Communicating Change – The Partial Review

Grant Mackenzie presents his partisan and irreverent view of the recent TCANZ conference for your reading pleasure.

You just know that I am going to tell you that our recent TCANZ conference was a screaming success and that all the presenters were stellar. I would have to say that. I was one of them.

The Conference Joke

The following question was doing the rounds. “If this is a conference about change why am I seeing the same old faces?” Which of course was a cheap shot and quite unfair. I counted at least two young people. But seriously, this was my third conference and most of the faces I saw were new to me. This is a good thing. When a group of mostly strangers congregate with a common purpose, there is a bond of mutual intent which tends to ensure the event’s success. So any TCANZ conference is virtually assured to be a triumph. And this one was a triumph (take a bow conference organiser extraordinaire Kaye Churches). This is because of the nature of throwing eighty strangers, who have so much in common, into the same room and letting them talk to each other.

Tony Self presents the Adobe giveaway

Keynote speaker Tony Self bestows the Adobe giveaway upon Janette Busch, of Lincoln University.

An independent observer might not deem a TCANZ conference to be Utopia given that technical communication is a hotbed of introversion and OCD. But to those of us who were there, it was an unrivalled opportunity to be ourselves, surrounded by our peers. It is a great thing to be able to spend two days in the company of people who are like you, who understand you and who share your passions and interests (such as figures of speech).

The Tautological Nuisance

Let’s deal with the tautological nuisance which was the conference theme – Communicating Change. Well hello! What else would we be doing? Communicating Stasis?

The more correct rendering of the theme’s intent would have been “Change Communicating” and that is what the presenters mainly exhorted the delegates to do. The following themes were consistent throughout many of the presentations.

The Constant Themes

We should have held a wake for the online pdf. Tony Self in the opening keynote address demonstrated why nobody wants to view pdfs on mobile devices. In the final presentation, I quoted from a World Bank study showing almost nobody downloads them anymore, even when they are free. Other conference themes were:

  • All our web sites need to be responsive and dynamically resize for mobile devices (which is where online media is consumed more and more).
  • Embrace new technologies (such as e-ink).
  • Augmented reality is here. It is the future of user assistance.
  • We need to manage our knowledge more systematically.
  • User testing works.
  • Don’t tell the facts – tell a story. It makes your writing come alive.
  • Don’t quibble about what is grammatically correct – just make a decision, run with it and be consistent.
  • Almost all diagram design shibboleths are demonstrably wrong.
  • Humans pick up information much more quickly from pictures (still or moving) than from words.

After the serious sessions there was the conference dinner.

The Honorary Bloke and the Conference Dinner

Anyone who listens to National Radio on a Saturday from midday to 2 pm will know that Simon Morton is an exceptional communicator. He makes the mundane fascinating and the technical, comprehensible. With this skill set he is clearly one of us – a technical communicator. So, at the conference dinner, TCANZ blessed him with the award of Honorary Fellow of the Technical Communicators of NZ. He was pleased and a little bemused.

In his acceptance speech Simon told an amusing and true story. When he and his producer received the email from TCANZ (of which they had never heard) with the offer of an Honorary Fellowship (which they did not believe existed), their initial assessment was that this was yet another Nigerian email scam. Even when giving his acceptance speech, Simon didn’t seem completely convinced. Yet after dinner he still took away the magnificent plinth and the TCANZ bank account details so that he could make the large deposit which will enable us to release the huge payment that comes with the title of Honorary Bloke.

The Quiz Night

After the conference dinner we had the Dave Gash and Tony Self quiz night. It was an outrageously enjoyable evening. Dave’s questions were impenetrable, obscure and very funny. They were nearly impossible to solve. Tony “de Torquemada” Self was in charge of the scoring. His punishments for our indiscretions (real and imagined) had us longing for the sensitivity and reasonableness of the Spanish Inquisition. A fabulous night all round then.


Carol Barnum and Shanthini Govindasamy catching up over drinks and nibbles.

The Perils of Overindulgence

Do not use the conference as an excuse to party to excess. If you fail to heed this advice the following is certain:
  • Steve Hansen will not pick you for the number ten jersey in the All Blacks.
  • You will be voted onto the committee.

The Perils of Paying Attention

The conference sessions may be appealing at first blush but there are risks. If you remain sober, upright and alert the following may happen:
  • You may have to reconsider your work practices, your career path, and your cherished beliefs.
  • You may have to watch this sort of thing.

The Need to Go

Dear Reader, if you didn’t go to this conference, you must go to the next one. Plan to attend the 2016 conference in Wellington. Afterwards, you will go home a more knowledgeable technical communicator, and a happier and better person.

Grant Mackenzie

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