Reinventing yourself in the midst of the economic duldroms

Between 2007 and 2008, my company began to experience the economic pressures other companies were undergoing. Consequently, sales slowed down, we lost several co-workers and we had to do more with less. Throughout this downturn, I’ve had enough billable work for my company to keep me. For that, I am extremely grateful, but there were plenty of slow days during this period. It was important, therefore, to reinvent myself frequently and remain productive.

I stayed productive by looking for ways to keep myself employed while things were moving slow. My supervision was minimal, and my leaders counted on me to be a self-starter. They asked me to identify what the company needed next and go after it. To that end, I learned to look to be more aggressive in finding out what we needed next. Then I strategized with my leaders on ways to improve our communication practices, and they were visionary enough to see the possibilities with me.

My goal has always been to make my company more efficient and cost effective in terms of its communication practices. Lately, my approach has been to develop standardized working templates with standardized content. If I can get everyone to use a template with standardized content when communicating with our customers, we can save time and money. The message I’m trying to drive home is that a consistent message will enable us to face clients with greater confidence and spend more time making the sale instead of constantly reinventing the wheel.

Three years ago, my leaders asked me to develop sales collateral and help with their customer responses. As I gained experience, they asked me create marketing collateral for our company’s partners and customers. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some highly recognizable clients, and have gained valuable knowledge about several classes of sales assets. As a result, I came back to my company each time with more ideas about improving our own message.

I also had time to step back and consider some of our weaknesses. I saw, for example, that we rewrote our company information every time we created a response to a request for information. Very little was the same from one response to the next, and this chaotic practice led to many headaches.

Consequently, I’ve identified opportunities for improvement along two fronts. One front involves our sales collateral. We needed several types of customer-facing and internal-facing sales assets. The other front involves the way we respond to our customers. We needed a template that would encourage consistent, structured writing and the reuse of existing information wherever possible. In both cases, we needed to document our processes to identify the industry’s best practices and develop repeatable practices based on them.

For our sales assets, I’ve identified the following opportunities based on templates that some of my colleagues designed for a large client:

  • Solution briefs (customer facing)
  • Customer presentation (customer facing)
  • White papers (customer facing)
  • Case studies (customer facing)
  • Battlecards (internal facing)
  • Competitive positioning briefs (internal facing)
  • Sales presentations (internal facing)
  • Podcasts (customer facing and internal facing)

The audience for customer-facing assets is our clients, and their purpose is to move clients toward a commitment. The audience for the internal-facing assets is our own sales force and our partners. The purpose of these assets is to equip our sales personnel a standardized message and ideas for handling a variety of competitive challenges.

For our responses, I worked with our Strategic Sales Support team to identify the steps of our response process and the parties involved. From the knowledge I gathered, I documented our response process. After that, I worked with them to develop a template. The next step is to create an online help system for using the template effectively. We designed the template to take advantage of several native paragraph styles in Microsoft Word, but had to create a few unique styles to accommodate client requests.

Last year, a larger corporation based in Europe bought our parent company, and we’re in the midst of an extensive rebranding effort that has brought the need for additional changes. As a result, we’ll be working on several other types of communication in the future. Our company has merged with three other companies and we want to project a new image that communicates the right message.

One could look at a merger and acquisition (M&A) as a sign of trouble, but I don’t see it that way. This is my opportunity to help our rebranded company to identify and implement sound documentation practices while they’re trying to figure out what their message will be. I’m also excited about showing our new parent company what we’ve done to document our processes and develop a cost-effective communication model.

Right now, we still have a long way to go with enterprise content management, but we have made progress. With Microsoft SharePoint, I’ve learned how to build document libraries, use version control and build metadata into our files. In addition, I’ve developed task lists in SharePoint that will support agile documentation with the scrum management method. I’ve also developed and tested a SharePoint single-sourcing strategy based on Ann Rockley’s enterprise content management philosophy.

I haven’t done anything like implementing Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) or Extensible Markup Language (XML), but I have used Microsoft Office and SharePoint to emulate many of the more expensive content management systems. For example, SharePoint can automate our documentation workflow and notification to fit our documentation models. I’ve documented my approach extensively in separate articles and presentations.

