Tag Archives: audience

Timing is as important as delivery

Dear technical writer:

Your content is well-written and accurate. But what happens if you put it into your reader’s hands at the wrong time?

This is what happens.

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At last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway came onstage to present the award for Best Picture.

When it came time to announce the winner, the card said

Best Actress
Emma Stone
La La Land

Beatty hesitated. Dunaway read the only thing that made sense in the context: the name of a film, La La Land.

It wasn’t until several minutes later, during the acceptance speeches, that the mistake became known. Beatty and Dunaway had been given the wrong card. The Best Picture winner was actually Moonlight.

Dear technical writer:

You might not be embarrassed in front of tens of millions of people. But when you provide the right content at the wrong time, no matter how good the content is, you’ve betrayed your readers.

As every good actor knows, timing is every bit as important as delivery.

Video source: New York Times

We ask the good questions

It started with a simple question. What, I asked the Hardware Test guys, are the power consumption and heat dissipation measurements for the new switch models? I needed that data for the Technical Specifications section of the user guide.

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Questions and answers in Seoul, Korea (by WordPress user george2008)

To be helpful, I included with my request the chart for the existing models — my way of saying “I need numbers just like these.”

One of the Test guys looked at the chart, paused, and said, “I’m not sure these numbers are so good.”

That sparked a discussion — among 5 of us from Hardware Test, Development, and Tech Pubs — about how the data is collected: is it measured at the power source or at the switch? About how to quantify the data: should heat dissipation be expressed in wattage or in BTUs? About why our customers would want the data: to monitor lab conditions, to plan how best to deploy power supplies. or both.

(That’s right: these mechanical engineers wanted to know not just about feeds and speeds but about the customers’ requirements. Is it any wonder I’m proud to work with them?)

It happens all the time

If you’re a technical writer, you’ve seen it happen too. Your questions open the door to more questions and sometimes to whole new lines of inquiry. Your questions, many times, end up influencing the whole project for good.

Why is that?

For one thing, we’re good at asking questions. My blogging colleague Sharon Burton notes that curiosity is a hallmark of technical communicators, and curiosity often manifests itself in questions. Questions that stimulate thought, questions that force people to reach beyond pat answers, questions that no one’s asked before.

I admit that my initial question about power consumption wasn’t profound. But when the first engineer stroked his chin and paused, I was quick to draw him out, to get him to think out loud and see where the conversation would go.

We’re advocates for our readers, for our audience. We can understand all of the deep-down technical stuff the engineers understand, but we’re not satisfied until we can explain it in terms our readers will find meaningful. Sure, I want to know the amperage reading when all 24 ports are moving data at 10 gigabits a second. But what I really want to know is how a network operator can make decisions based on that information.

We’re persistent. Maybe we’re driven by our innate curiosity. Maybe by our loyalty to our audience. Probably both. Whatever it is, we persist until we have the answers we need — until we can give our readers the answers they’ll need.

Our patron saint is television’s Lieutenant Columbo, who never dazzled anyone with his brilliance but who always persisted, and who always ended up asking the right questions at the right time to crack open the case.

It’s part of our value proposition

I’m proud of the technical writer’s ability to ask good questions. I’m proud that we bring about positive changes, that we contribute value, in this way.

In the lab today, it started with a simple question. The answer turned out to be more complicated than anyone expected. But it was the right answer. It was the best answer.

I’m going to keep asking questions.

Enchanted content

Earlier this month I participated in the Transformation Society’s Probing Our Future study — and wrote about my initial impressions.

The people behind the study, Ray Gallon and Neus Lorenzo, came up with a list of “superpowers” with which content creators (including, but not limited to technical writers) can improve the content they deliver and the way they deliver it.

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Image source: Transformation Society

As I ponder this, I notice that some of the superpowers are rooted in a common objective: knowing our audience so well that we can deliver exactly what they need, when they need it. The superpower of mind reading, for example, would let us know essentially everything about our audience. Things like:

  • The job they do
  • The task they’re trying to complete
  • Their domain knowledge
  • Their cultural preferences
  • Their disabilities and limitations
  • Their socioeconomic status
  • The hardware and software platforms they prefer
  • The choices they’ve made in the past

The list could go on. But you get the idea: if we want to know our audience, there’s a lot to know.

Even though the information industry has made great strides with things like web analytics and inference engines, I think it’s obvious that we’ll never know everything about our audience. Especially since each member of our audience presents a constantly moving target. For example, think of how much you’ve changed in the last year or so in terms of reading habits, or domain knowledge, or experience level with a particular software program.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to know our audience. It’s just that we’ll never know our audience perfectly. We’ll never fully be able to mind-meld with them.

It follows, then, that we’ll never be able to give them perfectly tailored content precisely when they need it.

So what can we do? Continue reading

I love the challenge of describing things

I enjoy turning the spotlight on people who are great communicators. One of the best is about to retire.

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Vin Scully at work. Man, I wish my office had a view like this. (Image source: ESPN)

This weekend, Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully will call his last game. Since 1950 (that’s not a typo) baseball fans — not just Dodger fans, but all of us — have fallen under the spell of Scully’s warm baritone voice.

During a celebration in his honor, Scully said, “I really love baseball. The guys and the game, and I love the challenge of describing things.”

