The other day, I was watching an old episode of The Defenders. If you have never heard of this TV show, I’m not surprised, as it ran for only one season in 2010/2011. The show, a frivolous mix of humor and courtroom drama, starred Jim Belushi as a Las Vegas lawyer. This particular episode (“Noland vs. Galloway Pharmaceuticals”) featured a convoluted lawsuit of a wrongful death after a young man had been administered ten times the correct dosage of epinephrine.
In a dramatic cross-examination of a witness, Belushi’s character demonstrated that the drug’s labeling was confusing enough to be unusable. He made the compelling argument that any sensible person could easily understand the problem.
I paused the video and sat up a bit straighter. Here was someone a dozen years ago pointing out the obvious flaws of poorly designed product content and basically saying, “Duh! Everyone knows this!”
If you have been in the field of TechComm for less than 20 years, you may take this for granted. For my part, I have seen over 40 years of evolution in our profession, not the least of which is the change in how we are perceived by our clients and the awareness of our value and need. I remember when few people knew who we were or what we did. I had clients introduce me to their team as the person who “checks our English” or “makes our documents look nice.” It was incredibly frustrating to have our sophisticated knowledge and skills described in dismissively simplistic terms. Our ability to make content usable and thus improve product safety, compliance, and the overall UX was something that few people understood.
Today, companies recognize the need for real professionals to create and maintain useful content. Our clients usually respect and appreciate our work and have a greater understanding of how it fits into the bigger product picture. But despite the improvement, there is an ongoing need to explain and promote our profession. However, today our approach needs to evolve to reflect these changes.
The clear communication imperative
The past: In the past, we expended a lot of energy trying to explain the value of clear, concise, unambiguous communication. SMEs (subject-matter experts) were often stubborn or arrogant (or both), insisting that people were used to reading those stilted, passive-voice descriptions of features. I had to use multiple approaches to show them the difference between lean, task-based content and feature-based descriptions. With each new client, I had to start all over educating SMEs and PMs (product managers) on content usability.
The present: Now that people finally understand the value of clear communication, the challenge has shifted to compliance, rather than acceptance. In other words: We all know that we should do it, but it is so darn hard! As with any bad habit, we know what we should be doing, but as soon as we relax our discipline, we slip back into less desirable behavior. We know that we should be kind and patient. We know that we should make healthier food choices. We know that we should go to bed at a reasonable hour and stop scrolling through social media on our phones. But knowing is not the same as doing; we find ourselves avoiding a boring coworker, losing patience with a team member, succumbing to junk food, and doom-scrolling late into the night.
More than ever, I am convinced that despite our best intentions, many people revert to sloppy, bloated writing because that is their linguistic comfort food.
The strategy: We no longer need to convince our clients of the importance of clear communication. Instead, we need to talk about the importance of the processes that support and help enforce clear communication. We need to promote our profession from the standpoint of our expertise in developing and implementing a content strategy that not only enriches the product and helps the users, but also supports and helps everyone in the organization who needs to write content.
The silo mentality
The past: Technical writers wrote documentation. Marketing writers wrote brochures. Instructional designers created training material. Public relations people handled crisis communication. These were considered completely separate silos of content. I would request to coordinate with these other groups, only to be told, “Oh, you don’t need to know that.” It was challenging to try to educate our clients about the problems of siloed content.
The present: Companies are far savvier about the risk of inconsistent messaging in outward-facing content. We no longer have to explain the value. The challenge is in promoting our professional ability to span so many of these former silos.
The strategy: Expand your knowledge of Marcom (marketing communications) and instructional design. Never say, “We don’t do that!” Show your clients that, even if different teams are working on these things, TechComm professionals should always be involved in setting style and terminology guidelines and coordinating across teams. Show our value as the overall communication experts.
The cheap alternative
The past: In the late 1990s, companies looking to save money began outsourcing their product documentation to cheap tech writing shops, first in India, and then later in Eastern Europe. Our strategy was to talk about quality. It was a logical tactic, especially after dismal quality and project communication breakdowns led many companies to reverse their decision and move documentation back to an in-house department.
The present: Today people are more worried about AI taking their writing jobs, rather than a team from another country! With Microsoft, Google, and other big players all racing to crash-test their AI writing tools, it seems inevitable that some writing functions will soon be automated.
The strategy: Our goal should not be to compete with AI, but to show what we can do that AI-generated content cannot. Just as simple writing tasks could easily be off-shored, they can easily be handled by AI (if not yet, at least very soon). We need to talk about our role at a higher level. What is the value that TechComm professionals add to the bigger picture? For example, we may be instrumental in determining exactly what needs to be documented, and then relegating part of that content to AI.
Our profession will continue to shift and adapt as content moves to different forms and platforms, and addresses different user needs. But we will always need to advocate for our profession and explain clearly and persuasively the value we bring to our clients and their users.
Do you have an example of promoting our profession? Let us know!