Clarity or Nothing

A distortion is a change in the form of something, usually an object, image or sound. For example, a car can become distorted after an accident. Photographs or videos can become distorted if they are blurred, pixelated, or warped. Sound can be distorted using sound mixers.

Sometimes, the distortion is desirable. To represent our three-dimensional earth as a flat two-dimensional image, the world is distorted using a global map projection. In music, distortions can reduce noise or give the music a fuller sound. Many artworks are distortions of real objects, such as Dali’s melting watches.


Note that the distortions described here apply to our two main senses: sight and sound. You don’t often see descriptions of distortions applied to our other three senses: smell, taste and touch. I’ve yet to hear someone say that a rose smells distorted, a cake tastes distorted, or a blanket feels distorted. The closest someone will come to describing these scenarios is that the object in question is “off”.

Distortions apply not only to our senses, but also our minds. Steve Jobs was notorious for his “reality distortion field”. This described his reluctance to accept the facts as they were, and often demand unrealistic deadlines or feature requests for his products. He would use his charismatic personality to cajole his workers to do the impossible. Sometimes it worked, but it pushed his staff to their mental limits.

Jobs was engaging in a type of cognitive distortion called mental filtering. A cognitive distortion is a flaw in someone’s thought processes, a form of twisted thinking. It causes the thinker to perceive reality incorrectly. Mental filtering involves focusing solely on the negative or positive aspects of something, excluding all other relevant information.

Other types of cognitive distortions include over-generalization (jumping to conclusions based on one piece of evidence) and emotional reasoning (believing that something is true simply because it feels true.)

Distortions can wreak havoc in communication. We can get into trouble when rather than speaking directly to someone about a problem, we insert an intermediary between us and the person we want to speak with. If you’ve ever played “broken telephone”, you see how disastrous this can be.

Communication and language are enormously complex. When we speak with someone, it is not just the content of our words that we are transmitting; it is the tone of those words and our body language. Most communication is nonverbal. Observe two or more people on TV with the volume off. You won’t know what they are saying, but you will know what they are feeling and thinking.

Image result for intermediary

It’s so tempting to use an intermediary when we are reluctant to speak directly with another person. The intermediary becomes a middleman or informational broker. A communication breakdown occurs because when either person talks to the intermediary, the intermediary will unconsciously distort in their minds what they have heard. There is then a further distortion when the intermediary communicates to the second person what the intermediary thinks they heard the first person say. On it goes; with every communication transmission loop, the message continues to be distorted.

The solution is to dismiss the intermediary. Always speak directly with the other person; do not engage in a communication distortion field by adding a third person. However, if both parties absolutely insist on using an intermediary, then have all three people in one room at the same time, with the intermediary acting as a negotiator between the two sides. This will not only eliminate the communication distortion (because each side will be able to hear the other); it can actually decrease the distortion because the intermediary, assuming they are fair and objective, can offer a balanced perspective, and, one hopes, bring the two sides together.

In my thirty years in the workplace, I’ve seen that the primary cause of problems is poor or distorted communication. As a business communicator, I continuously strive to reduce this distortion.

Reducing distortion is known as bringing clarity. Your method of communication, whether oral or written, should be like a glass bowl, clearly displaying the contents of your message, without the medium of the message causing it to be distorted.

To sum up: Avoid third parties. Bring clarity. Banish distortions. 

Are we clear?



6 expressions of nonsense

weasel2As an advocate of clear communication, certain phrases make my blood boil. They are weasel phrases because the speaker is trying to weasel out of what they really should say.

They often begin with the word “we”, itself a way of avoiding “I”, and therefore shifting blame and responsibility to others.

Here are 6 of my favourite weasel phrases:

Phrase: The system failed.

Example: It was no one’s fault that the child starved to death. The system simply failed to meet the child’s needs.

What the phrase really means: I don’t know or care who is at fault, or can’t be bothered to find out.

Phrase: We’ll consider…

Example: We’ll consider not raising fees.

What the phrase really means: I won’t even consider your stupid idea.

