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2011 Trends in Technical Communication

By Gina Gotsill, TechProse TechProse Marketing and Proposal ManagerMarketing and Proposal Manager

“What’s different this year?”

Gwaltney Mountford, East Bay Society for Technical Communication president launched into the chapter’s annual Trends Panel with this question for panelists Meryl Natchez, Linda Urban, Yas Etessam and Jeff Gardiner.

Since last year, the technical communications landscape has changed quite a bit, panelists said at the March 4 meeting in Danville, CA. Here’s an overview of the trends:

1. The good news is the job market has improved. However, while there are more jobs, they may be confusing to navigate because in many cases, technical communicators aren’t simply writers anymore. They have titles such as “Community Liaison” and “Content Curator.” In these roles, they provide content but they are also interacting with users and deciding which content is relevant to their audience.

2. Organizations are talking about the business value of editors. Yas Ettesam cited an IBM study that shows that edited pages are 30% more engaging to readers than unedited pages. Read more about the study here: http://writingfordigital.com/2010/07/04/a-fourth-of-july-lesson-in-the-value-of-editors/

3. In the past, technical communicators volunteered to monitor wikis and other customer-facing online documentation. Today, more organizations are seeing the value of hiring technical communicators to own this critical documentation. That means no more cramming the task of monitoring the wiki into your already busy schedule.

4. Our brains are changing! Jeff Gardiner discussed how the human brain changed when we went from an oral tradition to a printed tradition. Now that we are moving away from reading printed content to reading chunked, online content, our brains are changing again. (An interesting book on this subject: The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge.) We have shorter attention spans. Enter Twitter, where users create 140-character tweets to communicate about everything under the sun. Linda Urban suggested that Twitter is a good way to “see bubbles of discussion.” It is not a bridge to mastery, she says, but it is a means for gaining awareness about many different topics. Technical communicators who aren’t familiar with Twitter or the ubiquitous hash tags need to jump on the bandwagon – now.  Try following areas of interest, or tweeting yourself. Jump into a public wiki to read or edit.

5. Shorter attention spans and an interest in reading chunked material means technical writers need to be training themselves to write in minimalist forms. They also need to be able to organize and categorize data and use meta data to help users search for what they need.

6. Historically, technical communicators have not been very good at selling their work as a corporate asset, Meryl Natchez said. But there are many ways to promote what you do. Natchez suggested technical communicators celebrate their achievements on the company Intranet, promote links that inform co-workers, and network at conferences and within their organizations. “You can’t just sit in your cubicle,” Natchez says. “You have to let people know what you’re doing and communicate your value to the organizations.”

Urban suggested that technical communicators actively look for ways to improve processes and the organization as a whole. When you suggest ideas, leaders see you as a problem solver, not just as a technical writer.

Etessam suggested technical communicators speak up and ask if they can participate in other areas that are relevant to their work. For example, don’t be afraid to ask if you can attend the design meeting. Exploring other areas of the business often provides insight that improves your practice and longevity in the organization.

Gardiner suggested technical communicators find out what their organization’s marketing people are talking about. What are the buzz words? What are the pain points in the organization? Be aware of trends in the organization and make suggestions that are in line with them.

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