Here are three lists showing the five (or six) essential skills for explaining technical information successfully. All of those lists leave out the most important skill though, as the love story of a couple at a museum demonstrates.
Here are three stories that probably don’t seem to have much to do with communicating “complicated stuff” effectively but, I think, make some key points about effective communication.
First, a love story: I was recently at the Museum of the City of New York when my wife pointed out a couple in the room with us. She was blind, he was not. They were holding hands as they went from one display case to another. At each case, he would describe the contents of the case to her, guiding her hand over the glass as he talked about the shape of the pieces in the case and what each piece looked like. As he described each piece, they would talk about what she, through him, could see.
Second, a business story: Earlier in the same week, I’d been talking to my contact at a company I’ve done consulting with over the last eight or ten years. My contact mentioned that talking to me (a “business programmer”) and then one of the other programmers on the project (an “embedded system programmer” who writes software that runs on devices like your refrigerator or dishwasher) had been challenging. My contact found that he had to keep changing mindsets and communication styles as he switched between us, even though both of the people he was talking to were programmers (as was he, as a matter of fact).
Third, a pubic relations story: Many years ago, I was presenting at a conference and ended up on a question and answer panel. A person in the audience asked the panel “How do I move from down here to up there?” One of the other presenters leaned into the microphone and said “I’m not up here because I’m necessarily the best or the best paid. I’m up here because the thought that I know something that someone else doesn’t know drives me crazy and I have to fix that.” All of us on the panel nodded our heads.
If you’re looking for lists of essential skills for a technical writer, they aren’t hard to find. Furthermore, there’s enough overlap among those lists to suggest that everyone is clear on what those essential skills are. Tom Johnson on his blog, I’d Rather Be Writing, has a list of just five items. Writing Assistance (who help companies find technical communicators) goes a little further and lists six critical skills that a technical writer needs. Novatek (who help companies launch new products) have a similar list but include a skill that doesn’t appear on the other two: “patience and persistence.” Even though these lists are aimed at professional technical writers, you should check them out: They’ll help you understand how your skills match to what’s required when communicating effectively, even if you don’t do it for a living (though, when you think about, communicating probably is a key part of how you do make a living).
I’m not here to tell you that those lists are wrong: the lists reference writing skills and “knowing what you’re talking about”, for example, and I think we all feel those are essential to communicating technical information effectively. And I do agree with those lists’ premise: Without those skills you won’t succeed in communicating effectively with others. In fact, the skills on these lists are ones we teach both in Learning Tree’s technical writing course and business writing course (though we don’t stop at five or six skills). Unfortunately, while those skills are necessary, they are not sufficient.
For example, all of those lists say you must write “clearly, precisely, and concisely” (to quote the Novatek list) but the lists assume that “clearly, precisely, and concisely” are truths that can be applied universally.
That assumption is wrong: One reader’s concise is another reader’s “You left out something I needed” (or, worse, “I have no idea what you’re talking about”). The same is true of clarity and precision: those words only make sense if you know how the reader approaches the world, how the reader thinks about problems, and how the reader understands the words you’re using. If you assume your readers do all of those things “just like you” then you’re going to be very disappointed.
I won’t suggest that you have to be in love with your readers to communicate with them effectively. But when it comes to technical communication, like the couple in the museum, you need to see things the same way that your reader does—including the things they don’t (yet) see. As the contact at my client shows, what’s critical in communicating with people who “aren’t like you” is understanding how that other person thinks (and, by the way, no one is “like you”). Not surprisingly then, in both our technical writing and business writing courses, we provide tools for understanding your readers’ communication styles because we understand that those skills matter when communicating with other people.
Finally, as my co-presenter on the conference panel said, effective communication is not driven by the desire to explain. Instead, effective communication is driven by the desire to help the other person understand. You do need the skills on those three lists (and in our courses). But the most important skills in communicating are empathy and understanding.