STC-Montreal has reached the end of its life. So what do we do now?
Well, after almost fifteen years of hanging around STC-Montreal, I have developed a few ideas about why things turned sour.
I believe that the Society for Technical Communication ran into trouble because it never learned to cope with the Internet. STC’s business model — the hub-and-spoke structure of headquarters and chapters, the membership dues, the magazines — is a relic of the pre-Internet era. Today, STC competes against free information. STC’s business model was torpedoed by Google, and the instant availability of specialized knowledge.
Many of the problems that brought STC-Montreal to its end stemmed from the parent organization, and some were caused by mistakes made locally. The chapter rarely functioned perfectly. But there was always one thing that that STC-Montreal excelled at: bringing together a local community of technical writers.
STC-Montreal events were always well-organized and usually well-attended. Sometimes, the room was overflowing. And STC-Montreal reached beyond its immediate audience, and attracted people from a variety of writerly organizations in Montreal.
We should not allow that special ability to dissolve away.
So I believe the guiding principle of a new organization dedicated to the professional development of technical writers should be this:
Focus on things that can’t be downloaded. Focus on people interacting with people.
Table of Contents
If you’re in a hurry, read only the executive summary and the list of proposed activities; they contain the salient bits.
- Executive Summary
- Audience, Participants, Volunteers
- New Events and Activities
- Money Issues
- Selling the New Organization to the Community
- Looking Forward
Like its predecessor, the proposed new organization is a non-profit that provides professional development for technical writers. This will come as no surprise, I’m sure. But while the organization retains a few of the most successful elements of STC-Montreal, the foundation is entirely different.
The engine of any non-profit organization is the volunteers, and a new organization needs to do a better job of energizing people than STC-Montreal ever did. So, a primary goal of this plan is to build and maintain a robust base of volunteers. The strategy to achieve this goal is to encourage active participation rather than passive attendance.
What does this mean? It means that lectures and workshops are not enough. In fact, they should be somewhat de-emphasized in favour of new kinds of activities that stimulate people both creatively and socially. There is a long list of potential social activities in the sections below. The thrust of these proposed activities is the double whammy of emotional and intellectual engagement. The effect of emotional engagement is twofold: a) participants develop a tighter bond with the organization, and b) the organization gets better word-of-mouth marketing.
Where does the money to fund events come from? Some money can be earned from holding paid workshops. But that’s not enough.
Rather than offer membership, the audience and participants are invited to become Friends of the Organization. In exchange for a modest donation (perhaps $40), the Friends get a say in some of the organization’s planning. This provides seed money enabling the organization to plan events that require initial outlay of funds.
In order for the relationship between the Friends and the organization to be meaningful, the organization must practice total transparency, with every decision blogged promptly, and the current financial statements made available online.
The organization could also look into corporate sponsorship as a source of funding.
More radically, the organization could make plans to support the local community in more dramatic ways by becoming a workers co-op, providing services to freelancers, such as rented office space or accountants.
Audience, Participants, Volunteers
There is a natural progression that people make in social and professional organizations: from Audience to Participant to Volunteer. The Audience is a passive consumer of information. The Participant is getting her feet wet, exercising a bit of creativity, and becoming enthusiastic for the organization. The Volunteer is the one of the people running the show. This progression is necessary to maintain a cadre of volunteers with leadership capabilities.
Social and professional organizations thrive on Participants.
Why are Participants crucial? Why aren’t volunteers and audience members enough?
Consider the service offering of a social organization as like that of any business. Successful products and services are successful not only because they offer a good value; certainly, they must do that. But they also engage people’s enthusiasm and emotions. They are successful because people identify their own needs and desires with the story told about the product or service — and then, crucially, they go tell other people about it.
Crucially, it is the Participant who does the marketing for a social organization. This is the person who enters the docs competition, looking for recognition and feedback. This is the person who writes an occasional article for the newsletter. This is the person who steps up to give a short talk. This is the person who then turns to others and tells them about the remarkable experience she had with the organization. This is the person who eventually becomes a committed volunteer.
New Events and Activities
Every professional organization holds lecture events. It’s a staple. But it should not be the raison d’être for the organization. Lectures and workshops should be a part of what the new organization does — but only a part, and maybe not even the most important part.
The conversation at lecture events is unidirectional, between the Presenter and the Audience, and that’s a problem. There’s no room for the active Participant. But if our events and activities can be structured to allow members of the passive Audience to become active Participants, we have an opportunity to start building word of mouth. But that won’t happen at lectures.
So, we need to create kinds of activities and services that require people to engage with each other. The following are some specific suggestions in no particular order:
Pecha Kucha 20×20
Pecha Kucha is a form of rapid presentation involving multiple people. It is crowd-sourced. A group of 8–12 people each make presentations over an hour. They each have 20 slides, and are allotted 20 seconds per slide, and their presentation are on the clock to maintain the pace. The subject can be anything, but preferably about an act of creativity; photographs, knitting, record collections — anything, so long as the presenter is passionate about the subject. The goal is to get people to know each other on a variety of different levels.
A writers circle is a review and criticism group. Attendees bring short writing samples to present and to receive critical feedback. The setting can be a coffee shop. The goal is to create an activity that is almost entirely participant-driven.
Writers in the Pub
This activity is common among skeptic and atheist activist groups — people who love to argue a point down to its nub. The group gathers in a pub, and is provided with a topical subject to discuss. After that, it’s fairly free form — the individuals are free to pick up the thread or not. The goal is to encourage the community to talk to each other about professional issues.
