Wicked Ambiguity

Following are the video, slides, description, and transcript for my keynote talk, Wicked Ambiguity. Please see the acknowledgments for more information about my sources, influences, and the people who helped me along the way.

Video

Slides

Description

Wicked Ambiguity

How do you solve the world’s hardest problems? And what do you do when they’re unsolvable? As content strategists and communicators, we solve problems for real people with defined needs who live and work in the here and now. We take a holistic approach, dive into research, break down silos within our organizations, and create real value for people every single day.

But how does our work change when we’re planning content for projects that last for not one year, or even 10 years, but for 10,000 years or more? Enter the “Wicked Problem,” or situations with so much complexity, uncertainty, and interdependencies that—by definition—they can’t be solved.

Using real-world examples from NASA’s Voyager program, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, and other long-term communications efforts, we’ll talk about the challenges of creating information that’s useful and usable for people whom we’ll never know in our lifetimes. The answers to these problems give us a new perspective on our work, on the ambiguity we face every day, and on what it means to build messages that endure with meaning that lasts.

Transcript

Introduction

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
(source)

Welcome to Wicked Ambiguity.

I’m dedicating this talk not to J. Alfred Prufrock, but instead to Leonard Nimoy. While he’s best known for “Star Trek,” you may not know that Leonard was also the host of TV’s “In Search Of…,” in which he looked for answers to long-standing mysteries of the unknown.

And you know what? You do that, too. We’re all just nerds looking for answers—and Leonard helped make it safe for us to be geeks, to be introverts, and to be fascinated by the universe that surrounds us.

“We’re all stories in the end,” (source) after all, so I won’t say rest in peace, but rather, “Live long and prosper.”

About Our Journey

Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.

I’m your host for the next hour while we boldly go through the vast reaches of time and space. I’ll make sure none of us gets lost and everyone makes it back. But fair warning: the people who return won’t be the same as the ones who leave.

Got somewhere else to be? No worries! You can get these slides now at bit.ly/raycats—don’t worry, I promise that’ll make more sense by the end. Note, you need to use all lower-case letters or the link won’t work.

Let’s start with a memory; most things in the past do.

Do you remember being a child and your parents telling you, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.” (source) But you really thought they were lying just to make you feel better because it was dark, you were scared, and you didn’t know what to expect?

Kind of like in this keynote? Well, then. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”

It’s a story we tell to project confidence and security. But it’s a hard promise to make. We can’t even predict the location and movements of a single atom—let alone complex things like world events, the stock market, or whether it’ll be nice out on Thursday.

So maybe, just maybe, everything’s not going to be fine. What then?

This symbol is taken from one of the Pioneer satellites launched by NASA in the ‘60s. It was also used on Voyager, the furthest man-made object from the Earth, spinning from out of the blue and into the black.

Today we’ll talk about this symbol and what it means. We’ll also cover a lot of science and math, but almost no science fiction—even though the ideas we’re discussing are fantastical. But other than quotes from books and TV shows like “Doctor Who,” everything you’re about to see is real. It’s true. And it’s troubling.

Some of you will leave today saying “This talk has NOTHING to do with content strategy!” Others will say, “This talk has EVERYTHING to do with content strategy!”

Guess what? You’re both right. Continue reading

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Why You Should Go to Confab

Welcome to Confab: the content strategy conference. Photo © Sean Tubridy/Brain Traffic
Welcome to Confab Central: the content strategy conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. © Sean Tubridy/Brain Traffic (used with permission)

This post is nearly two years too late.

I should have written it back in 2013 after I attended Confab Central in Minneapolis for the first time. The conference had already been around for a few years and I thought that I was late to the game. I was worried that I’d come across like a real n00b, out of my league and behind in the conversation.

But it wasn’t like that at all. There were so many smart people there, good people, the kind of people where the conversation just keeps on flowing on its own. I learned so much, hugged so many folks, laughed so hard I spilled my coffee (again, my apologies to the Hyatt Regency). They were so open, so welcoming—it almost felt like coming home.

But now it’s 2015. I’ll be giving the opening keynote at Confab Central this year. So this post is late—I should have written it back in 2013 because now you won’t believe me when I tell you about Confab. You’ll say I’m biased.

