Technology doesn’t make it Tech Comm

A colleague of mine is creating a training course for new technical communicators. In it, she includes the definition of technical communication from the STC website. (It’s easy to find: right at the top of the About pull-down.)

“Technical communication,” STC says, “is a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics [emphasis STC’s]:”

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

STC logoI’m good with items 1 and 3. It’s the second item that stops me in my tracks.

According to item 2, this blog post is technical communication. It communicates (at least I flatter myself that it does). And it’s published using a social-media platform.

According to item 2, every article in The Onion is technical communication. And every tweet by @A_single_bear.

It gets worse. A telephone is technology. So every obscene phone call — no matter what vile and/or creepy things it communicates — is technical communication.

STC, by assuming that technology implies technical, has given us a ridiculously broad definition for our profession.

My request is a simple one: Would someone at STC headquarters please fix that definition? Deleting the one bullet would probably do the trick — although you’re welcome to any of the ideas I shared in my first-ever post on this blog: What is technical communication?

That’s all. I don’t think I’m asking for too much. I’d just like to know that “the world’s leading organization dedicated to advancing the field of technical communication” (again, quoting from the website) actually knows what technical communication is.

15 thoughts on “Technology doesn’t make it Tech Comm

  1. JPK100

    Bravo, Larry! I second your request for the STC to reconsider their definition of tech comm (and to put a little more thought into it this time).

  2. Mark Baker


    And it’s worse, really, because the second bullet implies that only digital technology is technology. Paper is technology. Paint is technology. The guy who did the first cave painting was using technology. (Though come to think of it, the first cave paintings may well have been technical communication: how to hunt.)

    The first bullet suffers from the same myopia. (I suspect it is trying to confine the definition to forms of technical communication that people get paid for.)

    Technical communication is providing information that helps people get stuff done. Teaching your kid to tie his shoelaces is technical communication.

    As with activities such as cooking or driving, as very small percentage of those who do it make a living at it. But that is a matter of expediency, not of definition.

  3. Karen Mulholland

    Agreed. Communicating via technology is not technical communication. And a vulgar suggestion communicated via “technology” will never be technical communication, no matter how detailed and specific its instructions may be.

    If the medium were the differentiator, then Shakespeare’s plays would all be technical communication now. Come on, STC – changing the medium does not change the information type! Surely we’ve learned this by now.

  4. Alan Houser (@arh)

    Oh, please. If I thought you were joking, I would let this go unanswered. But I don’t believe you are joking.

    I’m sensitive to this issue in part because DTDT (“Defining the Damned Thing”; hat tip to Jared Spool) is one of the most difficult undertakings for any organization, association, or profession.

    You found a loophole. Just as you can find a loophole in nearly any bit of prose more than a few words long.

    Until we face an epidemic of crank callers who identify as “technical communicators”, this is a non-issue. Pat yourself on the back, chuckle, and move on.

    1. Mark Baker

      I don’t know. If the STC insists on defining it, surely they need to nail it. Otherwise it is like walking into the Society of Professional Engineers building and being hit by falling masonry, or going into the AMA offices and finding the receptionist is bleeding from the head.

      1. Alan Houser (@arh)

        I do think your analogies are a bit extreme, Mark.

        I’m amused by the references to STC as some sort of disembodied entity that decrees things. And the suggestion that somebody in the STC office should unilaterally change the definition of a technical communicator, based on a single complaint.

        STC is me. And Larry. And you. And 6,000 other people. Governed by an elected board of directors, composed of our peers.

        Consensus is hard (which is why DTDT is so hard). This definition is the one we have. Go ahead and take pot-shots at it. But good luck coming up with a bullet-proof alternative, that’s acceptable to 6,000 members.

      2. Larry Kunz Post author

        I agree with Mark that this is pretty important. STC bills itself as the preeminent organization for technical communicators — as I think it should — and the definition is prominent on its website. Let’s get it fixed. I don’t think that’ll be hard to do.

        Alan: yes, STC is 6,000 of us. But I’m sure that definition originated from a single person or from a small group. In fact, I’m guessing it originated from an STC staffer rather than from any STC members — and that would be OK. Somebody just made a mistake (it’s more than just a “loophole”), and it needs to be fixed. We don’t need to put it to a vote of all 6,000 of us. Just fix it.

  5. JPK100

    A thought I had about this was that maybe the “and” among the bullets was implied, as in tech comm is (a) AND (b) AND (c). Even so, a bunch o’ “technical communicators” should know better than to leave such a critical facet of the definition implied, rather than explicit.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      That would let everyone off the hook, wouldn’t it? But the phrase “one or more” suggests to me that it wasn’t meant to be (a) AND (b) AND (c). And if we changed “one or more” to “all of,” then I think the resulting definition would be much to narrow.

      1. Alan Houser (@arh)

        I’ll mildly object to the assumption that the definition came from a single person. “Small group”? Sure. The board, CEO, and staff typically put a lot of effort into these sorts of pithy defining statements. (Did I mention “It’s hard?”).

        I would object to removing the statement about using technology. It’s a critical component of what we do, and a defining characteristic of our profession.

        Would replacing “includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more” with “includes forms of communication that exhibit one or more” make you any happier?

  6. Larry Kunz Post author

    Yes, Alan. That revision would make me happier, perhaps along with a qualifying adverb like “typically” or “generally.”

    I genuinely appreciate your taking the time to explain a side of things that most of us don’t see. While I still believe that the definition needs work, I understand that, as you said, it’s hard.

    1. JPK100

      I’m not sure how Alan’s revision improves things. The problem is that the second bullet stands alone. Changing “includes any form of communication” to “includes forms of communication” does not alleviate that, because the problem is the “one or more” construct, which is in Alan’s revision as well. We need a dependency, such as “and,” that connects the three bullets.

      Also, and here’s the kicker, the phrase “regardless … if technology is used to create or distribute that communication” in item #3 contradicts item #2.

      This is why I only grudgingly pay my STC dues every year. The geniuses who came up with this flailing definition also burdened us with the awkward, clunky collective noun “technical communicators.” Ick.

      1. Larry Kunz Post author

        @JPK: What do you suggest as an alternative to the awkward, clunky collective noun “technical communicators”? I’ve struggled to find one.

      2. JPK100

        Busted! I have no idea. I call myself a technical writer because writing is the means by which my message reaches the users, whether the platform is online help, a user guide, or a tutorial. My best advice for anyone facing this dilemma is to embrace the field name of “technical communication”–which I think is apt–but to use a title that describes the job as accurately, concisely, and clearly as possible. (Hint: Contortions such as “Information products designer,” which I’ve seen, don’t fit this category.) For me, that title remains “Technical Writer.”

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