10 Strategies to Optimize Technical Information

Even video game instruction manuals are examples of technical communication.

Even video game instruction manuals are examples of technical communication. (Sony)

One area of professional writing that I am particularly interested in is the technical communication field. This interest stemmed from a course I took at Seneca College called “PWR 381 – Digesting Technical Information.” The course was particularly valuable because the professor, Bernard Aschwanden, had tons of work experience.

The course was quite comprehensive on a content level. However, it differs from Duncan’s course in the sense that Bernard specifically taught us how to make documents functional. These types of documents are not necessarily prose (which can be personal or academic). Instead, they are user-guides or other sources of information often produced for professional organizations. Often, professional writers make these documents in attempt to simplify difficult technical information and make it accessible for an audience.

So, if you’re interested in producing these types of documents, I recommend undertaking all of the following strategies:

1. Identify your Audience: As I mentioned in an earlier post, the audience is a priority in any professional writing job. This does not change in technical communication, especially considering that the audiences of these types of documents is often not knowledgeable about the topic which you are describing. Consider your audience with every word that you write.

2. Give Your Document a Clear Goal: Remember, technical communication is action-oriented, and often procedural. You want your audience to do something with your document. If you’re working for an organization, you’ll often know what the goal is, so you shouldn’t waste any time or energy on detracting from this goal (going out of your way to make your document sound intelligent, for example). Make sure that your document solves a problem.

3. Prioritize Minimalism: Audiences usually don’t read technical documents for fun; they read them to learn information quickly and efficiently. Naturally, audiences don’t want to sift through pages and pages of documentation. In this case, less is more, and technical writers minimize the size of their documents so that audiences are more inclined to read them.

4. “Chunk” Your Information: We, as people, tend to retain information easier in groups, or “chunks,” as they’re called in technical communication. “Chunking” can include using lists or groups of headings to clearly distinguish important information. An individual scanning a document will usually remember or at least make a point to remember the items in a properly formatted list, so “chunking” can definitely help your document reach its goal.

5. Avoid or Define Jargon: “Jargon” contains phrases that only a specific audience knows; even a term like “gross income” might seem like jargon to someone who has no business experience. When technical communicators attempt to make information accessible to general audiences, the last thing they want to do is confuse these audiences. Jargon can be confusing, so it should be avoided or at least defined.

6. Predict Potential Problems: Truly excellent technical documentation has a good troubleshooting section. Writing a procedure can be simple; predicting a user’s potential problems when undertaking the procedure is a mark of intelligence. So, make sure to figure out these problems and include their solutions in your documentation. Remember, technical documents solve problems; they’re not supposed to produce them.

7. Be Sure to Introduce and Summarize: Bernard had an excellent saying for this point: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Clarity is a very important principle of technical documentation, and the use of repetition in a technical document clearly communicates the message. Make sure that you introduce the goal of your document at its introduction, and remind your users what this goal was at its conclusion.

8. Adhere to Style Guides: If you’re hired by a company and really want to impress them, try to get a head start and study their style guide, if they have one. For those of you that don’t know, style guides are “handbooks” that contain rules about grammar and syntax which are normally subjective in the English language (capitalization of certain terms, certain forms of punctuation). Many large organizations have their own style guide, as these companies produce a lot of documentation every year. Style guides enable organizations to stay consistent, and chances are that they also enjoy consistent employees.

9. Study Your Genre: There are many different genres of technical documentation. Government tax documents, scientific reports and corporate hardware guides are just some of them. If you really want to produce efficient technical documentation, study the structure of existing documents of whatever genre you plan on producing yourself. You can see what some of these documents do well, and what mistakes you can avoid.

10. Consult With Subject Matter Experts: Sometimes, technical communication can be too intense for just one writer, especially when dealing with fields that used advanced terminology (such as the scientific field). Don’t hesitate to seek the help of a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to help explain whatever it is that you’re having trouble with. An engineer or an investment banker are excellent examples of this. The difference between you and them, however, is that you’re an SME yourself; your subject is writing and communication. Technical communication isn’t a one-person job, so make sure you do what you need to do to make your document as good as it can be.

I really enjoyed PWR 381 for its practicality and it definitely helped me with my own technical documentation. I am planning on continuing my career in technical communication.

If you would like to discuss this topic more, leave a comment here or get in touch with me on LinkedIn for more information.

4 Key Considerations for Presentation Strategies

I think that one of the interesting things about the professional writing industry is that it contains far more than just written documents, as I explained in my previous post about writing and computers.

Another important facet of being a professional writer is also being a professional presenter. In many companies, writers might find themselves having to make proposals for projects to company officials, or explaining difficult concepts to large audiences. And while writing is an integral part of constructing a presentation (the idea of “winging it” has no place in professional presentations), there is a lot more to consider.

TED Talks has many examples of fantastic presentations.