Describing things. Isn’t that what all of us — anyone who has written a user guide or tutorial, anyone who has created technical art or instructional videos — try to do? No one does it better than Vin Scully.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s a model for technical communicators.

Pull up a chair, and let me explain what I mean. Continue reading

The technical communicator’s credo

What does it mean to be a professional technical communicator in 2016? What will it mean to be a professional technical communicator over the next decade?

Hand holding a penAfter pondering those questions I came up with this credo:

I serve my audience. I strive to know as much about them as I can, and I supply them with the information they need, in a way that’s appropriate for their context. (Or, as Sarah Maddox put it: in the language that they understand, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.)

I serve my employer. While always behaving ethically I work to advance the interests of their business and represent them to their customers and to the public as they see fit.

I represent my profession. In my dealings with subject-matter experts and other colleagues, I respect both my work and theirs. I never give them reason to question the value of the work I produce.

I constantly seek to learn new things, while discarding techniques and ideas that have become outmoded. I understand that mastering new tools and techniques, and recognizing and adapting to change, are part of what it means to be a professional.

What do you think? If you were to write a professional credo, or if you already have one, what would it include?

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They’ll thank you when…

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. As a blogger it’s tough not to succumb to the temptation to write the dreaded (and trite) 2,387 things I’m thankful for.

readingLet’s turn that listicle on its head.

As a technical writer, what can you do that will make your readers thankful?

Here’s my list.

Tell them a story. Mark Baker asserts that we should see ourselves as story providers rather than content providers. He’s right. Stories resonate with people in a way that simple content, or information, simply can’t. In technical writing, the story’s hero is your reader, who’s trying to accomplish something or learn something.

Give them more than just a narrative. A narrative might be mildly interesting, but a story is more than that. A story is a narrative with facts, or data, baked into it. In technical writing, the data supports the story of your reader meeting their objective.

Provide everything they need, and not one iota more. Don’t leave out any essential data. Don’t make the task appear simpler than it really is. But don’t pack your story with extraneous stuff that captures the fancy of your subject-matter expert.

Write in the proper tone. This will vary depending on who you’re writing for. Crisp and professional for the IT specialist who’s setting up a network; more casual for the weekend warrior who’s assembling a backyard barbeque grill. A tone that works for American readers might not work for Asian readers. It’s all about the fundamental rule of technical writing: know your audience.

Do those things, and your readers will be grateful, even if they never say “thank you” to your face. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve provided something of value.

What would add to this list?

John McPhee on writing for your reader

John McPhee writes in this week’s New Yorker about two essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves. For McPhee, the two are inextricably linked.

Because McPhee expresses his ideas far better than I could, I’ll use his words and then provide commentary.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material — that much and no more.

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

Some of McPhee’s books and articles have grown much larger than he envisioned them initially, because as he dug deeper he found more and more that was interesting. Still, he says, before a story goes into final production there’s always something that would best be taken out.

He describes the bygone process of greening, in which a writer has to strike (using a green pencil) a certain number of lines from a finished magazine article so that it fits the space. He still teaches greening to his writing students. Sounds like a good idea for us technical writers as well.

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.

I like the idea that writing is a progression — from the starting point to the next thing, then to the next. Even though you’re writing nonfiction you’re still writing a story, and as the writer you get to decide how the story will go.

Since my background is in technical writing, I find myself wanting to argue that the “one criterion” shouldn’t be what interests me but should be what interests my reader. Yet I think I understand what McPhee is saying: As the one who’s doing the informing, I’m responsible for choosing what my reader will need or want. My reader can’t know, and I’m shirking my duty if I force them to choose the story.

I think this is true even in an “every page is page one” environment where my reader chooses what content to read, and in what order. Within each chunk of content — each topic — I still have to provide the narrative that will lead my reader to what they need.

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape…a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images — such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.

Get lost. In the end it’s about the reader. The writer should become invisible. I’m in complete accord with this: In fact I consider it to be the prime directive of technical writing.

What do you think? Leave a comment. Tell me if you enjoyed McPhee’s piece, and what you think of his ideas on brevity and on connecting with the reader.

Are you ready for the future of content?

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.”

quill penAs 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?

Continue reading

The technical writer as storyteller

A big pile of bananas

It’s a song about a fatal highway wreck. So why did concert audiences love “30 Thousand Pounds of Bananas“? Because Harry Chapin was such a good storyteller.

Storytelling is hot right now. The social-media and marketing gurus tell us that we reach our customers by telling stories: stories they want to hear, stories they relate to. Case in point, from just a couple of days ago:  Why Every Tech Company Needs an English Major. (I love the catchy title.)

But we reach our customers through more than just marketing. Can we technical communicators also apply the principles of storytelling? Continue reading

What is technical communication?

That’s a good question to start with.

The prime directive for technical communication: audience first.

Everything flows from that. As a technical communicator, my job is to deliver content without compromising its truthfulness or completeness.

I ought to write as if Yoda is perched on my shoulder: passing on knowledge and wisdom, and instilling confidence in my audience.

What is technical communication to you?

Note: As you might know, I blogged on the website for the company where I used to work. A couple of the links here are to posts where I develop each idea more fully.