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Gaining Respect: Enlighten Them About Your Abilities
1997, Mar-Apr (June 09, 2008)
by Hilary Harris

As technical communicators, we often gripe about respect—in peer discussions, TECHWR-L threads, STC newsletter and journal articles, and STC meeting topics. We discuss and write the problem, but why
don't we just get it?

A possible reason is that we don't work on it enough. When projects are going well, respect probably doesn't come to mind. Indeed, when the project is on schedule and budget, when the subject matter experts are cooperative, and when the boss is happy, we're happy too. But suddenly — —BAM! — —we are cutting corners mid-project, justifying our expense, or, worse yet, compromising our professionalism. We acquiesce to ill-informed others—who “know how it
should be done.” We then muse on how and why this happened.

While we cannot completely rid ourselves of such nightmarish scenarios, there is enough evidence to suggest that we experience less than acceptable levels of respect in the workplace. So what can we do? In the previous issue of Communiqué (January/February 1997), Mary Wise gave excellent pointers. But, alas! It may be another ogre that looms over us tightly gripping the respect rope.

In reading real-life scenarios from the TECHWR-L list on the issue of respect, many complaints seem to share a common denominator: a misconception or misunderstanding of our profession. Perhaps our lack of respect stems from a lack of understanding.

As a 'sole' technical writer most of the time, I field my fair share of misconceptions. Perhaps we presume when we think everyone knows and understands what we do, especially if they asked for our services! For example, on one assignment, it became clear that my client was hungry for information on my services. I wondered if his co-workers lacked this understanding too. I momentarily visualized wearing on the job a sandwich board with instructions on how to use and benefit from my services!

Prior to our discussion, my client viewed and labeled a technical writer as anyone capable of composing a master's thesis on a word processor. Educating my client was a communications challenge because of the delicacy of the working relationship.

But after many interactions, my working relationships improved not only with my client but with his co-workers as well. Gradually, tactfully, I wove into the conversation concepts and phrases like subject matter experts, substantive edit, content edit, user needs, user studies, and user testing. For me, this proactive approach is now a given in a new workplace.

So, technical communicators, maybe we should consider an all-out campaign to educate the public and to minimize misconceptions. Start in the workplace by first understanding how others perceive our area of expertise. Where there is confusion, eliminate it. Show how you can help convey their ideas effectively. A word of caution: don't assume anything.

Within STC, we could call on local companies to educate management on what technical communicators do and the value-added component they deliver. We could publish brochures on the specifics of what we do on the STC Web pages. These brochures could be available to each chapter and disseminated at meetings. I bet many local contract employment shops would just love such a piece—it’d help their clients identify their need for technical communicators.

The respect issue is not a quick and easy fix. But by educating companies about our abilities, we’ll be adding more credence to our roles as technical communicators. As I was reminded at the Seattle conference last May, it is our job as technical communicators to understand and demonstrate the use of these new technology for the new mass audiences. It may be frustrating and time consuming, but we could start by going back to the basics. End of article.

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