Posts Tagged Techcomms

“Had one of those Technical Authors in the back of my cab…”

Of all the places I ever thought I’d discuss the value of Technical Authors, I never thought the back of a taxi would be one of them.

Yesterday afternoon I was on my way to the local train station by taxi when the driver asked me what I did. “I’m a Technical Author,” I replied, watching the rear-view mirror for the puzzled look I usually get when I announce my profession [1].

Following the expected look, I explained: “I write manuals, specifications, any sort of technical documents.”

This immediately got his attention, and he began what I can best describe as a polite rant.

Turns out he used to be a senior engineer for a firm that sold shower units and cubicles. They began importing products from China, which unsurprisingly were supplied with Chinese manuals: no good for their customer base. Rather than employ a specialist, they set him the task of writing an English manual from scratch.

He tested the first draft himself, and found it wasn’t suitable. So after a rewrite he gave it and a shower unit to a couple of people in the Admin department for testing. Turns out more rewriting was necessary. Overall he spent several days trying to get the manual right, and that was just one manual for one product.

I commented on the waste of resource this represented, and he agreed wholeheartedly. He immediately saw how employing a Technical Author with the necessary skills could not only have saved his time – which would be better spent actually being a senior engineer – but would also have cut down on calls to the support line by customers confused with manuals not written by a professional author.

He dropped me off in town and I went on my way pondering the following question: if a skilled plumber turned taxi driver can see the value in a Technical Author, why is it sometimes so difficult to persuade our colleagues of the same?

[1] You know the one: mystification tinged with disbelief. As if you’ve said “I’m a Marmalade Consultant”, or “I yodel professionally”.

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Content Strategy for me?

The title is shamelessly paraphrased from David Farbey’s presentation at TCUK10, and is a point of view endorsed by other delegates in their presentations, such as Roger Hart in the excellently titled The Spork/Platypus Average – Content strategy at Red Gate Software.

I hate to oversimplify these two excellent presentations, but between them they made three key points that helped formulate my understanding of Content Strategy:

  • Content Management is about rules. Content Strategy is about thinking – David Farbey.
  • A Technical Communicator’s toolbox of cool things is a Content Strategist’s toolbox of cool things – Roger Hart.
  • Content Strategy is not just about the Web – A point of view endorsed by both Roger and David.

So how does this apply to what I do?

I’ve been a Technical Communicator of one stripe or another for twelve years. I’ve worked on manuals, help systems, reports, presentations, flyers, specifications, user interface design… I’ve never had trouble finding a new area to apply my skills.

However, in my current role my remit is quite different. I was taken on to think about and to begin to implement more efficient and effective ways to manage the documentation created by the IT Department. And what a challenge that was – in over fourteen years of existence, the company had given no real thought to how to actually do this. At all.

I confess I launched right into a firefighting exercise. I juggled competing demands from managers wanting me to document BAU procedures and processes, while trying to learn as much as I could about what tools or techniques might be best applied. In short, how could I help non-writers write, because there was no way I could do it all myself.

Before TCUK 10 I only had the vaguest idea what Content Strategy might be. Afterwards, my neurons were on fire with ideas. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised before that recasting my ideas in the form of a coherent strategic approach was the best way to sell this to the department – and the business as a whole.

With the resources at my disposal  – my toolbox of cool things (i.e. my communication and analytical skills); the knowledge and enthusiasm of my colleagues; and the limited tools and budget already available – I was sure that what had seemed like a Herculean (or perhaps Sisyphean?) task became something I could tackle.

Just how this all works out is currently in the balance. Whatever the case, I am now firmly on the path to becoming a Content Strategy advocate.

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