When Good Technical Writers Deliver Bad News

newsie - Lewis Hine-NARABelieve it or not, there are people in this world whose job it is to tell the boss what the boss wants to hear. But we few, we lucky few, we band of tech writers, are paid to tell the boss what’s really going on.

Part of our luck is getting to work with disparate team members, each with their own interests. I discussed this recently (Five Rules for Writing Software Requirements) in the context of software requirements, but it’s equally true of tech writers who are, for instance, preparing environmental impact statements for fracking operations. (You know who you are.) Personally, I consider this good luck because people often get livelier when they’re talking about their area of expertise, especially if the rest of the office doesn’t show much interest. We’re interested – we have to be, if we’re going to digest the content and churn it into something useful for the rest of the world.

After speaking with the SMEs and reading their material, a tech writer might end up at a meeting with managers, salespeople, engineers, publicists – again, each with their own interests and opinions. I’m sure there are meetings where people simply grasp the situation, review the options, and reach a clear decision. I mean, there must be, right? But for all the other meetings, there’s a tech writer, someone who not only knows when the person speaking is mistaken, but isn’t afraid to say so.

Personal digression here: My extra luck is that I learned tech writing while I was living in Israel, which has a healthy culture of irreverence. Of course, reverence is not the same as respect: I show respect by listening carefully to your views; I show irreverence by ignoring your job title when I offer my critique. Anyway, reverence is as common in Israel as polar bears: Soldiers address their commanders by their first names, as do public school students their teachers. Believe me, if you get your facts wrong at a meeting in Israel, no one will be shy about setting you straight.

Back in Maryland, I was shocked the first time that I unearthed some bad news and was advised not to tell the boss. What? He didn’t want to know? No, it turned out, he didn’t. Either my colleagues would fix what was broken, or they would find a way to avoid talking about it. Eventually, we reached a reasonably pleasant modus vivendi, where certain folks would solemnly deny that anything was wrong, and I would cheerfully explain which pipes were leaking. Maybe on some level, when I spoke uncomfortable truths and unpopular opinions, it relieved others of the task. All I know is, it worked, and I didn’t get canned for it.

I think it’s important not to frame all this as a matter of ethics, even though it’s tempting. Yes, I know, Mom told you to always tell the truth. But the people at the table who twist themselves into pretzels in an effort to agree with the speaker aren’t being deceitful: They’re just trying to get along. They want to be polite. But as a wise man once said (okay, it was me), you’re the only professional communicator in the room. Your job is to gather the information, organize it, and lay it out clearly. Whether you want to be cheerful about it is up to you, but you might want to practice that disarming smile in front of a mirror at home first. Throw in a little sympathy and humility if you can: Nobody likes a wiseguy.

Dan Goldstein

Dan Goldstein was born and raised in Ithaca, New York, known to its denizens as “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” In tenth grade, Sylvia Mintz taught him everything he knows about writing. Years later (thirtieth grade, approximately), Neil Churgin taught him everything he knows about technical writing. Since 2002, Dan has specialized in Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance for medical devices, which is actually a lot of fun.

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