Happy Holidays and Cameos Video – Vol 5

I probably won’t put out another post until the new year, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy holiday period, and I hope things will get better for everyone next year!

You may know I have a YouTube channel, and I include cameos of people saying “dot com” at the start of every video. Every now and then I put out a compilation of those clips, and here is volume 5, made up of the clips I used over this this last year.

Thanks to everyone who got involved. These clips are my favourite bit of the videos. πŸ™‚

Stay safe, and see you next year!

Cheers

Tim…

Stagnation : Population Me!

This is a bit of a life update. As you will have seen from the title, I’m living in a town called stagnation at the moment…

Work

When I read Accelerate there were several mentions of bringing joy to developers. I’m not sure I had thought about it before, but I realised my job does not bring me joy. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of joy. One of the problems with being capable is you get dragged into all sorts of stuff that you don’t really care about. You end up spending loads of time doing things that you are crap at, because your “crap” is better than other people’s “good”…

What’s worse, you have so little time to do things you are good at, you end up doing a crap job of those things, which is really frustrating. It doesn’t matter what people think, when you know you are capable of more it’s depressing. There is no joy here!

So why don’t I just leave? I don’t even need to work, so the sensible option is to just walk away, but that comes with its own set of issues. As with everything in life there is a balance. Clearly at the moment the balance is in favour of not walking out, or I would have done it already, but I’m not sure how much longer things will remain that way.

The biggest issue is I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I can do pretty much anything, but what? If I knew what I wanted to do, I would do it.

As a result of this, I’m permanently set to “Angry Mode”, which isn’t really good for me or anyone else.

I guess the only positive is I’m working from home, so I can scream and swear at the wall, rather than doing it to people’s faces!

Website, Blog and YouTube

The website is business as usual. I write what I want to write, when I want to write. Similar with videos on YouTube. I’ve dropped back to one video every two weeks, because I’m running short on inspiration, so I’m rationing the topics I have in the pipeline to keep somewhat of a regular schedule.

The blog has been relatively quiet of late. There hasn’t been a lot I’ve been willing to say publicly. I don’t want to keep dumping out negativity, so I’ve chosen to stay silent most of the time. I’m sure if my mood changes, there will be an uptick in positive thoughts and the content will flow again. Blogging is more about headspace than anything, and I’m not in the right headspace at the moment.

Presenting

I don’t. I’m not sure if this is a permanent situation or not. Currently I’m turning down all offers. If I change my mind, so be it. If I don’t, that is good too.

Life

As you know, I have no life, so I guess it’s same old, same old…

Cheers

Tim…

Working From Home : Again

I just read this article on Wired.

I’ve written about my thoughts on working from home here, but I’m going to have a little rant…

I keep expressing my opinions in meetings, but I’m often countered by various points, which I think are flawed, but I want respond to here.

It’s not healthy to be remote all the time

I tell you what’s also not healthy. Making people go to the office when they don’t want to! Making people do crappy commutes that drain their souls. Making people waste several hours of their day, when they could be doing other things that more positively affect their wellbeing.

If people feel more healthy working from the office, they should work from the office. If they would prefer not to, they should be allowed to make that choice. You can’t use the “healthy” argument in favour of one stance and ignore the “healthy” argument for the other.

Some staff can’t work remotely

No shit Sherlock! I don’t expect an ER doctor to get approval to work from home when all the patients are waiting to be seen in the ER. If a job role is customer facing, then clearly working from home is not an option, but many people in organisations are not customer facing, myself being one of them.

Some people can’t work from home because they don’t have a suitable work space. Those people either have to work from the office, or move house to a place with a suitable work space. You can’t stop other people working from home because Billy lives in a bedsit with his wife and 3 kids…

We don’t want 100% remote work

Fine. I’ll come in for 1 hour a year. Thanks.

Having arbitrary quotas is wrong. It should be based on the person and the role. Remember, I’m not demanding you work from home. I’m saying I want to!

We need to bond as a team

I don’t touch people at work. My bonding is done equally well on a video call. If you want me to “bond with the team”, you can start off by getting rid of all the idiots I dislike, and the people who are not pulling their weight.

