When perceptions bite tech comm’s backside
It can be a mightily sucktacular experience when you discover what other people think technical communicators do.
Case in point: a blog post from a college student came up in my Google feeds about tech comm. The post (to which I won’t link because it’s not fair to the author) was about word choice and how the author doesn’t understand why so many writers use big words when smaller words suffice. Yep, I’m with him on that.
That’s when the author threw a punch right into the face of our profession without even knowing it. In a nutshell, he said that technical writing is exempt from the requirements of using basic language.
I think I know what the writer was trying to say: technical writing can require the use of advanced terminology. He meant no intentional malice or disrespect. Even so, his post made it clear he does not entirely understand what we do in tech comm, particularly now that the field has changed so much in past decade or so.
This lack of understanding on one student’s part generated many questions in my mind:
- How many of our colleagues in other departments think we spend our lives stringing together fancy words?
- Even worse, how many of those in upper management have the same thoughts?
- What are we all doing to end these perceptions?
Truly good technical content requires us to break out of our cubicles and collaborate with other departments. Our professional well-being also depends on that collaboration to dispel myths about what we do—and to reinforce the value we provide.
Yes it is true, that people in other departments do not understand what we do. They are not at all aware that technical communication is a far cry from the fictional or editorial writing.
I think that the idea of “break[ing] out of our cubicles and collaborat[ing] with other departments” is spot on, but it is the most difficult thing to achieve. I’ve yet to see a company set “collaborate with others” as a goal for heads of departments, and without that it’s not going to work. It’s particularly difficult to achieve collaboration when one department is seen as a revenue centre (for example, training delivery) and the other is seen as a cost centre (for example, tech pubs). You will only get collaboration when a company has the vision to set up a “unified content strategy” (to borrow Ann Rockley’s term).
You’re right. A lot of companies have these rigid views of departments that are an obstacle to collaboration. These traditional (dare I say outdated?) views get *very* entrenched.
Often, in newer companies, the barriers between departments aren’t are as pronounced. In my experience, it is easier to foster content collaboration in these more entrepreneurial environments.
This doesn’t mean larger, more established companies can’t adopt the “unified content strategy” you mention. It just takes some very careful (and persistent) change management strategies to reduce resistance and get buy in.
I don’t necessarily see it as an old company/new company dichotomy. It’s more of an “old habit/new habit” situation, in my experience. Even in a company that talks the talk of collaboration, the more specialized roles become (in larger companies), the more people there are whose idea of what tech comm does are based purely on assumption and sometimes-distant experience. Even if there is exec buy-in on a unified content stategy (which is far less common than companies that at least talk the talk of collaboration), people define “tech writing” one at a time, just like they define “marketing.”
I like to say there are some things I never get tired of explaining… ;^)
That collaboration, clarification, and customer advocacy is central to our work is just one of those things.
Your old habit/new habit viewpoint makes a lot of sense, Frank. Those old habits can indeed reinforce the negative stereotypes about what technical communicators really do.
Frank, I love your comment about “collaboration, clarification, and customer advocacy”! I think I’ll post that on my wall and hope to get questions about it…