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Should we stick to the shadows, or take on a little more heat?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2007. Should we stick to the shadows, or take on a little more heat? Indus, the newsletter of STC's India Chapter, Vol. IX No. 2, April–May 2007. <http://www.stc-india.org/indus/>

It's time to confess a shameful secret: I'm a cold-blooded Canadian.

In saying that, I don't mean that I'm as passionless as the stereotypical scientist I once trained to become, but rather that I'm someone who has walked for an hour at –40°C, lived to tell the tale, and actually enjoyed the experience. Clearly, my body is designed for cold weather, not heat, and I approached my plans to come to India to speak at the December STC conference with a certain degree of trepidation: even in December, India is warmer than I'm accustomed to. This is probably why I found it so ironic to encounter the following quotation in my recent reading:

"Many times as we rode across the open prairies, we saw birds perching on wire fences at the exact spots where the shadows of posts cut across them. Later, in northern Texas, a government naturalist told us of coming across a line of fenceposts with a jack rabbit stretched out in the shade of each post. They all pointed outward with their backs against the upright wood, ready for an instant getaway if danger appeared. As the position of the sun slowly altered in the sky, swinging the post shadows over the ground, the animals kept shifting their places so they remained extended exactly within the narrow band of the outstretched shade."—Edwin Way Teale, Journey Into Summer

Even though I'm planning to spend far more time walking around under the Indian sun than hiding in any available patch of shade, this quotation struck a resonant chord, and a bit of pondering revealed why it had stuck so firmly in my mind: We technical communicators often resemble the birds and bunnies that Teale describes. Unlike our colleagues (the product developers, the marketing and sales staff, and our managers) who thrive in full sunlight and the exposure it provides, we tend to cling safely to the shadows. Partly this is because of the nature of our work and the kinds of people our profession attracts: writing is a solitary profession, and best done in private, away from distractions. Moreover, if we were the kinds of people who preferred to be out there in the spotlight, making sure everyone could see us, we'd be auditioning for roles in Bollywood musicals—or at least writing their scripts.

One of the joys I've found in working with words lies in seeking the deeper meanings that words sometimes conceal. In this case, there's a clear lesson to be learned from Teale's wildlife anecdote, namely that staying in the shadows confines us to a very narrow part of a much wider and more interesting world.

Certainly, it's also true that when we step out of the shadows, eagles and other predators are more likely to notice us and make us wish we had stayed safely in the shade. But I'm here to tell you that we technical communicators aren't bird-brains, and that we're smarter than the average Texas bunny. Better still, there aren't many eagles in our work environment, and the few wolves and foxes are usually easy to spot and avoid if we keep our wits about us. We can safely emerge from the shadows and attract more attention, and it's wise for us to do so more often—even if, like me, you have an unusually low tolerance for the heat, and are thus vulnerable to prolonged exposure to sunlight.

One of the biggest mistakes Western technical communicators have made has been to stay safely within our narrow but shady comfort zone, content to move only when the changing world made it absolutely necessary to do so. But that passivity should be against our nature. After all, we humans are tool-using animals and have reached our lofty position at the top of the food chain by changing our environment to suit us rather than by resentfully tolerating an uncomfortable environment. More importantly, hiding in the shadows denies our true nature as communicators: to communicate, we need to surround ourselves with people willing to hear what we have to say.

My own experience is typical. When I first arrived at my former job, there was so much work to do that it was easy for me to simply hide away in my office and do that work, largely ignoring the world around me. I've described this experience in more detail in my essay on what I called the "cubicle syndrome". The moral of that story was that by taking the safe course and being content to remain in the shadows, I'd forgotten the lesson that communication involves other people: there's not much point trying to communicate only with yourself, even if you've got something uniquely interesting to say. Having learned that lesson, I rediscovered the pleasure I took in communicating with others. It's probably no coincidence that I began speaking to STC audiences at around that time, and discovered how much I enjoyed doing that too.

Having conquered the cubicle syndrome, I began to devote an increasingly large proportion of my time to communicating at least occasionally with all my various colleagues in my workplace, from the lowliest birds and bunnies (my colleagues in the Communications group) to the most powerful carnivores in the workplace (our president and vice-president). And just like Androcles, who saved a lion by removing a thorn from the great carnivore's painfully swollen paw, I occasionally had an opportunity to help someone important who could possibly repay the favor at a future date. There was also considerable pleasure to be gained from the kharma that comes from doing the right thing and helping someone without expecting a reward. One unexpected benefit of my efforts was that shortly before embarking on my freelance career, I earned my former employer's first-ever "employee of the year" award for office staff specifically because I'd been so successful in making myself known to my colleagues as something more than "that hermit who hides away in his office with a red pen". It was also a much more pleasant way to spend my days in the workplace, and that was an equally satisfying reward.

I report this award not to brag about my accomplishments, but rather to provide you with tangible proof that you can make people notice you in a good way if you're willing to take the risk. As technical communicators, the lesson of Androcles is clear: there's a certain level of risk in approaching large and dangerous beasts, whether in the wild or in the wilds of the workplace, but at least in the workplace, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. And that's the lesson I encourage you to embrace: that even if the shadows are more comfortable places to lurk, we're communicators, not rabbits and birds whose survival requires us to escape the notice of hungrier and more powerful beings. On the contrary, our survival and growth at work depend on the people in power coming to know who we are and thereby learning to appreciate our worth.

So I urge you to come out of the shadows, and take on a bit more heat—even if you're a heat-phobic Canadian, like me.

About the Author

Geoff Hart is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), and works as a writer, editor, translator, and information designer specializing in the sciences. With nearly 20 years of experience in scientific communication, he is a frequent contributor to the techwr–l (technical writing) and copyediting–l (editing) Internet discussion groups and to several STC newsletters.


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