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Introduction to Technical Communications
B. A. Wade
There are 4 parts to this PowerPoint:
What are Technical Communications and why are they important?
Characteristics of technical communications
Measures of Excellence in technical communications
Purposes of technical communications
What is Technical Communication?
Technical communication is workplace communication.
It empowers others to take action.
It includes but is not limited to writing. This course is still called Technical Writing in some English departments at institutions of higher learning, including some universities.
One person’s workplace is another person’s good or services provider
Although technical communications are workplace communications, the communications are not just between the employees, but are intended for users outside the organization.
For example, instructions for a product that you purchase are created by employees in a workplace for you, the user.
So, we encounter many technical communications in our various roles, as, say consumers.
Education is a unique service
For example, the communications I create for this class are technical communications, not just because this is a technical communications course; but, because the institution is my workplace.
I have also created technical communications such as successful grant and project proposals outside of academia.
Being a student is a job
This course simulates a workplace. Actually, all courses can be looked at as a job with the instructor as the boss. You have as many bosses as the number of courses you are taking at any given time. You are earning a grade as your pay.
As with a job, the mission is to figure out what the boss wants and deliver it. If you are fortunate, the boss will clearly communicate reasonable expectations in advance. Some say that academia is not the real world; but, in some ways , it is.
What Technical Communication is not
Although computers are used in technical communications, technical communication is not a computer class.
Technical communications existed before computers were invented.
Many of the principles of technical communication, such as writing clearly and concisely, are not computer skills, but are skills themselves.
Computer skills for this course
The syllabus states what computer skills are prerequisites for the course as well as the required format and the necessary equipment and software. The equipment and software are the same as those provided by the institution.
You will be required to make at least one graphic using either Microsoft Word or a free, non-Microsoft online software program.
Why study Technical Communications?
You need technical communications skills to get and keep a job, much less to advance in your career.
One of the assignments in this course is a resume. You need a resume for employment search purposes. Taking this course allows you to get college credit for something that you would have to do in addition to other coursework if you were not taking this course.
Why you need good communication skills
Technical communication is a “part of most careers” (Lannon and Gurak 5)
“Numerous studies indicate that the typical college graduate spends about 20 percent of his or her on-the-job time writing (Beer and McMurrey . . . ). That’s one day out of every five-day work week! And it doesn’t include the additional time spent talking—whether on the phone or in person, whether in groups and meetings or one-on-one” (Anderson 4).
That also doesn’t include e-mails, texts/IMs, etc.
“A study of over 400 U.S. companies, which together employ 2 million people, found that almost all of them felt that . . . Oral communication . . . Professionalism and work ethic . . . [and] written communication” are “‘very important’ for college graduates” (Markel 3).
According to the College Entrance Examination Board
“two-thirds of professionals need strong writing skills in their daily work” (cited in Markel 3).
“A study of more than 100 large American corporations, which together employ more than 8 million people, suggests that writing is a more important skill for today’s professionals than it ever has been (Markel 3).
The College Entrance Examination Board found that
“some 80 percent of companies in the service, finance, insurance, and real-estate industries assess applicants’ writing during the hiring process” (cited in Markel 3).
The College Board also found that
“For hiring and promotions, writing is a ‘threshold skill.’ If you job-application materials are written poorly, 86 percent of companies surveyed would ‘frequently’ or ‘almost always’ hold it against you. If you somehow get the job, you won’t last long enough to be promoted” (cited in Markel 3).
According to a report by the National Commission on Writing, entitled “A Ticket to Work . . . Or a Ticket Out”:
51 percent of companies say they ‘frequently or almost always take writing into considera-tion when hiring salaried employees’”
“poor writing skills are the ‘kiss of death’ . . . (cited in Johnson-Sheehan 16).
Based on my experience as an Employment Specialist, I can attest to the fact that errors in your job application materials will be held against you.
It’s an employer’s market for most jobs. That means that there’s a lot of competition and they can have their pick of candidates.
Employers receive stacks of applications for each job. They are looking for a way to reduce the stack. An error gives them a way to do that.