Many people in our community already participate in book review clubs. We could either glom onto an existing club, or create an activity that would focus on non-fiction works.
Group Charitable Events
Few things create a sense of community better than group charity work. It would be nice if we could figure out how to write procedures for charity, so as to tie the charitable activity to the organization’s mission. But short of that, food drives or soup kitchen work or fundraising can help create a sense of a community group with common goals.
A Grub Crawl is essentially a walking social food tour. We would take a group of Grub Crawlers to a series of restaurants and have everyone taste the best dishes each restaurant has to offer, all in one night. And there are few better cities to do this in than Montreal. It’s not work related, but so what? The goal is to create a social activity that could not happen without the aegis of our organization.
Public speaking is one of the things that STC-Montreal has done consistently, and we could capitalize on this. Events such as Pecha Kucha would give more speakers more opportunities to be heard, but why stop there? Why not offer formal speaking training on a regular basis?
YouTube for PDF
This idea is the only net-based activity I’m proposing. It would be a replacement for the Document Competitions. We could build a tool for document sharing (using existing services such as Scribd) as a way of providing each person a forum to share their work with the community. Each person would upload a PDF of their work, which would be made viewable by the public, but not downloadable. With each document would be a commenting or micro-blogging system, so the person could receive feedback and engage in online discussion. Think how Flickr or YouTube works.
The Document Competition certainly was the A-1 participatory event for STC, combining both professional work with the real excitement of entering the contest (particularly for first-timers). But without more volunteers, this won’t be possible in the short term.
A long-term goal should be to restore the docs competitions. There’s no better way for writers to get a sense of accomplishment and feedback.
This list of activities is not exhaustive. There are certainly more ideas out there. But as stated earlier, the heuristic for determining what would make for a good activity is whether or not it encourages the Participant. And that is something that we may be able to determine only through experimentation.
Our second problem moving forward is: Where does the money come from?
Certainly, workshops will continue, and can be a good source of operating revenue. But the income they provide is unpredictable.
What about membership? I don’t believe that STC-style membership is an option. We don’t have the ability to provide services that justify actual membership. Members expect specific benefits for paying into the system, issued on a timely schedule, and we are unable do that — at least not for a long while. However, there is another way.
We would offer people the opportunity — for a low price, say $40 — to become a Friend of the Organization. Becoming a Friend means that you are making a donation to ensure that the organization has funds to do important work.
To make becoming a Friend meaningful, we would have to change how we communicate. We would have to move toward radical transparency. Every major decision would be blogged. Monthly bank statements would be blogged.
We would give the Friends a vote in the organizations activities. We would create a weighted voting system that enables collaborative decision-making for at least some issues. Perhaps a portion of the money could to put aside for special projects: a big end-of-season event, or a charitable project related to the profession. The Friends would provide the ideas for that event.
The Friends, of course, would get discounts on workshops.
Furthermore, we could perform an even more radical restructuring: We could turn the organization into a workers’ coop. Individuals would pay to get work-related services. Some specific suggestions:
- A multilateral trading network for goods and services; trading member skills for benefits. Write a procedure in exchange for a massage.
- Worker benefits to the members of the coop: Shared access to professional services such as accountants. Or shared office space for freelancers. Or even E.I. benefits.
We can speak to the Réseau de la coopération du travail du Québec about becoming a coop. Other organizations have done this. Certainly, the idea of a sponsored spot in a communal work centre would be fairly easy to set up. So would a sponsored accountant.
Selling the New Organization to the Community
If the new organization is going to be built around the idea of encouraging the Participant, then we need to start marketing that idea as soon as we have a firm direction, in order to build enthusiasm. The radical transparency should begin with our first messages.
First public message
In essence the first message should say: “STC-Montreal is going away. But something new and exciting is coming to take its place.” Discuss why and how.
It is vital that both these ideas be contained in the same message, and the tone be declarative. A message that says, in effect, that plans are fuzzy, that things may or may not happen, by definition contains no call to action. People respond to specific promises.
At the same time that this messages goes out, we should draw up a list of every person who has ever made a contribution of time and effort to STC-Montreal, and contact them individually and personally. These people can be found by simply reading the list of past events on the STC-Montreal web site. We pitch the new ideas to them, hoping that one or two will decide to join up.
At the same time, we launch a new web site with a “coming soon” notice, a blog for these and other messages, and new logo.
Second public message
Outline the specifics of the events and activities sponsored by the new organization. Invite volunteers to choose an activity to invest their time in.With luck, the appeal of something new and different might generate one or two additional volunteers.
Third public message
Preview of the new web site design.
Fourth public message
Progress report. Discuss one of the key new activities. Invite volunteers.
Fifth public message
Another progress report. Discuss another key new activity. Invite volunteers.
Sixth public message
Launch new web site and announce date for first new activity.
Subsequent public messages: Announce becoming a Friend of the organization. Publish the financial books. Blog every decision made.
The goal of all this is to paint a picture of a radically different organization than STC-Montreal, and to jump-start that organization by creating events that are specifically designed to encourage participation.
If this rejuvenation is at all successful, we will have put in place a means for continual transformation. If the metric for success is increasing the number of Participants, we may end up in a very unexpected place, with events and activities that STC-Montreal would never have considered. This is a good thing.
STC-Montreal is gone. It is up to us to create something better in its place.