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11 Jan 2018

NBlog January 11 - awareness styles

Over the past couple of months, I've written and published a suite of 'Hinson tips' on another passion of mine: amateur radio. The tips concern a cutting-edge development in digital communications, and how to get the most out of the associated software. 

I've had a lot of feedback on the tips, reflecting global interest in the new software and, I guess, the need for more guidance on how to use it. The reason I'm bringing it up here is that my writing style appears to have influenced the nature of the feedback I'm getting from, and my relationship with, the readers. 

I honestly wasn't expecting that.

There was already a reasonably comprehensive help file for the program, well-written but in a fairly formal and dry technical style typical of technical manuals (not those ineptly translated from Chinese via Double Dutch!). A constant refrain is that people don't read the help file, just as we don't RTFM (Read The Flamin' Manual!). I suspect part of the reason is that 'fairly formal and dry technical style': despite amateur radio being a technical hobby, many hams are not technically-minded. Some simply enjoy using the radio to talk to people, and why not? It takes all sorts. Digital communications adds another layer of complexity through information theory and mathematics underpinning the protocols we use, and IT is a world of pain for some. To be frank, although I have a passing interest and some knowledge, I'm way out of my depth in some of those areas ... which means I empathise with those who are equally uncomfortable.

There is also an active online support forum, populated by a mix of experts, somewhat experienced users and complete novices. Unfortunately, the forum is suffering a little from the recent influx of people, some of whom are very passionate (which can easily come across as opinionated, strong-willed and direct). Being a global community, a lot of hams don't understand English very well (if at all!), hence the language can be a problem for them, as well as the sometimes hostile reception anyone gets on asking a 'dumb question'. Even attempting to explain things patiently in response to a genuine question or discuss ways to respond to an issue can lead to complaints that there are 'too many messages' and we are 'going off-topic', reflecting general frustration and perhaps a lack of understanding and/or focus.

So, I deliberately chose to write the tips in an accessible, readable, informal style, drawing on, interpreting and re-writing material from the help file and the forum, supplementing it with my own experiences with the new software. It started out as a personal document, something to help me come to terms with the subject and get my act together, so I wrote it initially as pragmatic notes.

I've gradually woven the content into a story - a fairly rational sequence that leads someone along the path leading from the simple stuff aimed at novices through to more advanced stuff for experts. I've used plenty of images to supplement the words, and I've taken the trouble to explain stuff, as straightforwardly as I can given the nature of the topic, rather than just saying "Do this" and "Avoid that" (with the downside of it growing longer by the day!). There's even the odd touch of humour in there, and personal/subjective opinion, guidance and asides mixed in with the more factual/technical content. 

Above all, I tried to keep it practical, hands-on, action-oriented and motivational. I want to encourage readers to give it a go, try things out for themselves and hopefully enjoy themselves picking up new tricks along the way. 

The feedback I've had has been overwhelmingly positive - even the odd correction or clarification has been expressed gently, couched in supportive almost apologetic terms. I've noticed that all the responses have themselves been informal, people often telling me stuff on and around the topic as if they were chatting to a old pal rather than a total stranger, which I am to virtually all of them.

Some of that stems from this being a hobby, a shared interest. Hams are generally friendly and open towards other hams. It's a supportive community. The rest I put down to the style of my writing: the tips are written almost as if I am chatting to each reader individually ... hence maybe they feel they know me. We've made a connection.

I've heard much the same comment from famous people, such as Billy Connolly on TV the other evening. He talked about people half-recognising him when he's out in public (on day-release!), often appearing to mistake him for a distant friend. Billy being Billy, I'm sure he sometimes plays along, letting them think he really is just an old acquaintance.

That thought intrigues me - not fame but building trust with the reader. I'm wondering, now, about the security awareness materials I write professionally (and this very blog!). Am I using appropriate styles and formats for the different audience groups? Would adopting a more chatty, informal, friendly style be well received, more inspiring and motivational perhaps? It's a balancing act because the awareness stuff is, after all, work-related, a different context to hobbies and pastimes ... and yet I seldom get any feedback at all. I feel disconnected. Perhaps this is my cue to change.

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