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The Sport of Technical Communication
2012, Q1 (March 31, 2012)
By Meredith Kinder, Associate Fellow
Meredith Kinder
Meredith Kinder

Technical communication has evolved since its humble beginning in ancient Greece, when early scientific and astronomical observations were scribbled on pages or passed down orally through apprenticeships. We now document using sophisticated technology and produce information products in the form of PDFs or videos that can be viewed even on a cell phone.

Sports, similar to technical communication, have followed a path of evolution, starting before the ancient Egyptians. Over the centuries, inventors created new sports and improved existing ones. For example, basketball was invented in 1891 and played with a soccer ball and a peach basket. Since then, it has evolved into a game played with iron hoops and open-ended nets—and men are given millions of dollars to play professionally.

Comparing sports to technical communication may seem like a stretch at first glance. However, there are many elements that sports and technical communication share. By examining four basic similarities, we can begin to better understand our profession and the basic elements on which technical communication is built.

Sports and technical communication both have:
  • Goals and objectives
  • Rules
  • Equipment
  • Players

Technical Communication Goals and Objectives

When you are introduced to a new sport, the first question you might ask is, “What’s the objective of the game?” The objective of soccer and basketball is to get the ball in the net. The objective of baseball is to run around the bases. If you do not understand the objective of the game, you likely will not play correctly and will not produce very good results.
Technical communication also has rules: use complete sentences, avoid jargon when appropriate, use appropriate color combinations, meet your deadlines.

Consider if you did not realize that the objective in golf is to hit the ball the fewest amount of times. Without understanding the goal, you may never win.

Technical communication, too, has goals and objectives that must be clearly understood in order to “win,” or, create a successful information product. When you approach a new project, you may also ask, “What’s the objective of this deliverable?” Overall, the objective of technical communication is to help users to complete a task.

Every process we use to create a deliverable revolves around the objective:
  • We conduct audience analyses in order to better understand the user.
  • We collect information about a product so that our deliverables explain the product thoroughly and accurately.
  • We toil over the deliverable’s organization and outline so that it is clear and understandable.

We may be in different roles as the information provider, and our users may have different goals, but our deliverables’ objective is to help users complete a task, no matter what task that is.

Technical Communication Rules

All sports have rules: keep the ball inside the lines, dribble the ball every two steps, no hitting or pushing other players. You mostly learn about the rules by either playing the sport repeatedly with others or watching others play. By paying attention to how the flow of the game goes, you can learn the rules. Furthermore, if you want to know more details, or if you don’t have anyone to watch, you can read a rulebook. Rulebooks provide guidance on how to participate and what to do and what not to do.

Technical communication also has rules: use complete sentences, avoid jargon when appropriate, use appropriate color combinations, meet your deadlines. Others may include rules that your company or customer set in place, such as using a certain tone, logo, or terminology.

You learn the rules of technical communication in many ways that are similar to how you learn the rules of a sport. You learn by being taught by someone else: being mentored at work, taking classes, or reading instructional articles and books. You also learn by watching others: working closely with a co-worker, reading others’ writing, or viewing their diagrams or artwork. Furthermore, technical communication has rulebooks: the Chicago Manual of Style, your company style guide, and other books such as “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

Sports have different rules for every type of game, and likewise technical communication has different rules for every type of deliverable. Just as you would not try to apply the rules of tennis to the game of golf, you probably would not adhere to the exact same rules when you create a user manual for a complex software application as you would when you create a quick reference guide for use by a mechanic.

Technical Communication Equipment

To play most sports, you need the proper equipment—or, the equipment that supports your end goal. For baseball you need a field, bases, ball, gloves, and bat. For technical communication, you need a medium by which to deliver what you create. That medium can be as sophisticated as state-of-the-art hardware or expensive XML creation software for creating an online help system or as simple as pens and markers for creating an informative poster. Equipment in my office includes a huge whiteboard and pens for brainstorming. It can also include ways in which you conduct research, such as search engines or internal and external web sites that provide background information for you to use. The printing presses that print your deliverables or the software that creates your PDFs are considered your technical communication “playing equipment.”

Technical Communication Players

All competitive sports have players, and the number of players varies based on the sport played. Tennis can have two or four players. Hockey teams have 20 players. The number of players allowed on the field is limited—in football, a team receives a 10-yard penalty if it has more than 12 players on the field at one time during play. Similarly, in technical communication project team sizes can vary.

Furthermore, sports teams assign a captain, who is the team leader and is responsible for making decisions on the team’s behalf, such as calling heads or tails during the coin toss, mentoring younger team members, serving as team motivator, calling plays, and more. In technical communication, we see similar “team captains” emerge, whether it is a project manager on a consulting project, technical communication manager on a technical communication team, or a technical lead who steps up to lead.


Technical communication and sport have more in common than the fact that they have had a long, evolving life. By examining each’s goals and objectives, rules, equipment, and players, we can better understand our own roles, responsibilities, and working environment.

From tennis to lacrosse to bowling, all sports share these elements that make them fun, competitive, and challenging. Likewise, all types of technical communication—writing, editing, UI design, or information architecture—are like sports in that they possess organizational structure that provide clear objectives and guidelines and validify our profession. Now, let’s play ball!



Meredith can be reached at meredith dot kinder at sas dot com.End of article.

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