How do I reinvent myself?

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Jacksonville, Florida is a microcosm of a world that’s changing around us. Empty buildings stand as ghostly reminders of a busy past. In a few cases, these structures were built as far back as the dawn of the 20th Century. For years, they’ve stood as hollow shells of businesses that once bustled with activity and life. A few years ago, I looked inside one of these architectural relics and the only thing I saw was a nest of pigeons. In other cases, however, businesses recently closed due to the latest recession.

One cause of our economic misery is technological innovation. Automation has enabled companies to cut down tremendous amounts of backlog while significantly reducing overhead. Of course, that means they laid off workers by the thousands never to rehire them. As with all things, technology is a two-edged sword. We can either let it hack us to death, or we can wield it to carve new roles and groundbreaking opportunities for ourselves.

Today, I’ll discuss two opportunities. One of them is self publication. This opportunity doesn’t just apply to writing books. It applies to almost any creative or technical thing you do. It is no longer necessary to submit your work to a publisher. This is one of many ways the Internet and digitization have leveled the playing field. Seem too simple? Lots of people are doing it.

For example, people are publishing music on their own and keeping the profits. They’re also writing every genre of literature, and adding to their bottom line. A lot of it is drivel, but that’s not a new development. Moreover, it represents an additional opportunity for freelance editors and writing consultants to assist with tools that make them more productive and profitable.

Similarly, it’s getting easier to program applications. In fact, it’s so much easier that it’s quickly becoming accessible to the public with inexpensive tools. This used to be the exclusive domain of highly trained specialists. No longer! All you need is the idea, and these tools will do most of the work for you. In a few more years, we’ll see many more tools that will transform our ideas into profitable applications without hiring teams of developers.

On the other hand, developers can enhance their careers by transforming their knowledge, skills and experience into marketable services. For example, they can become consultants for those who need quick advice in developing their ground-breaking applications and businesses or they can create code for specialized functions not covered by the standard functions of these new applications.

Progress is unavoidable, but you don’t have to let it destroy your future. As long as you can imagine the possibilities, you can reinvent yourself in a multitude of ways. As I look at those empty buildings in Jacksonville, I don’t see rubble. I see new opportunities to rejuvenate and transform them into future hubs of innovation. That’s what I hope you’ll see as a result of reading this note: an opportunity to reinvent yourself for the future.

Making the case for mobile for mobile sales collateral

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A conceptual illustration of an iPhone with several apps on the screen
Mobile devices

Note: By clicking the Play button below, you can listen to a podcast version of this blog as you follow along reading.

The growing presence of virtual offices, the rapid expansion of wireless networks and the cloud have transformed today’s workforce. Knowledge workers are more dispersed, global and mobile than we dared imagine just a few years ago.

Simultaneously, air travel and ground transportation have become more of a challenge with rising fuel costs, carry-on fees and aggressive security measures. These trends have caused business travelers to think twice about boarding airlines with laptops, but they continue to take their mobile devices.

What’s more, businesses have curtailed travel, but they haven’t stopped expanding their global workforces or extending their outreach. In fact, companies are becoming more dispersed all the time. They no longer want to rent office space or support massive IT infrastructures. They are moving to the cloud, telling workers to buy their own tools and asking them to work from regional offices or home.

In a growing number of instances, mobile devices offer applications that rival traditional computer programs, and the list grows longer every day. These mobile applications are either inexpensive or free, and more of them are becoming compatible programs we use on our laptops and PCs. Furthermore, a growing variety of peripheral devices extend their ease of use and capabilities. Lastly, artificial intelligence has made its way into our lives, and that will transform the way we work again.

Consequently, mobile devices are quickly becoming the most indispensible tools of our time. An entire generation has grown up reading and using electronic documents on handheld devices, and publication means something different today than it did ten years ago. Now, you can control a PC, project an image on a large-screen television or run a PowerPoint presentation from a mobile device, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Every day brings more innovation, and it’s difficult to keep pace with these miniature revolutions. Moreover, the latest rage today may induce yawns tomorrow. Nevertheless, we must get in front of mobile technology and set the pace for using it in our own solutions.

In my practice, I’m proposing a solution that includes two major components: a sales portal and a series of sales documents designed for display on mobile devices. The sales portal will provide role-based access to document libraries and interactive features for training and motivation.

My current plan is to develop a series of well-defined sales documents in several phases, starting with the sales portal and one class of documents. Eventually, I may request the replication all existing sales documents for mobile devices.

Ultimately, my goal is to get enough documentation approved to drive a strategy based on reusable content modules. If I’m successful, I’ll save time by repurposing information for a limitless number of project needs. In addition, I’ll have the tools to equip sales personnel with information they can feel confident in presenting to an endless number of clients. Finally, they will avoid legal hassles by presenting a unified message that is flexible enough to adapt as needed on paper, PCs or mobile devices.

