Technical communicators truly do have skills that most others don’t have, and it’s a simple set of skills. We take for granted that we can display writing and documentation clearly.
What brought this to my attention most recently–as if I didn’t know this fact already–was dealing with emails from work. I was trying to interpret emails from several educated, fairly influential people from the company, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what they wanted because of unclear directions. Granted, it didn’t help that the email system that we are forced to use at the moment (Lotus Notes) is not exactly user-friendly when it comes to formatting content within an email. Even when I could wade through the quagmire of formatting fogginess, what was being requested of me was not completely clear, and I had to send emails back clarifying the requests.
Although we are often required to work on reducing the number of words used to relay our messages and act as translators of content, it shouldn’t be at the cost of miscommunication. Sometimes having more is less, because more detailed directions can provide less back-and-forth of emails, thus more efficiency in getting the work or task done. From a customer perspective, having accurate documentation–even if it’s long–can reduce call centers help requests significantly.
A great example of making sure that content–whether it’s an email or any other documentation–is efficient is when I worked at the Princeton University Press. The CMS I had to use was an in-house Frankenstein monster of an application, but it worked for better or worse. There was no printed documentation, so when I first started working for the company, I took lots of detailed notes to make sure I understood how to do tasks on the system. I left the company after a few months, but left my notes for my successor. About two years later, my successor left, and my former manager asked me back to fill in temporarily, since she knew my contract had ended, and my ramp-up time wouldn’t be the same as if a new person was coming in during the pinch of getting the new fall catalog posted online. Sure enough, the two-year-old notes were still at the desk, and I could still follow them clearly. (This was when I knew that techcomm was truly my calling!) This reduced the number of times I had to ask my manager to refresh my memory on how to do certain tasks. As a result, the fall catalog information went up quickly, and everyone was happy. Mind you, the documentation I had was pages and pages long–all handwritten, no less, but it was accurate enough that I didn’t need much help in re-learning the system. My second successor was able to use these notes as well, since they were so accurate.
As I said, we take for granted that we have the ability to write cogently and clearly since we all do it on a regular basis. It’d be nice if more people can get the basics of this skill down so that we technical communicators can do our jobs more efficiently. The fact that we can decipher and clarify messages better than anyone should put us in the same ranks of ENIGMA coders, in my mind!