Getting Unstuck: Repurposing Your Technical Communication Skills to Climb Your Career Ladder, Earn More Money, and Enjoy Your Work

By Victoria (Vici) Koster-Lenhardt | STC Fellow

“I’m stuck!”

At least once in your working life, you will think “I’m stuck!” or say it out loud to a friend or a career counselor. You might even say it to a stranger. Getting stuck, along with becoming bored or complacent, is not necessarily negative. It can often reflect a point of mastery, comfort, and success. No matter the reason, there is no need to waste time and energy on figuring out why you are stuck. Instead, there is a simple combination of exercises you can use to identify what you enjoy doing most, what you do well, and what you want to improve.

By working through these three “whats,” you will uncover opportunities you never thought of, ideas you have only half-heartedly considered, and nuggets of genius that will get you unstuck quicker than you think. In fact, you can do the first exercise in the amount of time it takes you to read this article.

Approaches to Getting Unstuck

Take the first step toward getting unstuck by analyzing the work you have done in the past. There are two approaches. The first approach uses your résumé; the second approach requires you to write a short story about your greatest accomplishment in the past five years.

Approach #1: The Résumé

Find a recent version of your résumé and print it out. First, read through your résumé, underline the words and phrases of the work you enjoyed doing. Second, circle the words and phrases of the work you did well; these might overlap with the work you enjoyed, but they might not. Third, draw a star next to the words and phrases of work you would like to do more of in the future. Finally, take a highlighter and mark words and phrases that indicate skills you would like to improve.

When you complete this exercise, you will have a set of words that you can further use to search job ads and discover jobs you had not previously considered. You can also use the words to create an “elevator pitch” to use with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers to explore options, ask for help, and build your personal job search ambassadors. Highlighted text will provide ideas for courses and certifications you might want to consider to address key skills you need to be hired or promoted.

Approach #2: Your Success Story

Find 15 minutes in your day to think about your greatest accomplishment in the past five years. Was there something you are particularly proud of accomplishing? Completing? Starting? Changing? Overcoming? Ask your closest friends, family members, and colleagues what they think. It does not have to be work related.

Why five years? Because this is enough time to have done something you are proud of while being recent enough that your skills are still current. You might think of something that you did ten years ago or more, but keep it within five years, if you can. Then, grab a blank sheet of paper and your favorite pen. Write your story in four paragraphs. Do not type it on a device.

In the first paragraph, explain the background of the situation or the context in which you approached the challenge. In the second paragraph, write about the challenge you faced. Explain why it was a challenge. The more detail the better. In the third paragraph, write how you addressed the challenge. Describe what you actually did. In the fourth paragraph, write the results you achieved, including any awards or accolades you received. Some readers might be thinking at this point, “Oh, this is the STAR method. I’m familiar with this.” That’s true. “S” for “situation,” “T” for “task,” “A” for “actions,” and “R” for “results.” Usually this method is used for developing answers for interviews. However, it is also a very good tool for writing an accomplishment. But let’s take it one step further.

When you have the story written down, brainstorm a bullet list of all the skills you used. That is why I call it the “STAR(s)” method. The second “S” is for “skills.”

Now, do the underline-circle-star-highlighter analysis described in the first approach. Are you seeing a pattern yet?

What Are the Current Market Needs?

A third component of this analysis phase uses actual job advertisements. After you have analyzed your résumé and greatest accomplishment story, go to your preferred job board or job search website. Using the words you highlighted in the first two exercises, select two jobs that, all things being equal, you would like to submit an application for today. Print them out and grab a yellow, a pink, and a blue highlighter.

With the yellow highlighter, mark the words and phrases that attract you to the job. With the pink highlighter, mark the requirements you meet. With the blue highlighter, mark the requirements you do not meet. Now you know whether or not you are a good candidate and what you need to improve (through learning or gaining hands-on experience) to become the ideal candidate. You will also learn terminology to weave into your elevator pitch.

Designing Your Professional Development Strategy

Armed with the thought work of these three exercises, you will have a vision that is focused on what you enjoy doing and want to do more of in the future. You will not only have details about what you want to improve, you will also have ideas for your unique professional development needs based on what the current job market is demanding in terms of skills, knowledge, and experience.

Depending on your budget, you can explore the following professional development options. They are listed from low to high risk based on time and financial investment.

  • Targeted volunteering. If you have some free time and are not in a hurry, targeted volunteering will allow you to try out the skills you want to develop. What separates “targeted volunteering” from “volunteering” is that you seek out volunteer opportunities that allow you to gain hands-on experience of the knowledge and skills you identified during the analysis of your résumé, story, and job advertisements. If you do not like the work, it is relatively easy to step away from the volunteer gig and try something else.
  • Online courses, both free and for a fee. These are generally low-cost. You gain knowledge and skills by being taught a structured curriculum. This option is a nice complement to the targeted volunteering and could be all that you need to grow.
  • Professional certification. Signing up for a professional certification is an excellent choice if you have already decided to change careers or are clear about the promotion you want. It demonstrates to future employers or your current company a higher commitment to your professional development. It is also a good first step for trying something new, expanding your connections, and meeting movers and shakers in the industry while investing roughly $500 to $5,000. The time involved will depend on the certification, so you will need to shop around to find the one that best fits your plans and budget.
  • A degree program. Going back to school is a bigger investment of time and money compared to the first three options. In some industries, companies, and organizations, a degree could be a key requirement. Making this decision will depend on how passionate you are about your long-term plans and expectations for earning a higher salary. Be sure to gather research through informational conversation as input to making this decision. You might have all the knowledge and experience that you need, which hiring managers and recruiters will be able to tell you. You might find that a degree will not make a significant impact on your employability or that it will be the primary path to landing your dream job.
The Transferable Skills of Technical Communicators

I have built a long and lucrative career based on my writing and editing skills and experience. Over the past 30+ years, I have observed a number of transferable skills that typical technical communicators gain within as little as five years of working in this industry. Of course, the longer you work in the industry, the more skills you gain. If you read the last eight Intercom magazines, you will immediately find ideas for careers that use your technical communication background. These include strategic management, organizational development, business analysis, teaching, marketing, usability, event planning, content management, entrepreneurship, governance, project management, program management, business development, human resources, recruiting, and public speaking. I’ve witnessed technical communicators—STCers—transition into all of these fields. Each of these industries has its own skillset that you have likely dabbled in or developed in-depth during your career so far. Your analysis will point you in the right direction.

Get Ready to Open Yourself to New Opportunities

Use the exercises described in this article to understand your unique skillset, determine what type of job you would like to do now and in the future, and create and execute a strategy for closing your knowledge, experience, and skill gaps. You will quickly become unstuck and begin moving forward with confidence toward paid employment that you enjoy. You might even land your dream job … overseas.

After a 21-year career in various communications roles at The Coca-Cola Company, VICI KOSTER-LENHARDT (vkosterlenhardt@gmail.com) moved out of the private IT sector and transitioned into job search and career coaching in the public sector. Today, she provides these services to spouses of U.S. diplomats working in Central and Eastern Europe. Vici is an STC Fellow and lives in Vienna, Austria. You can learn more about her at www.linkedin.com/in/vkosterlenhardt.

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