The beauty of this system is that we are building it on IT investments the company has already made. One of the best ways to get IT support is to design your solutions around existing hardware and software investments. The same principle applies to winning buy-in from your leadership. To the greatest extent possible, design your solution around standard, company assets. Remember the maxim: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”


We went digital and we’re still unemployed. Now what?

three-dimensional character working on computer connectet to globe
Welcome to Digitopolis

I wrote this blog for anyone who is disappointed with the current jobs market or feels that the American dream is lost forever. Let me start by assuring you that all is not lost. Get over that absolutist thinking right now, because it’s sapping your creativity and robbing you of happiness. I hope my words will not only leave you with hope, but give you a roadmap for a successful American dream. Let’s talk. Shall we?

I’m sure you’ve heard all the hype during the last few years about the world becoming digital. Thomas L. Friedman wrote his famous book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, and everyone wondered what to do about that wake-up call. One of his key points was that the playing field is now level and that we’ll have to compete with people overseas who are not only as educated as our children, but more so and willing to work much harder for next to nothing.

Also, if you’ve been conscious since 2007, you’ve noticed that we’re in one of the worst recessions of our collective memory. I’m sure folks who grew up during the Great Depression will beg to differ with us rug rats, but this is the worst economic downturn our generation has ever seen. With the debt crisis in Greece and other members of the EU, the recession also promises to deepen. So, how do we confront these new realities without growing so depressed that we spend the rest of our lives popping Lexapro and playing Farmville every day?

I think two things are necessary. One thing is that younger people need to take better advantage of their education, and think outside the box. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your degree entitles you to a job. It doesn’t.

If you’re young, educated and don’t have a job, you may want to consider incorporating yourself as a business and contracting your services. You didn’t get all that expertise just to throw it way. Get out there and find the opportunities; they exist right now. You’re probably not going to find them through the classifieds or, but you may find them by writing about your own creative solutions on social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Your key, in this arena, is to attract the right kind of attention.

Furthermore, with the advent of the Cloud, wireless networks and mobile devices, several new career fields are likely to emerge over the next five to ten years. For example, you can already earn income by designing and creating mobile applications or writing instructions on their use. You can also derive income from other types of online services, but you have to be aggressive in finding and pursuing the opportunities. In essence, you must become your own sales force.

Those of us who are middle aged may feel lucky to have a job, but we don’t need to languish. We can exercise creativity within our careers by sharing our knowledge with young people who are willing to learn. We can find fulfillment in mentoring, and this is the kind of networking that may eventually lead to additional opportunities. It starts, however, with volunteering your time.

Those who have left the workforce through retirement have earned their rest, but I’ve noticed something. The people who live the longest, happiest lives stay at least partially involved in the work force or socially engaged for several years into their retirements. That’s not to say older people who are unemployed are irresponsible. There are many potential circumstances that may mitigate against their continued employment: sickness and age discrimination to name a few.

Older Americans do not have to sit on the sidelines and wait for the world to leave them behind. They can get in on some of the action too, and it may actually be good for them to some extent. Learning new skills preserves cognitive function. In the case of our older peers, however, I would say they should only maintain the lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed. In other words, work to live in comfort and take plenty of time off. You’ve earned it.

For all Americans, this kind of out-of-the-box thinking will become far more important for at least the remainder of this decade. Most of the traditional manufacturing jobs have permanently moved overseas. Those that return to the United States will be high-tech jobs that require the kind of creative and technical thinking I propose today.

The other thing is that the U.S. must collaborate with businesses to create new opportunities based on emerging technologies, green and otherwise, here and abroad. There is no turning back to a predigital world. The playing field is permanently leveled, and now we must compete on a global scale with people who are just as bright as we are, but far more cost competitive.

To compete with a low-wage, global workforce, we must lower our own costs. That is no small feat, but I think we can achieve it through greater efficiency. The way to become more efficient is through technological innovation, identifying best practices and implementing them in every aspect of our lives. We don’t necessarily have to give up our standard of living, but we need to think things through carefully instead of taking everything for granted.

