Technical communicators and content strategists tend to have a skewed view of communications. We tend to think of communications principally in terms of publications. But publications have never been the sole or even primary means by which communication takes place, and in the age of the Web, the role of publications in communication is diminishing. As I have remarked more than once before, the Web is not a publication, it is a colloquium. To move forward in the modern world, we need to correct the long-standing publications skew in the way we look at communications.
This reflection is prompted by a recent blot post by David Farbey, Cake instructions: bake before eating. Farbey likens distributing an office document in Microsoft Word to eating a cake before baking it.
If your document is still being developed, or if you are asking others for review comments, that’s fine, but once your document is in its final form you really don’t want anyone to mess with it. You want it to be no-longer-editable. Making your document no-longer-editable means printing it, either to paper, or to PDF, or to some other non-editable format. That is a fundamental change to the nature of the document, in the same way that putting your cake mix in a baking tin in the oven and baking it fundamentally changes its nature too. It stops being a mix, and becomes a cake. Hurrah.
This is a very publication-skewed metaphor. Baking the cake is like publishing the document. The act of publishing changes its state. Once fluid and mutable, it becomes something fixed and unchangeable. The implication here is that this is the proper and intended destiny of every document: that it will go through a period of development and then, when it is “finished”, it will reach a fixed and immutable final form. It will be published.
But this is not actually what most written communication is intended for. Most writing is never published in this sense. It is not intended for finality or for fixedness. It is not a proto-publication. It is part of an extended conversation.
There are several reasons why conversation by direct speech is not sufficient for all our conversational needs. The need to extend the conversation over time and distance is part of it. But more importantly, there is a need to allow for fuller statements of a position than the dynamic of face to face exchange allows for.
Thus, speeches have formed part of our academic and political culture from the beginning. They allow the speaker the space to marshal evidence and multiply supporting arguments in favor the the point they are making. But they do not fix the matter in final form. They are still a form of conversation. One speech is answered by another, which is answered by still another.
It is why we have business meetings today, and why we have prepared agendas for those meetings, and why we often give presentations with slides showing charts and graphs — because we need to bring a measure of structured and discipline to conversation — and not because we don’t want it to be a conversation, but because we want it to be a conversation the takes in all that is relevant, and considers it in sufficient depth and detail to allow the conversation to result in a meaningful business decision. And it is the business decision, not the publication of the material that led to it, which is the deliverable and the desirable end of this business process.
Another important aspect of conversation is that it allows us to shape the message differently for different audiences. We can adapt what we say to each person in turn, accommodating the message to their level of understanding, their knowledge, and the level of privilege. Most business documents are never final. They are modified and quoted and borrowed from as they pass from one function to another and one level of hierarchy or privilege to another. The message is reshaped at every stage of its journey as it is passed from one person to another. The last restatement of that message is not the final or publishable form. Every restatement along the way was intended for the specific audience it was addressed to. The last revision is the last not because the document has reached perfection but because the message has run out of people to be passed on to. This is why people want business documents in an editable form.
Most of the technical communications content on the Web is not a publication, but part of an extended conversation. Forums, and sites like LinkedIn and Facebook exist mostly to foster extended conversations. Blogs, with their comment capabilities, and the author’s eager desire for comments, are a form of extended conversation. Beyond that, one sees the emergence of blogversations in which an idea is introduced in one blog post and then taken up and expanded upon or refuted in someone else’s blog. I engage in blogversations quite regularly with folks like Tom Johnson, Val Swisher, and Larry Kunz, and now, in this post, with David Farbey.
Even more publication-like things on the Web become part of extended conversations. If the piece itself is not comment-enabled, it can be tweeted and blogged about an hashed and dissected on forums.
Still, it is easy to see why tech writers and content strategists may have a view that is skewed toward publication. Most of them work in departments that have traditionally produced publications, and many of them have the word “publications” in their name. In many ways “technical publications” and “technical communication” are treated as synonyms. But this is just a skew inherited from the paper world where distribution was burdensome, and so you needed the polish and the finality of publication to justify the cost of distribution.
And then there is the matter of the craftsman’s longing for an artifact to point to as evidence of their accomplishment. To most people who create and distribute content in a business and on the Web, the content is merely a means to an end. Their validating artifact is the design or the product or the lead or the sale. But for the professional writer, the artifact is the document itself. We need the finality and the fixedness of a publication so that we can have something to point to and say: that’s it. That’s mine. That’s what I made. That is who I am.
Alas, however, our desire for a validating artifact is not a business justification for choosing business processes and tools that are skewed toward publication when what the business actually needs are tools that facilitate an extended conversation.
Instead, I would suggest, it is on us to learn to validate ourselves in other ways. And at the end of the day, this should not be so hard. Out job is to communicate, and our validating artifact should not be the document, but the living human being who once did not understand and now does. That is the artifact that validates the work of teachers and of parents, and it should be good enough for us too.