Guess what’s become a hot topic in the content strategy blogs? Good writing.
Brittany Huber laments that there’s so much bad writing out there, and offers some keys for finding the “really good stuff.” For Brittany, the good stuff is clear, scannable, accurate, and inventive.
Meanwhile Kathy Wagner sounds a call for well-written content, saying that good content engages, persuades, and just plain feels good. Kathy points out that “[a]udiences are typically affected in a positive way by one of two things: a truly compelling story, or well-crafted writing.”
As a writer I’m thrilled. This is right in my sweet spot. Despite what I’ve said about “good enough” being the new measure of quality, I’m delighted to hear content professionals reassure me that craftsmanship still has value.
So if everyone’s in favor of good writing, why aren’t there oceans and oceans of good content out there?
I think it’s because we writers have been coming at it from two different angles: Tech Comm and Marcom. Until recently we’ve been locked in separate silos, with little cross-pollination. At the same time, the marketplace increasingly demands a new kind of content: one that engages while it instructs, that informs while it persuades.
Kathy Wagner, in the title of her article, asks “Is the future of content well written?” I certainly hope it is. To get there, we need a marriage of technical and marketing writing, with content that reflects the best attributes of both.
The best attributes of technical writing:
…with the goal of helping a reader perform a task.
The best attributes of marketing writing:
…with the goal of motivating a reader to interact with the company.
The best attributes of both:
- Up to date
We have content creators who know how to write down the truth. We have content creators who know how to connect with the audience. Let’s learn from each other and become content creators who know how to do both.
Are you ready for the well-written future of content? Are we, as an industry, ready? How can we be sure that we’re ready?
This is definitely part of the buzz that I’ve been hearing as well, Larry. You touched upon another part as well, which is that tech comm and marcom have been working in silos. I keep hearing this “silos” reference a lot, and hearing the pros and cons (mostly cons) against them. The main message I hear that better writing is needed, but there also needs to be a consistency in terminology and functionality between tech comm and marcom as well, which you touch upon a bit here. It’s not uncommon that marcom will describe a company’s product one way, but tech comm would describe the same product and use different terms for it in its documentation. Documentation for both might be written well, but the message and terminology might not jive. In other words, more connectivity in writing is needed as well.
TechCommGeekMom, I respectfully disagree. We tech comm writers must use different terminology from marcomm because we must bridge the gap between the product and the user. Marcomm writers tend to describe the product; tech comm writers are there to guide the user through the product. The best way to do that is to use plain language, adopt the user’s vocabulary, and organize the documentation with the user’s goals in mind. Here’s an example from–sadly–my own documentation. I titled a help topic “Using Pay Invoice Online.” That’s product-speak, because I’m citing a product feature in the heading. When I caught my error, I changed the heading to “Paying Invoices Online.” A subtle difference? Sure. But I am now not asking the user to “translate” the name of a feature into a task she needs to accomplish.
I agree with both of you! There is a certain level of terminology that needs to be used consistently between techcomm and marcomm. These terms include trademarks, servicemarks, and other legally-infused words. If these terms are not used correctly and consistently, we risk violating our own trademarks. Also included are words that companies make up (Google anyone?). If these terms are not used in a consistent manner, we risk confusing our customers.
At the same time, marcomm content has a more emotional intent. We are wooing customers in some way – trying to evoke some type of reaction from them. The reaction could be laughter and amusement, awe and excitement…something that will make our product/service memorable and entice the customer to give it a try. This is not the goal of well-written techcomm. Well-written techcomm provides exactly what the user needs to know to use the product/service, in as few meaningful words as possible, with little room for ambiguity.
Karen – I like your change from “Using Pay…” to “Paying…”. It is more succinct and more actionable. However, I would caution that words ending in “-ing” are extremely difficult to translate. I would have written “How to Pay Invoices Online” to avoid “-ing” words wherever possible.
Great point, Val. As an aside, I found a wonderful style guide for writing translatable text: The Global English Style Guide, by John R. Kohl. I’ll spend some time dwelling in the Gerunds section soon.
Karen – Yes! John Kohl’s book has been the “bible” for creating content that is easy to read and easy to translate. I have multiple copies on my bookshelf, too. John is a very smart guy, indeed. John is also an expert user of the Acrolinx optimization software. Content Rules is the western region service provider for Acrolinx. We use the software to make sure that customer content is of the highest-possible quality, and that content conforms to the customer’s style guide and terminology. Great book, great guy, great software. 🙂
Thanks, all of you. What I’m suggesting is that Tech Comm and Marcom are converging; that our goals are aligning more often than they did in the past. This is true in the minds of our readers — they don’t come in with the mindset of “now I expect to be informed” or “now I expect a sales pitch” — and it should be true for us as well. I’m not ready to say that the two streams will ever merge completely, but they have a lot more in common than not.