Phrase: Mistakes were made.

Example: Mistakes were made during the construction phase, causing the building to fall down and kill everyone inside.

What the phrase really means: We don’t want to tell you who messed up.

Phrase: We encourage…

Example: We encourage the Iranian government to stop torturing people.

What the phrase really means: I know you’ll ignore me completely, so I’ll just ask you to do it, with no consequences if you don’t.

Phrase: My ‘ask’ is…

Example: My ‘ask’ that we have it done in 30 days.

What the phrase really means: I’m trying to sound impressive and clever by converting a verb into a noun.

Phrase: I’m sorry if/but….

Examples: I’m sorry if you were offended;  I’m sorry but that was not my intention.

What the phrase really means: I’m not sorry.

Summing up: My ‘ask’ is that I encourage you to stop using these phrases, but if you don’t, then the system has failed, mistakes were made, and I’m sorry if that disturbs you.


iHate unclear product names

1Apple finally launched its latest iPad. Because it comes after the iPad 2, most everyone expected it to be named the iPad 3, following the naming conventions of the iPhone. Instead, Apple gave it a name that only a marketer could have developed:

The New iPad

If a technical communicator had been asked to name this product, this name would never have entered their mind.

Where to start?

First, how long is this iPad going to be new? One month? Three months? Six months? Major product releases are often a year apart or more. Can you imagine walking into an Apple store a year from now and asking for a “New iPad”? I guess some things have more “new” than others.

Next, what will they call this iPad once the next one is released, assuming it will still be for sale? The Not So New iPad? The iPad Between the New iPad and the Even Newer iPad?

Finally, the iPad 2 is still available, at a reduced price. I can just picture the conversation:

MacHead 1: Hey, I just bought a new iPad!

MacHead 2: You mean the new iPad?

MacHead 1: No, silly, I mean a new iPad 2!

MacHead 2:  So it’s not a new iPad?

MacHead 1: It is a new iPad, it’s just not the new iPad. Geez…what’s so hard to understand?

Why can’t companies stick with clear, self-descriptive names? I admit the traditional naming sequence is boring: Product name 1, Product name 2, Product name 3, and so on. But at least it’s comprehensible.

Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe, like the old Apple slogan use to say, I need to “think different”. To that end, here are my suggested names for the next iPad:

  • The Newerest iPad
  • The Much More Newer iPad
  • The Newer iPad That’s Way Newer Than The New iPad
  • The iPad with New All Over It
  • The Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious iPad, Now With Even More New!

Or maybe we could combine both the marketing approach and the clear communication approach:

  • The iPad 4 – “Who New?”

Apple. Think different. Name stupidly.

A Technical Communication Occupation

The Occupy Movement hurtles towards its expected demise. With the Occupiers (a.k.a. urban campers) now evicted from their various parks, this movement is headed the way of the hippies. As New York City mayor Bloomberg eloquently stated: “Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” What they shall they do to occupy their time?

Has the Occupy movement had any effect? As the Premier of China said when asked in the 1970s about the effect of the French Revolution 100 years prior: “It is too soon to tell.”

Still, there’s lessons to be learned from this movement for technical communicators:

Lesson #1: No leader, no way

Without a leader, a group cannot succeed. The Occupy movement prided itself on having no leader, thereby laboriously deciding everything by committee. Everyone was a leader, so no one was leading. A group with no leader has no future, because there is no one with the vision, authority and responsibility to move the group toward its goals.

That is why every documentation team must have a leader, someone who can guide, enhance and develop the group. With no leader, there is no place for the group to go but off into the various directions each communicator wants to take it. With no leader, there is no way.

Lesson #2: Pursue clarity

The Occupiers had too many demands, and the ones they had were vague, among others: a redistribution of wealth, the restructuring or elimination of capitalism, world peace, a change in the system of government, and protecting the environment. Exactly what the protestors thought each of these entailed and exactly how they were to be implemented is not clear.

Clarity is the essence of effective technical communication. If your documentation is not clear, then you are not clear. If you cannot explain to a stranger a topic you have written, then you are a stranger to clarity.

