I have been very fortunate to work with many brilliant people in my career. The year before last, my friend Mark Hoffman and I were the primary authors on a paper that took top honors at Think Week.  I can tell you about it now because not only did Microsoft make the paper public, they also put my name on it. There is something else I can tell you now too: We cheated.

A little history on Think Week, from Mr. Gates himself:

"Right now, I'm getting ready for Think Week. In May, I'll go off for a week and read 100 or more papers from Microsoft employees that examine issues related to the company and the future of technology. I've been doing this for over 12 years. It used to be an all-paper process in which I was the only one doing the reading and commenting. Today the whole process is digital and open to the entire company."

I’d worked on other papers for Think Week before, frankly more astounding and ground-breaking stuff, if you think meta-languages are uber sexy stuff, which sadly, I do. But I didn’t cheat and so a brilliant idea was probably passed over. Now a typical Microsoft whitepaper template might start off something like:

Overview --> Executive Summary --> Introduction

Borrrring! I mean I wrote the stuff almost every day and I still had a hard time parsing what went where, which makes sense if you are saying the same thing three times over before you get off the second page. In fact, I wonder how many of those papers Bill even gets to the second page on?  So here you have a couple of guys,  one an aspiring author (aren’t we all), one in the Blues Hall of Fame for his seminal book on Howlin’ Wolf, and here we are cramming the work of some of the brightest people on earth into this stilted format.  But boy, were we good at it. Fortunately at the time I was lucky to be working with another brilliant architect/writer, Paul Slater, who taught me a trick – the movie trailer opening.

All of these years in technical writing we have been breaking the cardinal rule of good story telling:

Show, don't tell.

By endless telling and never showing. Going on and on about what software will do. Who cares? The question is:

What will your software do for me?

And honestly, if you can’t answer that, if you don’t spend a good chunk of time with that, then you don’t know enough to start your project anyway.

So instead, we wrote this as the intro:

Imagine that you’re working in Macau for six months, and your wife has
come to visit you. Several weeks before her visit, you joined an online social
environment that alerts you whenever any groups in that environment form
to alert you of events and topics near you that might interest you, such as
Macanese folk-pop concerts, sailing events, and natural disasters.

This morning, you left for work just as your wife left to play golf with a friend
on Coloane Island to the south. At 9:37 a.m., the building where you work in
central Macau starts to shake violently. You run outside and see hundreds of
other workers from surrounding buildings. You try several times to call your
wife’s smart phone but can’t get through. Then you receive a text message
on your smart phone that asks if you want to join a group in the social
environment called “Macau earthquake group,” or MEG for short. You click a
link on the text message, enter your credentials for the social environment,
and see on your smart phone the home page for MEG. It’s fully configured for
an emergency and includes a link to the Global Disaster Alert and
Coordination System web site (www.gdacs.org) complemented with
suggestions about what to do during and after a major earthquake, along
with emergency organizations and rescue locations in and near Macau. It
displays a button that says, “Tell your family and friends you’re safe.” You
press the button and see a pre-written message that says, “I’m OK. How
about you?” It shows your current location in latitude and longitude. Other pages linked
from MEG’s home page include news feeds from earthquake experts
worldwide, text messages from eyewitnesses all over Macau, and even a few
photos and video clips of the earthquake from eyewitnesses.

You and your wife read posts on MEG hour-by-hour as the horror of the earthquake and tsunami hit home: more than 100,000 people killed and more than $10 billion in damage. Truck convoys
bring in food, sleeping blankets, and tents, and helicopters bring in medical
supplies for the thousands of people stranded in the hills above Macau. You
read about five separate people trapped by earthquake debris who were
found by sending text messages to MEG; rescuers geolocated two trapped
victims from her text messages. You also read about dozens of people
stranded by the tsunami who found rescuers through MEG.
The MEG solution saved countless lives today. It was the only functioning realtime
information source during the disaster. The technologies for this scenario and others far less dramatic already exist.

Continue reading

Seems particularly poignant in the context of recent events, doesn’t it? And of course you can see how Mr. Gates might’ve just turned the page. While everybody else was locked into the template, we decided to take a brave new tact, and it worked. So break the mold, throw out the template, and start telling stories. Start getting the idea across in consumable ways that matter.

Topics: Design & Development, Technical Writing

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