Tim Milbrath, Almon, Inc.
March 1, 2022
When something goes sideways with a technical writing project, it’s usually not related to subject matter expertise, use of the software (tools), or the technical skills of the writer. The problems often come from the soft skills bucket. A mix-up in communication, process, follow-up, or accountability. Soft skills have always been critical to the success of technical writing projects. And their importance is growing as remote work becomes the norm.
Here are 6 soft skills that are important attributes for successful technical writers. As well as some tips to enhance these skills.
Attention To Detail
A couple of months ago I was catching up with a Tech Pubs Manager in the industrial equipment business who I greatly respect. When I mentioned this topic, she immediately brought up attention to detail. But she wondered if it’s a skill that can be taught.
I’ve had success using the following tips:
- Take Notes
- Slow Down — tech pubs departments are running leaner than ever. But embracing a slower pace will ensure less rework and a more efficient end result.
- Take Breaks — people focus better when they take at least one break every two hours
- Avoid Multitasking — turn off email and messaging notifications; put your phone in a drawer
A contender for the top challenge in any tech pubs project is getting information from the SME, product manager, or other stakeholders.
Educate your SMEs and end-users upfront not only HOW you will be communicating but also the WHY behind the communication.
I’ve seen variations of this work:
- Schedule a formal meeting to kick off the project:
- Let everyone know the reason for the meeting is to discuss how to best set up the project for success
- Educate SME and all stakeholders on the biggest scope risks as well as the consequences if everyone doesn’t hold up their end. Product can’t ship, late fees, upset customers, increased costs, etc
- Review the communication cadence so they know what to expect. Work together to come to an agreed-upon communication cadence.
- I suggest sending an email every 72 hours until a response is received. For most, after a day has passed their inbox is so full they can’t find your email or they already forgot about it.
- More often than not, SMEs will appreciate proactive email communication.
- After the kickoff meeting, send a follow-up email summarizing everything talked about. This holds both sides accountable and can be referenced for future discussions.
Communicating effectively over email is a superpower. This falls into the proactive communication bucket. But it’s so important that it needs to be addressed separately. Time with the SME’s is limited. And a request from the tech writer is never their top priority. Your emails are being skimmed, and they need to be crafted accordingly.
Keep the following in mind when sending emails:
- Brevity — short and to the point
- Leverage white space
- Bullet points to make information clear
- Bold items that need a response
- Think mobile — it’s likely being consumed on a phone
- Review for misinterpretation opportunities – Emails are written with the best of intentions, but read with the worst. Ensure the message is clear.
This is all about doing what you say you’re going to do. And being consistent about it. But it also means holding others accountable and following up to get confirmation that tasks have been completed. Consider the following activities:
- Set clear expectations
- Follow up regularly
- Put it in writing
- Tell others about the person’s commitment
It can be challenging to bring fresh ideas to the table in the tech pubs world. But coming up with new concepts for solving existing problems can speed up a project. And be a lot more fun. Creativity doesn’t have to be a groundbreaking initiative.
Some easy ways creativity can help your project:
- Using photos instead of words, or even in place of line art (or vice versa)
- Leveraging modeling or CAD (if applicable)
- Leveraging video or animation
- Delivering a minimum viable manual and updating it as more information becomes available
Giving A Crap
Finally, truly caring about the problem(s) you are solving is a game-changer. This can be as simple as being curious. Asking more questions. Seeking new information and follow hunches. Caring will make you a better learner, help you think more creatively and it will rub off on your extended team in a positive way.
To summarize, product knowledge, writing skills, and the use of software tools are necessary skills. But to really thrive in today’s technical writing world, your soft skills are what makes the difference.
I would love to hear your feedback. What other soft skills and tips should be on this list? Email me at [email protected].
About the author: Tim has been helping Companies solve technical documentation and training challenges for 12 years. For the last 5 years, he has been leading Almon Inc.’s sales and marketing efforts. Almon helps companies with technical writing, training development, and visual media services. He is passionate about finding ways to make it easier for technicians and operators to operate, test, and service equipment.