The Unpredictable Skill Set of a Technical Communicator

Technical communicators are far from being confined to the word processor as their primary tool for producing texts. For as many different job titles and responsibilities that can fall under the umbrella of technical communication (UX designer, copy editor, social media manager), so are there an abundance of tools and technologies that are used in different combinations in the daily workflow of a technical communicator. When asked in a survey to identify the types of writing most often produced in their professional lives, technical communicators named tasks that require completely different sets of skills and technology to accomplish, for example, email, web sites, texting, infographics and press releases (Blythe, Lauer, Curran, 2104). Each format of communication has its own unique set of circumstances surrounding it. Is the audience public or private? Is the standard tone of voice casual or formal? Are there additional technical skills that are required to complete the task like a knowledge of code, or an image editing software?

An example of this phenomenon is the freelance technical communicator who is featured in Stacy Pigg’s 2014 study, Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work. Dave works remotely out of a coffee shop, composing posts for his blog on the topic of fatherhood. In the time that it takes him to compose his blog post (roughly one hour) Dave switches back and forth between several social media platforms that he uses as content reference, networking tools, or to publish his work. For him, and likely for many modern technical communicators, the number of different tools to master increases exponentially when considering not only the service being used to create content, but also all of the other tools that are used to gather, organize, support and distribute the content.

This huge spread of trending tools poses a challenge to educators. How can a professor go about teaching future technical communicators the tools they need for the trade, when the careers available to graduates are so diverse and the tool kit is so rapidly expanding? As noted by Blythe, Lauer and Curran, though the alumni that they surveyed were so disparate in their current job titles, they were all chosen to take part in the survey because they shared a very specific program of study – technical communication. In some ways, the fact that the students went on from receiving their identical diplomas to hold such different job is a testament to the power of a broad education that covers the concepts more than the details of specific software or workflows.

That being said, educators also must embrace uses of media that have historically been thought of as recreational, such as texting or connecting on social network sites. These instruments of communication are more and more being used in professional settings. Just because a student has a personal twitter account doesn’t mean that she has the skill to effectively tweet to a company’s audience. An educator should embrace the new media as it comes, while simultaneously exploring alongside her students how these inventions can be used to communicate professionally. Just like Sherry Turkle describes in her book Alone Together how she bravely brought up Chatroulette on the screen in one of her lectures after she had first learned of its existence from one of her students. She was able to take a new technology that had previously fit squarely in the recreational world of her students and she formed an intelligent discussion around the meaning of the new social platform. (Of course this may be a poor example as I can’t imagine Chatroulette ever being a useful tool for professional technical communicators. Never say never?)

New ways to communicate are bubbling to the surface at an unprecedented rate, and technical communicators are tasked to incorporate them into their broader communication strategies. Despite a shared program title on their diplomas, technical communicators are finding a broad range of professions, each with its own ecology of new media tools. Educators are stuck trying to strike a balance between teaching broadly applicable theory and bringing specific trending technologies into the classroom in order to discuss professional-level communication through typically informal formats of communication. Through studies like the survey in the Blythe, Lauer and Curran essay, at least instructors of technical communication will have more data on current professional practices. Students graduating from a technical communication program will have to be prepared to wear many hats.

Posted on November 15, 2015, in Social Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Allie,
    I really enjoyed your post this week as I too wrote a blog post referencing the skill set of technical communicators (https://745techprofcomm.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/expertise-versus-skill-the-dichotomy-of-a-technical-communicator/) and how that will impact the role of a technical communicator. One of the ideas you presented, which was the last sentence of your blog post, really struck me – this idea of wearing many hats. I can honestly say this is something I have personally dealt with in my own role (e.g. IT policy writing, agile communicator for internal organizational projects, technical communicator for general IT communications.

    One of the things I am noticing, is that (at least within my own organization) leaders are working to standardize roles and get away from this idea of employees wearing many hats. With one of the overarching reasons being to spare employees from getting to that burnout phase. With that being said, and in correlation to the article I wrote for this week, how might this impact a dispersed workforce, where technical communication skills are now being spread across multiple roles (that in theory are not per se trained in technical communication?

    Chelsea

  2. Chatroulette as a useful too? I have not used it myself but I have an idea in how it could be used professionally. Create some simple and clear signs to a website and what you do and then hang them up around you. This way, you can advertise yourself and your skills. Those interested can stay and chat, but if not, they might remember your website (if it is simple enough) because, ‘who does that?’ 😉

    Clever little marketing ploys can get people’s attention, even if they are not currently interested right now. Because you never know who is using certain social media platforms, it is always worth testing a platform out.

  3. Your post was really interesting to me because I often struggle to define technical communications, because it is so many different things that require so many different skill sets and levels of expertise. For example, I’m a medical writer and editor, which requires a vastly different education and experience than someone who writes software manuals or other user manuals. Also, we are often tasked with doing so many things that are not really related to technical communications at all. For example, where I work, I edit scientific grant proposals and articles for publication in medical journals. Yet I also do internal communications and manage our intranet and Internet sites. If you know of a really good definition of technical communication, please pass it my way!

  4. I agree that the number of communication tools out there are staggering and endlessly multiplying. It does seem that it is impossible to expect our educators to be able to teach all of the relevant tools, when so many exist and the careers for a technical communicator are so diverse.

    One one hand, it is exciting to know that we have so many tools to harness depending on our needs. The time we likely spend finding and getting to know the newer technologies exhausts me to think about though. It does make me grateful that I am entering the field during a time that technical communication encompasses so many “hats.” As I continue to refine where I want my career to focus, I can also make some educated decisions about what technologies to focus my learning on for the time being. It is both inspiring and daunting!

  5. For someone who is new to the field and considers herself more an graphic designer than technical communicator, you’ve certainly done a wonderful job synthesizing the readings and even returning to the Turkle text! 😛

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