This argument is even more flawed when companies agree to working 2-3 days from home. Are you even going to see members of your team on the days you choose to be in? Does the whole team have to be in on the same days? How does that work with hot-desking and space saving? I think this is a weak argument.

We need to do workshops and brain storming meetings in person

Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it’s not. The vast majority of meetings are unproductive, with people wasting time walking between buildings to achieve nothing. It’s actually a lot more efficient to use tools like Zoom or Teams…

I don’t think many people would argue with coming into the office for a specific event if it actually added value, but that is not the same as discussing the same old rubbish for hours on end, that nobody is going to own or progress.

I’m also irritated by people complaining of back-to-back meetings with no breaks. Either don’t accept them, or switch to a 45 minute meeting format. You know you just spend the first 10 minutes waiting for people to turn up anyway. This is another example of a dysfunctional business practice being used to argue the point.

People are scared from a health perspective of returning to the office, we need to show them it is ok

Is anyone else thinking of the scene in Jaws where the Mayor is forcing people into the water to “prove” it is safe? In my company we’ve had several “back to the office” pushes, that have ultimately been cancelled due to new lockdown restrictions. I am not surprised people are worried. I believe they should be.

Me not being in the office makes the office a safer place, because there is one less person who could transmit a virus. I’m happy to work from home, so there is no need to thank me for the service I’m am doing to office health!

People will be lazy

Well, the evidence seems to counter that argument. My own boss has seen an uptick in productivity since we’ve worked from home. So you want us to come back to the office so our team can get less work done?

I covered the flaws in this argument in this post. Suffice to say, if a manager thinks this, it just shows they are a rubbish manager, who manages by presence checking, not actual work done. Grow up!

Conclusion

I know I’m going to get some responses from people saying their preferences, and I would just like you to remember, they are “your preferences”! I would just like to reiterate the following.

  • These are my opinions.
  • I am not forcing everyone to work from home. I am pro-choice in this matter.
  • If you think differently, that is fine, but it doesn’t negate my feelings on this matter!

Cheers

Tim…

You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run!

This is going to be a rant. If you are not into reading rants, please don’t continue.

I put out a tweet yesterday that said this.

“I’m so done. People can’t follow basic instructions, but expect to jump straight into building something complex on day one, then expect me to help when it inevitably goes wrong. You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run!”

I’ve had a few incidents recently that have nearly brought me to breaking point.

  • Someone wanted to install an Oracle database on Linux, but didn’t even know what an environment variable was. They claimed to have Linux experience, but literally couldn’t grasp what it meant to set or reference an environment variable, even when it was on the page in front of them.
  • Someone was “following” one of my installation guides, and said it was well written and easy to read, but wanted a step-by-step breakdown of what they had to do. What? I know I’m not perfect, but that is literally what the article was.
  • Someone else seemed incapable of pasting code into a shell. Having said they were doing exactly what was in my article, it became clear they were doing nothing of the sort.

These are just three incidents, but they are the tip of the iceberg.

Back in the day there used to be a forum on my website, but I closed it down because I was wasting loads of my time trying to help people, who had no intention of helping themselves. I wrote some posts about it over the years.

Over the years I’ve had several discussions about this with other members of the community. I know this happens a lot to everyone.

Part of me feels really bad, because I’m supposed to be this community guy, but I really can’t cope with people who have not even tried to get some basic skills under their belt before launching into something more complicated. I’m sorry, but if you’ve never seen Linux before, you probably shouldn’t be trying to install Oracle RAC on it. If you’ve never installed a database before, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about installing Cloud Control.

How many people turned up to the Olympics this year with no previous experience and took home a medal? How many people sit university final exams without ever studying the subject before? It sounds bloody stupid right? Yet people expect to do complex tech stuff without any grounding in basic skills.

I don’t know if these people are delusional. I don’t know if their boss is an idiot, and asking them to do something that is clearly beyond their capabilities. I feel sorry for them if they are under pressure to do this, but I can’t work miracles, and I’m not being paid to do their job for them. Simple as that.