I also think the leveling of the playing field may work in our favor. The digital revolution has made it easier than ever to render services and collaborate 24/7, regardless of location. Technology is exploding right now and revolutionizing every aspect of our lives. It’s unsettling, but for those who keep a watchful eye out for opportunities, there is a great abundance of them.

So, what about that roadmap I promised? Well, here’s a start, but it’s by no means complete. I suggest the following steps:

  1. Take the time to figure out what you really want to do for the rest of your life.
  2. Draw up a feasible plan. If necessary, ask your family and friends for advice.
  3. Network on sites such as LinkedIn, but keep your message tailored to your career goals.
  4. Write or blog about the career in which you are interested, and announce it everywhere.
  5. Volunteer your time to help others and find opportunities to assist organizations.
  6. When you’ve done something fantastic, let everyone know about it.
  7. Talk to an accountant, incorporate yourself and contract your services.
  8. Create a web site solely dedicated to discussing the services you offer.
  9. Build up a portfolio of previous clients and projects.
  10. Write case studies of your success stories.

Notice I did not advise you to write a résumé. Honestly, paper-based résumés may no longer be the most effective means of finding work. You’re better off posting something like a résumé, as requested, on a company site. You’ll have to be responsive to their requested format. It’s almost as if you’re writing a miniature response to a request for proposals (RFP). What’s more, companies have the option of grading the conformance of your online résumé to their exact specifications. I have some ground rules for writing an effective résumé, but I’ll have to discuss them in another blog.

Today, one of the most important things you can do to find work seems almost counter-intuitive: get involved with a social network. One of the best networks these days is LinkedIn. If you can get recommendations from previous employers on LinkedIn, you may have a significantly better chance of finding work than if you send a paper résumé, unsolicited, to a company.

Moreover, you can find career groups in LinkedIn that regularly post job openings specifically in your career field. It seems obvious, but if you help someone on LinkedIn, and they have a job opening, you could be on the top of their list.

Finally, one of the most effective ways to use LinkedIn or any other social network is to write often on your area of interests. Write with passion about your career field, but make sure you do your research first or at least write to seek advice. Also, if you use someone else’s ideas, provide proper attribution and limit the amount you use. Remember, people are reading your profile or blog to find out what you think, not what someone else thinks.

I hope my words have inspired someone to find their niche or fulfill a life-long dream. Thank you.

How do I add value?

Value matrix showing an arrow in a bullseye at the quadrant of high value and low cost
Cost-value matrix

We’ve all heard about value-added work, but how does one add value? If it were easy, we’d all be successful entrepreneurs, but effective value propositions are notoriously hard to achieve. For one reason or another, it’s difficult to find out what people want to accomplish. After all, they don’t know what they want to do most of the time. In addition, desires change by the second. Let’s talk!

The heart of this challenge is to discover what frustrates people most, what they want to do or what they’d like to have. Perhaps it’s something that drives them insane about the way they work. Can you help them to identify that problem and deliver better results? If you tap into a problem shared by many people, you may have a profitable, value-added service or product. On the other hand, you may be one of many vendors offering the same thing.

If you want to stand out, you must answer the following question: “Why should I use your services or products if someone else can do it at a lower cost or I can do it at no cost”? With today’s rapid pace of innovation, you have to show that you can do much more than use tools. You need to demonstrate that you possess a deep understanding of tools and theory, and establish a track record for getting the job done quickly, if not instantly, at a substantially lower cost.

At this point, you may wonder what’s in it for you. After all, cutting the time and lowering costs doesn’t seem very profitable. The answer is simple: you’ll be able to handle significantly more work with little or no overhead. As you learn to work faster than anyone else and deliver better results, word will spread and you’ll attract more clients and your profits will increase dramatically.

In the years ahead, technology will continue to level the playing field. This development holds a promise and a potential curse. You can strike out on your own and compete with overhead-laden corporations, or you can lose your shirt to other cost-competitive consultants and fixed-price contracts. Whether you strike out on your own or stay with a company, the question remains. How do you add value?

Start by finding out what you do best, and document a repeatable method for completing every task in your process. Consider multiple tools and methods for your work, but settle on the ones that allow the greatest flexibility at the lowest overhead cost.

