Markel, M. (2015). Technical communication (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
The Challenges of Producing Technical Communication
Most people in the working world don’t look forward to producing technical communication. Why? Because it’s hard to do.
For instance, your supervisor has finally approved your request to buy a scanning-electron microscope (SEM) for your department and given you a bud- get for buying it. It would be nice if all you had to do now was list the important features you need in an SEM, read a couple of articles about SEMs, check off the ones that have those features, and then buy the best one that fits your budget.
Unfortunately, life is not that simple, and neither is technical communica- tion. If it were, this book would be about a dozen pages long.
Technical communication is challenging, and not primarily because SEMs are complex devices, although they are. Technical communication is chal- lenging because people are complicated, and collaborating with people is at the heart of the process.
As soon as you have decided you need an SEM that can detect signals for secondary electrons, for instance, someone on your team argues that you also need to detect signals for back-scattered electrons and characteristic X-rays. Someone else on the team disagrees, arguing that an SEM that detects those additional signals costs an additional $15,000, putting it beyond your budget, and that on those rare occasions when you need those functions you can send the samples out for analysis. Another team member asks if you’re aware that, next year, SEM manufacturers are expected to release products with improved signal-detection functions. She thinks, therefore, that the team might want to wait until those new models are released. You realize that with the complica- tions your colleagues have presented, you won’t be purchasing an SEM any time soon. You do more research, keeping their concerns in mind.
The good news is that there are ways to think about these kinds of com- plications, to think through them, that will help you communicate better. No matter what document you produce or contribute to, you need to begin by considering three sets of factors:
• Audience-related factors. Does your audience know enough about your subject to understand a detailed discussion, or do you need to limit the scope, the amount of technical detail, or the type of graphics you use? Does your audience already have certain attitudes or expectations about your subject that you wish to reinforce or change? Will the ways in which your audience uses your document, or the physical environment in which they use it, affect how you write? Does your audience speak English well, or should you present the information in several languages? Does your audience share your cultural assumptions about such matters as the need to spell out details or how to organize the document, or do you need to adjust your writing style to match a different set of assumptions? Does your audience include people with disabilities (of vision, hearing, movement, or cognitive ability) who have needs you want to meet?
• Purpose-related factors. Before you can write, you need to determine your purpose: what do you want your audience to know or believe or do after having read your document? Although much technical communication is intended to help people perform tasks, such as installing a portable hard drive for a computer, many organizations large and small devote significant communication resources to branding: creating an image
that helps customers distinguish the company from competitors. Most companies now employ community specialists to coordinate the organization’s day-to-day online presence and its social-media campaigns. These specialists publicize new products and initiatives and respond to new developments and incidents. They also oversee all of the organization’s documents—from tweets to blog posts to Facebook fan pages and company-sponsored discussion boards.
• Document-related factors. Does your budget limit the number of people you can enlist to help you or limit the size or shape of the document? Does your schedule limit how much information you can include in the document? Does your subject dictate what kind of document (such as a report or a blog post) you choose to write? Does the application call for a particular writing style or level of formality? (For the sake of convenience, I will use the word document throughout this book to refer to all forms of technical communication, from written documents to oral presentations and online forms, such as podcasts and wikis.)
Because all these factors interact in complicated ways, every techni- cal document you create involves a compromise. If you are writing a set of instructions for installing a water heater and you want those instructions to be easily understood by people who speak only Spanish, you will need more time and a bigger budget to have the document translated, and it will be longer and thus a little bit harder to use, for both English and Spanish speak- ers. You might need to save money by using smaller type, smaller pages, and cheaper paper, and you might not be able to afford to print it in full color. In technical communication, you do the best you can with your resources of time, information, and money. The more carefully you think through your options, the better able you will be to use your resources wisely and make a document that will get the job done.
Characteristics of a Technical Document
Almost every technical document that gets the job done has six major char- acteristics:
• It addresses particular readers. Knowing who the readers are, what they understand about the subject, how well they speak English, and how they will use the document will help you decide what kind of document to write, how to structure it, how much detail to include, and what sentence style and vocabulary to use.
• It helps readers solve problems. For instance, you might produce a video that explains to your company’s employees how to select their employee benefits, or a document spelling out the company’s policy on using social media in the workplace.
• It reflects the organization’s goals and culture. For example, a state government department that oversees vocational-education programs submits an annual report to the state legislature in an effort to secure continued funding, as well as a lot of technical information to the public in an effort to educate its audience. And technical documents also reflect the organization’s culture. For example, many organizations encourage their employees to blog about their areas of expertise to create a positive image of the organization.
• It is produced collaboratively. No one person has all the information, skills, or time to create a large document. You will work with subject-matter experts—the various technical professionals—to create a better document than you could have made working alone. You will routinely post questions to networks of friends and associates—both inside and outside your own organization—to get answers to technical questions.
