The Power Of Workshopping (A case study)

Workshopping is a powerful tool that can be used to bring team members together to work collaboratively in a safe and friendly environment. Here’s a recent example of how I used workshopping to help a team achieve self-improvement.

In July last year, IBM spun-off its cloud-based marketing solutions into a new company called Acoustic. Unfortunately, the software development lab I worked for at IBM was no longer required for the new company, and it closed in October. But I was asked to stay on for a further five months in support of Acoustic as a consulting editor to help the new company update and modernise its user assistance documentation.

The IBM Legacy

When we began looking at Acoustic’s documentation (and by that, I mean their legacy IBM documentation), we identified three significant areas that we needed to focus on. 

  • Firstly, we wanted to move away from the dry, authoritative IBM style of technical writing to a more conversational style of writing with a friendly, down-to-earth tone; a bit more like a blog post. 
  • Secondly, we realised that while the IBM documentation was good at describing the “what” and “how” of using their products, it wasn’t good at explaining why anyone would use their Acoustic solutions. We needed to make the Acoustic documentation read more like a story, with a beginning, middle and end.  
  • And finally, we realised we needed to fill in a significant gap in the Acoustic documentation relating to cross-product solutions, and the overall Acoustic story.

We also felt that one of the main barriers to achieving these goals was another IBM legacy; the way Acoustic’s content designers worked in isolated product silos without much interaction between product teams. So we began looking at ways to help the content design team come together and work as a group to develop a friendlier tone and style for their documentation, and learn more about each other’s products and encourage cross-product collaboration.

And one of the tools we used to achieve this goal was workshopping.

My background with workshopping

I first experienced the power of workshopping in 2014 when I enrolled in the Write Your Novel program at the Australian Writers’ Centre here in Sydney. For six months, every Monday night, I sat in a room with a bunch of fellow aspiring novelists. And together, we workshopped our draft novels.

What is workshopping? Well, it’s relatively straightforward. Each week, three of the students would submit 5,000 words of their work-in-progress a few days before class. The other students would then read the submission and prepare feedback, and then present their feedback at Monday night’s workshop.

Our mentor and facilitator, Pamela Freeman, gave us clear instructions on how to present our feedback:

  1. she asked us to always begin with our positive feedback, and,
  2. she asked us to present our negative feedback politely and constructively.

The goals of these two rules were simple; to provide all the students with a safe and harmonious forum to present feedback, and then discuss the feedback as a group in a supportive and friendly environment. And, for the most part, that’s just what happened.

I remember the first time I presented my writing to the group. I felt nervous and exposed; I had never given a room full of relative strangers any of my creative writing to read before — let alone receive feedback from them. But as people began to provide me with feedback, and as we discussed the feedback as a group, I forgot all about my nerves. I realised I was learning things about my writing I never knew before; what I was good at, and the areas I needed to improve.

Not only that, but I also discovered that I learnt just as much about the craft of writing by reviewing other people’s writing; noticing the things that worked, and the things that didn’t.

So, back to Acoustic

To help the Acoustic writers change their style of writing, and to improve the way they worked as a team, we arranged a series of workshops. Each workshop was comprised of a facilitator (whose job was to manage the conversation, keep the reviewers and submitter engaged, and maintain the right creative mood) a submitter, and four reviewers. We felt this was just about the right size for a workshopping group. 

The challenge we gave everyone in the team was to create a short product overview topic written in a friendly blog-like conversational tone; as if they were chatting to a friend across a kitchen table, eating cake, and sipping tea. We asked the content designers not to worry about where this text would be published. We simply wanted them to tell us the story of their product. 

We scheduled some meetings, signed people up as reviewers, and began workshopping. And while there were a few teething problems as we tried to find the best format to follow, we eventually got them down to a fine art. 

The Acoustic writers began submitting really engaging product stories, with a much friendlier tone and style than they had used (or were even allowed to use) at IBM. Plus they built new social networks between all the individuals who make up the content design team. And during the workshop discussions, they discovered how all the Acoustic products fit together and began looking at ways that the individual product stories could slot together to tell one complete Acoustic story.

But for me, the best thing about the workshops was how quickly the Acoustic content designers became more confident about their writing and more passionate about delivering the best documentation they could for Acoustic. Not just good documentation — not even great documentation — but industry-best documentation!

You can read some of the results of these workshops in these topics:

Now the for fireside summary

You know, there is a myth about the lonely writer; how writers hide-away in earnest seclusion waiting for inspiration to strike. And while that might be true for a first draft, the reality is that every book you have ever read is a collaboration between the writer, their beta readers, and their editors. A book is a piece of collaborative art. 

And the best documentation is also the result of collaboration, not just between content designers, but also offering managers, and UX designers, and researchers, and developers, and sales, and support, solutions, and marketing.

I believe the same is true for any writing. Website copy, marketing material, company branding; it can all benefit from a collaborative approach. And workshopping is a hugely valuable tool in achieving that collaboration.

And finally, the blatant advertorial part of this post

If you are interested in introducing workshopping as a tool in your organisation for any kind of content, not just technical content, I’m available to help organise and run virtual workshops for your team.

Not only can I design and run a series of workshops to help your writers improve their writing skills, but I can also teach you how to eventually facilitate your own workshops. Use my contact form to let me know why you’d like to add workshops to your organisation, and we can begin designing a program perfect for your team.

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