Re Karen’s recommendation of the Global English Style Guide: I agree wholeheartedly.
I understand what you are saying, and it’s totally valid. Perhaps between marcomm and tech comm we have to come a little closer in how we use plain language, and that’s more of what I mean by using the same terminology. That would be a step closer to everyone using similar language to provide a clear and consistent message both before and after sale of a product or service. I’ve gotten the impression from many sources that this disconnect between before and after market is a significant issue, simply because marcomm and tech comm aren’t talking to each other, therefore the “translation” between them needs to be resolved, as you’ve stated here.
I see your point, too. I totally agree that consistency in product messaging is important. It’s just that the marcomm writers I’ve worked with–the ones who have no tech comm experience–write vague, meandering, and cliche-ridden copy; I won’t let them near my docs. I might feel differently if I were working with someone who wanted to at least strive for plain language. 🙂
I think in the end, we actually are speaking about the same goal, namely that marcomm has to get on the ball about losing the vague, meandering, and cliche-ridden copy–or at least learn to minimize it–so that the end-user/consumers are clear about the product or service they are buying. I don’t blame you for not wanting them to touch your docs…but in the interest of trying to get that consisten message and terminology, walls need to start coming down. Not easily done, granted, but things are moving so fast that we can’t keep these walls up for long and expect fantastic results, y’know? But it’s conversations like this that start the dialogue, and that’s what’s important.
We have been struggling with consistent terminology internally. From a techcomm perspective, it’s been very difficult soliciting the correct information because different groups are calling the same feature by different names. I think there needs to be common terminology agreed between all groups – if it’s confusing to the people who are responsible for a product, think how much more confusing it is for those external to the discussions. The language used may be different, but the basic terms should remain the same. (If one person talks about “widgets” and someone else calls them “doodads”, how do I know if they are the same or different things? And what if neither term occurs anywhere in the application?)
I would argue that “succinct” is also a required characteristic of good techcomm writing. Your information can be clear, well-organized, and complete, but few readers of techcomm content have the taste or patience for excess verbiage.
Shane, you’re right of course. But I’d make this distinction: Marcom has to be succinct because readers (often) will give it only a few seconds of their attention.Tech Comm should be as short as possible — but no shorter.
My favorite statement from the New York Times’ article called “Keep It Short”:
“The point of brevity isn’t to chop a certain kind of word, but to make sure that each word is essential.”
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Great post, Larry. I will say, though, that the urge to merge tech comm with marcomm baffles me. They have different agendas: the first to inform, the second to sell. Someone writing to sell tends to emphasize certain features of a product over others. Someone writing to inform is obligated to produce accurate, complete information and thus avoid such favoritism. Tech comm and marcomm are equally important to a product’s success, but as a user, I’m furious when I open a user guide for a product I’ve already bought and get mired in a sales pitch. Just my $.02.
And the problem with getting TechComm to Marketing is that the Marketing has a disturbing tendency to leak into the TechComm. :S
You’re preachin’ to the choir with me, friend. 🙂
I whole-heartedly agree, Larry. It is amazing how much poorly written content is released by companies on a daily basis. I also agree with Shane about succinct writing. One of the hallmarks of quality content is succinctness. I wrote about this very topic in my blog yesterday (http://www.contentrules.com/blog).
There has definitely been a trend over the past 5-10 years to make all writing more personable. In many cases, we are trying to build friendships with our customers, rather than informing and educating them. Friendly writing tends to be more like the spoken word. The spoken word is not well-formed, not grammatically correct, and certainly not succinct in sentence structure. Transferring this type of communication to the written word results in a mess. There is a great deal of information being created today that pays no attention to the important aspects of good writing. Instead, too much time is spent focusing on being the customer’s friend.
Messy content is difficult to understand and it is impossible to translate. Companies end up with databases full of messy translations, based on messy source English. Lots of money is wasted.
And don’t get me started about consistent use of terminology…
Great points, Val. You’re right: too often we equate friendly with a casual tone that’s often inappropriate and almost always sounds forced. Example: “You’re good to go” when you run a clean spellcheck in the newest versions of Microsoft Office. If we want well-written content, that isn’t the path we should be following.
