After STC-Montreal: A Proposal for a New Association for Technical Writers

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

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.

The rest of this article is a fuller discussion of these points and the rationale behind them. This document should not be considered a final plan, but rather a starting point for discussion.

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.

So here’s the takeaway: Every choice we make about events and services must be to encourage and nurture the Participant.

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.

Writers Circle

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.

Book Club

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.

Grub Crawl

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

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.

Competitions

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.

Money Issues

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.

Finally, we should think about corporate sponsorship. There are a lot of large companies who wouldn’t mind having their logo visible to our audience on a regular basis.

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.

I envision this sequence of events taking place over three or four months.

Looking Forward

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.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “After STC-Montreal: A Proposal for a New Association for Technical Writers

  1. Charles Roburn

    Hi Jim,

    I can see that you’ve given this a lot of thought! 🙂

    I don’t see any problem with having an actual membership status. I have the sense that the problem with STC is not having a formal membership status (and corresponding dues) per se. It’s that the fees required by headquarters are far too high for what they provide (or more accurately, what they *don’t* provide) in return. And since formal membership is required in order to serve on the chapter executive, the most active members of the chapter are asked to fork over a large amount of money simply to pay for the privilege of volunteering their time and effort. It’s no wonder that this model is failing across the organization.

    I think that a modest membership fee (like the $40 you suggest for “Friends of the Organization” status, or less) should be no obstacle to participation, even if there are no specific benefits other than getting to vote, so long as the fee is in line with the benefits granted. It sounds very much like “Friends of the Organization” status is basically membership under a different name anyway, so why not just call it membership? [Unless, as I suspect, you prefer “Friends of the Organization” because it shortens to the acronym “FOTO”. 😉 ]

    You don’t mention elections for an Executive Committee, but it seems to me that there is a need for formal officers, if only to determine who has signing authority on the organization’s cheques & other bookkeeping. I assume they would be chosen through a typical nominations and elections process, much as we have now – or do you have something else in mind?

  2. Charles, my only concern about membership is the overhead involved. It means another volunteer position to manage memberships and send reminders and such. A donation model is much less work.

    Also, as I wrote, membership implies a much stronger quid pro quo that a fledgling organization couldn’t meet.

    I’m open to suggestions about administration of the organization. It should be as light as possible. One person on the chapter web site suggested an ad hoc arrangement, although that might make keeping track of money harder.

    • Actually, donations are more work. The treasurer will still have to keep track of the donations to be able to distinguish between ‘the friends’ and those just attending a function. And because if the organization is regestering as a ‘not-for-profit’ and is asking for donations, the contributers are entitled to tax receipts. And in my experience of working in non-profit organizations, the people donating are much more demanding of an organization in terms of wanting recognition for their donations.

      The problem is that the membership fee for the STC is over $300. How is a freelancer supposed to meet that! If it comes down to choosing between paying rent and an annual membership, I’ll choose my roof over theirs. A $40 membership is much more reasonable and membership puts people on a more equal footing.

      • Judie, if I’m not mistaken, a non-profit need give tax receipts only if the organization is a registered charity, no?

        In any event, it may be true that the workload difference between members and donors is a wash. Unless the Friends are simply making a donation with no return benefit such as event discounts. But that may not provide sufficient incentive.

        STC-Montreal often made enough money to run the operation from workshops, but that’s not a reliable source. There needs to be a cash reserve for activities that require initial outlay of funds.

        I’m open to suggestions.

  3. Charles Roburn

    Hi Jim,

    Wouldn’t a “Friends of the Organization” status also require overhead to track it? Even if it’s a one-time donation rather than an annual fee, there still has to be a list of who’s paid and who hasn’t.

    I’m afraid I still don’t agree that membership necessarily implies that the organization is required to provide specific services beyond anything that’s promised at the time you sign up. That would include the right to vote on activities (as you specify for Friends) and in elections, the right to be informed of upcoming organization events, and so on. So long as a fee is reasonable when compared to the services and privileges it grants, I don’t see any problem with calling it “membership”.

    If membership (or Friend status) includes the right to a discount on workshops or other events where participants are asked for a fee, then that does imply that there will be at least one or two such events a year; but if the organization can’t promise to hold such events, that can be stated up front. Membership dues can be increased if necessary to cover any new services as they are offered, or those services could be offered a la carte for an extra charge, as you suggest above.

    I really don’t see how the proposed Friends status is any different from what I would call a membership. What is the difference, if any?

    For administration, I’m pretty sure that if the new organization wants any sort of recognition from the Quebec and federal governments, there have to be officers – at least a President and Treasurer. What those roles mean within the organization is up to us to define, and we can conduct our internal affairs however we see fit: but I expect that the government(s) will want names to put on forms.