Then, interview your supervisor or clients, find out exactly what they want to do and document it in detail. Brainstorm with them to identify and implement a well-documented solution that meets their specifications, saves time and protects their bottom line.

Finally, do not focus on technology! If a stone-age mallet will meet your customer’s needs, you don’t need a laser-guided hammer with a learning curve and a thousand-dollar price tag. If you follow these rules, you’ll add value to your company, your clients and yourself.

On Steve Job’s Passing

With the passing of Steve Jobs, most of the world has taken time to reflect on the impact he had. I probably won’t say anything truly profound with this blog entry, but here are my thoughts, nonetheless. Yesterday, I wrote on Facebook that the world will never be the same without him. Then, I paused and realized that the world hasn’t been the same since he came on the scene. This morning, on Twitter, I made the comment that Jobs did more to create jobs than we have begun to discover, now and in the future.

Both statements seem simple enough to realize without much help. Anyone who has been alive for ten years not only understands these simple truths, but can probably share far more profound insights. Lacking in originality as they are, these are the thoughts that entered my mind and reverberated several times to introduce the thoughts I want to share with you.

By now, you may already be sick of hearing how Steve Jobs changed our lives, so I’ll try to put a different twist on the topic. I do not feel that Jobs’ passing means the innovation has come to an end. His inventiveness inspired creativity around the world. I’m not speaking in a mystical sense. I merely want to point out that people around the world have captured Jobs’ vision, and we are different people as a result of his work. I think we will study his life, and changes will continue to unfold either as a result of his death, despite it or both. Sometimes, the impact of one’s life can only be fully appreciated and realized posthumously. I think we are likely to find this true for Steve Jobs’ impact. His death is more a rite of passage than the end.

I’d also like to explain my second comment on Jobs’ passing: “Jobs did more to create jobs than we have begun to discover, now and in the future.” As a result of Jobs’ creativity and our unfolding imaginations, more ground-breaking technology will be introduced on a global scale. Furthermore, new careers will begin and new classes of jobs will evolve. I sincerely believe we’ll look back in five to ten years and realize that what I’m writing now is a profound understatement.

As technical communicators, we can be part of a new, creative, technology-driven revolution. We haven’t even begun to see how technology will transform our lives or improve the quality of life for everyone. Of course, people can also use technology for great evil and abuse it in ways we haven’t begun to imagine, but that’s not what this blog is about. I’m focusing on hope, because that is exactly what I feel. Instead of approaching the future with fear, we should embrace the change and get as far ahead of it as necessary to influence it. That’s what Steve Jobs did, and I can’t help feeling he would have wanted his fans to do the same thing.

Microsoft is Breathing New Life into Business Value

If you’re like me, you’re constantly looking for ways to improve your productivity and efficiency at work. I don’t just want to get the job done faster. I want to get the basics done sooner, so I’ll have enough time left to build extra quality into my product. Moreover, I’d like to eliminate repetitive tasks and weed out some of my most typical mistakes. Finally, I want to reach out and collaborate with people who can help me accomplish great things.

Unfortunately, your company may not have an unlimited IT budget, and the chances of upgrading anything look pretty slim for the rest of the year. Even though we’re in an economic recovery and businesses have finally begun to hire, they are holding back on purchases until they come closer to achieving their business goals. Your situation is not unique. Most employees and businesses are in the same boat.

Nevertheless, good news is on the horizon. With the hiring that’s going on now, more people will have spending power. That will translate into increased business opportunities and improved budgets. If the progress continues, we will see more hiring and spending by the end of this year if not well before then. In addition, the software industry is preparing a new generation of business solutions that will support the way we work and make us far more efficient.

For example, Microsoft® is working on Microsoft® SQL Server® 2012. With this release, Microsoft promises to deliver speed and peace of mind for mission-critical workloads. Without having to pay all the add-on license fees of other database platforms, businesses will be able to deploy to the cloud, scale to demand and look across their organizations for actionable insights. This development offers tremendous business value to knowledge workers who need to stay ahead of trends in competitive situations.