I look at my website stats and I’m clearly helping a large number of people, so I think I’m doing my share already. Sorry, but not sorry!

Cheers

Tim…

The Death of Critical Thinking

I’m repeatedly getting into exchanges with people who seem to be incapable of critical thinking. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia definition for Critical Thinking.

Critical thinking calls for the ability to:

  • Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems
  • Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem-solving
  • Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information
  • Recognize unstated assumptions and values
  • Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment
  • Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments
  • Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions
  • Draw warranted conclusions and generalizations
  • Put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives
  • Reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience
  • Render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life

They are all important points, but there are some bits that jump out at me. I could write about all of them, but that would get a bit boring, and these are the bits people seem to really struggle with.

Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information

It’s surprising how many people don’t go back to the source material, and are happy to rely on someone’s interpretation of it. That’s problematic, as people often focus on what they think is important, and have a habit of conveniently forgetting about material that contradicts their view point. You can twist almost anything to agree with your perspective if you carefully omit some of the content and context of the source material.

It’s important you check the source material to make sure it actually exists. In a recent interaction someone was using a quote by a university professor in support of their argument. I checked on the professor in question, and they did indeed say those words, but they were citing sources that did not exist. The professor’s statements were pure fabrication, and they’ve subsequently been removed from student interactions. I suspect they will lose their job at some point. It’s not good when scientists openly lie…

You also have to consider the source of the information. Is the person really qualified to be speaking about the issue in question? That can be quite difficult to determine for some people. If we were talking about cancer, a doctor would be the correct person right? Well, I would take the opinion of an oncologist over my general practitioner any day of the week. When discussing a virus, would you take the opinion of a doctor (unspecified discipline) over a virologist or immunologist? It’s easy to be fooled into thinking someone is a credible source, when they may have lots of qualifications, but in the wrong field. I have a PhD in genetic engineering, so I’m a doctor, but you probably shouldn’t ask me for gynaecology advice. πŸ™‚

Gathering the pertinent information does not mean finding the one paper or person that agrees with your point of view. You should consider the available information as a whole, not cherry pick what suits you.

Recognize unstated assumptions and values

Ultimately, you need to go back to the source material, and then look for unstated assumptions and values in that. You might for example assume a bias if the writer is employed by a specific company, or has a long history of pushing a certain message. You can’t totally discount this information, but you do need to take that context into account when coming to any conclusion about it.

When you start using “second hand evidence” this gets really tricky because you can lose some of the original content and context. We all come with our own set of biases, whether conscious or unconscious. If I suspect someone has a strong bias in favour of a specific stance, I am less likely to listen to their interpretation of the source material, because I’m expecting their bias to influence their interpretation. If I see something that reads as a balanced argument, I will usually give it more weight. That could still be a mistake, as it is not the source material. I may still be getting fooled.

Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment

People often quote scientific papers as a means to justify their point. When you check the source material, it’s clear the person in question has totally misunderstood it. Scientific papers can be quite difficult to read. Different disciplines use language differently, and it’s easy to get the wrong end of the stick. That’s why it is super important you have more than a passing understanding of the subject matter before you launch into reading scientific papers. You need to be able to question your own understanding of what you are reading, to confirm you really do understand it. Even an abstract for a paper can be quite misleading when taken out of context.

As you read more source material, you will get a better feeling for the language used, and you will also be able to go back and check your previous understanding of things you’ve read. This is why it’s really problematic if a newbie reads a single paper and decides that is definitive proof of their opinion.

Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments

The process of appraising evidence is really important. It comes back to the point about source material verses other people’s interpretations. The source material could be considered the highest quality, but it will include outliers. Meta-analysis is often considered superior, as it reduces the importance of outliers. Most information on the internet is not source material. It is many layers divorced from the source material. Using a news story, blog post or tweet as part of your data set could be seriously skewing your results because of the volume of content written by unqualified people.