FrameMaker or Word, Part 2

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One of the most frequent complaints I hear when comparing Microsoft® Word® to Adobe® FrameMaker® (FM) is on the topic of autonumbering. Autonumbering in FM is stable and easy to maintain. In Word, autonumbering has caused nightmares, especially with long documents. On the other hand, I haven’t experienced problems with autonumbered captions such as figure numbers and table numbers for several years.

In the past, whether you wrote large or small documents in Word, you’d eventually run into the nagging issue of going back and correcting numbered lists. They’d restart when you wanted to continue from a previous list or continue from previous lists when you wanted to start a new list. After you thought you had corrected the problem, you’d notice something wrong, and realize that the autonumbering problem had reintroduced itself. It was a well-known and vexing issue to professional writers.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with better ways to create numbered lists in Microsoft Word. For a long time, I abandoned autonumbering for numbered lists and headings. I continued to define paragraph styles that would accommodate these design elements, but when it came to including a number, I typed it manually. That’s not a satisfactory answer when every second of productivity counts.

I also experimented with using captions as numbered headings. They were relatively stable. Why not? This approach appeared to work, but it had a terrible drawback: pagination does not recognize caption-numbered headings. For example, if you had a series of training modules, and you wanted to include the module number with your page numbers, it didn’t recognize the caption number in your first-level heading.

In Office 2007, however, Microsoft began to address the problems surrounding autonumbering. You can read an interesting entry about this issue on the Microsoft Word Blogs.[1] As of this writing, I use Microsoft Office 2010. In running several tests, I noticed that numbered lists appear to work better now than in previous revisions of Word. I still have to decide whether I want subsequent lists to continue autonumbering from previous lists or start all over again, but the autonumbering appears to be stable after I’ve made the initial selection.

Microsoft may have put this issue to rest. The question that remains is whether autonumbering works consistently with large documents. For that kind of project, I have the following suggestions:

  • Set a maximum page count for every file in your project
  • Maintain a unique file for every major division such as chapters and modules
  • Set a maximum number of heading levels (Four should be more than enough.)
  • Keep numbered lists short and free of multi-level complexity
  • Do not create a master document for a large project
  • Use Reference Document (RD) fields in a separate file for your Table of Contents

If you follow this advice, and create the appropriate paragraph styles in your templates, you should be able to avoid most autonumbering issues.


[1]Stuple, Stuart J. (November 6, 2011). Numbering is Not Possessed. Word Team. Retrieved on March 13, 2012 from http://blogs.office.com/b/microsoft-word/archive/2006/11/06/numbering-is-not-possessed.aspx.

FrameMaker or Word? Part 1

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An image of a dollar sign taking off with booster rockets and flying into the sky

Boosting productivity (anibal: Fotolia)

I’ve created documents and templates in Microsoft® Word® (Word) and Adobe® FrameMaker® (FM). In one case, a supervisor asked me to build an FM template that matched the department’s Word templates in every detail. I completed that work in a few business hours. My next challenge was to support multiple versions of the same documents. I could easily handle that requirement with conditional text in FM, but what about Word?

I maintained five manuals ranging from 200 to 500 pages. I also created and maintained dozens of installation sheets. In addition to our own company, we had four original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) selling our product. The system I documented had over 50 different pieces of equipment associated with it, and each OEM wanted to rename them with their own model numbers.

Added to this complexity was the need to finish each version of each manual and take all of them through agency approval at the same time. Our approval process could easily last for years; therefore, it was essential to build the greatest amount of efficiency into the process as possible. It may seem unfortunate, but we could not use FM. We had to use Word. I knew FM well by this time, but I was the only one in my department with that knowledge and a license. My boss wanted to expand FM use, but he was turned down for additional funding.

Nevertheless, we still had to get the job done. Most technical communicators have watched this scenario unfold throughout their careers. It’s unpleasant, but it’s precisely at this point where our creativity has a chance to reveal itself.

I found one answer in mail merge with its conditional If-Then-Else fields. Mail merge enabled me to match the conditional text functionality in FM. I could drop large chunks of text for one OEM or add completely different language for another. By pressing one button I could automatically and reliably change passages of text and model names across an entire manual when the OEM changed.

I wanted to see if I could do the same thing with images. Eventually, I found several ways to change images by experimenting with the drawing tools in Word, using the IncludeText feature and the Building Blocks Organizer. I also discovered custom document properties, which enabled me to insert various passages of repeated text wherever I needed them.

Note: At first, I found that IncludeText was volatile, but I experimented and found a way to overcome that issue. I’ll discuss my solution in a separate entry.

Using Microsoft Word is not a limitation. The greatest leverage and value you can bring to any job is the flexibility to build a sound documentation practice on a strong theoretical foundation. Using the right tool for the right job is important enough, but it’s nowhere near as important as meeting client needs in a way that builds on previous investments and existing knowledge. Finally, the most powerful tool you can acquire is one you already possess: your imagination.

A philosophical approach to XML

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Technical communication colleagues: As a result of my xml studies, I’ve come up with the following philosophical outline for a successful documentation approach: Point to Document Type Definitions (DTDs) or xml schema files to ensure that documents are valid and … Continue reading