So let me be clear about this: when it comes to Confab, I am biased. Extremely biased. Biased like your Aunt Suzy.

But I’m not biased because they’re paying me—I can’t accept any payment for speaking, so instead we’re making a donation to Girls Who Code, a great nonprofit with a mission I believe in.

Rather, I’m biased because the experience of attending Confab is just so amazing. And I want to share that bias with you openly, in plain sight, so that you can experience the same things I have.

Here’s why you should join me at Confab Central this year. Continue reading

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Secret Wars

In 1984—when they told us that the Soviets boycotting the Olympics in Los Angeles wasn’t such a big deal, really—Marvel Comics published Secret Wars. It was such an amazing comic book series… nothing like it had ever been done before. Heroes and villains from dozens of separate titles all duking it out together over the course of a year.

To my hungry, nine-year-old eyes, it was hard to tell who the heroes were because sometimes they turned out to be the villains. And some of the villains were really just misunderstood heroes. To me, it was the very peak of drama. Every panel was like a movie, each issue an epic.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the series’ political parallels: Ronald Reagan was running a secret war of his own, quietly selling arms to Iran to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

So I devoured each issue like an addict, flipping the pages at a staccato pace. And my addiction spread quickly—Secret Wars made me a comics fan for over a decade. And as I grew up, it lead me to bigger (and better) stories.

Stories like these three, which are about the real secret wars. They’re the dark battles that remain unspoken, lurking on the fringes and hiding in plain sight. They’re the conspiracies of silence caused by the things we can’t say.

Those are wars, too. We wage them with the people closest to us, but never admit to their existence… or to the damage they cause.

The things that hurt us the most are the ones we can’t speak of. They pull at us in the smallest, the most intimate of ways. They break us with their banality. Or sometimes they just break us.

Here are three stories from the front. Continue reading

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How to Get One Million Views on SlideShare

One million views on SlideShare. Image © SlideShare
One million views on SlideShare… and counting.
Image © SlideShare

On the week of January 12, 2014, I cracked the one million views mark for my presentations on SlideShare. I’m now well on the road to two million.

I’m definitely not the first (or the only) one to reach this point. Many presentations have hundreds of thousands of views – a few even have millions. And since several publishers on SlideShare are quite prolific, there must be numerous accounts who have reached – and far surpassed – this sum.

Even so, I did a happy dance. Can you blame me? I was an early adopter of SlideShare; my first upload dates back to July 21, 2007. That’s nearly seven years’ worth of use. I started using SlideShare less than a year after posting my first tweet and first status update on Facebook.

You might be aware that there are benefits to being an early adopter of a nascent network. Even so, if you’ve ever seen me speak, then you know that a favorite topic of mine is my own non-exceptionalism. I can’t think of anything I’ve done that anyone else couldn’t do (or do better).

So I believe that with the right methods and approach, just about anyone can reach one million views on SlideShare. My goal is to help you do that.

Do great work that’s worthy of being shared

Out of all of my presentations, the above talk on core values is my favorite. It took me seven years of practice to create something of this level of quality. It may not be a big accomplishment to you; that’s okay – it was to me. And hopefully I can do much better work in the future.

While it should go without saying that we have to challenge ourselves to do the best we can, how would you explain why there are so many bad presentations being given so often? To understand, we have to start from a position of empathy; I think that the majority of bad talks aren’t given on purpose.

Most of the time, I think that speakers are in a rush, or haven’t prepared well, or are nervous, or are distracted, or don’t understand how to design slides, or don’t want to speak in the first place, or feel intimidated, or aren’t held accountable to give a good performance, or any number of other factors and challenges. I certainly know what all that feels like; I’ve given bad talks under circumstances just like these.

The good news is that all of these problems can be solved, all of these weaknesses can be improved upon.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at my first few presentations. I leave them online in my SlideShare account to remind me of how I started out – with no natural talent, design sense, or storytelling ability.

My recent talks look much better and have far more views and shares.

