The hidden skills of technical communicators

 

Technical communication is one of the most adaptive, agile disciplines today in that it is both a profession and a skill set. If you search the Internet for the skills needed to be a technical communicator, you’ll see a common theme: writing, editing, audience analysis, and research.

This is no surprise: these skills are key to developing useful, usable information, whether you’re a writer who develops user procedures, a marketer who collaborates on sales proposals, or an engineer who writes product specifications.

But what other skills do you need if you want to demonstrate your value as a technical communicator? 

 

Project planning and analysis

The nature of our work demands that we know how to plan and analyse our projects. To maintain project schedules, you need to keep our projects in scope, which requires setting clear objectives, tasks, and timelines. Knowing how to write status and progress reports that keep leadership informed, as well as manage risk, is also important..

In technical communication, once you know the subject you’re writing about, analyse the project’s purpose: Why are you writing about this? What does this document need to achieve? Then turn to the audience: Who are the readers and what do they need to know? What do they need to do? Where and how will they use the document?

Transcultural communication

Increasingly, we are working with and writing for people all over the world. You’ll need to understand that your audience and their location determine how you manage your content and its organisation, style, and design. Being able to talk with colleagues⁠—and even friends⁠—from other cultures can provide insight into language and design conventions that will make your content more useful to its audience.

Transcultural documents require extra attention from several perspectives. Colour, imagery, and iconography have different meanings that can have an impact on audiences, while symbols are more cross-cultural. Writing for translation means writing in short, direct sentences that avoid jargon, slang, and metaphors.

 

Usability testing

Usability testing is the method of ensuring your documents are fit for your audience. In designing a usability test, you want to know if users can find information or use information in a document, if the user can perform the tasks in the document, or if the tasks are safe.

Usability tests can range from informal methods, such as finding or using the information, to formal methods in a laboratory. Whether informal or formal, each test requires setting objectives, performing the tests, and measuring the results. The purpose is to gather insights that will help to improve the document for publication, which minimises risk to the company. It can also reduce costs if content errors are found during testing.

Visual design

Writing and design are co-conspirators—that’s what makes information both useful and usable. Readers rarely read word-for-word. Instead, they scan pages, looking for key points. Five design principles give technical communicators the edge in making decisions on how to shape content for audiences:

 

  • Balance provides guidance for placing items evenly on the page.
  • Alignment aids with margins, lists, headings and indents to create structure and enable readability.
  • Grouping establishes relationships between items, such as adding extra white space around a bar chart and a text paragraph.
  • Consistency is evident through use of stylesheets, ensuring headings and formatting remain the same throughout the document.
  • Contrast helps to create distinction, such as with headers and footers or a sidebar note.

 

Uncovering your hidden skills 

You can uncover these hidden skills through practice and experience without becoming a project manager or usability expert. They complement the core tech comm skills you already use to develop, design, and deliver content for your customers. 

If you want to explore this in more depth, we have a course

download our free checklist to technical communications

At Firehead, we identify nine core competencies for technical communicators that form the bedrock skills of the profession. 

 

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