Tag Archives: subject matter experts

Yes, and: Helping you communicate better

When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.

As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.

Cover for If I Understood You bookThen he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading. He didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.

In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.

Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.

Empathy: the key to communication

Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”

Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.

Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”

He’s right.

He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”

Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts. (It’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to chat with you about your work.”) He reports on a number of research projects.

Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) named him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.

Inprov: new insights for technical writers

Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.

Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome. Continue reading

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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.

What writers need — and don’t need — from SMEs

writer_keys.jpgEver hear a subject-matter expert (SME) complain that they have to do too much of the technical writer’s job for them? I know I have.

I’m afraid that we technical writers have contributed to this attitude, by being lazy and by not helping them help us.

But it’s not all our fault. Sometimes the SME simply doesn’t understand what’s expected of them, and what isn’t.

To help with that, I’ve compiled a list for SMEs of the things your technical writers need from you. (If you’re a technical writer, this list is for you too. Use it to make sure your SMEs are giving you what you need.) Continue reading

4 ways to get the most out of your SMEs

For as long as I can remember, and probably from time immemorial, we technical communicators have struggled in our relationships with subject-matter experts (SMEs). Sometimes the results are humorous. Often they’re painful.

Sumo wrestlers in competitionWhen I teach Tech Comm at Duke University, I use this photo of sumo wrestlers to illustrate the struggle. Yet I also hasten to assure my students that it’s not always this way — nor does it have to be.

How can you work with your SMEs to increase the degree of cooperation and limit the pushing and shoving? Here are four principles that’ve helped me. Continue reading