• It uses design to increase readability. Technical communicators use design features—such as typography, spacing, and color—to make a document attractive so that it creates a positive impression, helps readers navigate the document, and helps readers understand it.
• It consists of words or images or both. Images—both static and moving— can make a document more interesting and appealing to readers and help the writer communicate and reinforce difficult concepts, communicate instructions and descriptions of objects and processes, communicate large amounts of quantifiable data, and communicate with nonnative speakers.
Measures of Excellence in Technical Documents
Eight characteristics distinguish excellent technical documents:
• Honesty. The most important measure of excellence in a technical document is honesty. You need to tell the truth and not mislead the reader, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because readers can get hurt if you are dishonest. Finally, if you are dishonest, you and your organization could face serious legal charges. If a court finds that your document’s failure to provide honest, appropriate information caused a substantial injury or loss, your organization might have to pay millions of dollars.
• Clarity. Your goal is to produce a document that conveys a single meaning the reader can understand easily. An unclear technical document can be dangerous. A carelessly drafted building code, for example, could tempt contractors to use inferior materials or techniques. In addition, an unclear technical document is expensive. Handling a telephone call to a customer- support center costs $5–10 for a simple question but about $20–45 for a more complicated problem—and about a third of the calls are the more expensive kind (Carlaw, 2010). Clear technical communication in the product’s documentation (its user instructions) can greatly reduce the number and length of such calls.
• Accuracy. A slight inaccuracy can confuse and annoy your readers; a major inaccuracy can be dangerous and expensive. In another sense, accuracy is a question of ethics. Technical documents must be as objective and unbiased as you can make them. If readers suspect that you are slanting information—by overstating or omitting facts—they will doubt the validity of the entire document.
• Comprehensiveness. A good technical document provides all the information readers need. It describes the background so that readers unfamiliar with the subject can understand it. It contains sufficient detail so that readers can follow the discussion and carry out any required tasks. It refers to supporting materials clearly or includes them as attachments. A comprehensive document provides readers with a complete, self- contained discussion that enables them to use the information safely, effectively, and efficiently.
• Accessibility. Most technical documents are made up of small, independent sections. Because few people will read a document from the beginning to the end, your job is to make its various parts accessible. That is, readers should not be forced to flip through the pages or click links unnecessarily to find the appropriate section.
• Conciseness. A document must be concise enough to be useful to a busy reader. You can shorten most writing by 10 to 20 percent simply by eliminating unnecessary phrases, choosing shorter words, and using economical grammatical forms. Your job is to figure out how to convey a lot of information economically.
• Professional appearance. You start to communicate before anyone reads the first word of the document. If the document looks neat and professional, readers will form a positive impression of it and of you. Your document should adhere to the format standards of your organization or your professional field, and it should be well designed. For example, a letter should follow one of the traditional letter formats and have generous margins.
• Correctness. A correct document is one that adheres to the conventions of grammar, punctuation, spelling, mechanics, and usage. Sometimes, incorrect writing can confuse readers or even make your writing inaccurate. The more typical problem, however, is that incorrect writing makes you look unprofessional. If your writing is full of errors, readers will wonder if you were also careless in gathering, analyzing, and presenting the technical information. If readers doubt your professionalism, they will be less likely to accept your conclusions or follow your recommendations.
Skills and Qualities Shared by Successful Workplace Communicators
People who are good at communicating in the workplace share a number of skills and qualities. Four of them relate to the skills you have been honing in school and in college:
• Ability to perform research. Successful communicators know how to perform primary research (discovering new information through experiments, observations, interviews, surveys, and calculations) and secondary research (finding existing information by reading what others have written or said). Successful communicators seek out information from people who use the products and services, not just from the manufacturers. Therefore, although successful communicators would visit the Toyota website to learn about the technical specifications of a Prius if they wanted to find out what it is like to drive, own, or repair a Prius, they would be sure to search the Internet for information from experts not associated with Toyota, as well as user-generated content: information from owners, presented in forums such as discussion boards and blogs.
• Ability to analyze information. Successful communicators know how to identify the best information—most accurate, relevant, recent, and unbiased—and then figure out how it helps in understanding a problem and ways to solve it. Successful communicators know how to sift through mountains of data, identifying relationships between apparently unrelated facts. They know how to evaluate a situation, look at it from other people’s perspectives, and zero in on the most important issues.
• Ability to solve problems. Successful communicators know how to break big problems into smaller ones, figure out what isn’t working right, and identify and assess options for solving the problems. They know how to compare and contrast the available options to achieve the clearest, most objective understanding of the situation.
• Ability to speak and write clearly. Successful communicators know how to express themselves clearly and simply, both to audiences that know a lot about the subject and to audiences that do not. They take care to revise, edit, and proofread their documents so that the documents present accurate information, are easy to read, and make a professional impression. And they know how to produce different types of documents, from tweets to memos to presentations.
