attend at maybe student rates?

And oh the title? That's what a famous mountaineer said when asked why he climbed Mount Everest. Some of us attend (and conduct!) these conferences with the same attitude.

Make it matter. Impress your audience. Inspire. Make sure they'll pay for their own registrations the next time, when their companies don't.  And they see value.

I'll leave you with what I think could be a powerful thought. We all know that over 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. So why are we still writing manuals?

22 comments:

  1. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your observation.

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  2. Great feedback, Thomas. I used to attend both, and I am not associated with tcworld India or STC India. I, personally, cannot take action based on your feedback. I hope the organizers of both tcworld India and STC India conferences take this feedback and try to improve this in their future events.

    Thanks, Gururaj

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  3. Great writing! Excellent thoughts! Is anybody listening?

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  4. Thanks for the replies and the encouragement. Appreciate it!

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  5. There was one post on LinkedIn that had a few interesting ideas. See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141106155942-4237950-17-ideas-to-make-conferences-stand-out-and-be-memorable-for-your-audience?trk=object-title

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  6. Excellent post. As candid and clearheaded as always.

    I especially liked your suggestions regarding feedback apps, innovation, carpooling, accommodation, and looking out for special guests.

    What I disagree with is the suggestion regarding reviewing of presos before the event. I've presented at a couple of sessions and I know that I'll keep fiddling with the content right till the very last hour, and not just minor changes but sometimes even deleting entire sets of slides altogether.
    What I'd suggest is that the organisers recommend a set of colours, fonts, and sizes (or, maybe, several combinations of colours, fonts, and sizes) for speakers to choose from, and then leave the rest to the crowd :) If someone uses illegible stuff on their slides, maybe the crowd wont come back for their sessions next time (or, maybe your feedback app would do the talking).

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    1. Thanks Anindita. That's all I'm asking. Ensure that we have standards for colors, fonts and sizes. I understand that there will be last minute changes. Even big ones. But the ownership of the content should not be left only to the presenter. All I'm asking is the STC or TC World has an equal responsibility in delivering a quality presentation. And hey, I'll attend your presentations, even if you were showing blank screens :)

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  7. Great post, Nibu. Do you think STC papers are selected by experts? Not always. Sometimes papers are selected by face value. They either go by the profile of the presenter or the fancy title. Most of the papers do not do justice to the title or synopsis. They are mostly resumes or testimonies of work that the presenters use to get his/her next job. None of these organizations make any effort to push the envelope with it comes to leading the charge in the industry and making it innovative and competitive. Mostly the difference that you see is as great as normal chicken biriyani vs dum biriyani on the lunch menu or unlimited booze vs booze restricted by coupons in the networking dinner or item dance or no item dance on the dance floor. My god, will they ever move ahead from discussing single sourcing basics and DITA? And will those panel discussions be more realistic and reflect any of the market realities of today? I heard the so-called leaders talking about layoffs in panel discussions. Their points were far removed from what actually happens on the ground. Being in complete control of their departments, what prevents them from innovating and providing the value that they often mention in their talk? Do they have successful models that others can emulate? Can they prove their success by numbers and convince others about the way forward? Forget providing a platform for doing some meaningful research, these conferences do not even give us a glimpse of the emerging trends in communication and technology (I don't mean documentation trends here because we are still talking about XML and single sourcing. I remember Fred Menezes and Neeraj Bhatia presented a well-designed single sourcing strategy almost 15 years ago :-))

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    1. Thanks : ) I can see why the post is anonymous. It's sad that we don't have enough 'real' leaders. We need more of those who will say "your faults as a writer, is because of my failure as a manager/leader"

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  8. A wonderfully well-written post. I am sure that I will find you in the conference this time and say Hi. More power to Nib!

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    1. Thank you Nandini. Looking forward to bumping into you as well :)

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  9. Awesome. Hope some good comes out of this!

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  10. Excellent suggestions!!! Extremely well written!! Thanks for putting this together and sharing it as well :)

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    1. Thanks for all the appreciation, David. The response has been encouraging!

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  11. Kiranmayee PamarthyNovember 20, 2014 at 6:36 AM

    Excellent musings!! You have very succinctly described a conference but I may or may not agree with all that is the under belly. The mistakes maketh a man or in this case organization. Have we learnt the lessons or we repeating them year after year? If we can analyse this aspect we will then have a home run. I do attend the conference(s) sporadically and also present when I feel there is something meaty to do so. Personally, I like that there is a combination of veterans and youngsters presenting and it is a great platform to learn; I learn and imbibe so much at these conferences. I agree that innovation and “continuous learning” is missing in many cases. Continuous learning is post-conference learning (if a presenter has promised something to be delivered after the conference), it is the individual’s responsibility to deliver as promised. Innovation is key. I like the thematic inclination in the STC conference, it narrows down for that year and focuses on a core area. Having said all that, we have to remember that the effort and time is discretionary and voluntary. How many have volunteered to the cause? There is a dearth of volunteers; we have to do something to change this attitude; in this case it is not about too many cooks… it is about the interest, passion, and value-add a volunteer brings to the table. We see the same people doing all the work in different capacities year after year, taking that one step is definitely a big leap in the way we perceive many things. I like most of your suggestions, if we can pull-off a few as a community, kudos to all of us. Happy learning at the conference!!!!

