On the Record Spotlight: Bernard Aschwanden

On the Record Spotlight: Bernard Aschwanden

Tavia Record
Tavia Record

By: Tavia Record
Editor, On the Record
Orlando Central Florida Chapter, STC

I’m thrilled to share a stream of consciousness from the mind of tech comm guru, Bernard Aschwanden. He is the first to graciously bless On The Record with a special feature interview. Bernard’s words can be described as unpredictable, sincere and edifying.

Bernard solves documentation-based problems and helps companies generate more revenue. He guides clients through the best processes to create, manage, and deliver content. Once content is delivered, he helps clients socialize the message, understand and act on feedback, and improve the process and workflow.

He is the founder of Publishing Smarter, an associate fellow, national vice president, and incoming president of the international Society for Technical Communicators (STC). Bernard has helped hundreds of companies implement successful solutions. He is focused on publishing better, publishing faster, and publishing smarter.


T: Dispel three myths about technical communicators.

B: We aren’t closeted away, shirking from the light, and hiding behind stacked tomes of information. We interact all the time, either online or in person. We do so in chat groups, with social media tools, at conferences, with subject matter experts, with consumers of our content, and with each other. We generally are fans of sharing our knowledge, and expanding what we know. The best way we do so is by being involved, stepping into the spotlight (when needed), and pushing the tomes aside to instead take time to peek out at the rest of the world.

We aren’t an exclusive group of people who spend our time focused on discussions around serial commas, the use of ‘and’ or the ampersand, or the difference between serif and sans-serif fonts. People I know in the field travel, explore, and are always learning. We watch Doctor Who, The Simpsons, Downton Abbey, action movies, romance, science-fiction, mystery, animated films, Oscar worthy materials, and schlocky B (or even C) grade films. We bike, jog, do yoga, play sports, and listen to music. We are involved in so many aspects of life, and bring that diversity to the meeting room, the conference session, the work we create, and the people we interact with.

We aren’t writers. At least, not exclusively. We don’t spend 37.5 hours per week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with two breaks for 15 minutes, and one hour for lunch) sitting at the computer typing content. We have so many other things we do. We bridge communications between teams as we attend meetings by bringing what we learn from the product meeting in the morning to the sales meeting in the afternoon. We add value to any company by being able to help teams clearly understand how things work in order to translate to help customers. We add clear images to define what we mean (a picture is worth a thousand words).

We create online content and interactive video. We develop stylesheets for output and learn what code means. We spend just as much time learning new things as we do teaching them to others. We are jacks of all trades within an organization, and touch the words on everything that a company creates. Regardless of whether the words are written, spoken, used to develop ideas into products and services, or just define what a company means. Yes, we write, but it doesn’t define us in a single word. We are a broad collection of interests and experiences who embody the idea of supporting others by delivering clear and correct messages to the right audience, in the right format, at the right time, and with the focus of achieving all of this as efficiently as possible.


T: How would you describe what you do, and how did you come into this profession?

B: I solve business problems and help generate revenue through clear communications. Basically, I try to help clients write less, and write better. Not “get rid of all the content,” but rather help them understand what they truly need to deliver, and how to best deliver it. I distill that down to the creation of content, management of that material as a business asset (content has HUGE value to companies), delivery to the target audience, socializing the message (beyond tweeting/blogging, Facebook and similar tools), listening to feedback, and then improving created content. That cycle repeats as needed to always deliver fresh and relevant content.

I came to the profession by a roundabout way. I’ve loved words and books since I was a kid, and even owned a second-hand bookstore. While managing this business, I started training people to use software tools at a nearby company where the quality of the training content was the first thing I noticed. It was so much better than what competitors were offering that people kept coming back for training. I quickly learned that quality content builds revenue!

One of the partners took me under his wing. He taught me to create content using a tool from Frame Technology. That tool was acquired by Adobe in 1995, and is known to technical communicators as Adobe FrameMaker today. This gave me the opportunity to write manuals for our own training, and also to deliver training on FrameMaker. Eventually, I started getting approached for help on defining the best way to create quality content. When the company I was working for was sold, I continued training clients as a consultant for my own business. I joined STC, and since then have delivered training and consulting to companies all around the world.


