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Published on September 24th, 2006 | by Rahel Bailie


Staying ahead of the pack: rethinking core competencies for technical communicators

When we read about core competencies for technical communicators, the most common skills include communication, research, project management, an intuitive ability to learn technical information and new authoring tools, and the ever-popular “people skills.” But is this still a valid baseline measure?

These core competencies are so generally worded that skills used in 1996 should work in 2006.  Yet the way writers develop content has vastly changed. The definition of sound writing skills has changed to include writing for the Web and for content management systems, the new technologies that writers are expected to learn have become more sophisticated and change at a far more rapid rate, and the definition of people skills has evolved.

The interpretation of core competencies, then, is contextual. Today’s development and marketing environments are more sophisticated than ever, and the skills of professional technical writers have grown along with their particular industries. The baseline skill set for a good communicator could be summed as follows:

Superior writing skills. This means not only writing to the 4Cs of clear, correct, concise, and complete, but also to write to genre. Technical writers should know the appropriate structure of contemporary information products well enough to be able to explain and defend, and practice them when developing content. The study of adjunct disciplines – cognitive psychology, for example – could help improve writing skills as writers understand the theory behind learning styles and task performance.

Strong research skills. Technical communicators continue to interview users and subject matter experts, but the techniques have become more sophisticated: non-directed, talk-aloud protocol, thin-slicing, personas, task sorting … the list goes on. Writers should be conversant about interviewing techniques and know when to use which ones.

Project management skills. The nature of project management has evolved from schedule and resource management. It means aligning the project to corporate goals, weighing project activities against return on investment, and qualitative decision-making around scope creep. As user experience activities – documentation, usability, and so on – are often projects within larger projects, this is an important skill for writers to develop.

Good people skills. People skills does not mean taking orders from subject matter experts. Today’s writers participate on cross-functional teams, run tests, and participate in all sorts of tasks requiring social intercourse. Communicators should know about team roles and personality types, both to understand themselves and their teammates.

Intuitive learning. A communicator should be familiar with current paradigms and conventions and understand their strengths and shortfalls. Whether it means learning a new authoring tool or a technology to be documented, what begins as intuition is strengthened through experience.

Finally, what bears mentioning is that an important aspect of maintaining core competencies is a personal commitment to career development. Technical communicators without professional development plans will quickly see their skills meet a declining baseline and, as the stale date on skills is regularly shortened, a commitment to life-long learning becomes a critical factor to retaining relevant core competencies.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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