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.
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.
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