STC2008 – Writing as an Asynchronous Conversation

I had high expectations for Ginny Redish’s talk at STC this year, and she did not disappoint. It was wonderful to have my ideas about conversation and technical communication vetted and couched in academic terms such as linguistics, pragmatics, and so forth. Here are my notes. Please let me know if this is useful to you and if you have any suggestions for my liveblogging skills.

Writing as an Asychronous Conversation
Ginny Redish

Our conversation is synchronous – at the same time.
The term Asynchronous means at different times.

Book = Letting Go of the Words

Conversation as a theme for all we do as technical communicators.

Asked – how many of you have a different degree other than technical communication? Nearly everyone raises their hands. Ginny’s background is linguistics.
Exploring – all the new social media ways that technical information is shared through written conversations – participatory media as discussed by Harold Reingold in the keynote session

Boundaries – not discussing Skype or VOIP (it’s synchronous and it’s not written, it’s voice), not talking about IM or chat because it’s synchronous, not talking about AI (computers talking, Eliza).

Think about a recent trip to the web – why did you go, what were you doing? How much was that a conversation?

Caroline Jarrett’s model of forms – appearance (looks), conversation – jam in the middle of the sandwich (how it talks with the user), relationship (does it set up trust, credibility?)
We’ve been writing these for a while… UI, Error message – dialog boxes are conversation

The conversation is often prefaced with “How do I?”

Think of conversation as turn taking – it’s not always explicit, but you’re anticipating questions – implied conversation. Example – “What’s in the box?” – Hardware includes a SIM card (implied next question, “What’s a SIM card?” placed in a textbox) Last question after listing all the contents of the box, “Missing something?”

Another example – bulleted list “If you want to do this, here’s how” It’s a conversational way to do things, and there’s research to show it. Doesn’t have to be questions, can be “If/Then.”

Not this – Issuance of a TOP command results in a line zero condition.
This! To go to the beinning of your file, type TOP and press Enter.

Linguistics research on pragmatics (language in use, the context) The context may cause the utterance to have a meaning. Speech act theory – in many cases the spoken words are not taken literally, but you must understand the meaning behind the words.

4 maxims of conversation from Wikipedia – Gricean_maxims
If these are violated, cooperation/agreement declines.
Deborah Tannen – sociolinguist, misunderstandings because of the meta message behind the message – cultural, gender understandings.

Do not make your contribution more informative than is required – minimalist principles.

Person 1 – I’m low on gas.
Person 2 – There’s a station around the corner.
Assumptions – they’re in a car, that it’s a car fuel that they’re talking about
What if Person one responds, I know that, but I left my wallet at home – repairing the conversation. In writing, we have to anticipate the conversation so well that we think about how the conversation is interpreted and the user’s next question and response.
Person 2 has reason to believe that the gas station is open and is selling gas.

Next conversation – a good one or not? NO
To exit the program, type Quit and press Enter.
Be sure to save your files before you do that.
Actual example from a manual that Ginny has reviewed.

Implications of following Grice’s maxims:
know your users, what they know, and their context
think about interpretation (write so as not to be misunderstood)
realize that context changes
turn taking – give and take turns

Examples from Caroline Jarret, open university web forms
points – what are points, do you need them to graduate or to enter the program?

Pat Sullivan, Purdue University – dissertation from Carnegie Mellon, read only as far as what they thought would solve the problem.

Write with first things first – context first.
Approved fumigation with methyl bromide at normal atmospheric pressure in accordance with the following procedure, upon arrival at the port of entry, is hereby prescribed as a condition of importation for shipments of yams from foreign countries. (paraphrased)

Give and take in conversation
are pieces of info right sized for what user wants a s a chunk – too much (fire hose, wall of words), too little at a time (have to click Next too often)
are questions grouped logically

LiveValidation example:
Say “hello” to LiveValidation (form box)
if you don’t type fast enough, webform responds “How come you’ve not said ‘hello’ yet?”

CHI to HHI? Should it be not computer-human interaction but human-human interaction through the computer?
Tee hee, right when Ginny asked, are information products going away? Her slide show went on screen save mode.

More people go to Google than the user manual – should you spend resources contributing to the customer forum instead of expecting users to go to the manual?

Future of information for students – ? textbooks replaced by spectrum of web pages

Think “conversation.”
write conversations.
Facilitate conversations.

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3 responses to “STC2008 – Writing as an Asynchronous Conversation

  1. Hi Anne, thanks for blogging the conference for those of us stuck at the office! Love this session post… and reading the maxims. My favorite maxim: “Be relevant.” Writers want their work to be relevant to someone and social media gives us a chance to get to know the people who need our writing.

  2. Melissa Burpo

    Nice summary. I like how you prefaced each tidbit with an intro word or phrase.

  3. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for a very full and accurate report on Ginny’s session which I was at as well. Ginny always has very telling insights, and the “communication is conversation” idea is a powerful one. It’s so different from most standard tech communication and many web sites where the aim is to tell the reader/visitor everything you have to say – without being interested in the reader/visitor’s questions.

    David

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