Re: Comments from the field (rather long)

Subject: Re: Comments from the field (rather long)
From: Marjorie Hermansen-Eldard <meldard -at- ZZSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 11 Dec 1998 13:30:33 -0700

Just a quick thanks to John and Barb. . . these simple principles are what I base both my teaching (of technical writing/composition) and my work as a technical writer on.

Thanks for reminding all of us of the basics!

Marj Hermansen-Eldard
Senior Technical Writer
ZZSoft, Inc.

>>> Barb Ostapina <Barb -dot- Ostapina -at- EXPERIAN -dot- COM> 12/11 12:51 PM >>>
John Posada wrote:
My point...regardless of the complexity of the information and the level
of the intended audience, users want something simple with lots of
assurances and graphics that they are doing it right.

I'd like to second John's " users want... assurances... that they are doing
it right" point.

I just completed the second of two courses in a newly launched program
developed by the Chicago STC (its recently formed Institute Committee, a
spin-off of the Education Committee). The Institute program was a joint
endeavor by the Chicago STC and Northern Illinois University... it was a
wonderful mix of theory and practice taught by practitioners and
facilitated by NIU faculty (available for various levels of degree credit,
or not). Each class day in the course was on a different topic taught by a
different "expert." One of the classes was called "Principles for
Presenting Complex Information Verbally." The exercises pertained to spoken
instruction, but the principles we learned (discovered, really) apply, IMO,
to written instruction as well.

As part of the exercises we had to talk "students" (friends, family,
co-workers) through drawing a complex illustration that they could not see
(shapes, lines, etc. that formed no particular "thing") by only explaining
it somehow (no gestures, which was really hard for me), without them being
able to ask questions, and without looking at what they were drawing as you
explained it.

I did these exercises with a variety of people, ranging from my 7-year-old
son to a few of my co-workers. One of the things that came VERY clear
during the exercises was how much the students, without exception, sought
some form of assurance that they were on the right track. Most of the
adults tried to be discrete about this, of course. My son, on the other
hand, was not too proud to demand it, even though I kept telling him he
wasn't supposed to ask me anything! I was more than a little surprised at
how big a role this confidence thing played in the activity.

Our instructor put it this way: "Maintain confidence. People dump ram* when
they lose confidence in their ability to process what you're saying." (*For
you non-computer sorts out there, this expression refers to a computer
losing everything in its short-term memory.)

The challenge I see for me in all of this, since these days I spend my time
writing rather than teaching, is how to write with this principle in mind
when I have no gauge for my reader's level of confidence in his ability to
process what I'm writing. It goes back to what many have said before...
you've really got to know your audience. And you've got to write for them,
no matter how it feels to you. It's how it feels to them that matters.

I'd like to make one last point about this, too. Factored into this
confidence level, I believe, are also the constraints in the reader's life.
I, for example, can read rather complex material. However, I don't usually
have the time to do so because my life is so full and time is at a premium.
As a result, I generally feel better about reading instructions that are
written simply, clearly and concisely because it's usually all I have time
to process. If it looks too "hard" at first glance, I figure I'm not going
to "get it" in the time I have available, so I look for another source, or
another way around the problem that sent me to the document in the first

barb -dot- ostapina -at- experian -dot- com
...speaking only for myself.

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