The rest of this post explains is an introduction to how I made that happen, but I’ll follow up with a series of posts that gets into the details of planning and creating great presentations. Continue reading

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How to Hack Your Annual Self-Review

Hack your review, hack yourself. Photo © johngineer
Hack your review, hack yourself.
Photo © johngineer

Once again, it’s time to write your annual self-review. Just like last year (and the year before), Review Season sneaked up on you when you weren’t looking.

Now you’ve landed on this page after raiding Google for tips and tricks, hoping to find some secret key or formula that will help you ace your written self-evaluation so that you can get back to… well, whatever it is you’re doing instead of preparing for your review.

No such luck. There’s no hidden back door, no algorithm to fool, no “one weird trick” to get around evaluating yourself and your actions.

If you were successful in your work this year, you’ll need to weigh the merits of touting that success versus coming off like a braggart. But if you failed to meet your goals, then you’ll need to decide how to handle being accountable for your actions or whether you’ll blame circumstances, your colleagues, or that old favorite, “The System”.

Sound familiar? It’s a painful scenario experienced by workers all around the world. But reviews shouldn’t be so binary. And they shouldn’t be dreaded, either. Accountability has somehow become a dirty word in our lexicon… a tool that’s wielded like a cudgel when it should instead be seen as being more like a warm blanket.

Because reviews can be hacked, just like any other system or process. Hating on reviews only displays a lack of imagination. And you’re better than that — I know it. Continue reading

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Guest Post: On Giving

Ed. Note: This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa and I’m extremely grateful to the author for creating such a thoughtful post. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by me, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

On Giving. Photo © Shereen M
On Giving.
Photo © Shereen M

On Giving

I can still remember the first time I read The Gift of the Magi. Reading it today is one of my favorite holiday traditions.

My mother had brought home a special edition of the story book complete with a red velveteen slipcase and the title embossed in beautiful script letters on the cover. It sat on our coffee table for all of five minutes before I gave in to the allure of its gold-gilded pages.

I recall feeling the lump in my throat as I read about the main characters, a couple of modest means, Jim and Della, who sold their most prized possessions only to unknowingly buy each other gifts that they would both no longer be able to use.

In the end it didn’t matter. In the end, the act of giving the gifts was greater than the gifts themselves. Real life works this way too.

Just like the many others who’ve read the tale before me since it was first published over a hundred years ago, I was deeply moved. I may have even got a bit misty-eyed.

But look beyond the cosmic irony of Magi’s mechanics and you’ll see actions universally held as noble and good. Actions like thoughtful consideration for another person’s needs and desires, and sacrifice for the sake of someone else.

Stories like these resonate with something deep inside us, because we all want to give and receive that sort of gift. Continue reading

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Why I am Joining the Content Strategy Team at Facebook

Life doesn't slow down, so you've got to keep moving. Photo © Dave Morris
Life doesn’t slow down, so you’ve got to keep moving.
Photo © Dave Morris

Life doesn’t slow down.

It keeps moving. It won’t wait for you to catch up. And it never gives you a chance to catch your breath.

In just the first half of this year, I completed my master’s degree in information management at the University of Washington, a two-year program that culminated in a massive content auditing capstone project. I spoke at eight events, presenting a total of 536 individual slides. One of my decks even went viral, attracting close to 300,000 views as well as a mention in The Huffington Post.

I wrote a handful of blog posts, including this hand-curated list of 200+ content strategy resources. I also guest-blogged, I mentored, I did informal pro bono consulting and Q&As with a number of organizations… but mostly I met people, and I listened, soaking up information and perspectives and new ideas.

Throughout all of that, I also worked a full-time job at REI as their Principal Experience Architect. I worked on a mix of information architecture projects, content strategy, and business analysis and planning. REI’s been incredibly forgiving of my disheveled appearance, my apparent lack of interest in shaving, my constant yawning and bad habit of falling asleep at my desk.

And that’s no small feat with a stand-up desk, let me tell you.

So it’s been a busy six months. But even so, I’m not truly weary… I’m energized. And since life doesn’t slow down, I’m going to speed up.

