Technical Communication is--Believe It or Not--the Art of Communicating Technically


Really, it gets better.

So it's Friday, and we were getting ready to go home, sitting through our last presentation which was on technical communications. Thankfully, I wasn't sleeping through it as I was the presentation before--instead I was copying disks. But I did pick up a lot. For instance, I learned that technical communications is a relatively new field of science. A field that I would imagine some don't even call a science. You see, technical communications, and more importantly the people working in that field, attempt to act as a more effective liaison between the consumer and the manufacturer than questionnaires and customer support lines.

Technical communicators do interesting little human interest-type tests on a product before it even hits the shelf. They get to try out all kinds of stuff--everything from toothpaste to Ford Tauruses to new kinds of drugs for sedating manic depressives...actually, maybe not that last one.

But the important thing is that they beta-test these types of things on themselves or other people and then return to the company that made it either telling them they've got a great, functional product or, what happens more commonly, that this worthless piece of crap I wouldn't give as a gift to my worst enemy needs work if you want people to pay $599.95 for it.

To illustrate this point, Chris Rowley, the second speaker in this presentation, talked about how he used a cellular phone once on which the redial button was poorly placed on the receiver. He had the problem of right in the middle of a conversation accidentally hitting the redial button which would conveniently perform the multiple functions of hanging up on the person to whom, if he was really lucky, he was saying something like, "I've been wanting to tell you this for ages, and now nothing can stop me! I think you're (click)." The marvelous invention of the twentieth century would then dial the last person he called, like the old lady at that wrong number he accidentally called twice and who, the second time, yelled through the phone at him to please stop calling. It's this kind of technical flaw that technical communicators point out... technically speaking, of course.

As a first-hand example, I recently received a friendly, informal e-mail message from DO-IT's own technical writer, Serena Shubert, which contained many quotable quotes, and which, if I were to take up technical writing myself I could give some constructive criticism to. She begins very effectively with, "As you may recall, you were assigned a newsletter article upon your arrival [at camp,] and then she continues with some pleasant sarcastic humor, "Hence the press pass with your name and beat listed." All very good, but the part I have trouble with is where she writes, "Everyone else managed to hammer out a few paragraphs and the rest of us are waiting for you." Now, as a debater at my high school I can point out that this is a blatant Bandwagon (everyone else is doing it) Fallacy and should be avoided if possible. I was going to write her back and alert her to this and have her rewrite the note to us; however, I didn't think she'd be amused. (Editor's note -- Bandwagon Fallacy or not, it worked.)

Getting back to the professional technical communication worker, though, sometimes the manufacturer in question is not receptive to his/her criticism. Mr. Rowley talked about an occasion where a piece of software was being tested and the maker decided that there was nothing wrong with the product, but that the people trying it were stupid. They also do other kinds of jobs, too. Technical communicators write manuals teaching people how to do everything from using Aldus PageMaker to taking a Tylenol.

Just another day at the office for the technical communication worker, though.