It ‘s the same for applications for scholarships, grants, and to schools such as four year universities or graduate schools (and college assignments): process of elimination
So they are looking for some reason to eliminate applicants. They do not need to make special allowances and they won’t do so. They do not have to care about you and they don’t. Their purpose is to fill the job, not to find you a job.
I worked in the Employment section of the Human Resources Department of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB Galveston).
With approximately 12,000 employees, UTMB Galveston is the largest employer in Galveston County.
At UTMB Galveston, applicants were supposed to identify (or name, by putting it on the application) the job that they wanted to be considered for, on their materials.
This is standard practice among employers, who may have more than one opening and more than one type of opening. You must indicate what job or jobs that you want to be considered for.
I once eliminated an applicant because he misspelled the job title. All he had to do was copy it from the job posting, and he did not do that correctly. That shows a lack of attention to detail.
I rejected his application with the rationale (to myself) that if you can’t spell it, you can’t be it.
That may seem harsh, but I had a stack of applications that I had to narrow down and find the best candidates for the job. Competition then, as now, was stiff.
Competition today is even stiffer because there are less (professional) jobs (due partly to offshoring/outsourcing of jobs) and more people; and we are competing in a global market.
You need good communication skills to keep a job
“At one IBM subsidiary . . . 25 percent of an employee’s evaluation is based on how effectively that person shares information (Davenport 99)” (Lannon and Gurak 5)
You need good communication skills to get promotions and raises
“Your ability to write well can significantly increase the success you enjoy in your career. Researcher Stephen Reder discovered that college graduates judged to be in the top 20 percent of writing ability earn, on average, more than three times as much as workers rated in the bottom 20 percent of writing ability (Fisher . . . )” (Anderson 4).
“In a survey of leading employers, the National Commission on Writing . . . found that writing skills” are “a major consideration for promotion” (Anderson 4).
According to the College Entrance Examination Board, “fifty percent of all companies in all industries consider writing skills in making promotion decisions” (cited in Markel 3).
Full disclosure/evaluating sources
You may be familiar with The College Entrance Examination Board as the College Board.
They are the company that brings you the PSAT, SAT, and other placement exams for college and graduate school.
I have included quotations from 4 Technical Communications textbooks.
These textbooks, in turn, have used various sources.
The College Board and the National Commission on Writing may have vested interests in making sure that you go to college (or at least take entrance exams) and learn to write, but they are right about writing.
Take it from me:
I’ve had 3 successful careers, one of them as a Business Manager of small ($1 million budget in the 1990’s) organizations.
Communication skills, including and especially writing, were/are key in all of my careers.
Characteristics of Technical Communication
Serves practical purposes
Addresses complex audiences
Reflects the organization’s goals and culture
Is shaped by social and political factors
Is sensitive to legal and ethical issues
Is interactive and adaptable
Often produced by teams/involves collaboration
Uses distinctive genres
Must meet deadlines
Characteristics of Technical Communications
Serves practical purposes (Anderson 5). As opposed to some of the writing you do in academia, people will use your technical communication product to take action. “Action-oriented” (Johnson-Sheehan 12)
Tech Comm is Visual
Is visual, which doesn’t just mean that it contains visuals. Consists of words, graphics (including images) or both. Uses design to increase readability (Markel 8, Johnson-Sheehan 13).
This course includes separate lessons on Document Design and on Visuals.
Tech Comm is user-centered
Is user-centered (Johnson-Sheehan 12, Lannon and Gurak 7). Focuses on what readers need to know, not on what you want to tell them.
Addresses complex audiences, including international and multicultural audiences (Anderson 6, Johnson Sheehan 15). Again, we are competing in a global marketplace.
Audience analysis will be covered in another lesson.
Reflects the organization’s goals and culture (Markel 7-8, Anderson 9). Technical communications “further the organization’s goals” (Markel 7).
Is shaped by social and political factors (Anderson 7)
“Every communication situation has social dimensions” (Anderson 7).
In the writing done in college, “the key social relationship is that of a student to the” instructor (Anderson 7).
“At work, you will have a much wider variety of relationships with your readers, such as manager and subordinate, customer and supplier, coworker and coworker” (Anderson 7).
Social and Political Factors cont’d
“Sometimes these relationships will be characterized by cooperation and goodwill” (Anderson 7).