In addition to the skills just described, successful workplace communicators have seven qualities that relate to professional attitudes and work habits:
• They are honest. Successful communicators tell the truth. They don’t promise what they know they can’t deliver, and they don’t bend facts. When they make mistakes, they admit them and work harder to solve the problem.
• They are willing to learn. Successful communicators know that they don’t know everything—not about what they studied in college, what their company does, or how to write and speak. Every professional is a lifelong learner.
• They display emotional intelligence. Because technical communication usually calls for collaboration, successful communicators understand their own emotions and those of others. Because they can read people— through body language, facial expression, gestures, and words—they can work effectively in teams, helping to minimize interpersonal conflict and encouraging others to do their best work.
• They are generous. Successful communicators reply to requests for information from colleagues inside and outside their own organizations, and they share information willingly. (Of course, they don’t share confidential information, such as trade secrets, information about new products being developed, or personal information about colleagues.)
• They monitor the best information. Successful communicators seek out opinions from others in their organization and in their industry. They monitor the best blogs, discussion boards, and podcasts for new approaches that can spark their own ideas. They use tools such as RSS (really simple syndication or rich site summary, a utility that notifies users when new content appears on sites they follow) to help them stay on top of the torrent of new information on the Internet. They know how to use social media and can represent their organization online.
• They are self-disciplined. Successful communicators are well organized and diligent. They know, for instance, that proofreading an important document might not be fun but is always essential. They know that when a colleague asks a simple technical question, answering the question today—or tomorrow at the latest—is more helpful than answering it in a couple of weeks. They finish what they start, and they always do their best on any document, from the least important text message to the most
• They can prioritize and respond quickly. Successful communicators know that the world doesn’t always conform to their own schedules. Because social media never sleep, communicators sometimes need to put their current projects aside in order to respond immediately when a stakeholder reports a problem that needs prompt action or publishes inaccurate information that can hurt the organization. And even though speed is critically important, they know that quality is, too; therefore, they make sure every document is fully professional before it goes out.
How Communication Skills and Qualities Affect Your Career
Many college students believe that the most important courses they take are those in their major. Some biology majors think, for example, that if they just take that advanced course in genetic analysis, employers will con- clude that they are prepared to do more-advanced projects and therefore hire them.
Therefore, many college students are surprised to learn that what employ- ers say they are looking for in employees are the communication skills and qualities discussed in the previous section. Surveys over the past three or four decades have shown consistently that employers want people who can communicate. Look at it this way: when employers hire a biologist, they want a person who can communicate effectively about biology. When they hire a civil engineer, they want a person who can communicate about civil engi- neering.
A 2012 survey by Millennial Branding, a research and management con- sulting firm that helps companies find and train Generation Y employees, sifted data from more than 100,000 U.S. companies. The results showed that 98 percent of those companies named communication skills as extremely important for new employees (Millennial Branding, 2012). The next two most important characteristics? Having a positive attitude (97 percent) and team- work skills (92 percent).
Job Outlook 2013, a report produced by the National Association of Col- leges and Employers, found that communication skills, teamwork skills, and problem-solving skills top the list of skills and qualities that employers seek. Their main conclusion: “. . . the ideal candidate is a good communicator who can make decisions and solve problems while working effectively in a team” (National Association, 2012, p. 31). On a 5-point scale, where 5 equals “extremely important,” here are the top ten skills and qualities, according to employers, and the scores they earned:
SkiLL or AbiLiTY
Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the 4.63 organization
Ability to work in a team structure 4.60
Ability to make decisions and solve problems 4.51
Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work 4.46
Ability to obtain and process information 4.43
Ability to analyze quantitative data 4.30
Technical knowledge related to the job 3.99
Proficiency with computer software programs 3.95
Ability to create and/or edit written reports 3.56
Ability to sell or influence others 3.55
Most of these skills relate back to the previous discussion about the impor- tance of process in technical communication.
A study of more than 100 large American corporations, which together employ 8 million people, suggests that writing is a more important skill for professionals today than it ever has been (College Entrance Examination Board, 2004, pp. 3–4). Two-thirds of professionals need strong writing skills in their daily work. Fifty percent of all companies in all industries consider writ- ing skills in making promotion decisions. And almost half of the largest U.S. companies offer or require training for professionals who cannot write well (College Entrance Examination Board, 2004, p. 4). These companies spend, on average, $900 per employee for writing training. Would a company rather not have to spend that $900? Yes.
You’re going to be producing and contributing to a lot of technical docu- ments, not only in this course but also throughout your career. The facts of life in the working world are simple: the better you communicate, the more valuable you are. This textbook can help you learn and practice the skills that will make you a better communicator.
A Look at Three Technical Documents
Figures 1.1, 1.2 (page 14), and 1.3 (page 15) present excerpts from technical documents. Together, they illustrate a number of the ideas about technical communication discussed in this chapter.