The weight of evidence has to be taken into account. If 99% of the quality material says X and 1% says Y, it would be a brave person who assumes that Y must be the correct answer. There is a thing called consensus. A conclusion has been made by a group of qualified people based on the body of evidence as a whole, not just a couple of outliers. Remember what I said about meta-analysis.

Consensus can change over time. As more information is gathered, the weight of the evidence may change. It’s perfectly fine to find out what you believed is wrong. You made the best judgement you could using the information at your disposal. As more and better quality information arrives, it needs to be evaluated, which could in turn alter the consensus.

Reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience

What I believe today may not be what I believe tomorrow. Today I side with the consensus. I am willing to adapt as that consensus changes, based on new information.

I don’t just fall in line with the opinion of a specific spokesperson. They have their own beliefs and biases. It is the underlying consensus that matters to me.

Cheers

Tim…

PS. I’m not trying to make out I’m the boss or gatekeeper of critical thinking. We all jump to conclusions based on little evidence from time to time. You’ve just got to get enough self-awareness to notice you are doing it, or accept you’ve done it when someone challenges you on it.

Working From Home : Here come the hit pieces!

At the start of lockdown there seemed to be story after story extolling the virtues of working from home. There was the odd smattering of people concerned about the mental health of workers, but most of what I saw seemed to be talking about working from home being the new normal. I was fine with that as I like working from home, but I know it doesn’t suit everyone.

Now that we in the UK are starting to ease lockdown restrictions, I see more stories about companies who are pushing to get everyone back in the office, or telling us how bad working from home is for us.

Why?

It feels like something dodgy is going on here, and here are two possible explanations.

  • Companies never really had any intentions of making working from home the new normal, but were telling us they were to try and get us into that frame of mind, so we didn’t make any waves. Now they see the “light at the end of the tunnel”, they are starting the reverse campaign, trying to convince us being in the office is best for us.
  • Companies thought working from home would work, but found out it didn’t, and want to return to the more productive state.

I know which one I think it is! Here’s a clue. The first one! I’m sure there are some companies or roles where a face to face is better, but I’m sure much of that is due to them not embracing technology and not understanding how to address their issues.

But what do people really want?

During the initial part of lockdown I often felt like a lone dissenting voice at staff briefings when I expressed my preference to work from home. Much later we did a staff survey where the vast majority of people said they would like to work at least some of the time from home. A more flexible approach to work you might say.

I think the reality is there are some people who are desperate to get back to the office, some people who are dreading it, and some people who want a mix of the two.

My own company had a very backward attitude to flexible working. It was all over the website that flexible working was a thing, but when you tried to do it there were roadblocks. There was always a “good reason” why it was a bad idea.

Over the course of lockdown there have been waves of softening and hardening of attitudes to this, but I find myself in a position where today I’m signing a petition to encourage my employer to take flexible working seriously. Several hundred other people clearly aren’t confident the current attitudes to flexible working will remain once we are out of lockdown. This despite the results of the staff survey, and numerous reports of benefits of flexible working…

So what do you want?

I want employers to understand there is a spectrum of attitudes towards working from home, and they should accommodate that. If you want to get the best out of your people, you’ve got to put them in a position to excel. Forcing undesirable working arrangements on people will result in a long term negative. Acceptance of flexible working arrangements seems the only sensible way forward to me.

But what about X?

I see so many excuses about why working from home is bad, and to be quite honest most of them are clearly bullshit.

People will be lazy and slack off. If you have no real measure of productivity, then you are a bad manager/company. If you do have a real measure of productivity, then you will know if someone is slacking off or not, and you should deal with them accordingly. I’m guessing those same people will be slacking off in the office too! Being physically present in an office is not going to make a lazy person into a productivity fiend.

It makes meetings hard. Oh FFS, there are so many ways to make meetings more efficient, the main one being don’t have so many meetings in the first place. I can’t tell you how often I’m invited to meetings with no agenda, which result in no real action points. Most of the time they could be replaced with one email saying, “This is what we plan to do. Shout up if you think that’s a bad idea or have any questions.” There is an obsession with meeting culture. For some people, their role is 90% meetings. Maybe that’s necessary for them, but it doesn’t mean it’s the same for all of us, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t cope really easily with online meetings.

