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Communication Catalysts: Changing the World by Doing our Jobs

March 2, 2014

Day 2 of the 31-Day Blogging Challenge.

A couple of years ago, Jack Molisani (www.lavacon.org) asked me to do a lightning talk. I immediately said, “Sure! Looks like fun!” Then, he asked what my topic would be, and without thinking, I blurted, “Changing the World”. Upon reflection, I said to myself, “Oh snap! I have 5 minutes to change the world! Ack!” The lightning talk went well at Lavacon and at the STC Summit (www.stc.org), and has since morphed into a full-blown talk that I have given for STC Rocky Mtn. Chapter (www.stcrmc.org) and as an STC webinar. In April, I will give an updated version of this talk at the STC Rochester Spectrum conference.

I have to tell you a little story of how this topic came up. I’ve had Comgenesis for 11 years now, and was looking for ideas for changing my tagline from “Content Design and Development”—adequate, but a bit boring and it doesn’t really encompass all that I do—to something punchier and more alliterative that brings in my interest in global communication. I posted on the STC CIC SIG list for help, and many people provided great suggestions, including “Changing the World through Communication”. Someone on the list said that that tagline seemed a bit presumptuous and asked if I really thought I could really change the world. I thought about it, concluded that the answer is an emphatic “YES we all do”, and then went all meta and philosophical in my response to the SIG list. This is part of what I came up with.

I got to thinking about what does “changing the world” really mean, and how does it happen? Can one person really change the world?

I concluded that not only can one person change the world, that is usually how it starts—with a catalyst. One person or a small group of people who decide that the status quo isn’t working and they do something about it. I don’t think most people think, “Hey, I’m going to change the world today.” Instead, I think that they see a problem that bothers them, and they try to fix it.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Of course, fixing the problem can cause change that is big or small, plodding or accidental, positive or negative. Which it is depends on timing, intention, and which side of the change you are on.

And, most of the time, people don’t ever find out how much they have changed something because the effects often don’t become known until much later. Of course, we could get really philosophical here by saying that someone’s mere existence changes the world (Earth is after all a mostly closed system). However, the change caused by someone’s mere presence can be very subtle, and it’s often only at a person’s funeral that you see how much he/she affected those around them. Unfortunately, that person probably never realized the impact of his/her life because no one told them, and now, well….they are dead and can’t hear it. Ironic, isn’t it?!

So what does this have to do with technical communication?

There’s an old joke that says that “communication is the second oldest profession.” They might not be far off.

Do those cave paintings represent art or tell a tribe of cave dwellers how to conduct the hunt properly? We will likely never know for sure. Stone tablets recovered from archeological sites include recipes and instructions.

The Rosetta Stone is the first example of a translation memory. The scriptoriums of the Middle Ages churned out one copy of a book every 5-10 years. The advent of the printing press meant that copies could be made in months instead of years, and libraries had 100s of books instead of only a few.

Offset printing shrank it to days, and libraries grew to 1000s of books. The advent of the computer shrank it to minutes, and now content created in one country can be available on the other side of the planet or at the Space station seconds later.

It often feels like we are drinking from a fire hose because of the sheer volume of content available.

We are part of the infrastructure.

One of the reasons that we struggle to define our profession is that we touch everything—every product, process, and service on this little blue marble. But, just like the roads and bridges, if we are doing our jobs well, no one notices the content, right?! Until something goes wrong that is…

We are part of the infrastructure that keeps the world economies ticking along. We might not think that our efforts matter, but they do. We support the tools and technology, the processes and services, that enable the cool stuff to happen.

Let’s rethink how we view our work.

Without us, inventors would have a harder time designing, communicating, selling, and building their inventions, people would be less safe on the job, people would die because they didn’t know how to care for a particular disease or how to feed their children better, governments would fall because no one could communicate the legal information to the public and could speak to each other about diplomatic issues—the list goes on and on. We matter!

Redefine success.

If you define success as public recognition for a job well-done, you will be bitterly disappointed in this profession. Why? Because when we do our jobs well, our work is transparent to the user. This means that we need to find other ways to define success and to promulgate our value…

So, how do you define success? What are your metrics?

One of my favorite essays on the topic is “Success” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exhultation; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived–this is to have succeeded.”

Conclusion

So, yes I want to change the world. I want to leave it in better condition than it was when I arrived; I want our profession to be better and stronger because I participated in it. I want to leave every interaction on a positive note. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Pollyanna and I recognize that there are serious issues in the world and in our profession, but it’s still a worthy goal….

Oh, and the tagline I ultimately chose? “Communication for a Connected World”.