LavaCon 2013: Depth, Breadth, and a Welcoming Atmosphere for Content Professionals

Wrapup-masterThe opportunity to attend LavaCon 2013 and write about the sessions seemed like one I did not want to pass up, and having now attended my first LavaCon conference, I can say I made a great choice. I picked up some new skills, met a lot of intelligent people, and plan to attend the next conference in October 2014.

I work from home and the fear of becoming like the guy in The Oatmeal cartoon (who suddenly has no social skills and can hardly use the toilet) freaks me out. So, it was good to get out of the house and talk technical communication and content strategy with some of the brightest minds in the field.

LavaCon 2013 started with a keynote about the need to seize desired career opportunities and ended with a look forward into the next year of content strategy and digital product management. The focus of the 2013 conference was on solving business problems, and I noticed a few key themes throughout the keynotes, breakout sessions, and networking events.

We Have to Find Opportunities. As many keynote speakers described, the opportunities to find work, advance in the field, and even move into other areas such as marketing or project management, are there for us if we are willing to find them.

As someone with a big personality, it was encouraging to hear stories about some hiring pros being impressed by the story of who you are and why you want to do the job you are seeking. Vici Koster-Lenhardt’s shared that she earned a major opportunity when she told her own story (the personal stuff, not just the résumé).

We Need to Continue to Develop Skills. On the other side of the equation, Kapil Verma shared in his keynote that technical communicators seem to be lacking some of the skills that are essential for transitioning into structured authoring and content strategy. Technical communicators and content strategists must develop an arsenal of skills to continue to be marketable and profitable across the lifespan of our careers.

We Need to Know How the Business Makes Money. We cannot assume we know where profit is happening. We need to have conversations with the people who know and review the results ourselves so we can determine how our content fits into the revenue-producing strategy.

We Need to Adapt our Content to Company and Industry Styles. We can look at the style guides and review terminology, voice, and tone to see how they fit into industry expectations. Sarah O’Keefe shared a great example about MailChimp’s style and tone, which is humorous and fits the expectations of its audience. However, it can be a disservice to audiences to toss in the jokes when, for example, the audience is primarily non-native to a particular language and culture. Or delivering cutesy or joking content in heavily regulated industries such as finance.

We Need to Demonstrate and Measure Value. We need to add business value and be seen as a profit center, or at the very least, not as the place where funds go to die. We need to add revenue or decrease costs, plus provide metrics that show measurable results. Excuses about not being able to measure writer productivity or ROI of content do not hold water with management, and we must be able to put numbers around the value we provide.

We Need to Fix the Content. We cannot merely stand by and hope our content is valuable; we have to audit content, create better content, test, revise, and improve our content based on what people need.

We Need to Be Consistent. It can seem like a luxury to write in a consistent tone and style, but we need to make sure our audience members are not spending time just trying to sort through a completely different style or tone from one communication piece to the next.

We Need to Stop Whining. No Tina the Tech Writer or milk toast victims here. We are pros who have the ability to lead and effect change.

We Need to Get Others to Back Our Initiatives. Along with Andrea Ames’ demonstration of Amy Cuddy’s life hack to stand in a powerful position, she reminded us that we can accomplish more if others back our initiatives. We need to work not just from our knowledge, but improve our posture and presentation, to own the space and sell our initiatives.

In addition to the overall themes and messages, I appreciated the varied topic tracks. Jack Molisani, the executive director for LavaCon, continually takes the pulse on several industries and knows there are often many paths within a career related to content. I am personally a bit removed from the content strategy and DITA sides of the field, so I attended more of the project management, content marketing, and media development sessions. Because I have my own business and it is a one-person show, yet I consult as a contractor on client projects, I wanted to gain insight into how you can get organizations to buy into your change management, design, and training ideas.

I do a lot of instructional design work, so I am always looking to break up boring, death-by-PowerPoint content into meaningful hands-on learning experiences (complete with audience feedback loops), so I was also interested in sessions on gamification and customer website development.  And my path is just one of many potential roads that LavaCon attendees take.

One thing that impressed me was Jack Molisani’s attention to the attendees, presenters, and hotel staff. Before the conference, registrants received several email messages letting us know about the assortment of gourmet foods and even asked if attendees had special dietary needs. He continually reminded us to share stories when we received great customer service from the hotel staff, and there were rewards for staff members who did a great job.

It was nice to see Jack popping in to see how sessions were going and his humor was an added bonus. From literally leaving the room to grab Andrea Ames a cape to allowing us to watch (more than once) his stint on The Dating Game, the LavaCon 2013 conference was a welcoming experience, more like a family even (especially if you went to karaoke).

I’m already thinking of LavaCon 2014 as a kind of family reunion. I encourage anyone who can make it to Portland from October 13-15, 2014 to attend and possibly speak at LavaCon. Submissions are accepted until February 12, 2014.

Jill Parman

Jill is the owner of ForWord Consulting, LLC, which provides instructional design, technical communication, and business analysis services. She is a master of useless trivia, has a slight obsession with Pilot fine tip pens, and spends her free time chasing around a toddler and two dogs.

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