What’s going to happen?

I don’t know. What I do know is after working from home for over a year, many people have a rose coloured view of working in the office. Once they start having to commute again, wasting hours of their day, wasting lots of money, and having to deal with “that annoying prick” face to face again, some will think about how things were in the good old days of lockdown…

What’s my preference?

If someone gave me the option of 100% from home or 100% from the office, I would pick 100% home. I’m not totally sure how I feel about a mix. I think it’s a bad idea and I would like to be 100% working from home, but maybe my mind would change after a little time in the office. What I do know is if my company push hard for 100% office-based work, or even a majority of time, I am not going to be happy.

I’m happy to hear other opinions, but remember your opinion is not shared by everyone. I’m expressing my opinion. I’m not assuming the world agrees with me. You are entitled to be wrong. πŸ™‚ That was a joke!

Cheers

Tim…

8 years and counting…

I just noticed today is the 8 year anniversary of working for my current company.

I wrote a blog post about the interview before I got the job (here).

About 3 months after I started the job I wrote an update post, and clearly wasn’t too happy with the way things were going (here).

There was a rather unenthusiastic post about my four year anniversary (here).

Now here I am after eight years and I’m still having the same arguments about my role on an almost daily basis. It’s like a bad relationship I can’t break free from. Some sort of He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss) kind-of thing.

Let’s see what this next year brings…

Cheers

Tim…

PS. At least now I’m working from home, which is better.

PPS. Thanks to the people who contacted me out of concern. This is not a cry for help. πŸ™‚ You really don’t need to worry about me. Every job has pros and cons. This job has lots of cons, but there are some pros too. At the moment the pros still outweigh the cons (just about). If that changes, I’ll take a few years off work again. This is not drama. Just how I feel…

Structuring Content : Think Pyramid!

This post is about making sure you get your message across by structuring your content correctly, and giving people convenient jump-off points when they’ve hit the level that is appropriate for them.

In my post about plain language, I mentioned a discussion on structuring content, and linked to a previous post called The Art of Miscommunication. I thought it was worth digging into content structure a little more.

We can think of the content structure as a pyramid. Starting at the top we keep things short and simple, then each layer down gets progressively more detailed. A person consuming the content can get to a level appropriate for them and stop, safe in the knowledge they have not missed something vital.

Level 1

What do I need to know about this content?

  • What is it about?
  • Is it really meant for me?
  • Are there any actions assigned to me?
  • Is it even worth my time reading this, or have I been included for the hell of it?

If we think about emails, blog posts and videos, it’s important we understand what the content is about early. This allows us to decide if this is the right content for us. In my opinion this is about the subject of the email, or title of blogs and videos, along with a short first paragraph.

Using the example of an email, it might be important that some of the management chain understand a situation is happening, but they may not understand the detail of the issue, or have time to dig into it further.

Here is a silly example of an email subject and first paragraph, which represents how I think the top level of the pyramid should work.

“Payroll run failed. Will be fixed by this afternoon!

This morning’s payroll run failed. Jayne is on the case, diagnosed the problem and is confident it will be fixed by this afternoon. The P1 incident number is INC123456.”

It’s short! It tells me what I need to know. It gives me some confidence I don’t need to worry about things unless I hear different. At this point I might feel safe to jump out of the email. I know it’s a Priority 1 (P1) incident, which means it will have a wash-up meeting, so I don’t need to respond asking someone to document and communicate the root cause. I feel most higher-level managers should be happy with this, and be able to duck out now.

Level 2

This is where we add a little more detail. We are still going to keep things short and simple. We will already have lost some of the readers, so the people left behind are here because they want something with a bit more depth. Maybe something like this.

“At 06:18 we got a notification to say the payroll process had died. It got escalated to Jayne, who checked the application logs. It looked like the payroll run had been hanging for a while and then died.

She asked the DBAs to check the database while she checked the OS layer on the app server. The DBAs said the database went really quiet at that time, like no new requests were coming through from the app layer, but didn’t think it was the database that was causing the problem.