Good example of terrible writing! “You’re good to go,” is not translatable. Go where? It is also confusing for someone who has English as a second language. Again, go where? Perfect illustration of the point.
Great discussion! I see different needs for marcomm and tech comm copy — each having a distinctly different flavour. They should compliment each other and work together to create a consistent experience for the end user. They shouldn’t sound like they’re coming from a different company but should feel like the same company using a different tone of voice to communicate appropriately for the context.
What I really mean when I talk about well-crafted copy is simply the way in which the words are chosen and put together. Language is the building block of all written copy, and there’s not enough people trained in how to use language effectively. Rather than trying to engage, or trying to be powerful, or succinct, or well-organized… we should try to write well. Which results in all of those things. But it’s not a popular solution because it usually requires formal writing training. People don’t see the need to be trained in what they “already know”, and businesses don’t have the budget to train in areas that are “already getting done”. Learning how to write well is about as exciting as trying to lose weight by eating less and exercising more when the world is telling you that all you need to do is eliminate carbs and take a magic pill. The result is that there are a lot of writers (and organizations) who are never going to catch their dream of creating effective content and they’ll never understand why.
We just need to learn how to put words together better.
Good heavens, Kathy–Talk about writing well! I think you just summed up in a paragraph what I’ve been trying to say on my blog for two years. 🙂
Thanks, Kathy. That’s a great point: no one is willing to invest in training for something that everyone “already knows” how to do. But even beyond that, a gifted writer, without a clear audience definition and a clear set of goals, will struggle to produce good content. So we need both: more emphasis on the craft of writing, and guidance (call it content strategy) to direct our writing efforts in a way that returns the most value.
Hi everyone! I’m not in this field professionally, but I find it mightily interesting!
Isn’t this a fundamental difference in the ideas of Informational communication and persuasive communication? Or is it just different styles of communication, one is more detail, unambigiously oriented while the other is more geared towards big picture and ambiously drawn, since there’s a higher likelyness to gain customers when they can interpert something more in accordance with their own values. Just like abstract art is more easily “connected” with than realism.
“Religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind”
“Informational communication without Persuasive speech is lame, Persuasive communication without informational communication is blind”
“Abstract communication without clear communication is blind, clear communication without abstract communication is lame”
“Techcomm without Marcomm is lame, Marcomm without Techcomm is blind”
Unlike science and religion, people will rarely accept persuasive speech without Informational speech (Or writing). Like in a relationship, we begin by dating/flirting(persuasive/marcom primarily) and then we gradually move into more and more techcomm, although if the other ever goes too hardcore on either side, we loose interest. There’s a place for both, although they change roles and overlap in different degrees across the span of the relationship.
What’s important is “How do we fulfill our purpose of X in the most effective & efficient manner?”
In terms of the relationship analogy, we’d be well advised to try to build up some interest before moving into telling our life story (Marcom), and then be sure to include more and more “Techcomm” so that we don’t come off as too “blind”, or whatever you prefer. And not going too far with the “Techcomm” as to be percieved as “Lame” or boring.
In this way of thinking, they both need each other equally much (over the total span of the relationship) albeit in different degrees over diffrent periods of the relationship. Just like a product or service requires primarily Marcom in the beginning, and then primarily Techcomm.
As for the technical writing goal:
” with the goal of helping a reader perform a task.”(1)
and the Marketing writing goal:
” with the goal of motivating a reader to interact with the company.”(2)
But what is the purpose of each of thoes?
(1)We’re helping the reader to perform the task because it’s something that will make them like the company more
(2) Purchasing the company’s services or products
How about setting a unified purpose of “Inspiring people to buy and apprechiate our products/services for years to come”. Perhaps this will make Marcomm / Techcomm communication much more easy to combine and balance in different situations?
Everything communicates something, I guess it’s just up to us to make it conscious and direct it. Just as our way of clothing communicates something about who we are, we can choose to make that message clear or abstract according to what purposes we might want to achieve. Perhaps that’s why apple was so successfull? They had that abstract mystical essence (which was their face to the world) and then they had/have very clear products, using the “Marcomm” aspect in their appearance and then their “techcomm” aspect in their products? Just a thought..
Please rip my assumptions and conclusions apart! I love multilayered conversation 🙂
I think the key is to put our put in user/reader shoes. So we as technical writer may put our perspective more as marcomm writer. Start from there, we will learn how the user/reader speak, what are vocabularies they use, etc.
Many times, teaching about this empathy is the hard thing when I share my “theory” and experience to others.