27 November 2013

Mixed Messages

I don’t usually touch on politics in my blog posts – I believe it’s against policy – but I was struck by a recent article where our illustrious PM decided to link the quality of state education with the inability of many to find a entry level job on a production line. As a technical communicator, I think he’s wrong. My reasoning is based both on my own experiences in education and training, and my current professional practice.

I remember preparing for my GCSE English exams. Our English teacher received a missive from the exam board on the subject of ‘structured writing’. There was a whole section on the types of phrases we could use to compare and contrast arguments and introduce points of view, which our teacher dutifully read out to us. They became more florid the further into the list you progressed, perhaps reflecting the fact that a lower-grade student would only be expected to remember the first few. Right at the end was “there is a train of thought that runs...” – by this point the class was in hysterics. There was something about the way that our teacher chose to read that list that let us know it wasn’t to be taken too seriously. She finished with the staunch admonition that were we ever to use such a convoluted phrase to convey “others think...” she would hunt us down one by one.

There is, however, a train of thought that runs to the acceptance of such phrasing (it has taken me 15 years to work that into a piece of writing with an almost straight face). The people who hold this view were taught by the other type of English teacher: the ones who didn’t laugh and snigger at the directives being sent down from those who view having an education as having the ability to show off (or as it is called in the north of England, ‘ponce about’). The adherents of this doctrine write as floridly, passively and with as many synonyms thrown in as possible because they have been taught that this is how the educated communicate. (If you don't believe me, watch the tortuous pursuit of definition that is Prime Minister's Questions.)

Of course, this is how the ‘educated‘ tend to communicate. Lead engineers, managers, and those at CxO level (where x is some function of the business) generally communicate from within their own comfort zone, blissfully unaware that to those outside their circle they may as well be using a foreign language. The manager states “we must be flexible with regards to the future” when planning layoffs; meanwhile the employee is wondering when the new yoga classes are going to start. In another example, the lead design engineer has referred to the same binary function selector as a switch, toggle, selector and lever interchangeably within a single paragraph of emergency shut-down instructions... that are being read whilst the machine in question trundles towards a cliff edge. Both examples mirror political communication a little too well.

The real problem is that job seekers don't know exactly what they need to do to get the job they want because they aren't told in a way they understand. Therefore, the issue is not in the education and training of the many, but the education of the few who think their communications strategy is fit for purpose when attempting to get a message across different levels in society, organisations and processes. In many cases the problem lies with message and sender, not the befuddled receiver. This gap is why technical communicators exist. We work with subject matter experts and transform their message into something that the end user can understand.

Whilst my services as a professional communicator are a valuable commodity, I feel that on this occasion I can distil 25 years of experience as a learner, teacher and technical communicator to help the Prime Minister and anyone else who fancies being a politician or leader of men avoid some often identified pitfalls.

Answer the question being asked
You may be a leading expert on a particular subject, but when someone asks “what happens if I press the big red button?” your answer should go along the lines of “when you press the big red button, X happens.” Your audience do not want to know about why you think red is a nice colour, why X is such a favourable outcome, or how brilliant you were in suggesting to a colleague that they have their secretary open a bidding process to pay a large company – run by a family friend – to subcontract an electrician to install the big red button.
Think about the context of the recipient
I have an emergency bandage. The instructions are in 5 steps. Steps 1 to 4 deal with applying the bandage, and consist of big clear illustrations that can be read under a torch in low light. Step 5 deals with removing the bandage and consists of black text on a grey background. The pictures exist because when your mate is bleeding to death at 2 in the morning, you don't have time to read an essay. There are people in society who – for whatever reason – are bleeding out and are relying on you and your team to get the job done, and they really don't have time for anyone to wade through verbiage.
Short words are the best
This pithy piece of tech-comms wisdom stems from one of your predecessors, but it is true. I'd suggest that "yes" and "no" are two of the short words that might come in useful for answering questions. If people want your life-story or to know what you've been thinking about recently they can call you "Dave" and add you on Facebook.

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