Interacting with other functions

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Although the Technical Communicator will often be working alone on a publication, there will almost certainly be times when he/she needs to interact with other people involved in the publication. This section provides some general advice on how to handle some of these interactions.

The Golden Rule

This seems like a good time to mention the Golden Rule of Technical Communication. Although this rule applies to all technical communications activities (and in fact, should apply to all professions) it is normally during interaction with other parties that it seems easiest to flout it. The Golden Rule is:

Professional integrity must never give way to expediency.

In short, never take the 'easy' option, when you know for a fact that it is not the 'best' option. Specifically, on no account should you compromise your words, your layout, or your designs, just because someone tells you to, or because it will save you a heated argument. Remember: communication is your profession; you are the expert.

That is not to say that you must always insist on doing things your way with a bloody-minded doggedness - no-one is that perfect, and one must always be aware of one's limitations. But you should always be wary when an SME says, "Oh, just use my words; the users will understand", or when the commissioner of a communication says, "We don't have time for a thorough review - let's just give them what we've got, and then fix it in release 2". In fact, don't even think these things quietly to yourself; always give your documents that final check, even when (or especially when) you are in a hurry to get the job done.

Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

What is an SME?

In broad terms, a Subject Matter Expert (SME) is a person who possesses technical information that the Technical Communicator requires in order to produce the required documentation. This may be the designer of a product being developed, the user of a machine for which instructions are being written, or simply someone who knows a lot about the subject being documented (or at least who knows more than the Technical Communicator does).

Interacting with the SME

Subject Matter Experts are experts. They are usually quite senior, are very experienced, and are liable to be very busy. You should therefore ensure that you do not waste their time.

Don't waste the SME's time with basic questions

Make sure that you have at least a basic grounding in the subject area being discussed. The SME is likely to be distinctly frosty - and consequently unhelpful - if they have to explain everything from first principles. If you do not have the base knowledge, then try meeting with a less senior member of staff first, and obtain the base knowledge from them.

Draw up a list of questions

Make sure you know exactly what information you require (and therefore what questions to ask). Draw up a list, and at the start of the meeting make sure that the SME knows what you are writing, and what information you need....

Explain the format in which the information will be presented

Make sure that the SME knows the format in which the information will be presented (e.g. as a symptom/solution table, with specific headings and categories of information, etc.). If possible, give them an example of a similar document (ideally in exactly the required format) to read first. This will allow them to provide their information in a more-compatible format.

Emphasize the importance of the documentation

Make sure that the SME is aware that your work is an important part of the product/project. Make sure that the understand that you have deadlines and priorities as well.

Try to get the SMEs to understand the role of the Technical Communicator. Note that this is likely to be through a gradual build-up of trust. If you have done similar work that they might have seen, mention it to them. If you have worked with any of their colleagues (or better still, their boss) drop this into the conversation - give them the ammunition to do a bit of background research on you and what you are capable of (but make sure that they will only turn up good things!)

Managing meetings

  • Have an agenda
  • Make sure objectives are well-defined and understood by all attendees
  • Make sure there are no interruptions (try to avoid having meetings at the SME's desk or in someone's day-to-day office or cubicle)
  • Consider videoconferencing or teleconferencing, if one or more attendees are located at a different location

Formal meetings

Key roles:

  • Chairperson: Draw up agenda; send out notification; book room; follow agenda; solicit involvement, ensure decisions made
  • Secretary: Obtain relevant material; circulate agenda; prepare room; ensure all comments clear; draft & distribute minutes
  • Members: Prepare; contribute; take note of action items; read minutes & report back if required

Informal meetings

Even if you do not have all of these roles assigned (for example, if the meeting is fairly informal) it is important to make sure that (1) everyone knows the purpose of the meeting, and (2) any decisions made during the meeting are documented, along with the rationale behind the decision. The latter point is especially important, as there is nothing more annoying that not remembering what was decided and having to make the same decision all over again.

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