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Reach out and touch someone—outside STC

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2004. Reach out and touch someone—outside STC. Tieline, 6 December 2004.

Amidst the talk of "communities" that forms such an important part of STC's transformation effort, it's easy to forget the larger communities we live within and the smaller communities we coexist with. Considering that broader context can provide many benefits, not the least of which is a healthy measure of intellectual stimulation. From the standpoint of chapter growth, communities such as universities and colleges provide obvious places to recruit new members, but they are also places that can reinvigorate your love for your profession. From the standpoint of always-tight chapter budgets and always-limited volunteer resources, many other professional associations are available to share the burden of organizing meetings and workshops.

In this article, I'll mention a few of the initiatives currently underway at STC Montreal in the hope that they'll inspire you to similar efforts at your own chapter.

Academic outreach

It's become something of a cliché that "students are our future", but it's as true for STC chapters as it is for society as a whole. Establishing a full-blown student chapter may be beyond the resources of many chapters, particularly if local educational establishments lack a formal technical communication degree program from which to draw student volunteers and organizers. That doesn't mean you should ignore the students in your community, as there are many opportunities to reach out to them during the course of the school year and benefit both yourself and the students.

For example, the career counseling and placement office at McGill University, Quebec's largest English-language university, contacted STC Montreal a few years ago to ask whether we would be interested in participating in their annual career fair. This sounded fun, so I volunteered, and for the past three years, I've participated in a panel on careers in writing and editing, talking about what I do for a living. My goal has been to share my passion for my career with the students, and surreptitiously to evangelize on behalf of STC while so doing. These presentations are stimulating and fun, and the students who make the effort to attend are intelligent and highly motivated—and sometimes ask intriguing questions. One of the perks I usually offer at these presentations is free attendance at STC Montreal meetings for any student willing to inform us in advance that they plan to attend. (We made this decision to ensure that we would always have enough chairs and snacks available for everyone.) Several students have become regular attendees, and there's hope that they'll eventually become STC members if they remain interested in our profession.

Along the way, I've also established friendly relationships with several local university professors who are interested in learning more about our profession. Last year, I served as judge in a publications and Web design competition held by a local community college, and had a chance to teach participants about some of the "best practices" in our profession—and about the existence of our profession, for that matter. This past year, I've given a guest lecture on editing to Saul Carliner's graduate class in instructional design, and spent an afternoon talking with graduate students in Concordia University's translation program. I've also left my business card with career counselors at a few local high schools and colleges, and hope to begin talking to some of their senior students in the new year. Last but not least, I've made it clear to the career counselor who recruited me that I'd be happy to come speak to groups of students about more specific topics, such as the translation and editing discussions that I've hosted.

These presentations can be exhausting work, as the students (who seem to be growing younger every year!) are an excited, demanding audience. But it's also extremely energizing; as any teacher can tell you, an interested student amply repays your investment in time and energy.

Professional outreach

STC Montreal has also begun an outreach program to other local professional societies, of which there's a startling number. (It sometimes seems to me that any time people come together because of a shared interest, they feel an irresistible need to form a society and formalize these relationships.) There are many possible reasons for an STC chapter to contact as many of these societies as your volunteer resources permit. Here are four:

From the standpoint of promoting our profession and gaining new members, its may at first seem that the best professional societies to contact are groups who aren't likely to want to steal our members and who won't worry that we'll steal their members. But this is a very limiting viewpoint; STC has enough to offer that despite recent membership reductions, we're still one of the largest professional communication societies in the world. The services we offer make a compelling argument for membership, so it's often not necessary to engage in a "hard sell" to recruit new members. Instead, focus on the benefits of working together and let the new members come to you. For example, associations of editors and translators are clearly a good fit for STC chapters composed primarily of writers. Similarly, organizations of trainers or usability professionals are a good match for STC chapters with an interest in these aspects of technical communication but with insufficient members to form special interest groups in these areas. Only the largest STC chapters have enough members to encompass expertise in all aspects of our profession, but even small chapters can provide this expertise by combining forces with other organizations to jointly sponsor meetings.

