My First STC Summit: International Standards?

By Alisdair MenziesMenzies_14

What does a first-time attendee seek at an STC summit? The response to such a question is probably as varied as the profiles of the some of the people I met in Anaheim. But I hope they all left as invigorated and with as strong a desire to come back as I did.

I came to Anaheim looking for some renewal: new ideas and techniques to make me a better technical communicator, as well as new products and software that could be of use to my company. An agenda that was as vague as it was specific, and which required an open mind in a context where I didn’t really know what to expect!

Overall, I have to say that I was very impressed by what I saw. The quality of the sessions I attended was truly impressive. I was struck by the diversity of the attendees and humbled by the wealth of experience which surrounded me. A spirit of camaraderie allowed for many stimulating exchanges. I definitely got much more than I initially anticipated out of the summit and if I can go again next year, I will definitely be able to make even better use of my attendance, as I will know what to expect and how to prepare for it.

One aspect that struck me was that I heard very little mention of International Standards. I’m sensitive to this, as I have been working in this domain for more than 15 years. In all of the sessions I attended, I only heard one International Standard being explicitly mentioned. Admittedly and unfortunately I was only able to attend a fraction of the sessions available, so this impression of mine should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

But it did strike me as somewhat odd—so many of the company names I heard being mentioned in the course of the summit are heavily driven by International Standards and are familiar to me precisely because I have worked with many of their technical experts in standardization efforts.

Why could this be the case? Is International Standardization a domain which lies at the fringes of traditional technical communication? At many levels, the industries for which technical communicators work are heavily influenced by International Standards, thanks to which reliable and globally interoperable products are developed. Most major tech companies understand their interest in actively participating in the development of International Standards. In my particular domain, more than 20,000 experts from industry participate in standardization work.

It is possible that the industries which contribute to standardization efforts are more likely to do so by involving their technical specialists and engineers, rather than technical communicators. While the expertise of these technical specialists and engineers cannot be denied, I have little doubt that the help of technical communicators would make their message clearer!

It has also been suggested to me that “American and European technical communicators are far apart when it comes to International Standards.” I have never worked in the USA, so it is difficult to comment on the state of affairs there. But a quick look at the websites of some of the European Technical Communication societies reveals a picture where standards (both regional and international) are listed as some of the important resources to be used. It is true that standards have played an important part in the construction of the European Union. The European Union has, in the space of two or three generations, managed to create a single market in a region spanning 28 countries, with a population of more than 500 million speaking more than 20 languages—a task which could only be made possible with common standards playing a key role.

Whatever the reasons, the world of technical communication would have much to gain from a deeper knowledge of and greater participation in International Standards. In this respect, I would be very happy to contribute to the STC community in the future.

Editor’s note: For more on International Standards, see the International Electrotechnical Commission, the International Organization for Standardization, and ISO/IEC Information Centre.


Alisdair Menzies was born in Scotland, raised in Zimbabwe, and now lives in Switzerland. A biologist by training, he soon discovered a  passion for scientific and technical writing and editing. He currently works as Editor in chief in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in Geneva. You can find him on LinkedIn.