Go clear, or, like the occupiers, go home.

Lesson #3: Ask Hard Questions

When evaluating news stories such as this, we must do what technical communicators do best: ask what the real, practical effects are.

Regarding the recent evictions, there were only two possibilities before they occurred:

  1. The occupiers would all be evicted, destroying or least severely weakening the movement. Without a physical presence, there is no mental presence. This is exactly what is happening.
  2. The occupiers would be allowed to stay. If this had happened, then the worst thing that could have happened to the movement would have happened: the public would have become used to it. When people get use to something, they forget it, until the NBT (Next Big Thing) comes along.

Now, when evaluating the contents of the document and the document management process, we must ask the same hard questions:

  • Does this make sense?
  • What is the practical value here?
  • What are the logical outcomes of the various choices we can make?

 When evaluating the contents of a document, we ask:

  • What does this contribute to others?
  • Is there a better way to express this?
  • What is missing here?
  • Is anyone really going to care about this?

Similar tough questions need to be asked when looking at the process by which the documentation is created, reviewed, updated and managed:

  • Is there a better way?
  • How can we manage this document more effectively?
  • What are our options, and what is the potential outcome of each?

Companies often fall into a trap of producing poor documents or having poor documentation processes. Their response is often: “That’s how we’ve always done it,” to which our response should be: “Well then, you have always done it wrong.” Another excuse is: “That’s how other groups do it,” to which we respond: “Those other groups are also wrong.”

To effect change, you need to have COP: Creativity, Objectivity, and Perseverance. Specifically, the only way to bring about change in a document or the documentation development process is to be (in this order):

  • ruthlessly objective of the current state
  • incredibly creative when offering the solution
  • mercilessly persistent in actually fixing it

About one in a hundred technical communicators have these three traits.

Are you one of the 1%?

Pizza conflicts

Image result for pizzaMy pizza user guides are hurting my head.

A large store-bought pizza came with not one, but two sets of cooking instructions. One set printed on a label on the front, the other printed on the cardboard back. They specify different cooking times and temperatures.

What’s a hungry tech writer to do?

Using the latest information analysis techniques, I averaged out the temperate and cooking times and analyzed the result. The result was that the pizza cooked rather quickly, so it could be that the front instructions (with the lower temperature) were the more correct ones.

You’d think that the manufacturers of the cardboard backing and the manufacturers of the front label would talk to each other and issue only one set of instructions. They are probably not even aware of each other’s existence.

This is a good case where is less information is more. Better to have one set of instructions than two sets that conflict with each other, a common hazard in our profession.

A no-good lying email

See the source imageImagine my excitement when I received the following email after subscribing to a magazine:

The latest edition of your magazine is now available. Print subscribers: your issue has just been put in the mail. Please watch for it in your mail box in the coming days.

Woo hoo! I would soon be receiving my first printed issue of the magazine. Oh boy, I could hardly wait.

But I did wait. And waited, and waited, and waited some more.

Finally, after waiting about a month, I called customer service. The service rep checked his computer-database, and proclaimed that due to the way new subscriptions are processed, my first edition would not be arriving for another week.

In the words – the email I received was a bald-faced lie. I suggested to him that, er, maybe he should look into this, because it’s “rather disconcerting” to receive an email stating something which is, in fact, not true.

Which was a polite way of saying that the magazine had done a piss-poor job integrating their mailing and emailing systems.

This is a common problem. It happens because there are two types of information in this world:

  • Type A: officially distributed information
  • Type B: the true version of Type A

Because most of the people running organizations are not technical communicators, they have no problem mixing up these types. They will cheerfully send out information they know is incorrect, with the mantra that “hey, nobody reads these things anyway, so what’s the point in trying to get it right?”

As technical communicators, this should make our blood boil, if not explode. Creating, sending or distributing inaccurate or false information is a crime against humanity. Unfortunately, we are the only judges and prosecutors for these transgressions. We’re also ultimately the only ones who care enough to make it right and have the skills to do so.

