Pandas: below "C-level", and drowning

Last week, at the Technical Communication UK conference, I did a little lightning talk. It wasn’t very nice. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the session was billed as “rants” – an opportunity for people to get things off their chests. Boy, did I.

In fact, my first line was more or less:

“You’re sleepwalking into obsolescence at the hands of skinny-jeaned Hoxton web twats.”

It got worse from there, but I do feel it merits some clarification, and a smidge less precocious grandstanding.

You see, cheap ad-hominem slights against one half of my professional community aside, the other half does risk being made obsolete by them. Although there are all sorts of reasons why that might be OK, or even better than OK, it’s also potentially worrying.

My rant was spurred by attending the Content Strategy forum. It was a great event, but a couple of things struck me. One was that almost nobody mentioned technical communication. This is odd, because technical communication has been the unwitting (and certainly un-labelled) home of the practices of content strategy for years beyond number.

The other was that – despite this – most of the examples and case studies were tech comms projects. There were several examples of help system re-designs, and of noodling about with FAQs. Des Traynor talked about user interface text; Ove Dalen told us about Tenenor’s sales-boosting, cost-saving web support redesign; and Gerry McGovern got a round of applause for the worthy sound-bite “support is the new marketing”.

But they weren’t talking about “tech comms” or even “documentation”. It was “support content”, and it had a big, sexy ROI.

So where were the tech authors?

Despite bearing the brunt of my opening slur, the rant wasn’t laying this at the door of the content strategy community. That community’s quite focused on consultants and agencies, and those consultants and agencies have been really rather successful at selling themselves to organizations. They’ve had that success by offering good solutions to hard problems, and they came to the CS Forum to talk about it. Good on them.

But where were the tech authors?

Here’s the end of my rant:

If your organization is hiring a content strategy consultant to deal with your “support content”, isn’t it just possible that your tech comms department might have slipped up?

If content strategy is making money in this space, has tech comms failed?

The answer, of course is “no, but…” and there are a world of caveats, not least that plenty of organizations still don’t have technical communication departments. But many of those that have them also have a problem. I would argue that the problem is visibility and influence.

You see, a great deal of content strategy has its roots in marketing, and a great deal of content strategists are used to making a strong ROI case. Lots of them are used to doing it to senior people, too. Content strategy is just rather better groomed for making a case at what is loathsomely referred to as “C-level”. That is: to your CEO, or CMO, or even CIO; to the folks in the big chairs who worry about the bottom line. Whereas, historically, tech comms is somewhat more habituated to cowering in the basement, bashing out a 400-page pdf and hoping to escape the next round of redundancies.

We need to fix that, right?

Or not. I mean, provided the tech comms work is getting done right, I’m not sure it matters who does it, or under what job title, and I’ve no intention of starting a tech comms/content strategy turf war.

But there is something else here. Something a bit fuzzier and fluffier, and it has to do with agency and happiness. You see, when content strategy has a voice on the board, where it has buy-in and investment, it can get stuff done. Life’s a lot less grinding and miserable in that world. Far fewer people breathe down your neck when you’re a revenue centre as opposed to a cost.

So even assuming we don’t want to get our egos out and see whose is bigger, tech comms still needs to get its act together. It still needs to talk to the board. It needs to demonstrate its value. It needs to not march peacefully into obsolescence.

That’s where the pandas come in. They’re lovely, aren’t they? Large, cute, and somehow reassuring. Only, there’s a common joke about pandas. You’ve probably heard it: does a species that’s too lazy to mate really deserve saving?

I won’t invite you to consider technical authors mating; this isn’t about that. But it’s worth pondering just who will feel sorry for tech comms if it goes down quietly. And as a means of not doing so, it’s worth rather more to actually talk to the content strategy community. They’re doing the same job. I hope they’re doing it as well, and I know they’re better at selling it.