26 August 2014

Professional Memberships

I know I’ve been away from the blog again, as I’ve been busy. This hasn’t just been work (although that’s part of it), but in a wider professional sense. In recent months I’ve stepped up to full membership of the ISTC, and become a Fellow of ITOL.

Today’s blog post can be read from a few distinct perspectives. Perhaps you’re a recent graduate wondering what all those extra post-nominals you see on business cards are for, or maybe you’re a peer thinking about joining or staying in a professional organisation. Then again you could be involved in running a professional body in some way, and you want to know what your members think. You’ll have to read between the lines a little bit – and this is very much my perspective – but I’m sure you’ll find something here of use.

It was tempting to create a series of tables and infographic you to death at this point in an attempt to compare various types of qualifications and professional bodies... but I’m afraid that if you want an answer to “what is chartered status?” or “what is a regulated profession?” you’ll have to head elsewhere. It suffices to say that the professional bodies I’m thinking of are those like the ISTC and ITOL where there is no qualification-based route to entry, and no statutory requirement to be a member (which means the same article written by a surveyor or surgeon about their professional memberships will reach somewhat different conclusions). Here are some of the things that you get – or don’t get – as a member of a professional body.

When you put in for membership of a professional body, you are scrutinised by a committee of Fellows (note the capital F) who are at the top of their profession. At the very least they’ll look at your CV and qualifications, and possibly a few samples of your work... they may also seek references. When they decide that you’re eligible for Membership, this means that you’re competent in the field, and when they opt to make you a Fellow, they’re acknowledging – for the record – that you’re at their level. For example, the team who decided to make me a Fellow of ITOL decided that I’m as capable a trainer and training consultant as they are &ndash although we may train and consult in quite different specialist fields.
With the status comes a bit of a confidence boost. I wouldn’t say that I've become a better trainer or communicator solely because of my memberships, but the validation has made me more confident. As a training planner, I’d occasionally run into situations where my plans were questioned and I was guilty of backing down and delivering a weaker solution as a result... but I now feel more resistant to those pressures.
Further Growth
Once you’re in a professional body, there’s the opportunity for further growth and development as part of that group. Those of you who keep up with my output will know that I regularly write for Communicator, and this quarter I’ve used my involvement with the journal to get to interview one of my ‘heroes’ (this blog is spoiler free, so you’ll have to read Communicator to find out who this is). I’ve spoken at TCUK and roped one of my favourite journalists into being the keynote at last year’s conference – something I was sadly unable to capitalise on when it came to wrangling a writing gig!

Jobs Contacts
While we’re on the subject of failing to capitalise on things, professional membership isn’t a route to getting a job (unless you happen to be in a regulated profession or require chartered status). Professional membership is a route to building your contacts and meeting the people who can guide you as your career develops, but unless you’re very lucky they’re not going to offer you a job. Similarly, unless you’re dealing with a company already very aware of the organisation, you’re unlikely to find membership as part of a job description... which doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about it at interview as an example of how you’ve validated your professional practice, developed confidence and kept up to date.

So, I’ve become more “active as a professional”, which should hopefully lead to bigger and better things and I’ve learnt a little bit about professional bodies as a result. It’s good – in a warm and fuzzy way – to know that my work as a trainer and communicator (and indeed, trainer of communicators) is recognised and respected.


02 May 2014

Saving a life

It’s not every day that something potentially life-changing happens. A few days ago, I’d been gone from work about 30 minutes when Alison got a 3-sentence phone call in which I identified myself, told her my location and instructed her to ‘come now’. When she arrived, I was shaking and covered quite liberally in blood (all of it belonging to someone else).

It had all started happily enough. I’d left work with the dog on her lead to go and collect the boy from nursery before heading home for whatever culinary delight was on the table. I was speaking to a potential client on the phone when an old lady in a wheelchair asked me if I’d call the police. As I hung up, I noticed that the children gathered around the old lady were scared of something. They asked me to ‘tell the police about the scary man near the swings’.

As someone else was able to make the call, I decided to wander a little closer towards the man as the children were obviously very frightened.

I must have been about 8 or 10 metres away from him when the side of one of the cars near him changed colour from white to too-fast-red. The guy stumbled a little then collapsed – and that was when I noticed the knife.

Finding the spot where that much bright, spurty blood had appeared from so quickly was vital, as it meant an arterial bleed... the kind that kills in minutes and seconds rather than sensible portions of hours and days. After taking his knife from him (in uniform you learn to disarm the casualty prior to treatment), I slid my hand up his sleeve to his upper arm. The blood was pulsing against my hand and no matter how hard I leant against the cut it wouldn’t stop. His jaw was slack, his eyes weren’t moving and his face was palid... but I knew he was still alive because of the flush-flush of blood against my palm.

By this time, an ambulance was on its way and a man asked if he could help. He took hold of my dog while I used her long canvas lead to wrap tightly around the arm until the bleeding slowed.

Sirens in the distance, then paramedics arrived to take over while two police officers arrive to do their bit with the knife, the public and any other fall-out. I can finally relax my grip after a really interesting bandage is applied that has a plastic cup fitted to one side, so that it places pressure into a puncture wound. Finally the guy’s on the stretcher, then in the ambulance being stabilised before the vehicle growls away with all the lights flashing.

The street is a mess. I realise just how much blood he’d lost...and how much of that had soaked into my clothes and skin. I gave my details to the officer, collected my dog, got into Alison’s waiting car and went – covered in blood and shaking – to collect the boy from his nursery.

