Julie A. Bradbury
I believe you own your group’s reputation inside the company and with customers. If I could speak with each one of you in person, I would ask, “Are you a good steward of your group’s reputation? What are you communicating to your leadership? Do you know what your reputation is?”
What do company executives think about your group today?
This article focuses on your reputation inside the company. Communicating with executives is something that most publications managers do to some degree. Unfortunately, any upward communication is often left to your supervisor. This can leave the group’s reputation in non-expert hands.
Executives who have backgrounds outside or other than publications may not effectively communicate your efforts and results. They may be influenced by comments from others and form your group’s reputation without your participation. That’s not fair or in the best interest of the writing group.
You can check my assertion for yourself by asking your supervisor and other executives about your documentation group’s reputation. Even if you think you know what they will say, it’s worth checking. You may be surprised with the response. The answer may not fit your group’s efforts and deliverables at all.
Indeed, your company executives in engineering, operations, technical support, sales, and field support may not realize that the technical information created by your group makes a definite difference for your customers. As the technical information manager, you have the real information — yours is an important message.
What communication works with executives?
To be successful, I believe your message must be in a language executives hear and understand. Telling them how good the documentation is and what a good job the writers do, while probably true, can come across as self-serving and biased.
What information would interest your executives? That depends on their backgrounds and responsibilities. You can take a customer satisfaction approach with tech and field support, a feature and product differentiation approach with sales, and completeness and accuracy with engineering. You might answer the question, “How is the documentation making it easier for customers to use our products?” Or you may say, “Here is data on how documentation is reducing support calls.” If you have introduced new capabilities, “This is why our new help system can be a product differentiator.”
To get your message across, you can connect it to individual executives. Think about the executive’s interests and career success needs. You can tie your efforts and results to furthering his or her personal interests. Ask yourself, or others who know them, these questions:
- What is this executive known for?
- What is the key contribution this executive’s group is making to the company’s success?
- What are customers saying about the documentation that this group would want to hear?
How do you package your message for maximum effect?
Most executives have very little time and are constantly thinking about critical issues in their groups. You represent a specialty area in which few of them have experience, so you must help them see your group’s value.
As you develop your message, you can overcome these barriers by seeking common ground such as customer satisfaction, comparisons to developing code, even sports metaphors, whatever it takes to connect to hooks in their brains. Given that you have tailored your topics to their interests, you will initially have their attention. You can intensify or reduce it depending on your delivery methods. Approaches that can keep them focused on your message include:
- Being concise and memorable by using strong verbs and short phrases.
- Using everyday language and defining any publications-specific terms.
- Creating comparisons or using metaphors.
- Watching their facial expressions for signals that you need to clarify a comment or move on.
- Listening to the substance of the executive’s comments and questions. (Do the questions or comments show understanding?)
- Showing enthusiasm.
The materials you use to reinforce your message need to be visual and brief. Here are some ideas to consider.
- Limit your message to one point per page or slide.
- Use numbers that have meaning.
- Figures on support-call reductions show your business knowledge.
- Figures that quote numbers of documents out of context do not.
- Create charts or diagrams to communicate key points.
- Report cost reductions and productivity increases.
- Quote customers, including their company names.
How do you know your message is working?
Continue to check perceptions periodically. Ask your supervisor and other leaders what they think of the documentation and the work your group is doing. Continue to adjust your communications with executives to bring their impressions in line with what you know to be true. Demonstrate that your efforts are important and critical to your group’s success.
You can also seek broadcast avenues for special messages that give visibility to your group’s contributions.
- Can you get your innovative projects featured on the company website?
- Can you hold a brown-bag information session on your latest projects for special groups such as customer support engineers, software development engineers, and so on?
- Can you present at an STC or CIDM conference and offer the presentation at your company?
- Can you sponsor a booth at your company’s user group meeting?
- Can you set up customer feedback interviews and include customer support or engineering?
You have everything to gain.
By owning your group’s reputation with the company’s leadership, you stretch your own leadership skills. You can attract positive attention to technical publications. You open dialogs with influential groups within your company. You see needs and solve problems sooner.
Please begin taking steps today to ensure that your group’s reputation is the one you want.