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    1. Thanks Kiran! Let me remind you that a mistake is something done because of a lack of awareness. Many of the things described above can't be mistakes. To err is human, but to continue to err is devilish : )
      I understand that the effort and time is discretionary. But aren't we forgetting something. These are paid events. And I (like you) am a customer. I was just reminding them that the customer still exists. And don't you think the present set of leaders has the responsibility to mentor, inspire and encourage the next generation of leaders? Doing the musical chair routine shouldn't be part of the plan.

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  12. Good one, Nibu!... I do hear all these... I do accept that many things are not so easy to perform as said... I/We have always welcomed new folks to come and take the centre stage... provide feedback and ideas to do better... The interest should come from within... You know it all... I hope that we don't do conferences again in Bangalore --- No one to help nor share any work... Rajdeep and I are struggling to make things happen --- Run to the bank... get the funds ready (break the FDs due to lack of sponsorship money this time)... also people send cheques to the postal address, but cannot go and drop it in our bank branch (how easy to use the company courier service), match the registration data with Online transaction data... send out confirmation mails... a big PIA... run for Kits... get them printed (you may know how errant these printers are... reprint them... then store them in someone's house), get the tags printed, name badges printed and put them in those holders, newsletter, backdrop, signages, what not... get the AV done... tell each and everything, what to be done at what time, beg with the hotel guys for good rates... decide the menu thinking of each and everyone... not one part of India, decide to have cocktail or not, then the sponsor need them... how to control the selective seekers who come only to get sloshed and then take care of their miseries... All these can be done by these Event Managers, but how can we cough up 9-10 lakhs... (with at least 4 lakhs profit which they make... with each and every item costlier on the offing).
    Mind you all this is money-related and we need to finish within a budget... and this year hardly having sponsors screwed up the whole thing...
    Also, we don't get paid for these activities... and it is just an interest to keep the community alive... else would have been to rest a couple of years ago... and by the way, no one wants to contest and win the seat... if there is no one contesting, I will take up the post... what will you say about these folks... I contested, and won with a good number of votes for my post as President and then on it is people's request to continue in some post.. to keep the chapter live and kicking... All folks sitting there are also professionals like you and me... with one common interest to keep STC India Chapter alive and competing... sometimes these work can ruin your personal time too... like the last four weekends its leeching Raj and I... I have told you only about the conference, just remember we need to do monthly activities, newsletters, competitions, what not... and some able folks do help us out here... If you ask them why don't you stand for elections and be part of the council... am sure you would have guessed the answer by now... "getting this done is enough, don't want to get more burdened"... the two folks whom you referred to me for the nominations said the same... and still you call it the musical chair or what not, I donno what to say... wrt the paper selections... it is selected by veterans (a committee is formed) who know the current trends and we have always given opportunity to one and all... young and old... you will find newbies each year in our conference only and am sure about that... It is the passion and relevance that is shared here and not some tag or title that makes in the selection...
    Come 2015... I will nominate you and few others who are in my mind to be a part of the committee for innovative ideas and implementation... and Next Election make sure all the old faces are never seen again except for the immediate past president... who will guide you all.
    Have vented out all my ....... here. Hope you don't mind as I did not get a better place as almost all of India's Writing community is glued to right now.
    Thank you for this post again... and am hoping to fulfil some of your suggestions this year, and hopefully all in the coming year.
    Good Day and Keep Rocking As Always!!!

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    1. Naveen, you just created another blog to my blog :) Before a few skeletons start tumbling out of the cupboard, sit back, and take a look again at the nominations. Look at it from someone else's eyes/shoes. I don't think anyone wants reasons. We've usually had more than two people for each post. Each candidate told us what their goals would be and we'd also want to know how their work is to be measured. But we don't see any of that happening. It's like a single party system and it's not healthy. What I state above is not just my opinion.
      About the conference itself, do we really need these kits? Do a survey and ask attendees what they value most? Are these bags ever used? It's all about the audience! Get rid of NVA (non value adds). Every problem has a solution. The ability to transfer funds electronically is probably saving participants some charges (as these would probably be passed on) that they would have to bear otherwise, if you were to use a payment gateway. But is that appreciated? Is it making life difficult for organizers? Then it's a problem that needs to be solved. Similarly the sponsorship problem. If you look at today's roads, they were probably a small path in a forest taken by cattle many years ago. Cattle never intended to go from point A to point B. I think we should check if we are also in the same situation. The issues you are facing can't be new. They would have been faced earlier, at least 15 times. But someone decided to continue following that 'path'. That said, it's not that I don't appreciate all the hard work. I do. But maybe, it's time to work smart as well. I really like the way TC World has responded, with a program manager and a council. (There was someone else who was invited to be part of the council, but evidently, the request to stop deleting posts of TWIN was evidently too much of a condition.)

      And here we are playing that game with chairs :)

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    2. Sure Do, Nibu!
      We are working on many things this year... and hopeful to achieve a few... :-)
      Keep sending the feedback and for sure we will be there next year fulfuling most of the end user needs detailed.
      BTW, we are not getting candidates at all for the nominations.. even when asked if you want to contest... Also, planning to do away with the experience of serving STC in some form, which restricts many from nomination.

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