T: Tell me about your experience at the United Nations headquarters and how your work as a technical communicator led you there.

B: I had a chance to do a bit of training for a group working on a Nuclear Disarmament Handbook for the United Nations. They were in a room deep in the building, and when I first showed up, I spent about two or three minutes standing out front, looking up at the flags of the world, and taking in the sight. It was impressive. We spent several weeks working together to create a book (I still have a print copy at home signed by the members of the documentation team!) that I feel was one of the more important documents I’ve ever worked on. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of reducing nuclear arms and making the world safer? While there, I got a tour of the building. It is impressive in many ways.

I am a fan of foods from around the world, so the kitchen and cafeteria stood out to me. As you may expect, the food options are representative of so many parts of the world, and the mix of people dining from various cultures and of different languages and religions is impressive. People sitting together one day may be casually discussing family and friends, and then the next day take to the stage in the assembly hall to debate passionately against the views of the very people they had lunch with the day before. Interaction occurs between people from all over the world, and so many viewpoints are expressed.

The best treat was ducking into the General Assembly Hall, standing at the podium, looking out at the seats from the stage, and taking in the large view while considering that the representatives of almost every nation meet in that same place! The sense of scale was impressive to say the least.

Oh, and my team and I got the training manual we designed for the UN delivered on time for all the people who needed it, so the actual content work was also a success. This was truly one of the most important projects I’ve been exposed to.


T: What other cool work experiences have required your expertise as a technical communicator?

B: Wow. I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve worked for clients in at least one half of the United States, and most of the Canadian provinces, plus Germany, Denmark, Finland, and India, to name a few. I’ve had the opportunity to look out the side of a military ship in dry dock when the sides were open (it’s a LONG way down). I’ve sat in fighter jets, and have presented at conferences in some of the most beautiful places in the world.

I’d have to say that my best experiences include having met so many people who have become friends because of the work that I do. I can go to most major cities and connect with someone that I know because of working over 20 years in the field. I’m still meeting people every year and continue to develop new connections, and it’s largely due to being in a career where the focus is communications. That’s what connects us all.

Not just communicating, but being able to do so over vast distances, and recording our thoughts and ideas, and then developing on them. To be able to read the works of those who came before us, to see their images, words, and hear their thoughts and ideas means we don’t have to relearn generation by generation.


T: How would you advise someone to break into the industry, and is there a particular path that should be sought after?

B: I can’t see one path that should be sought after because people in technical communications are individuals first. There are individual stories and passions that every person has. It’s not cookie cutter. That being said, volunteering early on (for the right reasons, and for the right places) is a good way to start. Of course www.stc.org is a great resource, and we’d love to have everyone in the technical communications field join us, but we are also looking for people to help in their communities. Join your local chapter, or start one if you don’t have one nearby. Join the virtual communities. But more than anything, be true to your passions.

I just shared a flight with a gentleman from Toronto who is a fan of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. He started a blog about them, and even started a Facebook fan page out of love for the game and the team. As we talked, it became clear that he was going to San Jose to watch the big game (Feb 21, San Jose Sharks v. Los Angeles Kings, massive outdoor game with 70,000+ people) from the press box because his writing caught the attention of the team and landed him an opportunity to become one of their professional writers. While he does have a “full-time” job at home, he is able to work as a professional writer with the team he loves by distributing his knowledge, and taking the time to do it well. So, my suggestion is to be passionate about what you do, do what you love, and get into a career for the right reasons.


T: Can a persons interests, experiences, or involvement outside of the common technical fields of engineering, software development, and information technology help them in their work as a technical communicator?

B: Yes. What you love to do can help you with any career. If you plan to work for a living (and I suggest that it’s a good idea to do so, but winning a lottery is also a fine option and if you DO win, remember who suggested it was a good option to go with) then it’s a lot more fun to work at doing things you are interested in. For example, a student in the technical communications college program that I teach in, wrote a manual on makeup techniques and another document on the management of talent at Fashion Week in Toronto.