But for now, I’m dropping the charges.

Too many notes

Related imageThe spectacular 1984 film Amadeus about the life, music and madness of Mozart includes an amusing exchange between the Austrian Emperor Joseph II and Mozart. The Emperor, having just heard Mozart’s opera, gives the following feedback:

“Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

To which Mozart replies: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

The organizers of an electoral recall in British Columbia have run into a similar problem with a document. Elections Canada has rejected the application because it contains too many words.

Or does it? Chief electoral officer Craig James turned down the application because he felt that the acronyms MLA and HST are not two words, but eight. If you replace these acronyms with the words they represent (member of the legislative assembly, and harmonized sales tax) the 200-word maximum is then exceeded.

This is a documentation limitation that only a mindless bureaucrat could come up with. Even if you do count an acronym as more than one word (an obviously ridiculous standard), why would the maximum number of words in an application of this importance be set as low as 200? Surely one page (or about 450 words) would be a more reasonable limit?

In the meantime, the petition organizers need to find a good editor and give the following instructions:

“Note: There are too many notes in our note.”

A Magically Magical Product that’s Full of Magical Magic!

Apple’s a funny entity, somewhere between a corporation and a religion. I’m not a “Mac” person per se, but concede their products are among the few that actual make the news. Other companies would kill to such have constant free publicity. Can you imagine if Chrysler’s latest attempt to build a car actually made headlines? It’ll be a cold day at the North Pole before that happens.

I also appreciate the beauty, elegance, and extreme usability of their products. My first computer, in fact, was an Apple – an Apple IIc laptop, way back in 1985 – I don’t think they even had cars back then.

What a dog the IIc was. It came with a small 9″ ugly puke green monochrome screen and had no hard drive – just a built-in 5 1/4 floppy drive. You had to load the software from the floppy each time. The size of the documents was limited to about 9 pages. Still, it was miles ahead of my old typewriter, and did get me through college.

How times have changed. Apple’s more recent devices are impressive, from the all-in-one desktops, to their phones, and most recently, the iPad.

I’ve played around a bit with the iPad and have to admit it’s pretty cool. However, I don’t like the fact that, unlike a notebook (or smaller netbook), it lays flat; that is, the virtual keyboard is embedded into the screen in one piece, meaning you can’t fold it. It’s just not ergonomic for me – I like to have the keyboard separate from the monitor and at a right angle to it. But that’s just me; millions of other users don’t care, as they have actually bought the thing.

Two of the new owners are my parents, who are Mac people. They recently bought an iPad, and asked their techie son to help set it up. I slowly undid the wrapping and beheld its awesome beauty and simplicity. I turn it on, expecting to see the standard desktop I had seen in the store, but instead a most unusual thing appeared – an image of a USB plug and then the word “iTunes”.


I quickly deduced that the setup procedure involved connecting iPad to the computer, and then opening iTunes. What a waste of good monitor space. Instead of displaying an image and just one word, the iPad startup screen should have given clear instructions:

  1. Connect your iPad to your Apple computer.
  2. Open iTunes.
  3. Follow the setup instructions from the iPad menu in iTunes.

I’m not exactly sure why the iPad doesn’t have a separate setup and configuration application, but I guess it’s because since iTunes and iPad start with the same letter, Apple felt they should live together.

I proceeded to run an update program to ensure I had the latest version of the “magic”. It failed. I tried it again and again it failed. I was taken to a troubleshooting page which listed various solutions, some simple and some about as simple as Japanese mathematics. I thought Apple devices were supposed to make things easier; I certainly wasn’t feeling the magic.

Anyway, by a miracle, I was able to restore the iPad to its factory state. I set up a WiFi connection; it worked, but it was so s-l-o-w.

I told my folks to call their “Mac” guy to figure it out.

Apple lovers – I hate those guys….

Must you be so….human?

Related imageThe winner of the technological quote of the year (so far) is:
Just don’t hold it that way.

This was Steve Jobs‘ initial statement when confronted with reception problems of the iPhone 4. He was responding to the now infamous complaint that the signal strength dropped when the phone was held in a typical fashion.

