10 tips for frequent travelers

May 31, 2007

I’ve been traveling more in the last three months than I ever have before in my career. The experience has given me a new appreciation for the protagonist in Anne Tyler’s book The Accidental Tourist who was obsessed with conducting painless business travel to the point of re-creating the comforts of his living room and bedroom on the plane trips and in his hotel rooms.

Despite my short time on the road, I’m ready to dispense advice to the “newbies” behind me in line at the security checkpoint

  1. Wear shoes with socks—not sandals—to the airport.
    You do not want to walk barefoot at Hartsfield-Jackson (or any other airport) where millions of stinky, germ-infested feet have trod.
  2. Stuff a few healthy snacks into your bag.
    You never know when you’ll be one of those wretched victims forced to sit elbow to elbow with other hapless souls on the tarmac for hours. (Why don’t they let people off the plane?) On my way to the Seattle STC conference two years ago, I sat next to a fellow STCer who mistakenly though that the M on her ticket meant “Meal.” It was, after all, a five-hour flight spanning the lunch and supper hours. (It actually meant “Movie.”) Fortunately, I had packed a sandwich and was able to give her half. I made a friend and prevented a seatmate from getting grumpy. Win-win
  3. Collect your points.
    Virtually every hotel chain has a points system that rewards you with freebies. “Starwood is the best” I was told. With Delta emerging from bankruptcy, your SkyMiles will still be usable.
  4. Consider the Crowne Room or other airline executive club.
    Last summer we were grounded in Atlanta for seven hours on our way to a family reunion in Maine. We paid for a single visit to the Delta Crowne Room where we got snacks, drinks, wireless, and comfortable chairs to curl up in. If you are stuck in an airport, you can buy a one-day pass to the Crowne Room for only $25 and save yourself the noise, stress, and discomfort of “steerage” waiting areas. Your boss might even allow you to expense it if you explain the circumstances.
  5. Pack your swimsuit.
    It doesn’t take up much room and a refreshing dip in the hotel pool can be just the ticket at the end of a long day of meetings.
  6. Wear black.
    It hides the dirt and looks classy in almost any situation.
  7. Check your bag.
    Unless you’ve managed to dump all your toiletries in to 3-oz. containers and can survive without a nail file or scissors on your trip.
  8. Pack for contingencies because stuff happens. Here’s a good checklist from David Allen’s Web site.
    • I always bring flipflops or slippers in case the hotel rug is scuzzy.
    • Earplugs take up no room and can mean the difference between no sleep and a restful night.
    • Throw in one dose of standard meds: for stomach upset, congestion, headaches, etc.
    • Bring a small, strong flashlight.
    • A simple closepin will do wonders to keep those pesky hotel curtins closed.
  9. Bring a book (or two) to read.
    I’m going through two novels on every trip. They are great company when I have to eat alone at a restaurant. When I can’t sleep, I read until I can’t keep my eyes open. And a good story takes your mind off of delayed flights, bumpy turbulence, or taxicabs stuck in traffic.
  10. Adopt healthy on-the-road habits.
    It’s tempting order the comfort foods on the menu after a hectic day of travel and meetings, especially if the company is paying the tab. And if the hotel fitness center isn’t your thing, it can be hard to find ways to exercise.
    Here’s a good video from Spark People with exercises you can do at your desk or in your hotel room.

KeyContent.org: Wiki on

May 29, 2007

Stumbled upon Keycontent.org. It’s free to join and then you can add your 2 cents to the content. If you to practice working with a wiki, this might be the place to start. It’s a wiki and a blog with a mission similar to this blog:

Our mission is to provide a place where expert content developers, technical communicators, information architects, and web designers can come and express their views about the profession. . . created for and by professionals who want to keep up with the important issues in the transformation of technical communication.

The site includes articles as well, including some “reprints” from the Carolina Communique, the online newsletter of the Carolina STC Chapter, which is also a wiki disguised as a Web site (or vice versa).

T-COMmons Summer Meet and Greet: June 21

May 28, 2007

Looking to broaden your network of technical communication peers? Want to socialize with Southern Polytechnic State University students? Want to connect with SPSU alumni and other professionals? You need to attend the T-COMmons Summer Meet and Greet!

WHAT: T-COMmons Summer Meet and Greet

WHERE: Delkwood Grill, 2769 Delk Road, SE, Marietta, Georgia

WHEN: Thursday, June 21, 2007, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Come mingle with other technical communication professionals, students, and supporters. Order off Delkwood Grill’s menu of Americana food and learn more about the T-COMmons community.

Information available on http://www.tcommons.org/events.htm or email events@tcommons.org for more details.

Rob Houser on Vista help

May 26, 2007

At last Tuesday night’s STC meeting, Rob Houser discussed “How will Vista’s online help affect the future of documentation?” Look for the podcast on Michelle’s site and go to Rob’s site for the slides.

In recent years the listserves have been buzzing with speculations, revelations, and exclamations about Longhorn, then Vista help and its impact on our work. To be honest, I tuned out the discussion because I didn’t see an immediate impact on my own work. So I was happy to have Rob pull it all together and present an overview. Here are some things I learned.