Transitions

The welcome sign at Facebook corporate HQ in Menlo Park, CA. Photo © Marcin Wichary
The welcome sign at Facebook corporate HQ in Menlo Park, CA.
Photo © Marcin Wichary

Later this month, I’ll be joining the amazing Content Strategy team at Facebook down in Menlo Park, California. I’m blown away by their talent, their empathy, and the sheer scale of their accomplishments, not to mention the challenge set before them: iteratively crafting content experiences that will be used by over one billion people. Continue reading

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Information Endures: A Story About Stories

Ed. note: Each year, the UW Information School (where I’m a grad student) holds its annual Dean’s Club Dinner to thank its donors and board members for their gifts and service. This year, I’m emceeing the event along with fellow iSchool students Amanda Jasso (MLIS, 2013) and Amado Robancho (Informatics & HCDE, 2013).

As part of my duties, I was asked to speak about my life, what brought me to the iSchool, and how I hoped to use information to bring value to people. It turned out to be a bit wonky; keep in mind that I wrote this for information scientists. But it’s also part stand-up comedy, part nostalgia for 1980s tech, and part dreaming about the future.

I’m grateful to the iSchool for asking me to share my story.

Introduction

UW iSchool Dean's Club Dinner. Photo © UW iSchool
UW iSchool Dean’s Club Dinner.
Photo © UW iSchool

Hello, I’m Jonathon Colman, a graduate student in the MSIM mid-career program. When I’m not at the iSchool, you can find me at REI headquarters down in Kent, where I serve as their Principal Experience Architect. And when I’m not in Kent, you can find me stuck in traffic on I-5 because I’m trying to get back up to the iSchool.

Now for those of you on Twitter, I’m @jcolman. I mention this because I’m sending out pre-scheduled tweets during the evening with links that are relevant to the subjects of our talks. You can also find them using the hashtag #DeansClub. There’s even a pre-scheduled tweet about pre-scheduled tweets… how meta!

Oh, yeah — and that’s a Thing now: pre-scheduled tweets. They’re perfect for that awkward moment when you just can’t seem to find the time necessary to write 140 characters about what you’re having for dinner… but still need everyone to know that you’re eating something.

…against all odds, all sense of scope, and against all our rational instincts, we love information.

But my point — and I do have one — is that information endures. Yes, even information on Twitter, as ephemeral as it may seem. We can still tell a story with just 140 characters. Certainly information’s been an enduring factor in my own life (and yours, too, I’d wager) and in a way, that endurance is what brings us together tonight. Continue reading

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Ignite Seattle Video: How Introverts Can Survive in This Extroverted World

Last month I had the honor of speaking at Ignite Seattle. My topic was How Introverts Can Survive in This Extroverted World. Shauna Causey and Monica Guzman encouraged me to pitch Ignite and Beth Buelow inspired me by expanding my understanding of introversion in our recent interview.

The great folks at Ignite Seattle just released this video of my talk:

Continue reading

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The Numinous

One of my favorite words is Numinous. Is it strange and child-like to have a favorite word? Then yes, I am strange and child-like.

All the same, I want to show you why this is my favorite word. It involves a story. And the story begins as most stories do — with a book.

The Book

I first encountered the concept of the Numinous when I read Contact by Carl Sagan. That was back in 2001. It was just a few months after I returned to the US after my Peace Corps service in West Africa. And it was just after I got my first job as a “webmaster” doing front-end development, design, and a little something called SEO.

I’m sure that you remember the opening scene from the film version of Contact that came out several years later. If not, give it a another look:

Contact by Carl Sagan

My step-father gave me the book. It was beat-up, wrinkled, dog-eared. He obviously loved it very much. He was a hard-core science/science fiction fanatic; Carl Sagan was one of his favorite authors. My step-father could go on and on for hours about black holes and string theory. At one point, he practiced astrophotography with a home-made kit.

That was when we were younger. But science wasn’t enough for my step-father; he had his own Numinous to seek. And so he gave in to his long-term addiction to prescription drugs less than four years after handing me his copy of Contact.

I haven’t seen him since. But I still have his book, so perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to return it to him someday. Truth be told, I don’t think that sort of luck exists, no matter what you believe in. Continue reading

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