Doug Sasse: Technical Author, Videographer, Teleplay, and more.
This month’s interview is with Doug Sasse, a professional technical writer who also writes screenplays and teleplays. I can tell you from reading some of his ideas, his teleplays are somewhat geared to a surprise Twilight Zone or Hitchcock twist of the bizarre. What starts normal turns weird or even sinister. The word is Entertaining.
Doug is experienced at video promotion, and technical writing skills down to interoffice communications. I’ve slowly been getting to know Doug since connecting on Linkedin and now through NWG. I can’t say I know him yet as there is much about Doug to know.
Enjoy the interview.
Glenda: I haven’t had the opportunity to interview someone who works as a technical writer. I took a tour of West Interactive’s web site to get the feel for their product. I’m impressed at the attention to today’s need for use of all types of media to help companies reach and interact with customers. You describe yourself as having an entrepreneurial work ethic which allows you to work without supervision. I know I can’t describe what you do as well as you can. Can you give us a summary of what you do with technical writing?
Doug: I would describe my technical writing and my business writing in general as follows: I create documentation that helps organizations inform, teach, sell, streamline, and succeed. I might do that in a number of different ways. I write software and hardware user guides. Basically, it’s “writing the instructions.” The challenge there is that nobody likes to read instructions, even technical people. So I have to make them accessible. That means using short, simple sentences and lots of illustrations. You also need to show people why the screen in the software that they’re using is important and how it will make their lives easier and better.
People frequently overlook the importance of having a good user guide for their hardware and software. A company can spend millions of dollars and devote thousands of man hours to designing, coding, and testing a piece of software. However, if the documentation is hard to follow or is wrong, the users can quickly lose confidence in the software.
I also document policies, processes, and procedures. I like to think of them as “an owner’s manual” for a job or even for a business. You would be amazed how much time people waste trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing in the workplace. In some cases, that “futz factor” can be up to 40%. But, if you are willing to make the investment in documenting your job or your business processes, you can eliminate most or all of that wasted time. It’s like writing a script for your business. You wouldn’t send someone out on stage or on set without a script; why should you do it in the workplace?
Having everything written down and in front of you makes it easier to improve and existing process, and it prevents what I call “corporate Alzheimer’s.” It can prevent a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth when someone leaves and would otherwise take years of expertise with them.
When I say I use an “entrepreneurial approach,” I mean, I like to think of my skill set as a business. I always have to improve. I always have to learn new software and new methods. I worked as a contractor for many years, and I naturally try to come up with ways to solve problems for customers and do it in a creative way. I always like to ask myself, “If this were my business, how would I want to handle this problem?” It actually makes coming to work a lot more interesting.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to do a blog at West. I started out just doing a written blog entry every few weeks, and then I decided to convert it into a video blog. People have been very receptive, and they like to watch videos. Video is definitely one of the tools I’ll be using more of in the future.
As far as helping individual writers, that is why I am in the Nebraska Writers Guild. One of the big challenges that we've had in the last couple of years is helping our members learn how to put the platforms together and market themselves as writers. I can help the Guild by bringing my researching skills, my business writing ability, and the work I do to help put events together.
Glenda: You mentioned that there is a major paradigm shift that is changing todays’ society. That very shift moves so fast it is difficult to keep up with even for a writer. In fact it may be more so because writers are in the business of communicating. How might we keep in touch with this major shift from all print to a combination of electronic, print and a resurgence of audio books?
Doug: There's never been a more exciting time to be a writer. The Internet has not only leveled the playing field; it has society as a whole. The days of the all-powerful, centralized authority in anything: business, arts, publishing, film, government, you name it, is over. Bandwidth has widened. Tools are becoming more powerful, and at the same time, they're becoming even more affordable. Since so many different things are digitized now in print, video, art and music; you are beginning to see a lot of different disciplines that never had much to do with each other begin to merge.
All of these new developments can really be daunting because there are so many of them coming so fast and they change all the time. They created a new dynamic. Nevertheless, there are two things that I believe are going to be in court: content and connections. You have to develop the best possible content. Everybody's familiar with Marshall McLuhan's famous quote, "The medium is the message." The medium is not the message; the message is the message. Content is king. For fiction writers, that means the edge goes to the person who can tell the best story. For nonfiction writers the edge goes to the person who has the best new methodology.
Connections are more important when you market your work. You need to be connected to a large number of people. You need to have a large network. That is becoming the new paradigm. You are more likely to trust a friend, even if you only see that friend on Facebook, than you are a random commercial. So if that friend tells you about a new book or any new product, you're more likely to trust a friend. You're more likely to take the advice of a friend.
