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We’ve Failed, and We Need to Take the Blinkers Off

By Alan J. Porter | STC Senior Member

As pre-sales content and post-sales content begin to overlap, Alan Porter provides the latest insights about our role in that evolution in Convergence Conversations. Learn through this column to build bridges and form synergies with your counterparts in marketing. Contact Alan at ajp@4jsgroup.com to ask a question or propose a topic for him to cover in this column.

I believe that we have failed the technical communication profession.

Why? Because we’ve become myopic in the way we see ourselves. We tend to talk about nothing but writing technical manuals and online help files. And while that is an essential part of what we do, it isn’t everything. In fact, I’d argue it’s a minor part of what we should be doing.

Our professional body isn’t STMW—Society for Technical Manual Writingit’s STC—Society for Technical Communication. The key to our future—and the future of those entering the profession—is in the last word of that title, and it’s the one word we seem to have forgotten: communication.

Our job, at its core, is a simple one:

We take the technically complex and make it simple, and then communicate that knowledge to the people who need it.

The ways in which those in need want to access and consume that knowledge are changing, and we need to change, too. Some text accompanied by an occasional illustration, photo, or screenshot is no longer sufficient.

The ways that our customers are interacting with our content are rapidly changing. It was a standard refrain from many content strategists (and I was one of them) that every company is a publisher. If you produced any type of content intended for consumption outside the company, from marketing brochures, to invoices, to user manuals, and more, then you were, by definition, a publisher. As publishers, we followed the traditional broadcast-based publishing model. We produced what content we thought our customers needed, and we printed it, or put it on a webpage, in the hope that our customer would find it and read it.

That model is no longer sufficient or sustainable. Customers now expect to not just consume, but interact with all types of content in all types of ways, including social media “likes,” comments on videos, online chatbots, and voice command interfaces like Siri and Alexa.

It’s no longer enough for companies to think of themselves as publishers; they must now act like media producers.

When I began my career as a technical writer, I worked alongside a team of other writers and a handful of illustrators, plus a couple of production people who knew about formatting and layout. In recent years, I’ve worked with graphic designers, video and podcast producers, voice artists, animators, graphical storytellers, conversation specialists, translators, experience and instructional designers, and more. Where are these communicators in STC? We should be providing a technical communication community that includes, and encourages, these disciplines.

It’s no good understanding standards like DITA and Schema.org, or how to mark up content in XML or Mark Down, or the underpinnings of online help systems or wikis if we don’t also have a basic understanding of color theory, audio production, framing, storytelling, and more. We don’t all need to be experts in all aspects of communication, but we should be building teams that reflect those different disciplines and can work together to deliver the experience our customers want and deserve.

In my previous column, I talked about the convergence of content that is happening across organizations. Our customers don’t care where the content comes from, and we in the industry need to be aware of that. We need to look beyond our traditional departments and content production pipelines and search across the enterprise for the content to answer our customer’s questions.

There is a similar convergence happening with the skills needed to find, curate, develop, combine, manage, and deliver that content. We as a profession need to recognize that.

It’s time to take the blinkers off, and become the catalysts for changing what it means to be a technical communicator.

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