Technical Communication Poll: Those Pesky People Skills

There’s nothing like an article that panders to stereotypes to get those technical writer hackles up. Ron Hearn posted a link from the education pages of Yahoo! that ranks technical writing as the #2 career to pursue if you don’t like people.  All we could say was “wow, really?” Most of the technical communicators we know have to have good people skills, and interact with people from internal and external groups fairly constantly. As near as we can tell, it’s next to impossible to do anything in technical communication (emphasis on communication) without the ability and desire to talk to or interact with other people. Unless you’re absolutely convinced that your SME’s are semi-animated store mannequins rather than real people, or your customers are just visiting from Alpha Centauri.

Seriously, to those of us who’ve been in the technical communication field for any length of time, those pesky people skills are absolutely critical–to gathering information on how stuff works, feedback on how our stuff should work, perceptions of our employers and how they make and sell stuff, and so on.  The customers who use the content we deliver may be internal or external, but relating to those customers seems to be a basic  criterion for communicating with them…or is it?

That’s why we’re focusing this week’s technical communication poll on the people skills needed to be successful in this field: face-to-face interactions, the ability to persuade via conversation or written communications, reading body language and interpreting tone and intent. Even if you never get to meet or interact with a real-live end-user of your documentation, isn’t some level of interpersonal skill required to acquire information, and turn it into useful and relevant technical communication content?  If not, how do you go about producing your deliverables?  Take our poll and offer your thoughts via the comments section or add to the thread on the email discussion list.

And we do wonder what Yahoo!’s new CEO Marissa Mayer will think when she reads that Software Developers rank #4.

What people skills, if any, do you need to be effective in technical communication?

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Larry Kunz

12 years ago

Here’s one for the “other” bucket”: Learning something about your SMEs’ non-work lives — family, hobbies, interests — and using it to build rapport with them. You get a lot farther when you approach them as fellow humans rather than simply as “resources.”

Teresa Silva

12 years ago

I think the point of the Yahoo article is that tech writing is not a “high” people contact career likes sales, customer service, HR… Anyone who thrives on high people contact would probably be bored out of their mind in most writing professions. This article on Tech Whirl appears to be a hypersensitive response to a fairly well-accepted belief that writing is a good career for introverts. In no way did the Yahoo article imply that tech writers do not have to interact at all with other people, which is something that is required in all fields. It is just a matter of degree.

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano

12 years ago

Hi Teresa,

Hypersensitive we’re not. It’s just a poll question designed to start a discussion about people skills and what it takes to do well in this field, nothing more. The article generated a lot of buzz on the email discussion list because it’s a very superficial attempt at discussing a career that the writer clearly has no clue about. That tends to hack off a lot of Whirlers who were offended by references to stocking refrigerators and living inside their own heads. In fact, I agree with a couple of the posters in the discussion that it’s a fluff piece designed to get folks to click on the links to the for-profit school. But it sure was good for getting a debate started!

The trouble with generally accepted beliefs is that it’s hard to figure out how they got started, and how to combat them. I keep hearing that technical writing is a field that’s ideal for introverts, but I haven’t seen any evidence that more TWs are introverted than not. If it’s available, please share it with us, it would add a lot to our discussions. Thanks for the post!

Bill Kerschbaum

12 years ago

Leadership skills are extremely important as well. I often have to lead a documentation planning meeting to make sure the whole project team is on the same page in terms of expectations, responsibilities, scope, schedule, methodology, etc. That means I need to keep people on task during the meeting, make sure there are no misunderstandings or miscommunications, be convincing, and just generally interact well with others.


12 years ago

Connie’s right, Yahoo created the piece to generate controversy and, more importantly, web ad clicks.

I’d love to see a true introvert perform the routine tasks I’m required to manage just to get my deliverable to market by deadline (I create both Online Help and demonstration videos). Shy and retiring is one thing I can’t be if I want to succeed.

One skill I’d have to add to a tech writer’s arsenal of effective tool’s would have to be gentle intimidation…er, persuasion. I see developers as the true introverts, and it sometimes takes the gloved fist of fear to produce the required information. Sounds worse than it really is, and being nice and all that is great, but sometimes…

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