Friday, June 1, 2007

Focus on Communication Skills not just Tools

I just finished reading Geoffrey Hart's article, "We're Communicators, Not Just Tool Users," in the current issue of Intercom (STC membership required for online access).

This article actually had me breathing a sigh of relief. I, like many others out there, am in the field that I am because I have an aptitude for communication - whether technical writing, marketing communications, or training. That's not to say I've mastered it all -- far from it -- but along the way, I have learned from others and learned by doing. I do not have a formal education in writing or communication (although I'm currently working on my Masters in Technical & Professional Communication). So, I've always been a little self-conscious about how my skills measure up -- not just in writing -- but also in my experience in using many of the tools out there that technical writers use. Mr. Hart's point is that communication is the skill at the heart of what we do, not the tool we use to communicate. By overemphasizing the array of tools we use, and essentially allowing them to define our skill-set, we do a disservice to ourselves and others. Hiring managers are often mistakenly focused on requiring a certain number of years using certain tools as a means to measure your skills as a writer. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Mr. Hart reminds us that the 80-20 rule applies here. To do 80 percent of our job, writers use about 20 percent of the features of the applications they use. Most of our assignments don't require that we know every bell and whistle of the applications we use, just what is needed to effectively accomplish the job. Many of the software "experts" who do know all the bells and whistles don't necessarily know how to communicate.

My resume contains a list of software applications and systems I've had experience with. I've often wondered what expectation this is setting with potential employers. Do they think that by listing it here, I'm an expert? Is it dishonest to list applications I haven't used in 3-4 years? Should I qualify each item with my skill level? After reading Mr. Hart's article, I'm not as concerned. He notes that many of us do not have formal training on the software applications that we use, but rather, we have the ability to effectively learn software in a few days time without training. Even if we do have 3 years of experience with an application, it doesn’t mean we know all the bells and whistles either. I think he's right about this too. I have had very little formal training on any of the applications I use, and I probably have more practical expertise and know-how than many who sat in a classroom to learn them.

I appreciate Mr. Hart's take on things. I think he's right on many points. It's important to know the tools used in our industry, but people hire us (or should hire us) because of our skills as communicators. If we have the ability to learn new applications fairly efficiently, which most of us do, we should be attractive candidates.

I hope he's right.


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