Lessons from the 2011 Canadian Election

The results of Canada’s recent federal election were truly stunning. If you’re not Canadian (or are but have been living under a rock), here are the results:

  • the Conservatives won a majority of the districts (or seats), capturing 167, up from 143
  • for the first time ever, the NDP formed the official opposition by winning 102 seats, up from 37
  • the Liberal party was reduced to third place, winning only 34 seats, down from 77
  • the separatist Bloc party in Quebec was reduced to “junk bond” status, down from 49 seats to only 4, out of 75 seats in that province

What can technical communicators learn from all this?

Let the learning begin…

Lesson #1: Stability and change can co-exist

The election results were paradoxical to say the least. Only 40% of Canadians voted for the ruling Conservative party. However, voters also left the Liberal party in droves, elected more NDP MPs than ever, and dumped the ruling Bloc party in Quebec.

Did voters vote for change or for more of the same? They did both. Due to the peculiar nature of our first-past-the-post voting system, the Conservatives gained only 2% in the popular vote, but 17% more seats, more than enough to obtain a majority. At the same time, the NDP gained 13% in the popular vote, but increased their seat count a staggering 175%. The numbers don’t lie, but they sure tell a funny story.

Existing documentation projects, as well as software, share a similar paradoxical quality. They must be stable enough so that current users can continue to use them without getting lost or confused. At the same time, documentation is constantly evolving as the product changes and the documents are updated.

Striking the right balance between stability and change is one of the great challenges of our profession. That’s why is often liberating to work on new projects, but even then, they often need to be developed within existing standards. 

Lesson #2: Sometimes less is more

NDP leader Jack Layton gained more seats and is now the official opposition party. It may seem the NDP gained more power, but strangely, they may have even less. This is because previously the NDP was one of three parties that held the balance of power. The NDP could and did threaten to join with the other parties to bring down the government. Under the current Conservative majority government, the NDP have lost that power. That is, they won, but they also lost, showing that less is sometimes more.

“Less is more” is one of the axioms of our profession. Shorter, concise paragraphs and topics are much more powerful and effective than longer ones. In other words, “when in doubt, leave it out.

Lesson #3: Hubris is death

As described previously, the leaders of the Liberal and Bloc parties joined forces with the NDP to bring down the government and force an election. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe believed he would continue his winning streak in Quebec. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff hoped to become the next Prime Minister, or, at the very least, increase his party’s seat count. Each of them conveniently provided the noose around which to hang their own neck.

Not only were the seat counts drastically reduced for these two parties, both leaders lost in their own riding. They had no choice but to resign, leaving each of their parties in tatters.

If there’s one thing the public cannot tolerate, it is the politician who gives even the slightest impression that they are “owed” a victory. Arrogance, hubris, and a sense of entitlement are all a death sentence in politics.

Political campaigns are one long job interview, where each leader tries to convince you to “hire” them through your vote. Hubris is the last quality you want to exhibit in an interview. You need to strike the right balance between confidence and humility. You want to show that you know your stuff, but are not a “know it all”.

In addition, technical communicators are often called on to be user advocates. We push for simplicity, clarity, and consistency, not just in our documentation but in the products and services we document. However, we must realize we do not own these products: the product managers and others who work directly with the end user do. We can advise, but we cannot dictate, for that is the essence of hubris.

Lesson #4: “Top” and “bottom” are interchangeable

The Conservatives are now on top; the Liberals on the bottom. This is not a permanent arrangement. Unless you are living in a one-party state, the ruling party never stays in power indefinitely. As high as the winning party is now is exactly how high the losing party will eventually be. Top and bottom are but temporary states.

Now, if you have made the transition from a traditional, book-based authoring environment to a topic-based one, this principle becomes apparent. Instead of creating pages, chapters and books, you create individual topics that can stand on their own. You assemble and organize these topics into logical groups, such as the TOC folders within an online help system. You can easily move these topics around, quickly relocating them from the top of a document to the bottom, or anywhere else. Again, top and bottom are but temporary states. 

Lesson #5: Take your time

The Liberals now have about four years to rebuild their party. They should use the time wisely, and not rush, otherwise they will never recover. A “sub-lesson” to this lesson is that those who do not remember the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat it.

For any document or documentation process, especially if it is new, take your time. It’s a cliché to say, but most people don’t plan to fail – they fail to plan. More documentation projects fail or are much more difficult than they need to be because no-one took the time to stop and carefully analyze the requirements and implementation process. They just dove right and started developing content, without first deciding how the content would be used or identifying who would actually be reading it.

I often hear the refrain “we don’t have time to do that”. I would counter that you don’t have time not to. The Liberals have all the time in the world – do you envy them? 

Lesson #6: Branding is everything

The final and most important lesson from the election is the importance of branding.

A brand is the idea or image of a product or service that people can connect with. Branding is the communication of this idea (through marketing) so that it is perceived as being uniquely recognizable from other products or services.

When we think of brands, we typically think of large companies such as Coca Cola, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, and Toyota. However, brands can be applied to anything – even you. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Political parties know the importance of branding. To put it mildly, the Liberal brand has been suffering for the last few years. Their continued drop in popularity and seat count was inevitable, no matter who was leading the party. The Bloc’s brand was associated with sovereignty – a concept that most Quebeckers seem to have rejected for now with their embrace of the federalist NDP.

The NDP’s branding, especially in Quebec, was simple and brilliant. One of their Quebec TV ads had dogs barking at each other, with the tag line: “Always the same debates that lead nowhere”, followed by “It’s time for a change. Work together.” This branding was so powerful it catapulted the NDP from one seat in Quebec to 58. Some of the new MPs were university students, including a nineteen year-old voting for the first time in his life. Another student did not even live in the riding she was running for, and was on vacation for part of the campaign. It did not matter; such is the power of branding.

Think that branding doesn’t apply to you? Think again. When you have a job interview, and even after you’ve been hired, you are a brand. You must demonstrate and transmit the key qualities that define you as a technical communicator, and a person. These could include: outstanding communication skills, efficiency, patience, knowledge, technical expertise, a team player, and above all, an improver. In an interview, you must clearly show in your work experience that you are passionate about your profession and have actively enhanced the quality of the documentation and the documentation process. That is your brand – your brand is you.

These are the lessons from the election. There are many others. Anyone who wants to discover these has my vote.

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