Tag Archives: Technical communication

Finding the organization’s voice

It was simpler back in the day.

If you were a kid growing up near New York City, your favorite music came with a voice. In the afternoon, after school got out, the voice belonged to the wisecracking Dan Ingram. After dinner, it was the voluble, high-energy Bruce Morrow.

(There were other voices, in the morning and on weekends. But for most of us, Big Dan and Cousin Brucie stood out.)

A simple, effective brand voice

daningram

Dan Ingram held down the 2-to-6 time slot.

Amplified by a microphone that lent a slight echo to every word, those two human voices combined to give WABC a distinctive and recognizable brand voice. The voice told us that WABC was fun, in the know,  up to date.

What was the hottest music? Every Tuesday night, we listened as Cousin Brucie counted down the new Top 20. Where to hang out? Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.

WABC’s distinctive, instantly recognizable voice, known to millions of people, came from a couple of voices. Simple.

Later: More content, still simple

When I started my technical writing career at IBM, things were still pretty simple. We didn’t produce voice content, but we did print shrink-wrapped technical manuals that all looked the same. Marketing created print ads, white papers, and spec sheets that shared a common design. IBM customers got lots of content, but only a few kinds of content. And with one glance, they could tell it came from IBM.

Today: Many sources, many outlets, jumbled voices

Today, your organization’s voice is delivered through advertisements and social media — and also through product screens, technical manuals, help systems, blogs, chat sessions, datasheets, videos, conference presentations, and probably dozens of other ways.

What do your customers, partners, and employees hear when they interact with all of this content? What messages do they receive? What’s the image of your organization that forms in their minds?

Chances are the image is blurry. Continue reading

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Stand up and be counted: the technical communication census

It’s not just another survey. If you’re engaged in technical communication — as practitioner, teacher, or student — I encourage you to take part.

census taker in front of house

Take part in the census. And don’t worry: no salesman will call.

A team at Concordia University in Montreal, led by Dr. Saul Carliner, is conducting research called the census of technical communicators. It’s in survey format, but unlike most surveys targeted to technical communicators, this one isn’t about tools or technology. Instead, the research is about you: your background, your job satisfaction, your aspirations, and how you stay current in the profession.

I’m delighted that Concordia is conducting this census. Most data-driven research about our profession centers on the tools we use and the technologies we support. Some of it is geared to providing tools vendors with data so they can better market their products.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s refreshing to see research that’s about us: who we are, and how we perceive our work. Having completed the census questionnaire, I can tell you that it was well designed to yield a complete and accurate portrait of the people in our profession.

I look forward to seeing the results of the census, which will be published later this year in STC’s Intercom magazine. More in-depth analysis of the data might also be submitted to academic journals.

Although STC is helping to publicize it, the research project was developed and is being conducted by the team at Concordia. I’ve known Dr. Carliner, the project lead, for more than 25 years. I very much admire his energy, his dedication, and his insight.

One last thing: No one asked me to promote the census. I’m encouraging you to participate because I have high regard for the research team and because I think the research will greatly enhance our understanding of our profession and its people..

Do we understand ourselves?

People don’t understand us. From the first time I met a technical writer, I’ve heard them — I’ve heard us — say that.

Our bosses don’t understand us. Subject-matter experts don’t understand us. Our audiences don’t understand us.

So, at long last, we have a chance to change that. A few days ago on Twitter, an app designer named Louie Mantia put this out to the world:

As Louie’s tweet kept popping up in my timeline — with answers from journalists, lexicographers, and historians — I pondered how a technical writer might answer.

It was harder than I expected.

First take

First I thought of answering Louie’s question like this: Our top priority is writing directly to the people who use the instructions.

Then, in my imaginary dialog, I heard a resounding yawn from the general public: Of course you write for the people who use the instructions. For us. Who else would you write for?

Writing for the audience. While we technical writers trumpet it as a big deal, to our audience it’s so blindingly obvious that it goes without saying.

Second take

So I tried a different approach. Technical writers think in terms of how to use a product, not how the product works.

General public: We know that! It’s common sense, right? I don’t need to know how an internal-combustion engine works. I just want to change the oil.