“At others, they will be fraught with competitiveness as people strive for recognition, power, or money for themselves and their departments” (Anderson 7).
In other words, office politics.
Political factors also refers to larger political issues.
Social and Political Factors further cont’d
“You will need to attune the style, tone, and overall approach of each communication to these social and political considerations” (Anderson 9).
Sensitive to legal and ethical issues (Anderson 9, Johnson-Sheehan 13)
“Ethical and legal standards can be violated if you’re not careful” (Johnson-Sheehan 13).
“Computers have created new micro- and macropolitical challenges that need to be negotiated in the workplace”(Johnson-Sheehan 13).
Sensitive to legal and ethical issues cont’d
“Company documents can . . . Be subpoenaed as evidence in” legal cases involving contract “disputes . . . and in product liability lawsuits” (Anderson 9).
If you work in the public sector (government such as federal, state, or local entities—PVAMU, for example, your e-mails can be subject to an open records request
Even when the law does not come into play, many communications written at work have moral and ethical dimensions” (Anderson 9).
Ethics instruction will run through our lessons and also we will have a separate lesson on it
Sensitive to legal and ethical issues further cont’d
“As management structures become flatter—meaning there are fewer layers of management—employees are being asked to take on more decision-making responsibilities than ever.
In most corporations, fewer checks and balances exist, meaning that all employees need to be able to sort out the ethical, legal, and political aspects of a decision for themselves” (Johnson-Sheehan 15).
Is Interactive and Adaptable (Johnson-Sheehan 11)
A change brought about by computers is that “it is possible to quickly adapt” web-based communications in response to interactivity between people (Johnson-Sheehan 11).
Before computers, “it was difficult to adjust and revise paper-based documents. Once they were printed, documents were hard to change” (Johnson-Sheehan 11).
Interactive and Adaptable cont’d
In other words, back in the olden days, when I was your age, we had to walk uphill both ways x number of miles barefoot in snow to get to school. (x=5, 6, 15, etc. Increase number of miles each time story is told).
Interactive and Adaptable further cont’d
“Today, with computers, you can easily update documents to reflect changes” (Johnson-Sheehan 11).
Technologies are labor-saving devices on the one hand; but, on the other hand, they raise expectations regarding the quantity and quality of work.
Often Produced by Teams/involves collaboration (Lannon and Gurak 8, Markel 8, Anderson 7, Johnson-Sheehan 12-13)
Uses distinctive genres (Anderson 6)
I’d like to take this opportunity to say that you need to learn the names of the various genres (the names of the assignments) and other terminology for the class.
The names of the assignments can be confusing to those who are not familiar with them.
You need to connect the names and information about the various assignments from the reading, including the syllabus, which contains the schedule as to when assignments are due and lists the point counts for each assignment, and the assignment sheets; and participating in the discussions.
You need to make sure that you are working on the right assignment at the right time.
Must meet deadlines (Anderson 9)
If you don’t meet deadlines at work, your employer will find someone else who can.
“For example, when a company prepares a proposal . . . It must reach the client on time. Otherwise, it may not be considered at all” (Anderson 9).
Must meet deadlines (cont’d)
Your assignments in this course must be on time. See the syllabus.
Measures of Excellence in Technical Communications (Markel 12-14, Lannon 7, Johnson-Sheehan 12)
Accuracy (of content)
Accessibility (also Lannon 7 and Johnson-Sheehan 12)
Correctness (grammar and mechanics)
“The most important measure of excellence in technical communications is honesty” (Markel 12).
Three reasons (Markel 12):
1. “It is the right thing to do” Markel 12.
2. “If you are dishonest, readers can get hurt. Misinforming your readers or deliberately omitting important information can defraud, injure, or kill people” (Markel 13).
3. “If you are dishonest, you and your organization could face serious legal charges” (Markel 13).
Easy to understand (Johnson-Sheehan 12)
“Your goal is to produce a document that conveys a single meaning [that] the reader can understand easily” (Markel 13).
Technical communications aren’t fictional literature that can be ambiguous and are meant to be interpreted variously by different readers at different times.