Jayne noticed a Jenkins agent on the app server was grabbing 100% of the CPU, which is what killed the payroll run.

The Jenkins agent was restarted. The payroll run was restarted. Everyone is monitoring it, and they’re confident it will complete by 13:00.”

There is no evidence here, but it clearly describes what happened, and what is being done about it. If I didn’t feel confident about closing the email after the first level, I should now.

Level 3 and Beyond

In the case of an email, I don’t think anything beyond this point makes sense. Large emails and posts look daunting, and I get the impression people just “file them” to be looked at later. Maybe that’s just me. πŸ™‚

In most cases, I think anything level 3 downward should be a link to something, so those people that are interested can “get their geek on”, while everyone else gets on with their day. Something like this for example.

“Further information:

Incident : INC123456

Problem Record : PRB123456 : How do we prevent Jenkins agents killing our stuff?

Knowledge Base: KB123456 : Diagnosing Payroll Run Failures.

Knowledge Base: KB234567 : What is Jenkins and why do we use it?”

This doesn’t add much to the size of the email, but it does give people a place to go if they need more information.

I’m making the assumption that people in the company know the evidence of the issue diagnosis and corrective actions will be included in the P1 incident, so I don’t need to add it into the email. The problem record shows we’ve got some thinking to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The knowledge base notes give us a place to get further information, and give us some confidence that if Jayne dies, we might still get paid next month.

Another Example

I’ve been producing content for a while, and occasionally I have light-bulb moments where I realise I’ve totally missed the point. Several years after writing an article about the Oracle Scheduler I realised the vast majority of people just want a basic example they can copy/paste. I added a section to the top of the article (here). I doubt many people move beyond that. I rarely do. πŸ™‚

Conclusion

There is little point writing something unless you think someone is going to read it, even if it is yourself. You need to get the correct information to the correct people as quickly as possible. That involves thinking about the way you present your content and write your emails. I’m not saying this is perfect. I’m not an expert at this stuff. This is just how I feel about it, and I think the pyramid approach discussed in the course is a good mental cue to keep you on track.

Cheers

Tim…

PS. You are not allowed to use this against me when you see one of my rambling posts or articles.

PPS. In real life it wasn’t a payroll system, but it was a Jenkins agent that killed everything.

PPPS. Everyone knows it’s always the network! πŸ™‚

Increasing headcount is probably not the answer!

I’m incredibly irritated by tech people using headcount as a reason for their problems. From my experience, throwing bodies at problems is rarely the correct answer.

Increasing headcount only makes sense if:

  • You understand the problem.
  • You’ve defined the corrective actions.
  • You have processes in place to make new people productive quickly.

If you don’t understand the problem, and don’t already have a plan for solving it, hiring a load of people isn’t going to help you. It can actually make things worse. At best they will sit around and do nothing. At worst, they will start working and come up with a bunch of random “solutions” to your problems, which can leave you in a worse position than you started. Supporting a bunch of random crap is no fun at all.

My first job was a great example of doing things the right way.

  • The company signed a new customer. The software was used to track drug trials. Each trial had a unique identifier. The customer wanted to be able to refer to trials using the unique identifier, or a free text alias. This meant adding a trial alias to loads of screen in the application. There was also a need to upgrade the whole application from Forms 3.0 to Forms 4.0.
  • The analysis was done. Two procedures were defined and documented. One procedure gave directions on performing the upgrade. One procedure gave directions on adding the trial alias to the forms that needed it.
  • In addition to the existing workforce, the company hired four new people. Two were computer science graduates. Two, including me, were not. None of us had previous Oracle Database or Oracle Forms experience. After some basic training, we were put to work upgrading the forms and adding in the trial alias code.
  • It worked fine, because despite us being not much more than trained monkeys, the prerequisites had been put in place to allow someone with a PhD in cabbage sex to be a productive member of the team. There were no major blockers or constraints to deal with.