TED Talks has many examples of fantastic presentations. (TED Blog)

I learned about these important factors in a course I took at Seneca College called “PWR 382 – Workshop in Presentation Strategies.” My professor, Burke Cullen, took a practical approach to the course; there were presentations literally every week. This gave our class a chance to both learn about how other people present and apply our own strategies to presentations.

The thing about presentations is that there are different approaches to them. For example, Burke advocated for the use of Powerpoint, whereas Duncan Koerber (who I described in an earlier post) dislikes Powerpoint, and instead supports the use of Prezi. In another way, Burke told us that our presentations had to be heavily memorized, whereas Duncan told us to take a more natural approach, remembering only key points.

In PWR 382, however, I learned about four important considerations for presentations. And although certain elements of presentations are subjective, I do feel that anyone who wants to produce a professional presentation should do the following:

  • Consider Your Presentation Context: This consideration is most pertinent when putting your presentation together. One cliché we always hear in the professional writing world is that the audience is first and foremost. The reason this is a cliché, however, is that it is absolutely true. Presenters need to consider the needs of their audience: why are they listening to this presentation? Why should they care? When you have this information, you also need to consider how you’re going to do your research, and how much time you’ll have to present it. Context is everything.
  • Consider Your Physical Environment: Many people discount this consideration, but a good presenter should never be caught by surprise. Presenters should investigate their presentation area beforehand to get a feel for the size and the number of people to that they will be presenting. They should also investigate what type of equipment will be available (microphones, projectors) in case they need to make changes to their presentation. Also, some companies provide lecterns for presenters; this will affect any physical gestures that you might plan to do when you present.
  • Consider Your Voice: A presenter’s voice is naturally integral to his or her presentation; most presentations are live and oral, so a presenter needs to have complete control over his or her voice. This is perhaps the least subjective consideration, as there are some standard rules for maintaining a good voice for a presentation. Presenters should keep a good volume, a good pace and should enunciate every word. Presenters should also avoid things like uptalking or from an abundance of “ums” or “uhs.” A presenter’s voice should be clear for every audience member.
  • Consider Your Visuals: Presentations, like many documents, often have important visual aspects. There are different types of presentation software out there, but there are a few unifying principles that presenters should consider no matter what types of visuals they use. For starters, the visuals should be readable. Factors like a small font size or an ugly colour scheme can hinder the readability of a visual, so presenters should avoid these. It is also helpful to add titles to visuals. This helps audience members know where they are in the presentation. Lastly, try to keep a consistent appearance; this helps familiarize the visuals with the audience.

Of course, there are many different types of presentations, and each calls for a different strategy. Pearson Education’s Talking Business: Strategies for Successful Presentations gives a comprehensive guide to delivering excellent professional presentations. While a lot of the work that professional writers do is often behind a computer screen, you shouldn’t discount the fact that you may have to do a few of these presentations in your lifetime.

As always, I’m happy to answer more questions about presentations. If you would like to know more, leave a comment here or send me a question on LinkedIn.

4 Important Concepts of Writing and Computers

Wikipedia is a perfect example of webtexts done right.

Wikipedia is a perfect example of webtexts done right.

In my first year at York University, I took a course called “WRIT 1500 – Writing and Computers.” Considering that I enjoy both writing and computers, taking this course was a no-brainer; however, I wasn’t prepared for what my professor, John Spencer, was about to spring on our class!

The professor taught the class through a course wiki that was updated by the students themselves. We learned not only to produce written content optimal for online consumption but also to structure this content. We created our own personal wiki pages and our assignments consisted of completing wiki pages defining course ideas.

So, what were some of the things I learned from the course? I can describe 4 very important concepts for potential online content producers:

  • Webtexts: Webtexts are any form of online content. Webtexts are commonly thought to include only alphanumeric text (such as the “text” of this blog); on the contrary, webtexts include images, audio, video and other forms of media. Whether an blog post or a Youtube video, webtexts are “read” by their audiences. Therefore, online content producers need to be aware of the “reading habits” of their audiences.
  • Hyperlinks: Content that contains links to other content. Our professor stressed the importance of interconnectivity on the internet, and hyperlinks bring this concept into fruition. Hyperlinks allow users to access more content in an easy manner, so online content producers need to ensure that they use hyperlinks to their advantage.
  • Public Writing: The idea that user-generated content can help improve a webtext. Wikis are at the forefront of the public writing debate, as they allow any user (registered or anonymous) to edit articles. While this has raised concern about misinformation in wikis, public writing (when properly implemented) can create a plethora of valuable information and perspectives. As the internet becomes more communal, the amount of user-generated content is increasing, and online content producers must be sure to explore the possibilities that public writing allows.

This class really helped shape my perspective on online content production; I find the process both fascinating and fun (and after rereading my blog, I’ve determined that at times I have a little too much fun). I try to keep these four concepts in mind when producing any sort of online document, and I encourage others to do the same.

If you want to know more about this stuff, leave a comment here or send me a message on LinkedIn.