Cue the gravelly upper class British voice:
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.”
Churchill may have been the most effective communicator of the twentieth century. Not only was he a statesman who rallied the world against fascism, he was also the most successful non-fiction writer, financially, during his lifetime (1874-1966), publishing thousands of articles, speeches, and dozens of books. So, we should take his words to heart as writers and managers of content, even in a business or organizational setting. Why is his message important to technical communicators?
Documentation is Not Just a Post-Sales Tool
Technical communication is morphing into a major communication channel for both internal and external constituencies, moving beyond pure, post-sale, user-only communication. It is starting to cross into other areas like Marketing, Sales, and even Human Resources, as people doing discovery about a company or organization dig deeper for factual information. How does that work and how does it affect content teams and management?
Breaking Out of the Silo
Let’s look at new targets for factual, functional content:
- Marketing. Outbound marketing is predicated on the provision of highly useful content to prospective purchasers, on an ongoing basis. That content must function as a resource for those doing research. Prospective customers want to self-serve this content before contacting you. Documentation reveals how products actually work, how difficult they are to learn and implement, and what they actually do. Traditionally, marketing did not directly address these things, instead alluding to qualities like power, ease of use, etc, without actually quantifying them. This is no longer acceptable. Exposing your documentation to prospects gives them a wealth of information, information you’re already creating.
- Sales. The Sales use case is similar to marketing but more targeted. A prospect has become a lead by contacting your company. At this point they have questions about solutions that require a conversation more relevant to their specific needs. The sales team continues the discovery process for the prospect by listening and then using documentation to demonstrate targeted solutions. In this case they access a content library, often directly in their CRM software, and distribute curated content to their prospects.
- Human Resources. The biggest task for HR teams is recruitment and retention of key employees. Hiring these days is equally an evaluation process for both the prospective employee and the interviewer. Giving prospects access to product or service specifics helps them research the company, understand the work ahead and understand their possible role as a team member. All of these actions benefit the interviewer, ensuring potential employees screen themselves before taking up time. Again, sharing documentation, relevant to the product or services they would be working with, becomes a very useful action for both parties.
Does This Change The Way Documentation Is Created and Managed?
The answer is yes, but largely in process and delivery structures. Knowing your documentation may be read by someone who is not yet using the product requires adding context, making use cases very clear, and organizing that content in chunks that can be delivered to sets of users with differing goals.
- Always provide context. What problems are being addressed by this product feature?. Conceptually, you state the problem, describe how the product solves it and then demonstrate how that works in actual use. Finally you address the outcome.
- Understand use cases. Many products address multiple use cases. Documentation, written with the understanding that it may be used by prospects, should address different use cases. In a structured environment, each use case would be a topic, available for reuse across the public documentation set.
- Structure your stories. Creating a set of scenarios that can be associated with your documentation gives you the ability to personalize (via conditionalization) what is delivered to a prospective customer or employee.
If you go with Winston’s formula for delivering impactful information and apply it to documentation, you are telling them what it does, showing them how it does it and telling them how it affects their situation. Each time you use direct, active language. As technical communicators, this kind of actionable writing is familiar territory, however it is important to understand that the impact of your writing is moving beyond users and out into the broader business world.