I’ve also seen it done the wrong way a bunch of times, but I’m not going to go there as it’s too depressing, and the people and companies involved will recognise themselves…

There are situations where bodies can help, but randomly throwing people at something is not a great solution if you’ve not put in the necessary effort up front to make it work. You should also be asking how many of the tasks should really be automated, so humans can be allocated to something more meaningful. In these cases, even if extra bodies could work, your focus should be on solving the root cause, not papering over the cracks.

When I discuss headcount, or throwing bodies at a problem, I could be talking about hiring more permanent staff, temporary staff or outsourcing projects. There is a lot to be said for the old saying, “You can’t outsource a problem!”, but it could easily be, “You can’t headcount a problem!” πŸ™‚

Cheers

Tim…

Plain Language : My review of the course

Last week I went on a Plain Language course. If you were following me on Twitter, you’ll know I was feeling a bit nervous about it. I find any type of “course” difficult. I don’t like being “trapped” and I prefer to learn things at my own pace. Having said that, it went really well.

What’s the point?

How you speak and write can have a big impact on how your message is received. I work for a university, which has a large number of overseas students and staff, where English is not their first language.

A significant proportion of our user base need accessibility tools, and a similar proportion use them by choice.

Even when English is your first language, it can be difficult to understand some of the rubbish that gets produced.

Isn’t it just about dumbing down?

Some people love flowery bullshit language. I hate it. I’m not the best at reading, so every unnecessary word requires parse time, and makes it easier for me to lose my concentration.

My problem is similar to that faced by someone who doesn’t have English as a first language, or someone using accessibility tools. There is a lot of effort spent dealing with words that add no value to the meaning.

Know your audience!

You always have to consider your audience when writing and speaking. There is a difference between writing a legal document, an academic paper and instructions about how to log into the WIFI.

My statistics tell me that about 45% of people reading this will be from India. About 43% from the USA, and the remaining are made up from the rest of the world. I have no idea about the language skills of the audience in those locations, but I’m guessing they don’t track well with someone born 50 years ago and raised in the Midlands, UK. πŸ™‚

I’ve learned through my years of presenting, that often “less is more”. Try to get as much meaning in as few words as possible. I wrote a series of Public Speaking Tips, where I wrote about my experience of international presentations. I’ve tried to keep that in mind when I’m doing my YouTube videos too.

In short, write in a style that is acceptable to your audience!

What are “the rules”?

There’s a neat summary of some of the points covered by the course here.

It’s mostly about controlling your word selection, sentence size and use of active and passive verbs. There is also some information about how to structure communications to make sure the main points and actions are obvious from the start. It’s similar to what I wrote about in my post called The Art of Miscommunication.

The course doesn’t focus on punctuation or grammar. It doesn’t remove personality from your writing. It’s all about making yourself understood.

What tools are available?

If you are using Word or Outlook, you can use the built-in tools to help.

For Word:

  • Go to “File > Options > Proofing”.
  • Select the “Check grammar with spellings” and “Show readability statistics” options.
  • Click the “OK” button to exit.

For Outlook:

  • Go to “File > Options”.
  • Select “Mail” and click the “Spelling and AutoCorrect” button under the “Compose Messages” section.
  • Select “Proofing”.
  • Select the “Mark grammar errors as you type”, “Check grammar with spelling” and “Show readability statistics” options.
  • Click the “OK” buttons to exit.

In addition to the basic statistics, there is the Flesch-Kincaid readability score. There are a bunch of browser plugins that could help here also.

Did you disagree with anything?

I really struggled with the active vs. passive stuff. I often write in passive voice, and I find active voice quite aggressive. Despite this, I can see active verbs are more direct and often make sentences shorter, so I can see the value.

I’m not sure I will, or even can, take this on board. I guess time will tell.

Conclusion

It’s a good course, and despite my initial nerves I really enjoyed it. If you get the chance to take part in something like this, you really should!

Remember, the course is the beginning of the journey!

Here are the scores for this post from Word. They scientifically prove I’m amazing and can be understood by anyone! If you don’t agree Katy, you’re a poopy head! πŸ™‚

Cheers

Tim…