Dilettantes, divas, and dinosaurs

Training challenges for TechComm managers

Text by Leah Guren


Image: © fizkes/istockphoto.com

As the TechComm staff shortage continues, companies need to be creative to find talent. They may hire young people straight out of university, transfer employees from other departments (such as training or tech support), or even employ external “newbie” candidates.

No matter where your new employees come from, they will need training. Some of that training is handled outside of your department, for example by HR or your tech support group. Yet, almost certainly you – the Tech Pubs manager – must provide additional guidance, coaching, and training in these areas:

  • Tech Pubs P&P (Policies and Procedures): Your department should have its own set of defined processes for creating, reviewing, and validating content. Ideally, this should be available for all members of the department, along with some instruction.
  • TechComm concepts: Even new employees who are fresh out of a TechComm program may need help. Not all programs are equal, and not all students are good learners. Remember, someone can pass a test and gain certification without fully mastering all concepts.
  • Writing: Quite frankly, I have worked with seasoned TechComm professionals who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag, so don’t assume that only new writers need help in this area.
  • Professional growth: Some employees need a little extra push before they can become useful contributors to the team. This may include developing good problem-solving skills, improving interactions with others, time management, and more.

Recognizing the players

Different employees have different needs. While this is a broad generalization, here are four types of employees you may encounter:

The Dilettante: This person is a novice with little or no training in TechComm. They may be an internal transfer from another department (and therefore have good product and domain knowledge), but they need a crash course in TechComm best practices.

  • Problem: People with no formal training can be overwhelmed. They don’t know what they don’t know (that is, they are unaware of the huge amount of training they need).
  • Solution: Pick one TechComm concept per week (for example, audience), one writing issue (for example, active voice), and one professional growth skill (for example, developing responsibilityfor reviewing their own work). Provide a very brief introduction of the TechComm concept, the writing rule, and the professional growth skill. Make sure the person understands the rationale for these guidelines. Then assign them a task for the week. Midway through, check their status against those three criteria. At the end of the week, have a summary meeting. Encourage the person to explain the concept in their own words. Have them explain what steps they took to consistently use the writing rule. Have them report their progress with the professional growth skill. In this modular approach, with consistent support and feedback, the dilettante can make progress without being overwhelmed.

The Diva: This person took a course, got a certificate, or even earned a degree in some type of TechComm. But they have limited experience and some of their training may be questionable.

  • Problem: These people usually want to focus on learning the product and domain; they may think that because they took some sort of formal TechComm training, they don’t need to continue learning in that area. Your challenge is to reapply what they have learned to the realities of your content.
  • Solution: Start the week with their assignment. The next day, review what they have done so far. That gives you an indication of where their training is lacking (both TechComm concepts and writing issues). For example, if you see them writing in future tense, ask them what their training specified regarding correct verb tenses in TechComm. Either they remember and correct the mistake or they reveal a lack of awareness. The goal is to identify and train individual issues as needed, rather than treating the person as a blank slate.

The Dinosaur: We all love dinosaurs until we work with one! Dinosaurs are old TechComm practitioners who are set in their ways and refuse to adapt, learn new tools, or change the way they have been writing over the past 30 years.

  • Problem: These people are convinced that they are right and you are wrong; they may have a protected job status, so you can’t easily remove them from your team. Your challenge is to persuade them to adapt.
  • Solution: Validate their practices for other types of writing. This is important, as many dinosaurs embrace an outdated academic writing style that is inappropriate for TechComm. If you can get them to concede that the purpose of academic writing and the purpose of TechComm content are different, you might succeed. By emphasizing UX, documentation usability data, and even the business cost of heavy content, you can change their mindset. You can also satisfy their need for elegant writing by having them work on white papers or other types of deliverables.

The Pro: Let’s not forget the experienced professional; this is the ideal employee who needs minimal supervision and training. Point them to the style guide, show them your Tech Pubs P&P, provide them with training on the product, and let them get to work. You can trust that the pro can handle the work while having the maturity to ask the right questions at the right time. The pro seeks help when needed, and only after attempting to resolve the issue themselves.