Example of an unclear technical communication
From the British Navy:
“It is necessary for technical reasons that these warheads should be stored upside down, that is, with the top at the bottom and the bottom at the top. In order that there may be no doubt as to which is the top and which is the bottom, for storage purposes, it will be seen that the bottom of each warhead has been labeled with the word TOP” (Markel 13).
Two reasons why technical communication must be clear:
1. “Unclear technical communication can be dangerous” (Markel 13).
Clarity further cont’d
2. “Unclear technical communication is expensive” (Markel 13).
The average cost of a telephone call to a customer-support center is more than 32$” (Markel 13).
“Clear technical communication in the product’s documentation—its instructions—can greatly reduce the number and length of such calls” (Markel 13).
Be clear, but don’t oversimplify
“Information designer Nathan Shedroff reminds us that, while clarity makes information easier to understand, simplicity is ‘often responsible for the dumbing down of information rather than the illumination of it’ (280)” (Lannon and Gurak 8).
“You need to get your facts straight” (Markel 13).
And, “technical documents need to be as objective and unbiased as you can make them” (Markel 13).
Readers will call your credibility into question if you have even slight inaccuracies.
“A major inaccuracy can be dangerous and expensive” (Markel 13).
“If the reader suspects that you are slanting information—by overstating or omitting facts—they will doubt the validity of the entire document” (Markel 13).
Is it thorough/complete/self-contained? Does it cover everything that it needs to?
Readers are busy, so documents need to be concise.
Most writing can be shortened by 10 to 20 percent “by eliminating unnecessary phrases . . . And using economical grammatical forms” (Markel 14).
It’s more difficult to write concisely than it is to write expansively. But it’s not impossible.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” (Mission Impossible TV show) is to “convey a lot of information” in an efficient manner (Markel 14).
“Most technical documents—both in print and online—are made up of small, independent sections” (Markel 14).
“Because few people will read a document from the beginning to the end, your job is to make its various parts accessible” (Markel 14).
“That is, readers should not be forced to flip through the pages or click links unnecessarily to find the appropriate section” (Markel 14).
Lannon and Gurak state that technical communication should be accessible and efficient (7).
Among the elements of accessiblity and efficiency that they list that have not been mentioned elsewhere are: “worthwhile content, sensible organization, effective visuals, and effective page design” (7).
I have put this Lannon and Gurak information here rather than under professional appearance, but some of it could also fit under clarity.
“You start to communicate before anyone reads the first word of the document” (Markel 14).
“If the document looks neat and professional, readers will form a positive impression of it and you” (Markel 14).
But just because the document looks professional doesn’t mean that the content is. Lannon and Gurak state that content must be “worthwhile” (7).
Correctness has to do with the proper “grammar, punctuation, spelling, mechanics, and usage” (Markel 14).
It differs from accuracy, which is about the content of the piece of technical communication.
“Sometimes, incorrect writing can confuse readers or even make your writing inaccurate” (Markel 14).
“Incorrect writing makes you look unprofessional” (Markel 14).
Correctness further cont’d
“readable style—promotes fluid reading and accurate understanding” (Lannon and Gurak 7).
“If your writing is full of errors, readers will wonder if you were also careless in gathering, analyzing and presenting the technical information” (Markel 14).
“If readers doubt your professionalism, they will be less likely to accept your conclusions or follow your recommendations” (Markel 14).
More on Correctness
Errors in your technical communications can lead to an ethos (credibility) problem for you.
You may remember ethos as one of the points on the Rhetorical Appeals triangle from Composition. The others were logos (the appeal to logic or reason) and pathos (the appeal to emotion).
Purposes of Technical Communication (Lannon and Gurak 8-11)
Inform (example: progress report for this course)
Instruct (example: instructions assignment)
Persuade (examples: cover letter, resume, proposal, and recommendation report for this course)
There is some overlap in this terminology: for example, instructions are information, and all documents are persuasive in some way.
Anderson, Paul V. Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach. 6th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.
Johnson-Sheehan, Richard. Technical Communication Today. 4th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.
Lannon, John and Laura J. Gurak. Technical Communication. 13th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014.
Markel, Mike. Technical Communication. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. em” (Markel 13).