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Q&A with Anne Gentle

Our own Anne Gentle has just released a book called Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation. We caught up with Anne to ask her a few questions about her new book.

STC Austin: In addition to your love of reading books and your desire to teach/learn, what other motivations compelled you to author Conversation and  Community: The Social Web for Documentation?

Anne Gentle: I felt compelled to write this book to capture this point in time - a time when user-created content is getting enough notice for Time magazine to name the person of the year "You." As a wiki writer working on the open source education projects for One Laptop per Child and SugarLabs, I was seeing technical writing in a new light and I wanted to chronicle my experiences. Writing content that could be commented on and edited by other community members was different from a traditional technical writing role. Writing blog entries as a technical writer representing BMC Software was also rather unusual at the time I was doing it, in fall of 2005. We were working on the talk.bmc.com site because of a belief in the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Often I outlined or wrote sections of the book rather than write a blog entry twice a week. Little by little it formed into a book, with the help of Kelly Holcomb, my good friend and editor who would read the sections, ask questions to fill in the gaps, and stitch it together. I also am in debt to the writing communities and writers that gave me the experiences from which I gathered tales as examples. I wanted it to be in book format to reach a different audience than my typical blog readers. I wanted the book format to give more credibility to the premise that the social web is important enough that just another blog writing about it wasn't enough, that the value here was enough for a publisher to invest in it. XML Press is the perfect publisher for that, because it provides content that helps technical communicators be more effective in their work and value proposition. What better value proposition can we provide than to get closer to our customers, understanding their needs and responding to them quickly.

STC Austin: In light of your research and exploration about communities, what recommendations can you provide STC Austin and "community managers" in general to build a stronger connection among members? For example, you write about the distinction between the community and the tools that build the community. Do we have the right mix?

Anne Gentle: I'm currently serving on a special Social Media Task force for the STC where we wrote a report about different social media tools and how they can be applied to help the STC reach its goals as an association with social media. We first discussed the goals of the organization, separate from the tools themselves. I think this technique was extremely helpful because it wouldn't allow for arguments like, "Twitter is cool, all the cool kids are doing it" and instead forced people to evaluate the community benefits from a particular tool.

On a local chapter level, the goals may be slightly different from the larger organization, but I think some of the goals can be spelled out this way (in no particular order of priority).

  • Listen and learn: How are we getting to know the membership, learning what stakeholders are saying about our chapter, and discovering who are the influencers?
  • Build relationships: How can STC Austin develop relationships between chapter members, reach the influencers, and generally enable relationship building? How can officers in chapters build relationships to other officers in other chapters, and reach out to the chapter members as servant leaders? Building relationships also turns prospect members into members, so goals related to growth fall into this category.
  • Grow reputation: We want to improve how others think about the chapter and make responses to feedback through social media channels possible.
  • Generate content: The chapter should encourage stakeholders to create content about the organization and share it with others and discuss it with people.
  • Raise awareness: The chapter should let the general public know what the STC is, what our chapter provides, what technical communicators do, offer help to potential students, to employers, and to employees so that they know what technical communication is, and what is its value.

Any tool selection would then be matched up with helping the community reach a particular goal. For example, our chapter website is built on Joomla with the specific "generate content" goal in mind. We also use the sidebar feed of content from Austin-based authors' blogs to listen and learn from the members and to recognize the influencers. The same line of reasoning would go for adding the STC_Austin Twitter feed to the site. Last year the chapter set up a LinkedIn group which can help members build relationships locally. I think we're doing many of the right things because they are in line with our chapter goals.

STC Austin: In response to the current economic downturn, how do you think your book helps technical communicators weather the storm?

Anne Gentle: I think my book, Conversation and Community, keeps an eye towards the future of web-based content and looks for ways that technical communicators can provide what employers want from their content. We have many skills that are completely transferable to the social web - tagging is taxonomy, good writing generates good, findable content, structure and organization increases usability of content, and task analysis creates content that people want to find. For my current employer I am volunteering to write blog entries, researching the viability of a wiki solution for user assistance, and talking with people at ASI on the importance of listening and reaching out to customers in the appropriate channels. My hope is that my book gives people ideas for looking inside their own company and organizations to find ways to volunteer to apply their existing skill set in a new way.

It's possible that the future career path for technical communicators ends up with a Chief Content Officer at the top - find ways to make your content relevant and sharable so the entire company understands its value to customers, both internal and external. A social media strategy is one component of an overall content strategy.