A Technical Communication Conversation — Ellis Pratt

This is part of the series of conversations that I originally published in ContentHug, in 2015.

Thank you Ellis Pratt.


[CH]: Technical communication has really evolved from merely user manuals to ROI driven approach, UG content, and web based authoring tools. I must say these are all integration points with content strategy, towards the common goal. Considering this convergence, what exactly ‘content’ community needs to address? For example if we talk about titles, what can be the next title of a senior technical writer or a documentation manager that can explain it? If not for title, what next in terms of content ownership or value to a business?

[EP]: Job titles seem to have a longevity, but the activities can change underneath the title. The discussion seems partly due to the status and recognition of a job title. For example, we’re seeing some content marketers call themselves content strategists. This means it can be confusing when new job titles emerge. The technical communicator’s role is still about making information clear and simple to users, so I think the focus should be more on defining the value of that to the business.

[CH]: Assume that you get your dream job or contract, lead or otherwise. What is the most important thing that you have learnt so far that you will put into practice there?

[EP]: We deal mostly with information that has a flow. There is a beginning, middle and end; there is usually a task that someone has to do. What we do is often about surfacing those tasks, clarifying who is responsible, to reach a goal.

[CH]: There are times when we need to push things around, such as to get a buy in. Can you share some experience when you had to take a really tough call, such as for style guide, for user education, for a new authoring environment, or for deliverables?

[EP]: Right at the beginning it’s important to ask the sponsor what’s motivated them to contact you. There are reverse selling questions such as, Why bother changing? Does the problem really exist? and so on, that you can ask. You can remind them of their answers during the project. You also need to show the planned activity relates back to whatever was causing them to lose sleep at night. You can also make little steps that build on successes — that you are actually refining and improving, rather than starting something completely new.

[CH]: How do organizations address the content ownership concerns when we have content strategists, content marketers, technical communicators, and even data scientists? How do you see your role in defining the content ownership process?

[EP]: It’s not something we’ve faced as an issue, but I don’t think I can improve on Larry Kunz’s response: Governance is an essential. The organisation has to define who owns the process, and who is responsible for carrying out the various tasks.

[CH]: What role technical communicators can have in disruption–technology or otherwise?

[EP]: Technical communicators are comfortable with content re-use, multi-channel publishing and single sourcing, and it’s easy to forget these can be radical concepts to others. Disruption can create a need for clarity and simplicity, and technical communicators have the skills to provide this.

[CH]: Can you name any companies or brands whom you admire for their content?

[EP]: I think the GDS is doing some very interesting work with the gov.uk website.

I also think there have been some significant improvements to Microsoft’s UI and Help text. They are both creating very clear, empathic and useful content.

[CH]: If you could weave a magic wand only once, what you wish for your current role at work?

[EP]: Co-owning a consultancy and training company, it’s hard to say anything other than an ever increasing number of enquiries! Apart from that, I think even today, it would be nice if fewer people believed software applications could solve all their problems, without the need to change anything else.


Vinish Garg | Products. Experience. Stories. I am a EEES (External Eye Experience Specialist) for startups and their goals, for content, UX, and customer experience.