For someone who has built an empire based on outstanding usability, it was an astonishingly stupid thing to say. Jobs was telling his users: we don’t need to conform our products to you; instead, you need to confirm to our products. In other words: don’t be human.

Jobs’ arrogance is not surprising. His string of recent product successes went straight to his already super-sized head. The greatest danger of success is thinking you can do no wrong. After immense pressure, though, he finally relented, offering a free bumper case to fix the problem, and full refunds to users who wanted them.

The simple lesson is this: usability, that is, designing a product with the end user in mind, isn’t just one thing – it’s every thing. I continually see examples of poor documentation design where the user’s needs were an afterthought, if they were a thought at all.

Here are some recent cases:

  • An investment company sent me some forms to sign. I dutifully signed and returned them all. Later, I received one of the forms back. It turns out that even though it had areas highlighted in yellow for me to sign, date and initial, it was my copy. The only thing indicating this were the tiny words in the bottom right corner stating: Copy 1, Client. Typically, when I receive client copies, they are visibly marked with a stamp or a post-it note, stating: CLIENT COPY – PLEASE RETAIN.
  • My credit card statement is a spectacular example of wasted space. Each 8 1/2 x 11 page lists only about 20 transactions, which take up about 20% of the page. The information on the remaining 80% (the payment portion, any special news or announcements, the total purchases and balance, and the interest) is unnecessarily duplicated on every page. And the legal information is duplicated on the back of each page! It’s not uncommon for my statements to be five or more pages. This isn’t just a waste of paper: it makes it harder for me to locate and review all the transactions, because I have so many pages to waft through. The information that only needs to appear once should only appear once. With the space gained, a five-page statement could be reduced to one or two pages. There should also be a line space separating each set of transactions by date, again to make it easier to read through them.
  • Our garbage pick-up schedule indicated that July 1, the Canada Day holiday, was a pick-up day. Chaos and confusion ruled on our streets. Some people thought this must be a misprint, and did not leave their garbage out. Others took a chance and did take out their garbage. It turns out it was a pickup day, to allow the workmen to enjoy a long weekend. A simple asterisked note on the calender would have avoided all this confusion, for example: Note: This is a collection day despite the official holiday.

Usability must permeate every of your work. It means doing things like:

  • creating TOCs that can quickly be glanced through to give an aerial view of the product
  • writing conceptual overviews that leave no doubt about what the object or item in question is, and which include real-world examples and analogies where possible
  • including overviews in tasks and then explaining the task in simple, easy-to-digest steps
  • avoiding long sentences and paragraphs
  • using fonts and page layouts that are clean, simple and readable
  • breaking up large blocks of text with headings
  • creating indices that anticipate all the different ways a user could look up a topic

Not doing these things results in unusable documentation. Our response cannot be:
Just don’t read it that way.

Our response must be:
Just what is the way you read it?

Why info systems fail

See the source imageIf you only have time to read one news article today, read this one from the Financial Post.

Don’t leave IT to the techies – Three problems lead to system failures describes in sickening detail the amounts wasted on failed information systems, and the main causes of these failures.

An astounding 68% of information technologies projects fail. This costs the world economy about $6.2-trillion a year. That’s about $200,000 a second; imagine all the tech writers you could buy with that.

Here is the most important line in this article: “…failure, in most cases, has little to do with the technology and everything to do with the business process.”

Specifically, the three main causes of IT project failure are:

  • the project manager failing to understand the business requirements
  • the system’s users not being involved in its design
  • senior management failing to get involved in the project

This is true of any IT project, including any documentation or content management system.

If the documentation manager does not understand the specific business requirements of the proposed system, it will fail.

If the information developers are not involved in choosing or designing a system, or if the system is too difficult to use, it will fail.

If senior management (which can include VPs, CFOs, CIOs or any other alphabet soup) does not support or get involved in the project, it will fail.

It’s a cliché but it’s true – people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.

Finally, in the one minute it took you to read this blog entry, another $12 million was wasted…