Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why do people listen to me?

And more importantly, why will they listen to you? I find myself mentoring writers who would like to get published or speak at conferences, and I notice that most have the same reticence: "I don't have anything important or new to say."

Yesterday I read my speaker's bio for the upcoming UA Europe 2009 conference and felt quite abashed. (The one in my preconference workshop description was even more 'abashing.') My initial reaction was "I've got to meet this guy." Like those who seek my advice on speaking and writing with authority and influence, my reaction was "I don't deserve those words." It reminded me of the first time I spoke at a WritersUA conference where I had one of the big rooms. I saw my title slide on a screen that was bigger than the flag backdrop in the movie Patton, and I wanted to tell the audience that what I had to say did not deserve a screen that big.

So I pondered all this on my drive to work this morning and asked myself how I had become a pundit. Actually, it's an important question because all technical communicators are in the business of speaking with authority and influence, and often we feel inadequate in the role. Like who am I to be writing about firewall rules in a help file meant for network security professionals?

The following curve came to me on I285 (it was rush hour and traffic was slow). The best part is that I got to see my love of bell curves and Sufism converge.

Click graph to enlarge

Pundits are not the leaders of the pack. In the adoption curve, I've always come into the party pretty late in the game [sound of mixed metaphors colliding], but that is where the pundit adds value. Up to that point, the innovators and early adopters have been tightly focused on details. In a way they are like the blind men in the Sufi tale, each feeling only a part of the elephant. Only someone joining in late can see the elephant as a whole. It is the role of the pundit to say "It's an elephant."

How do the innovators and early adopters react to this? "Duh, no lie, Einstein."

How do those coming behind the pundit react? "Wow, that is so cool, I get it."

The secret is to not compare yourself to the really smart people who have gone before you--that is way depressing, trust me. Instead, look at what you can offer to those coming behind. And incidentally, look at the area of that curve! What? 100 million people who can benefit from technology such and such, and a third are already doing it? That's 33 million folks in line ahead of you. Oh wait, that's 67 million behind you.

So recognize that as a technical communication professional, you're getting involved with products and technologies often at the sweet spot: Early enough to have a sizable audience that's not there yet, and late enough to have the vantage point to be able to see the elephant in the details.

Write about it, speak about it, let yourself get a little recognition for it. Just never quit blushing at the sales hype about you and wanting to "meet THAT guy."


Milan Davidovic said...

"I find myself mentoring writers who would like to get published or speak at conferences, and I notice that most have the same reticence: "I don't have anything important or new to say." "

It seems, from this, as though some people have a desire for an audience in advance of their ability to provide that audience with something of value. Would you agree?

Mike Hughes said...

It's not that so much, although I think there is a desire for recognition at play. But more so, it's a self-deprecation that is programmed into many of us. That and the misconception that those who are currently publishing and speaking are a lot smarter than they really are.

Margaret said...


People listen to you because you are not afraid to express your opinions, ask questions, or discuss ideas with others. People who, like you, can do these things are the ones asked to take over the chairmanship of a committee in dire need of a chairman, to run for a chapter or society office because good candidates who can speak in public without embarrassing said organization are needed, or to give a program on short notice when a scheduled speaker couldn't make it.

In other words, you have been willing in STC and in your career to stick your neck out and step up to the plate when someone needed to. And of course, once you have stepped up and got a hit once, all eyes turn your way the next time a "qualified" candidate for the next position is wanted. I, and I'm sure many others in STC, are glad you did. And we expect you to give those who are looking to you for direction a push to step up and pinch hit, too.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! You said things I didn't even know I thought... ;-)