Starting sometime in the early 20th century, technical writers were tree killers who wrote printed manuals about how to do things. The advent of the digital age has brought about several big changes in the field: technical writers are now “technical communicators,” proliferation of digital outputs has reduced tree killing, and the traditional technical writing profession has expanded to include many new roles. One of these emerging roles is that of the trainer.
The role of a trainer in a company is to educate employees and management on specific topics that are important to the workplace. Some trainers are in-house, and others work for training companies. Trainers are usually versed in at least one learning methodology, use a variety of teaching methods to plan, design, create and impart the required knowledge and skills, and later evaluate what their students learned.
Many companies also use trainers for training customers and product users, offering courses both frontal and online to teach users how to use the product. Technical writers sometimes find themselves shifting into this role when asked to create and editing content for these courses, and if they possess the necessary skill set, they may end up actually delivering them.
Unlike many traditional technical writers, trainers directly engage with their audience. They are both teachers, capable of making a new concept clear or explaining how a new task is implemented, and knowledge experts because as far as the students are concerned they are engaging with an SME capable of providing all the answers. Different personalities require different approaches, and a trainer needs to develop a wide variety of teaching techniques.
The Trainer’s Core Skill Set
According to Leah Morhaim, a product manager at Logic with extensive technical writing and training experience, to succeed as a trainer you need a skill set that enables you to perform in front of people:
- Strong communication skills – primarily oral, but writing skills are also important
- Personal charisma that enables you to capture your audience’s attention. Being a bit of a performer can help with this
- The ability to relate to an audience; providing training relevant to their world and matching their level of competence
- Good listening skills, and the ability to react immediately to your audience’s feedback
- MacGyver level improvisation skills, and the ability to react quickly to changing circumstances because things can and often do go wrong, for example:
- The audience’s knowledge is sub-par (you are training employees who have never used a computer on entering reports into the new online system).
- The audience’s knowledge level is more advanced than you anticipated, but you still need to use the entire time slot allotted for the training (you have an entire hour to explain a new process, but the employees are already familiar with the concept, and just need the technical procedure).
- There are more people attending than planned, and this kills your chances of being able to deliver the interactive exercise that you scheduled.
- The computer crashes, the projector is not operational, or there is no electricity, and the result is that you have to teach – right here right now – without the beautiful presentation that you spent so many hours preparing.
A Study in Contrasts: Technical Writing and Training Diverge and Merge
In Leah’s opinion there is little overlap between technical writing and training. “As a trainer, you can use the material produced by technical writers as source material, and ideally your training materials will refer people to the documentation for further information. As a technical writer, you may end up editing the presentations and e-learning that the trainers produce. As a trainer you are focused more on explaining specific capabilities and concepts that the user needs to know, while as a technical writer you need to explain everything, document all the features, and cover all possible scenarios.”
What both professions have in common, according to her, is the need for audience analysis: technical writers need to know who they are writing for, and trainers need to understand who they are presenting to. Ideally, the training will show how to use the documentation to solve problems.
With technical writers, many of the challenges are more related to content: gathering information, meeting impossible deadlines, and documenting features that don’t yet work/exist. But in Leah’s view, the trainers’ biggest challenge is having enough patience to deal with the different personalities you need to train: the “know-it all,” the “didn’t get it can you repeat what you just said,” the “VIP,” or the “too busy to attend no matter how important the training is.” These types of people tend to arrive late, roam in and out of the class room, reply to e-mails, text, and talk on the phone while you are trying to deliver your presentation.
However, while these types of people pose great challenges to trainers, being able to interact and perform in front of a crowd is what makes training so much fun for her. Like teachers, trainers also derive great satisfaction in imparting knowledge, in relating to their students, and hearing and learning from their experiences. Leah notes, “As a trainer you get to connect with you audience in a manner that is a lot more direct, and often more satisfying than what you would experience as a technical writer.”
If you plan to move in the direction of trainer, you’ll find that you are less involved in writing manuals, and more in creating presentations. Your primary tools are going to be PowerPoint and Prezi, and Captivate (or Articulate, or Lectora, etc.) if you are doing e-learning.
Leah believes that a lot more planning goes into training than into typical technical writing. “Each minute of the training session is measured, and you often find yourself spending a lot more time analyzing your audience, the best methods to deliver the training and administrative aspects. You always need to plan your lesson, even if is the same lesson you delivered yesterday, the circumstances are different – you have a new audience, you may have more/less time, and you may need to do things differently.” In Leah’s experience, most of the planning in technical writing takes place before the writing. But once the content is written it remains written – it may need to get updated, but it does not need to be updated for each new user who is expected to read it.
Trainer or Technical Writer? Choosing One or Both Paths
More than a few technical writers and trainers have found themselves tasked with the other set of responsibilities. And more than a few actually seek out the additional duties. Whether or not you agree with Leah that the trainer’s and technical writer’s responsibilities don’t overlap, there are some attributes they share:
- Desire to help users/trainees perform successfully
- Commitment to accuracy in the content
- Willingness to relate to users
These commonalities are often enough for technical writers to make the transition into training and vice versa. Training has its advantages of constantly being able to experience new audiences, and perform in front of crowds, which may appeal to those who have more outgoing personalities. Technical writing requires more writing, less performing (unless you need to snare an SME), but ultimately it’s all about what you want to do in your career.
Editor’s note: What do you think? Can technical writers transition to training? Should they? What kind of experiences do you have in merging these roles? Feel free to post a comment and share your viewpoint.