This year, I learned to write

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/

This year I learned how to be a writer. The easy part was deciding to start. The hard part was continuing to write. I don’t mean that any individual piece of writing was hard to start, or hard to finish. The hard part was realizing and understanding how much work there is to producing a great piece of writing, and knowing that much of the time, I wasn’t going to get there.

Unless I did get there. Much like the practice of drawing, writing only looks easy when you turn your head back at the body of work and say “that was good” or “that wasn’t so good”, and you have to do the work of writing to arrive at words that people want to read. This year I learned that whether you’re having a good day or a bad day doesn’t make the writing easier – it just makes it writing.

I thought I was doing a good job at writing before this year. Words, words, and more words have always been easy for me to produce. But not always words that conveyed meaning. When I left my last job I added “Writer” to my list of occupations – and started paying more attention to the craft of putting the words together efficiently, expertly, and beautifully.

Great writers (Orwell, Lamott, and White among them) sometimes explode off of the page and often state with absolute clarity facts and feelings. They bring intensity, passion, and verve to their craft, and it’s a joy to see it happen.

For next year, I want to apply this practice to other things that I do so that I take less for granted. When I talk to customers, I want the writing that I do to be as meaningful as the best essay I wrote last year. When I write emails, I want to make sure that the meaning is emerging in the smallest number of words that make sense. When I engage with my family and friends, I want to make those words matter even more than they do today. I’m certain I’ll often get my words wrong, confuse people when I think I’m being clear, and say different things than I intend. And I know I’ll be working at the practice of making them better.

Make your idea simpler.

When you write out an idea it’s tempting to include everything. First, the part of the idea that was nifty; then the part of the idea that explained what you meant; and finally the words that convey the essence of the idea.

When you say that idea out loud to someone who’s never heard it before, you realize instantly whether that idea is any good. And you probably notice that you need to take out a lot of words before your pitch sounds more like how people talk.

Pitching is an art. When you’re at an event or a trade show, you get the opportunity to practice that pitch lots of times. The problem is that you can get comfortable with a pitch whether or not it’s a good one.

The best pitches sound natural – they are succinct statements of value that use the fewest words possible. They don’t sound forced, and they solve a problem for the customer.

Effective pitches are also transactional – you are trading value for attention so you had better be valuable. Here are a few things I’ve learned lately while sharing ideas:

1) be brief. What can you say in the first 10-15 seconds that will encourage the person to learn more?

2) be respectful – remember that you are often interrupting someone when you pitch. Even if they are in the mode of receiving and evaluating information, why should they care?

3) give to get – finally, offer something of value and be specific about what your delivering. Are you saving the customer time, money, or something else?

Good luck on your next pitch!

It’s Harder to make UX Content than You Think

(courtesy of brartist)

Recently (this evening, in fact) I found myself in front of the computer, script in hand, ready to compose an award-winning piece of user content.  Unfortunately, when I looked at my first (and second draft) of the masterpiece, I found that my rosy reflection had become a harsh reality.  It’s harder to make UX content than you think.  What seems to be an easy script reveals itself when you speak the lines out loud, and then when you watch the instructional content from the perspective of a user, you realize the things you’ve forgotten.

Here are a few suggestions for making your user content more effective.  First, write the script and edit it. You may think that you can write the script once and forget it, but a “measure twice, cut once” mentality never hurts.  When you are reading your script after the first draft, think about the key points you are going to make at each point in the instructional content, and mark them in the script so that you have a visual cue to sell the idea at the point when you need to make it.

The second thing you need to do is to storyboard your visuals.  Many instructional designers I’ve worked with (and I fall prey to the same malady) believe that they can improvise on the fly and get both the visual and the meaning behind that visual across to the viewer.  This is a really tough sell, and it’s a lot easier to create a highlight around an idea if you know where the visual highlight might be at the same time (and to not have both of them compete.

The third thing you need to for great UX Content is to record your screencast a few times.  Walk through it the first time while recording, and don’t worry about the mistakes.  After reviewing the rough draft, try it again while attempting to emphasize the points at which you earlier marked for emphasis.  And then try a third (or fourth) time for polish.

When you’re done writing, editing, storyboarding, and practicing, you need to do some post-production work to make your UX content sing.  For most pieces, using TechSmith’s Camtasia is perfectly adequate (and dead easy).  Camtasia allows you to edit out some rough patches in your audio or video, to add a few effects, and to get the whole thing done and export in less time than a fancy solution might take you.  Even though it’s harder to make UX content than you think, you shouldn’t get hung up on making the perfect content.  The underlying software or service will change soon anyway, and then it will be time for you to get more practice as an instructional technology professional.

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