  • Problem: Pros are so self-sufficient that they don’t require a lot of training or supervision. But like the proverbial middle child, the pro can end up feeling neglected and ignored.
  • Solution: Use some fun training exercises as a team-building activity. I believe in the power of games and fun challenges. Give a weekly challenge to everyone in the team; for example, take one short topic from old legacy content and challenge team members to reduce the word count or lower the FOG Index score. Bring everyone together at the end of the week to share their efforts. You can award small prizes for the best effort. Not only does this work as an excellent training process for the dilettantes and divas, but it keeps everyone’s skills sharp and allows the pros to participate.

Overcoming the obstacles

Training can be both exhilarating and frustrating. When you help someone grasp a concept or master a skill, it is satisfying. But when you attempt to train someone who is pathologically stupid, illogical, or careless, it can feel like an exercise in futility.

Here are some of the common complaints I hear from managers:

But I’m not a trainer! Your main job responsibility may be implementing a content strategy and developing content, but if you are a department head or team leader, you need to guide your staff. Therefore, the first obstacle to overcome is your own mindset. Consider that TechComm content often includes some element of training (because we need to explain complex technical concepts to our users); that might make it easier for you to realize that you already have some training skills. Think of your new employee as a user. What do they know? What do they need to know?

I already told them that! Some people have a longer learning curve than others; for them, the focus must be on developing professional skills. They need to develop self-sufficiency so that they don’t constantly need support. People who make the same mistakes over and over are usually lacking a structured work methodology. Have them follow a strict checklist before submitting a draft. Have them develop their own “cheat sheet” of problems so that they can search for those issues and self-correct. Teach them proper triage for problems: what can they look up for themselves (and how and where), and what do they need to escalate to you or others.

I shouldn’t have to teach them that! Yes, it is frustrating to have to explain a semicolon to someone who holds a university degree, but it is even more depressing to have to teach logic and rational thinking! As for TechComm best practices, remember that our field is broad and there is a wide range of practices, even within one domain. Keep in mind that what you take for granted may be a unique practice embraced by your company to solve a specific content problem.

I don’t have time to train people! Training is an investment that pays off in increased productivity, reduced errors, and improved employee retention. A small investment of your time (perhaps two hours per week) can be effective if you use a consistent format. And remember, you don’t need to do all the training yourself. Consider pairing a dilettante with a pro for mentoring. Bring in outside trainers twice a year for in-house workshops; this removes the burden of developing and delivering the training yourself, while creating a good group activity that helps build cohesion and improve morale.

Tips and tricks

Here are some of my favorite techniques for developing TechComm staff:

What did you do? When dilettantes or divas need extra spoon-feeding, my first question is, “What did you do?” In other words, what steps did they take to try to solve the problem? Were they able to distinguish between generic information that could be researched externally (for example, the correct symbol abbreviation for a unit of measurement) and in-house, proprietary information that could only be answered by SMEs (for example, an inconsistency in the technical specifications)? Did they perform due diligence in looking things up to get a sense of industry standards? If not, ask them guided questions.

The staged self-edit: The dilettante often gets overwhelmed trying to edit. They jump from issue to issue, miss things, and don’t know how to start. A staged edit is a way of focusing on the editing process in stages, starting with the high-level issues (do you understand the brief of this project, do you understand the purpose of this content, is this the right info for the audience, and is it organized logically for them?). Only after the high-level issues have been resolved can they move on to low-level issues (writing style, terminology consistency, punctuation, etc.). You need to keep them focused on just one set of issues; some people may need to make many passes through the content until they grasp this skill.

The iterative edit: I love using this technique with teams. They show me some legacy content, knowing it needs a lot of improvement. I give them a few high-level goals (for example, organization and simplicity) and let them do a first attempt. We review it together, decide what we like about it and what needs changing, and they try again. At each stage, they have a significantly improved topic, but the iterative approach allows them to see creative solutions that may have been too extreme initially.


You may not always have control over who joins your team, but using some of these tips, you can provide them with the support they need to turn into great TechComm professionals.

Do you have a training tip or a story to share? Let us know!