Personally, the Digital Age has enabled me to “knock down the walls” between my “day writing job” and my “afterhours writing job.” If I learn a new process or a new price of software in the workplace, I can use it in my afterhours writing and for the work that I do for the Nebraska Writers Guild. I’ve brought my storytelling knowledge into the workplace. You’d be amazed how important storytelling techniques are in the workplace. I use them in my tech writing, in my business communications, in presentations, and even in my blog and video blog development. Even in the business world, whoever tells the best story wins.
Glenda: I’ve read a few of your summaries or synopsis of ideas for teleplays. When it comes to the shift in paradigms spoken of in the previous question, how does the advent of similar types of programming now becoming exclusively internet-based affect that genre?
Doug: Everything, one way or another, seems to be moving online. You're going to see more web-based television. You are going to see more traditional networks have a larger Internet presence, and you're going to see the independents have a presence out there as well. People are absolutely starving for stories. They are looking for stories with characters and storylines that they can care about and enjoy. I really think reality TV has just hit saturation point, and people are tiring of it. I'm not quite sure yet how they make money at it, but somebody will figure it out. And believe me, there will be an absolutely bottomless demand for good content. That's exciting.
Glenda: Doug, you are bringing valuable experience to other writers through the Nebraska Writer’s Guild. I find it very satisfying and helpful to share with other authors. I’ve learned we don’t have to compete if we work to be individually good through sharing what we learn, bouncing questions off one another and even looking over each other’s work to critique or even edit for those with that skill. NWG has writers from all types of genres. As an author of teleplay, is this something you are hoping to find other authors in similar genres?
Doug: That’s the exciting thing about working with other writers. It’s not competitive at all, except that we challenge ourselves and each other to improve at the craft of writing itself and with marketing that writing to an audience. There’s nothing better!
Glenda: As a technical writer, can you describe the importance of getting your customer to help you communicate the needed information for you to do your job. I imagine it must be akin to an architect with a vision that they try to verbally communicate without the detail of a blueprint for the contractor and all the steps in between.
Doug: Actually, I’m more like the Star Wars character, C3PO. I help two very disparate groups communicate with, and understand, each other. The first group typically includes developers or department heads. If I’m writing a software or hardware user guide, I talk to the developers. They provide me with all the existing material on their hardware or software. I have them demonstrate their product. I ask them questions about it. This scenario usually has three big challenges:
(Hardware and software) developers typically are not the most communicative people in the world. You have to draw them out. You have to ask lots of questions. That’s one of the biggest challenges. For example, a programmer might be very good at what he or she does, but has a hard time explaining it to others. You have to ask them how or why the screen they just spent two weeks coding improves the lives of their end-users. They’re not always sure about that.
The second challenge in documentation is that developers deal in things that are extremely technical. The person at the other end, the end-user, typically isn’t a technical person. So I have to find a way to make the developer’s complex ideas easy to understand. I do that by using short, simple sentences and lots of illustrations.
Believe it or not, there’s actually quite a bit of storytelling going on when you document hardware, software, and processes. Like storytelling, you have to be able to summarize your topic with a good logline to make it easy to understand. You have to develop a narrative, show people why they’re using a module or a screen or a dialog box. And then you have to get them to care. You have to get past “so what?” You have to show them how using the hardware and software makes their lives easier and better.
The third challenge is getting all of the information that you need to complete the assignment. It’s not just getting access to everyone on the project to talk to, or getting access to a piece of hardware or software. Sometimes a developer or a department head has been around a piece of hardware or software or a process for so long that they naturally begin to assume a level of knowledge in the audience that doesn’t exist. For example, they’ll omit important steps in a process because they’ve internalized that process, and they therefore think everybody just “knows that.” They’re not being malicious. When you’ve been around something so long, sometimes you get so close to it, there are things about it you don’t realize that you have to communicate to others.
So it’s always a challenge, and no two assignments are exactly alike.
When I take a class or listen to a motivational speaker, or read a motivational book, I find that I grasp and enjoy the experience when the instructor or author enjoys their topic. Such a person is Doug Sasse. This could have been a rather dry interview. However; Doug enjoys what he does, he’s motivational in his video instructions. I think if I were to take a college course in communication from Doug, I’d get an A because he would make it that informative and interesting. When it comes down to what makes Doug work I think basically it is what I just stated, with an added bonus of Doug knows his stuff.