Zero to Hero

By Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

I recently heard someone refer to the tasks of the technical communicator as “Herculean.” This expression of course comes from the 12 labors of Hercules and implies that the tasks are an extremely difficult undertaking, almost impossible to perform, requiring an extraordinary amount of effort. In light of the upcoming DITA North America key note address (“From Hassle to Hero”) and because of my obsession with all things Disney (in this case, the animated movie Hercules, with a theme song of “Zero to Hero”) , the term “Herculean” brings to my mind the concept of overcoming incredible obstacles to become a hero, to move from being a nobody or someone no one likes, to being loved by all.

Because I often write about the low self-esteem of the technical communicator, this concept of transformation appeals to me. Can the necessary evil become the sought-after enhancement? The caterpillar turn into the beautiful butterfly? The sidekick become the main character? Can we as technical communicators become heroes—to our companies and, more importantly, to our users? This question is the focus of the DITA NA key note, as speaker Adam Toporek, author of Be Your Customer’s Hero, provides a customer service perspective to the field of technical communication.

From my own perspective, I believe the description of a hero and the description of a technical writer are virtually identical:

  • Defender of the common man
  • Seeker of truth
  • Remover of the unsavory
  • Righter of wrongs
  • Upholder of the law
  • Friend to all who seek the greater good

Let’s break it down.

As defenders of the common man, technical communicators protect a user’s most important resource: time. Users who seek out the information we produce need immediate solutions to their most critical issues. Think about it this way: Superman doesn’t stop to put a band-aid on the scratch caused by a bad guy, he takes out the bad guy so no more scratches can occur. Similarly, technical communicators don’t stop to explain the mundane things that users already know, we get straight to the point, providing only the information needed to help the user continue on his way. We know what they are trying to do, what will make it easier for them, and what will get in the way, but we also keep in mind what could negatively impact them if we don’t tell them. Further, we take our concerns about hard-to-understand interfaces and awkward processes back to our design teams, petitioning for improvements to prevent these evils from ever reaching the user in the first place.

As seekers of truth, technical communicators ensure the accuracy and timeliness of the information we provide. Our users rely on our precision, trusting that we will not mislead them. If Captain America directs the people to a place of safety, they go without question, knowing he will not send them into danger. If we tell our users to enter a specific value in a field, they do so, trusting that the data will not generate an error. To earn that trust, we question everything, so our users don’t have to. We are vigilant in ensuring content remains current and we diligently test our content: validating tasks by performing them ourselves, checking for misleading or ambiguous word choices, and eliminating inconsistencies and biases.

As removers of the unsavory, technical communicators fight against the continual build-up of excess information. Batman doesn’t just take out the main villain but works to take all the villain’s evil henchman off the streets as well. Similarly, we don’t allow unneeded, “just in case” content to persist, but work to eliminate the superfluous, including content that:

  • users already know
  • users will figure out on their own, without consulting our content
  • hasn’t been accessed over a period of time
  • cannot be effectively communicated in the output medium
  • does not bring meaning
  • is past its prime
  • is redundant

As righters of wrongs, technical communicators are thorough and attentive editors, industriously working to improve clarity and conciseness in our content. Just as no crime from purse snatching to terrorism escapes the notice of Spiderman, we work to rid our content of both copyedit and structural crimes such as:

  • Words that explain the obvious or provide excessive detail
  • Unnecessary determiners and modifiers
  • Repetitive wording
  • Redundant pairs and categories (future plans, red color)
  • Passive verbs
  • Vague words
  • Nominalizations
  • Unnecessary infinitive phrases
  • Expletives (there are, it is, and so on) at the beginning of sentences
  • Circumlocutions (such as with regard to, in light of the fact)

As upholders of the law, technical communicators adhere to the rules and guidelines that have been put in place to ensure consistency and quality, as well as the conventions and standards accepted as the norm across the industry, such as minimalism or simplified English. Just as Black Panther works within the laws of Wakanda, we respect our corporate styles and structures, workflows, and governance models. In fact, like Black Panther in his role of king, we often are instrumental in defining these standards.

Finally, as friends to all who seek the greater good, technical communicators collaborate with each other and other departments to ensure an optimum customer experience. The Avengers each come with different skill sets, they came to be heroes in different ways, but it is this unique combination of characteristics and experiences that together help them defeat the biggest threats to the world. Sure, they do not always see eye-to-eye, but in the long run, they share a common goal—protecting the world from evil. We also do not always see eye-to-eye with training, marketing, customer support, or our subject matter experts, but we share a common goal—supporting our users in every way possible.

Note that the hero job description does not include “Pursuer of All Cool Things.” While it is inarguable that some heroes, such as Iron Man, have a wealth of spectacular objects and technology available to them, these items do not define the job. The heroes did not become heroes because of the technology or to obtain the technology. In fact, often the technology fails them: in his last movie, Antman’s suit malfunctioned at the most inopportune times making him big when he needed to be little or vice versa. But heroes remain heroes in those situations by using any resource available to them, down to their bare fists, to win their battle over evil. We may not get all the tools we want; we may not have all the funding we need; but we can still be heroes by going back to the basics and doing what we do best: writing well.

Regrettably, writing well is not something we can turn to the superhero rule book for instructions or inspiration. In fact, superheroes seem to have a bad track record for good documentation. Consider Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, for example. Believe it or not, Mjolnir does come with its own product documentation. On the side of the hammer, it reads, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Of course, any technical communicator worthy of his or her title, can point out that this documentation comes with a significant stack of problems:

  • If you don’t know who or what Thor is, you don’t know what powers are granted to you, and if you are Thor, you know all this and the documentation is unnecessary.
  • Even if you do know the available powers, the documentation does not tell you how to access those powers.
  • It does not clearly define what “worthy” means. Leaving you to wonder if you are unable to access the powers because there are no instructions or because you are not worthy.
  • It is written in gender-specific language, despite the fact that Wonder Woman is one of the 15 characters other than Thor who have been depicted wielding the hammer.
  • It’s pretty wordy and flowery for what little it does say.

So in this area, our powers far exceed others that the world touts as heroes. We can be heroes in our own right, using our own unique skills, to save the day. When our users are faced with programs and equipment that they must use correctly or troubleshoot rapidly, we are there to set them on their feet, dust them off, and point them in the right direction. It may not be a glamorous superpower, but sometimes the people who need saving don’t need someone who can fly, or punch people across the room, or run really fast; sometimes all they need is a well-written word, targeted specifically to them and their situation.

Can we transform from zero to hero and take on seemingly Herculean tasks? Absolutely! Put on your technical communication utility belt, equipped with tools like personas, content strategy, style guides, taxonomies, and usability testing, leave your cape at home (it’s a safety risk—ask Edna Mode), and sing along with me (with apologies to Disney and all of you who may not be familiar with the Hercules Zero to Hero tune):

Bless my soul
Doc is on a roll
Division of the week in every user survey poll
What a pro
Doc can steal the show
Point it at a problem and the solution you’ll know
Doc was a no one
A zero, zero
Now it’s a play-ah
It’s a hero
Here’s a department with its act down pat
From zero to hero in no time flat
Zero to hero just like that!

(For tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOL-EJZjmp0)

For further perspective on your transformation to hero, I invite you to join me at the Content Management Strategies/DITA North America conference, April 15-17, in Durham, North Carolina. See https://cm-strategies.com/ for registration information.