I’ve worked on drug submissions in the United States and Europe, and worked with multiple manufacturers of medical devices, as well as for hospitals like the Mayo Clinic with writers on various topics.

Last year, I managed a political campaign, and most politicians need a lot of information clearly defined for various audiences. Therefore, any interest, experience, or involvement in a range of areas will help land a contract. Get connected. Talk to others, find the right path for yourself.

It’s never too late to start. I’ve met professionals of various ages and walks of life and have learned new things from every one of them. We are paid to learn, and what we learn ends up helping us to get that next contract. It’s a great cycle.


T: What are the most common industries that you see technical communicators thriving developmentally and financially?

B: That’s a brutal question (laughing). It’s like asking someone what the most common industries are that need websites, or for access to clean water. Those of us in technical communications are so widely spread out across the world and across industries that it’s tough to pick just a few. While there is no growth in writing documentation about blacksmithing techniques for the production of horseshoes specifically used in jousting, there is technical communications in mining, metallurgical work, gear manufacturing, automotive, aerospace, and other industrial areas related to metal. The same with electronics, healthcare, government work, military, policy and procedure, instructional design, and so many other things we do every day. Think about every job that anyone does in almost every place on earth. There is technical communications associated with it. They write reports, read procedures, perform tasks, and have hundreds of times a month where they interact with others. In so many of these cases there is a chance for technical communicators to show value. And when you show value, you can develop in both the work you do, and the rewards you get.

All that being said, we’ll likely see crazy growth in markets that don’t even exist on a mass scale right now. Electric cars. Self thinking computers. Medical implants. Nanotechnology. Space exploration. Virtual reality. The list goes on and on. Stay tuned and connected to TED Talks and you’ll get an idea of where we are headed. Every single one of those presentations can be connected to technical communications.


T: How important is it for technical communicators to remain active in their professional organization?

B: I’m biased. As a member of STC, (www.stc.org) I think it’s really important to be involved. Help guide your community. Become a recognized name in your field, geographic location, online community. Why? If you do, then when you do need that new contract, or the advice of an expert, people know you and are more willing to help. That’s not just in work, but in life. Help others and they are more likely to help you. Being active in your organization also means you continue to learn and develop. You learn management skills, writing skills, interview skills, conversational skills, teamwork skills, which will be beneficial in your current, or next contract.

You also develop your own understanding of how we interact, what people of varied backgrounds want and need, and end up with a deeper knowledge base to draw from when you really need to identify the right answers to complex and deeper questions. While any professional organization is likely to help its membership, STC seems to go beyond that. We mix the personal and professional. We develop long lasting bonds and friendships that last beyond membership in an organization. Remaining active is important because it connects you to like-minded individuals who have similar goals, unique experiences, and new insights to offer. That human experience is what reading articles, joining chat groups, or socializing with co-workers can do, but it adds to a joint interest in the entire approach to communicating with others in all mediums.

An active professional organization gives back far more than you put into it because it is a collective approach to getting results. There are a broad range of experiences, interesting personalities, open discussions, and the debates raised never end, and instead develop into the options that are worth exploring to resolve the issues you bring to the table.


T: As the incoming president for the international STC organization, how would you like STC to evolve under your leadership?

B: Great question and a tough one to immediately answer. Fortunately, this is a written summary of the discussion! I’d love to see STC continue to grow membership. The organization has so many people that are into their forties, fifties and beyond (me included) and my hope is that people in their twenties and thirties see more value. I want to ensure that we promote the value of clear communications and clear content. How it can reduce costs, but more importantly, how great content can generate revenue. I want STC to make the leadership process easy for members who run their communities.

I want every member to be able to pinpoint at least one specific connection made in STC that helped them to achieve a goal, get a job, land a contract, or build a relationship. Every member should be able to point to at least one clearly defined benefit of membership, and an interaction in the past year that makes it worth renewing. We really are a passionate group of people with diverse backgrounds and needs. It is difficult for one organization to “be everything,” and I don’t believe we can be everything. But we can be a big part of our members’ success. That’s where we need to be moving our efforts. If members succeed because of our efforts, then they will continue to be members.

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