For example, STC Montreal has held joint meetings with the Usability Professionals Association, and is working to hold joint meetings with several other local societies, including a French technical communication society and the Canadian Society for Training and Development. We've already held a joint meeting with the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), a group of freelance magazine writers and journalists, on a topic of mutual interest: freelancing. Last year, STC Montreal invited senior PWAC member Emru Townsend to speak to us about the skills required to succeed as a freelancer; members of both STC and PWAC attended, and Emru spoke to a packed room. Shared interests mean that we can come up with topics of interest to the memberships of two or more societies, thereby providing an opportunity to share the cost of hosting a meeting or to share speakers, who are often a scarce resource for smaller chapters.

Joint efforts also let us create networking opportunities for our members. If your chapter is composed mainly of technical writers, there are obvious networking opportunities if you can invite editors, translators, graphic artists, technical artists, marketing experts, and other communications professionals to become part of your community. As writers, we often find ourselves in need of the services of such professionals, often with little warning and with no idea how to contact them. Similarly, these professionals often need the services of skilled writers, and once they know we exist, can take advantage of the resource we provide. In both cases, opening our tightly focused community to welcome members of other communities provides a larger, more diverse community on which to draw.

STC Montreal believed that the networking and educational opportunities this approach would provide were sufficiently important that we should begin a formal outreach program. To start this effort, we listed all the professional societies we could think of with chapters in our area that might be interested in working with STC (see the resource list at the end of this article). By the time I wrote this article, we had already contacted most of these societies and begun trying to persuade them to work with us.

As a relatively painless first step that required little effort, we formed a YahooGroups mailing list ( called the "Montreal professional events calendar" to help each group advertise its meetings and special events. Membership is restricted to the executives of local professional societies, and each member group can use the list to publicize upcoming events. The education or events coordinator of each member society is encouraged to pass along announcements that their members would be interested in attending, thereby providing many educational opportunities that the group couldn't offer on its own. Conversely, if the event is of no interest to their members, or conflicts with their own events, they can choose not to pass along the information. Even when they choose the latter option, the repeated exposure to announcements from STC Montreal ensures that the board members remain aware of who we are and what we're doing.

To promote this effort and make it more tangible, we arranged an "open house" networking event this past September. This event was a wine and cheese party co-hosted by seven other local societies in addition to STC Montreal, and was advertised directly to the members of each group as well as to strategic audiences such as students in local communications programs. The host organizations together contributed a total of C$600 (roughly US$480) to cover the rental costs of the meeting space and to purchase refreshments. The turnout exceeded our expectations, with nearly 300 attendees. Our hope was to attract new members interested in what STC offers, but also to provide an opportunity for representatives of each society to meet each other and put a face to the names they'd been seeing in e-mail. We were so pleased with the results of this exercise that we're hoping to make it an annual event—though we'll hold it in a larger venue next time. In fact, we plan to turn this event into a fund-raiser. Our current president, a talented artist, created a t-shirt with the slogan "Will write for food" on the front and our Web site address on the back; we plan to sell this for a small profit that will be used to help fund our meetings next year.

This kind of outreach is a slow process, because like STC, most professional societies are run by volunteers. There is always more than enough work to consume the time of any volunteer, and eventually even the most energetic volunteer runs out of steam. For this reason, we expected that there would be little immediate payoff from our efforts because volunteers from other societies would have little energy left to expand their efforts and work with us. But as time goes on, we expect the early seeds we have sown to take root and begin to flourish; as the networking event demonstrated, "many hands make for light work".

Good fences make good neighbors?

In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost observed the problem posed by a neighbor who believed that "good fences make good neighbors":

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Although there are certainly cases when a good wall is necessary (to keep the neighbor's cow out of the kitchen garden, for instance), the presence of a wall can as easily alienate neighbors as it can keep them out of each other's hair.

That "something there is that doesn't love a wall" is our inner voice, which reminds us that as communicators, our goal is to break down the barriers to communication, not reinforce old ones or build new ones. Outreach activities, whether targeted at students or at colleagues in other professions, are a great way to heed that inner voice. Even when there's no financial benefit to be had from breaking down those walls, it's been my experience that there are many other compensations, not the least of which is the renewed energy that comes from experiencing someone else's passion for their profession and using that energy to rekindle your own passion. I encourage you to look beyond the walls that encircle your own apple orchard and see what interesting things lie beyond those walls.

Resource list

A comprehensive list of all professional organizations that would be of interest to STC chapters is difficult to create. Here, I've provided a short list of organizations that would be a good starting point for your outreach efforts, particularly if an organization has a local chapter. If you have any suggested additions to this list, please send them to me; at some future point, I'll update this article with a more complete list.

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