What is it that we do, exactly?

What is a technical communicator, and why would you hire one? The answer to that question is called a value proposition. In general, it’s a statement of the unique value added by any person, product, or service that explains why you’d want to spend money. For technical communicators, it’s not something we’re used to offering, and it’s hard to articulate. But it’s vitally important: If we can’t answer the question, we’re in trouble, especially these days!

Let me start with a simple example. In explaining to someone (a pointy-haired boss, say) why it takes so long to turn out what might be a brief document, you might say, “writing is not typing.” Yes, like a data-entry operator, you both type; and the operator may type more quickly and accurately than you; but while the operator is merely keying in data, you are creating it. You’re not paid for speed. So while you both possess typing as a skill–and the operator may possess more skill than you!–your skill set is broader, rarer, and thus more valuable. Similarly, if all you do is copy and paste engineering specs into templates, check the spelling, and call it a day, you’re doing formatting–what has been called “word processing”–and your skill set is not unique and, frankly, not particularly valuable. (I’ve worked with people like that, and they’re insidious.)

What other skills do we bring to the table? Here are a few more, courtesy of HelpScribe:

  • Social interaction
  • Usability engineering
  • Marketing writing
  • Project management
  • Dollops of graphic design, programming, and testing

If you throw in everything that any of us in the field might need to know or do, you have a body of knowledge for the profession. Compiling such a body of knowledge is important! But, as we see from typing, not every necessary skill is unique or even valuable.

To get at the value part, we need to determine where we can either create something that our employers can sell, do something that saves our employers money, or do something that reduces our employers’ risks. (Technical documents are sold for good profits in the “after” market, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) I know of three areas where we add value:

  1. Research conducted in the 1980s showed that we can reduce our employers’ support costs, often by 50%.
  2. Since that research was done, laws and regulations have been written that mandate certain kinds of warnings, installation instructions, and recycling information. Increasingly, directions must be available in the native languages of the market countries, which means internationalization and localization–without which products cannot legally be sold.
  3. Most recently, research on consumer electronics has revealed that a very large percentage of warranty returns (which are a cost to manufacturers) are of products that work as designed, but not as expected. (This last is a multi-billion dollar opportunity to increase customer satisfaction and reduce warranty costs!)

We can say that technical communicators help users understand their products better, reducing their calls for technical support and their warranty returns. Also, we are willing and able to navigate the legal and regulatory hurdles of producing documentation for export. The bottom line? Save money! Increase sales! Stay out of jail! I daresay that’s a valuable proposition.

If this list is the core of our value proposition, what unique skills and knowledge do we bring to bear that enable us to provide the value? Typing is no longer germane, but project management is, to get the translations done on time. Formatting is not germane, but writing concisely, consistently, and clearly is, so that the text can be translated efficiently in the first place. Schmoozing is not germane, but the ability to learn complex technical products well enough to explain their operation to a consumer audience–or even the knowledge to make suggestions for improving usability–is, because if we can explain how to use products, users won’t be calling the Help Desk or asking for their money back as often.

I think this is the right train of thought. What do you think?

Published by Steven Jong

I am a retired technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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