Third take

crowd of people

Might the people understand us better than we think?

My third try: We work hard to tailor our information to our audience — in terms of both content and media.

GP: Hmm. The tailoring part, again, should go without saying. Maybe we don’t understand why you have to work so hard.

After all, when we get it right, it looks effortless. And when we get it wrong, it looks like we haven’t tried at all.

I began to realize that the skills we technical writers prize the most and discuss the most among ourselves, like audience analysis and media expertise, are things that — in the minds of our customers — ought to be second nature.

When we say that people don’t understand us, it’s not because they don’t grasp our skill set. It’s because they don’t realize how much energy we devote to honing those skills and to reminding each other how important they are.

Why do we need to remind each other of things that are so fundamental? Is it because our perspective is skewed from spending too much time with our work colleagues (especially Development) and not enough time with our customers?

Maybe it’s not that people understand us. Maybe we don’t understand ourselves.

Epilog

I finally did answer Louie’s question about what seems obvious to us but is misunderstood by the general public.

What do you think of my answer? How would you have answered?

Do you think our customers would be surprised to learn how much time we spend talking about things that, to them, ought to be second nature?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The linchpin of inspiration

Author and storyteller Carla Johnson, in her keynote speech at this week’s STC Summit, described how inspiration comes, not as a bolt from the blue, but from observing other people’s creative work. She warned against brand detachment disorder, in which we see another brand — maybe Disney or Apple — doing something cool but immediately dismiss it because it couldn’t possibly bear on our own company’s brand.

photo of Carla Johnson

Carla Johnson

Instead, Carla charged us to observe what other brands are doing, distill the parts we can use, and relate those parts to our own brand and customers. Then we can generate ideas and pitch them to our bosses. Call it the inspiration process.

That’s what Rachel Sparks, Technical Director at Xenex, did. Xenex makes robot-like machines that hospitals use to disinfect areas where patients are treated. This is a very big deal, because it drastically reduces the threat posed by sepsis and other infections. When Sparks noticed that some hospitals were giving their machines whimsical names and putting Santa Claus hats on them, she saw a way to market her company’s product not as a machine but as something that touches people’s hearts.

That’s great creativity, great marketing. But is it technical communication? Did Carla get mixed up and think that she was speaking to the Society for Technical Marketing?

No. Carla knew exactly where she was. Continue reading

Launching your technical communication career

Last time I wrote about the places you can go, or the different trajectories your career can take, when you work in technical communication.

But how do you get that first job? What qualifications do you need, and what are employers looking for?

Prompted by interview questions from a Tech Comm graduate student, and based on my experience working in the field and interviewing candidates, here are some thoughts.

montage of album covers from 1979

We listened to different music in 1979, and breaking into the field was different too.

I got my first technical writing job a long time ago — in 1979. One thing I know for sure is that your breaking-in story won’t be the same as mine. Things were a lot different then, and I’m not just thinking about the music we listened to. Companies, having realized that technical people didn’t necessarily make good technical writers, went looking for young writers who weren’t necessarily versed in the technology but who could learn it.

Armed with a double-major in English and philosophy, and having a tiny bit of experience with computers, I landed that first job with IBM.

You won’t have the same experience. Your résumé will need to look a little shinier than mine did.

What are the educational requirements for working in Technical Communication?

Follow-up question: Are certain degrees or backgrounds more sought after by employers? Continue reading

Technical Communication: Oh, the places you’ll go!

A Technical Communication graduate student recently interviewed me for a project she’s doing. She asked great questions, and (with her permission) I thought I’d share some of my answers with you.

What does a career trajectory look like in technical communication?

Places_you_go_Seuss

Your career in Tech Comm, and possibly after Tech Comm, will be uniquely yours — shaped by your interests and talents.

Follow-on question: Is there lots of room for growth, or do people need to transition to management after a certain point?

There is lots of room for growth. Just as people follow many paths into Tech Comm, they find a lot of paths to follow once they’re here.

It’s like Dr. Seuss said: you can go almost anywhere.

Where you go in Tech Comm — or where you go from Tech Comm — depends on what you’re especially good at and what you’re most interested in. Continue reading