  1. Vista help has no index.
    The assumption was that users would search rather than use an index. An unfortunate decision because—as Rob pointed out—many people do not know how to conduct an effective search. An index is a useful backup to help you pinpoint what you are looking for.
  2. With Vista, you are offered several ways to get assistance:
    • Traditional help
    • “Ask someone” (a friend, the Windows communities forum, or Microsoft support)
    • Embedded help in a dialog box or window
    • Guided Help
  3. Guided Help is the coolest innovation in Vista.
    You can choose to have it automatically complete the steps for you while you watch, or you can be guided through the procedure.
  4. Microsoft is not sharing their code for Vista help (called AML – Assistance Markup Language) so authoring tools cannot be built to create it in other applications.
  5. RoboHelp won’t run on Vista. There are also problems opening PDFs in Vista.

I also found this presentation on Windows Vista Help by Derek Torres and Stuart Mudie at last November’s UK STC Conference. They have written a book on Windows Vista that you may want to check out as well.

Atlanta to host STC Conference in 2009

May 21, 2007

At an informal reception in my hotel room at the Hyatt last week, Atlanta chapter members began to discuss preparations for the 2009 STC conference in Atlanta. We decided that it’s not too early to begin planning. At next year’s conference in Philadelphia, we’ll need to staff a table promoting the Atlanta event. We’ll want to have some trinkets and a symbolic icon on a pin or sticker that says, “See you in Atlanta” or something like that.

The American Society for Training and Development is holding their conference here next week. We might look at what they did to get some ideas. For example, they have a page called “About Atlanta” on the conference Web.

Here are some initial ideas based on our brainstorming and my further investigation:

  1. Add a welcome letter from the mayor to the conference packets.
  2. Sell squeeze/anti-stress balls shaped like peaches as a conference promotion and chapter fundraiser.
  3. Promote tours of the new acquarium, trips to the Cyclorama, outings to Stone Mountain, visits to the King Center, etc.
  4. Serve traditional Southern cuisine at the opening reception.
    • collard greens
    • fried green tomatoes
    • catfish
    • cornbread
    • black-eyed peas
    • peach cobbler and pecan pie
    Getting hungry?
  5. Write articles in Intercom about Atlanta leading up to the conference.
    • History of the city
    • Technical communications in Atlanta (an overview of the major employers
    • Fun things to do in the city
  6. Visit major Atlanta corporations leading up to the conference to let them know it’s coming. Invite them to have a table or be a sponsor.

What are your ideas?

Jared Spool on tech writers’ demise

May 20, 2007

Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering was interviewed by Carolyn Snyder at one of the STC Summit conference sessions. Spool recently had some interesting things to say on his blog about technical writers including, “the art of writing manuals is going the way of blacksmiths and radio operators.”

While I agree our profession is changing, I don’t see paper manuals going away any time soon. Every time a new technology is unleashed, the demand for manuals increases. The term Ajax (for asynchronous javaScript and XML) was first publicly used in February 2005. A mere two years later, O’Reilly lists 158 books on the subject. Who is writing these?

O’Reilly is actually soliciting writers on their site.

We’re always looking for new authors and new book ideas. Our ideal author has real technical competence and a passion for explaining things clearly. We’re happy to work with first time authors, and encourage inquiries about virtually any topic. However, it helps if you know that we tend to publish “high end” books rather than books for dummies, and generally don’t want yet another book on a topic that’s already well covered.

At the same time as you might say that our books are written “by and for smart people,” they also have a down to earth quality. We like straight talk that goes right to the heart of what people need to know.

And that’s just one publisher of computer books. A search for paperback computer books on Barnes&Noble.com retrieved 72,929 items. (That’s compared to only about 56,000 books on dieting.) Hardly a dying art.

What about hardware? Imagine selling a computer, router, printer, scanner, MP3 player, or cell phone without a printed manual or at least a quick reference. Not to mention swingsets, workout equipment, bird feeders, garage door openers, track lighting systems, Ikea furniture, bike racks for cars, garbage disposals, gas grills, and thousands of other consumer goods with “some assembly required.”

So why is Jared Spool, who is otherwise a pretty clever and with-it guy, making these statements?

I think that when you look at the most progressive software development teams today, it is probably true that the technical writer has been jettisoned, is hanging on with his or her claws, or has morphed into a user experience professional or information architect. The entire team would scoff at the idea of writing a manual because they are focused on making a product than won’t need a manual or even online help.

User experience work, information architecture and information design are growing professions that many of today’s technical communicators can easily transition into. But I think a “manual-less existence” is a long way off.

Al Hood’s blog

May 18, 2007

Incoming Atlanta chapter president Al Hood is now blogging at http://stcatlprez.blogspot.com/

The formal passing of the baton will occur on Tuesday, May 22 at our monthly chapter meeting.

Our program that night is How Will Vista’s Online Help Affect the Future of Documentation?
with speaker Rob Houser.

See you there!