Another product in development is Windows® 8, which is primarily designed to work with mobile devices such as the Microsoft Windows phone, but will work with touchpads, PCs and traditional input devices. The focus of this new operating system (OS) is mobility and connectivity. It will offer many new, inexpensive, metro-style applications that share data. Best of all, however, is the fact that Windows® 8 will deliver the potential of a tablet with the power of a PC. For today’s virtual offices and global workforces, mobility is key to success.

Imagine what businesses will be able to do with these game changers and Microsoft® Office® 365, the new, cloud-based service that supports unified communication and collaboration (UCC). Now, businesses and professionals can inexpensively reduce IT overhead and hardware investments while collaborating with almost anyone, across every time zone.

The last five years brought phenomenal changes to the way we conduct business. Virtual offices and mobile platforms now complement many paper-bound, brick-and-mortar operations. We can work almost anywhere as efficiently as ever. Technology has leveled the playing field between enterprises, small businesses and professionals. It’s a great time to think about how you will seize the day!

Making the case for mobile for mobile sales collateral


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 3


In 1998, I attended a conference held by the Society for Technical Communication in Anaheim, California. During that conference, I learned about single-source documentation. This term may seem a bit cryptic, but it means that you write a topic once, store it in a permanent location and link other documents to it when you need the information. The benefit of this approach is that you never have to write a topic more than once. If the topic requires an update, you can edit the source file and choose whether or not to update the linked content in your dependent files.

When I returned from the conference, I was no longer satisfied just to write documentation. Now I wanted to engineer it the way I had learned at the Anaheim conference. To that end, I began to experiment with mail merge in Microsoft® Word®. About a year later, I took a course on Adobe® FrameMaker® (FM) and easily mastered some of its most advance features for that revision. One of those features was conditional text. With mail merge in Word and conditional text in FM, I was able to use the same file to create single-source documentation for several vendors.

I was delighted that I could change entire documents from one vendor to another with the click of one button in Word and FM. That included all of the model names and several context-sensitive passages of content. If a vendor chose not to offer a product or function, each word processor automatically removed it from the content. Moreover, they’d also change content automatically between vendors. This capability not only saved time for my company but quickly delivered a significant return on investment. I had scored a major victory, but I soon realized that I had barely scratched the surface.

The next step was to make my single-source content accessible to paper-based, electronic and web documents. Furthermore, I needed to increase my knowledge and acquire better tools. FM supported structured writing with Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), but I seldom used it for my projects. Word saved to XML and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), but the code it generated was not useful for most single-sourcing strategies. I’ve studied XML and HTML off and on for several years, but most of my projects required only one thing: content. Therefore, I focused on improving my communication skills.

Since then, the market has introduced several new word processors and single-source tools. As the list grows, we may find ourselves more confused than relieved. They all promise to make us more productive, but they miss some problems and introduce others. To overcome this problem, writers should be loosely tied to technology and tightly coupled with proven theory, sound practices and liberated imaginations. As the pace of change accelerates, staying current will challenge even the earliest technology adopters. Nevertheless, we can accomplish anything with Word, FM or any other tool if we use the best one we have: our minds.

Blog Published by Idea

Hello everyone. My company, Idea, just published my blog on Web 3.0 at This week’s blog is about the context of Web 3.0. Next week, I’ll attempt to define it, and then I’ll move on to discussing the promises and perils of this platform. Web 3.0 isn’t really new, but all of us will begin to use it soon.

New menu items added

I’ve just updated my blog with two new menu items. One is a tab called Profession and practice. As indicated, the blogs in this category will discuss professional technical communication issues and some of the best practices in our industry. Starting out, I realize that most of what I blog is from my own, limited perspective. In time, however, I hope to interact with others and draw their perspectives into the discussion. When I’ve achieved that, this blog will add greater value to our profession and practice.

The second menu item I’ve created is a series of blogs called FrameMaker or Word. I’ve started with two blogs to discuss my experience with both tools. What I hope to show is that your only limitation using either tool is your imagination. If you are a creative, out-of-the-box thinker, you can replicate the functionality of one tool in the other or use other tools to achieve similar results.

In today’s world, we need to be as agile as possible. Therefore, we should be loosely tied to technology and tightly coupled with proven theory, sound practices and liberated imaginations.