Later the phone rings, and it’s the police to let me know that the man was rushed straight into surgery. Stopping – or at least slowing – the bleeding at the scene is probably what kept him alive.

I’m still jittery when I think about it, but I won that one. I’m a first aid instructor and an army reservist... but very little prepares you to deal with a casualty who’s inflicted such a horrid injury on themselves and is conflicted over whether they want to be saved.

I know this isn’t really a tech-comms posting, but somewhere I had encountered instructional materials that prepared me to do what I did today. They’d have been written by some long-dead scout master or an army surgeon, and they are memorable enough that when everything’s going crazy, the content comes to mind. Would your materials survive the ‘blood everywhere’ recall test?


05 April 2014

Limitations, empathy and accessibility

Yesterday I found myself curled in a ball on the floor of the gym surrounded by a pool of my own partially digested lunch. It wasn’t pretty, and was the result of trying to perform like a teenager whilst drastically under the weather. Through pushing myself, I’d found my limit, and upon making that discovery I didn’t want to do anything other than adopt the foetal position.

Why is a discussion of physical limitations important to technical communicators? Well, it comes down to how we prioritise and incorporate accessibility into documentation and therefore the products they support. By losing my lunch during physical training, I have some empathy for the individual whose mobility, stamina and coordination are at levels that mean they have to live in a bungalow, and find walking to the shops a herculean task… sure it’s a different thing they’re doing, but the end result of exhaustion, dizziness and curling into a ball on the floor are about the same. I’d suggest that a professional athlete is more likely to empathise with someone with a physical disability than a normal, unchallenged member of the public would.

We’re the pro-athletes of the communications world. We can produce copy, content and a whole gamut of useful and info-blurb on a variety of subjects. Worse, we often have these jobs because we have acquired various qualifications… proof that we’re super-sponges and masters at absorbing information. So how can we relate to the reader or end user who may be having to sound out each word, whilst repeatedly flicking between ‘the thing’ and the documentation about ‘the thing’ like a lost tourist? The answer is, most of us can’t innately empathise that way… we see the man in the mirror as ‘average’. We can’t ‘read till we’re sick’ to build the empathy, but there are things that we can do that may help:

Study something new
If you’re feeling smug and secure in your Engineering degree, go and learn poetry, or French, or even French poetry… if you’re more of a linguist, then why not try a course in mathematics or the physical sciences. The struggle you’ll have reprogramming your brain to ‘the new’ is what clients feel when the safety blanket of their old ways is yanked from them and that starting next week they’ll be using your firm’s solution.
Spend time in noisy places
I used to think I was good with noise… then we had a child, and I find that I now go to an artillery range to catch up on sleep. Turn the TV and radio on, grab yourself a copy of War and Peace and ask your partner to talk to you about shoes/football/North Korea. Imagine you’re going to have a quiz at the end of it all and you’ll have some idea of the pressure documentation and information can place on some people.
Wear sunglasses
Not when outside in the sunlight… but when inside reading a book, or using a screen. It’ll give you some insight into the importance of big, clear fonts with lots of white space on the page.

If you find your limits, you may have more empathy for those who are reaching theirs, and ultimately you’ll be willing to go the extra mile to make your work more accessible.


26 March 2014

Gathering evidence...

It’s easy to say that you’re good at something. The difficult part is getting some hard evidence to back it up – especially when ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ (in other words, you don’t really know until you’ve tried).

It’s a problem we’ve always had – many of our existing clients are reluctant to publicly acknowledge that we’ve done work for them, let alone share whether we’ve done it well or not.

We’ve been giving this problem some serious thought over the last few weeks, especially as we’ve been trying to promote our writing skills training courses a little more. We’ve managed to gather a few testimonials on LinkedIn, and (with permission) have posted them on our website as well. But that still leaves a huge gap.

Our credentials speak for themselves in terms of our writing (and other communication skills) – we publish some of our own stuff on our website, and we keep ourselves up-to-date. After a bit of investigating, we decided that the courses we offer fit best under the umbrella of ‘business skills’ and the most obvious place to look for more information was ITOL (Institute of Learning and Occupational Training).

After a lot of hard work making sure everything was just as it should be, I joined the organisation as a member. (You need to be a member in order to have your courses accredited... but more than that, I felt I needed some validation of me as a trainer.) We then submitted samples of our materials, course overviews, details of course objectives and so on for scrutiny.

Success! All three of our core courses are now ITOL-accredited!

What does this mean? Well, we can point to an external source of verification that the methods we are using to teach are sound. It gives us a slight edge over some of our competitors. And if trainees want an official ITOL certificate, they can have one.

It also means that Andrew gets a few days in Slovenia. To become a member of ITOL himself, he needs to have completed an ITOL-accredited train-the-trainer course. I did the ‘How to Become a Brain Friendly Trainer’ myself a while ago, and that is an accredited course, so it seemed sensible to send Andrew to do the same... The next one is being run in Slovenia. (I can highly recommend this course – it helps you think of some creative ways of training that drive away the monotony.)

What’s next? Well, now we’re accredited (which should help with the in-house courses we have been running for some time), we are going to run our first public open course in Nottingham on 18 June 2014. It’s a scary proposition in many ways. When we are commissioned to deliver a course in-house, we know the course is going ahead before we have to invest anything beyond a little time. With a public course, there will be the nervous wait to see what the uptake is like. Watch this space!