  4. Sam

    Hello
    I think the ideas for a new organization sound good.

    A few other things might be useful to the new group:
    -affiliation with one or more reputable education org that provides a reputable certificate or diplome in tech writing or similar
    -affiliation with toastmasters or similar
    -discussion board or similar where people could create threads to chat about topics they consider to be valuable
    -some sort of methodology that makes us the ‘go to’ place for tech writers, both local and via online. The internet is full of information, chat groups, education providers, job boards, etc. However, there does not seem to be one central place to go to get to get most of what you need. Be nice if we could become the ‘spoke’ to all the online resources that make up the ‘wheel’
    -recurring meetings where members or friends can make suggestions about the organization. These meetings should occur frequently; perhaps bi-weekly to enable the organization to quickly, dynamically, and proactively respond to the needs or our current and potential members, and to the ever changing information that is available online
    -examine other successful groups to see what can be learned or mirrored. Maybe look at PMI or similar, or go with something small at first…and see what they did and did not do that lead to their initial successful launch and to their successful continued growth

  5. Daryl

    Hello,
    I am very impressed with the amount of analysis and effort that you have contributed here, Mr. Royal.

    I have to say, I was extremely reluctant to participate in STC-Montreal and STC-Vancouver. A great many years ago, I attended a presentation by STC-Montreal, and the discussion included, perhaps peripherally, a notion that STC-Montreal could initiate an ‘STC-Certification’ for technical writers. I had visions of little fiefdoms with strong nepotism. I did not want to attend events sponsored by an organization that promoted this idea.

    Two very good friends of mine, whose opinions I highly respect, pointed out all the good things that STC-Montreal and STC-Vancouver have done, and I am thankful for this.

    I give you every encouragement.

    Daryl

  6. I think this is a great idea! I would have loved to be part of STC-Montreal, but I found that the STC membership fees were too high for what I was getting in return. But what you are proposing is something I would definitely be interested in!

  7. Ev

    ‘Great minds think alike’ as the saying goes. The announcement below was just posted to the Vermont Software Developers Alliance discussion group on LinkedIn. Gratifying to see other tech writers are bootstrapping themselves into the 21st century.
    ==================================
    Technical Writing Special Interest Group Meeting, Feb 8, 2011, 530 pm at GE Healthcare. Join us with your ideas.

    Join Vermont writers to kick off a new Technical Writing Special Interest Group within the Vermont American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) chapter. We’ll brainstorm the first year of our SIG.
    Drinks and snacks provided.

    Questions? Contact Patty Myers at patricia.myers@ge.com or 802-238-2820.
    When: Wednesday, February 8, 2012
    Time: 5:30 – 7 p.m.
    Where: GE Healthcare, (formerly IDX Systems Corporation), 40 IDX Drive, South Burlington, VT
    -From interstate 89, take exit 13 to highway 189/Shelburne Road.
    -Follow highway 189 to the end and turn left onto Shelburne Road/Route 7 South.
    -Turn left at the light onto IDX Drive. (Talbots will be on your left and Lewis Motors will be on your right.)
    -Turn right into the GE Healthcare parking lot.
    -Go straight and park in Visitors’ Parking or nearby.
    -Walk across the circular drive and come to the main entrance in the fully glass-fronted part of the building. You will be greeted there.

    Background:
    The Vermont STC chapter has dissolved, but let’s form a tech writing SIG within ASTD.

    Ideas for consideration for this meeting:
    -our purpose
    -our short and long term goals
    -our role within ASTD because we provide a member to the ASTD governing board
    -ideas for technical writing SIG events
    -other ideas

    ASTD Membership Benefits
    • Networking opportunities, workshops, and presentations locally throughout the year
    • Affordable membership fee ($35)
    • Contact with a technical writing community and other professionals in Vermont

    How to join
    -Complete the online VTASTD member application at: http://www.vermontastd.org/Default.aspx?pageId=749393
    -Mail $35 to
    VTASTD
    P.O. Box 877
    Barre, VT 05641

  8. Pingback: Poll: New Activities | After STC-Montreal

  9. Brilliant! I only wish that someone had had the same idea at STCEO. To late now, I fear.

    • Poppy Quintal

      Mark, it is never too late for new ideas. Where there was a community of like-minded people before, there can be one again.

  10. Patrick

    With regards to membership vs Friends of the Organization, why not have both? Names are a funny thing. You call the same thing a different name and suddenly people’s expectations change. You see my feeling is that you can charge more for someone to be a FOTO as opposed to just a member. So why not charge Friends say $100 (or more). The idea being that as a friend you’re supporting the organization more than the organization supporting you. This basically makes a Friend title a status, but as long as it provides you with the right kind of funding, does it matter?

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