While I was still in school, some of my grad school peers were more concerned about getting the content right than anything else. Being a tech/space geek, I wasn’t worried about that as much. The big challenge for me–introverted, opinionated, authority-averse–was dealing with people. In short, while being able to learn how to get your technical content correct and written well is important, those will probably be the easiest part of your job.
The biggest challenge with any job will be the people.
This is not to say everyone is evil or that you’ll spend most of your time fighting politics. However, it is conceivable that you could spend as much as 50-67% of your week doing things other than researching and writing. It’s better that someone tells you now. So what else could you end up doing?
I’m not a fan of meetings, to put it mildly, but they’re a fact of life. Meetings occur for a multitude of reasons. In a NASA context, you might have meetings with your senior customer (say, the director of a department), your customer’s manager, and then your actual customer to find out what’s going on at various levels of the organization. If you’re a contractor, this could happen, PLUS you’ll have to attend meetings at the various levels of the company you work for. Generally, meetings occur for one of two or three reasons: 1) provide a status of what everyone is doing; 2) share technical information that’s valuable to a given project or activity (NASA calls these Technical Interchange Meetings, or TIMs).; or 3) make a decision when there is a question about how to proceed.
Don’t Talk Unnecessarily
So how do you approach a meeting? I’ve got to confess, this took awhile because as I moved from my 20s to my 30s, I started attending more meetings and also shifted from being an extrovert to becoming an introvert. As a result, I started enjoying meetings less. I started using my reasoning. For instance, I realized that if I stopped asking questions that someone else had already asked or answered, or if I stopped talking just to hear myself talk, the meeting wouldn’t last as long. Now, it’s your call: if you like being in a room with fluorescent lighting and a bunch of people all talking about their activities, Godspeed, keep talking. However, if you’re an introvert who wants to get back to writing ASAP, the less you talk, the better.
Know What Questions You Can Ask Later
This is difficult to explain, but I’ll try. There are times when you have a burning question in your mind, but it might be better to shut your mouth and listen before asking. For instance, say you want to know the meaning of an acronym people are using. If you’ve been in an organization awhile, the meaning might come to you. Or you might learn more by listening to the context of the conversation. Or, if it’s not a major detail, but something you might want to know for future reference, you can ask a coworker after the meeting. This lesson is in direct contradiction of the next one, which is…
Do Speak When Necessary
This is a tougher call, especially for an introvert like me, but there will be times when I need to know something. It could happen when someone is saying something that affects my pay, my job security, or my future work. Whatever button it is that sets you off, eventually there will come that moment when nobody in the room is willing to ask a question that everyone wants to know the answer to, and you have to make the call about whether you will raise your hand or stay ignorant like everyone else. I have a coworker who groans or ducks whenever I raise my hand because he knows I’m about to ask a direct or uncomfortable question. For example, one of my favorites is, “Is this [process/paperwork/meeting/social gathering] really necessary?” You never know: the answer might be no, which will save you a lot of aggravation, won’t it?
Another thing I’m willing to do is ask a question that might make me look stupid. That’s hard for some people. No one wants to look stupid. However, if you’ve got a question about something (“What does this acronym mean?” “Does this mean our benefits are cut?” “Did our schedule just get extended or cut?”), ask it. Yes, it might take extra time. Yes, it might sound like an obvious or for-dummies question, but odds are that if you’re asking the question, you’re not alone. Generally, the best time to ask a question like this is if the topic is about to change and the answer hasn’t become obvious through the context of the ensuing conversation.
Your mileage could vary on this. Perhaps someone is slow to provide you the information you need to finish a project. Perhaps someone is pushing you to deliver something that isn’t ready yet. Perhaps someone is being unnecessarily rude or curt with you when you have done nothing consciously to earn their disrespect.
Well, the workplace isn’t junior high or high school (okay, I can’t vouch for everyone). However, decking someone or pulling their hair out is likely to earn you not a detention but more like a suspension from work, termination, and/or a lawsuit. So the adult world requires that people talk out their differences of opinion. How do you approach them? One of the few things I remember from my conflict management class at Disney (which also works for personal conflicts) is that you should–politely, respectfully–describe the behavior that concerns you without accusing or being snippy, explain its effect on you, request a specific, different behavior in the future, and then await the other person’s response. Seriously, I don’t have anything better than that, but it can’t hurt to try. If you’re worried about how your comments will be perceived, bring in someone with authority above the two of you. Otherwise, you can let things fester or have a knock-down, drag-out feud. Your call.
Working with Individuals
A lot of the time your content will come from subject matter experts (SMEs), who might not have a lot of time to talk or who don’t like talking about their work or think that their explanations are so brilliant that they don’t require repetition or further explanation. It will be up to you to be true to your product/work and to get the answers that you need. That will mean asking (politely, I’m a big fan of doing things politely) someone with a Ph.D. or a “Vice President” on their door to slow down and clarify something you don’t understand. That is where your diplomacy skills must come in, and you must be willing to say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you just said. Did you mean…?” and then explain what you thought you heard from the SME/big boss.
Working with Groups
Proposals are a typical example of when you will have to work in a group. Sometimes you’re theoretically locked into a “war room” until a high-pressure proposal is completed on a deadline. You’ll have multiple people talking in your ear or looking over your shoulder as you are trying to type what people are saying. In such situations, you must be able to maintain your cool and (always, politely) push back when people are making unreasonable demands on you. What’s unreasonable? This would be things like last-minute requests to stay at the office overnight when you’ve already said you had to leave on time; someone changing content that is flat-out incorrect; or someone changing the scope of a project without warning.
Your coworkers will surprise you. Someone might pull you aside and tell you about some personal problem they’re having. Your boss might pull you aside and ask you if YOU’RE okay when you think you’ve been acting normally. You might have to tell someone that you can’t hire them or that their invoice is out of order. You might have to apologize for some comment an executive of your organization made that offended a customer. In my personal case, I found that my time in the retail and service industries (Osco Drug and Walt Disney World, respectively) gave me a solid foundation in customer/guest relations.
However, what if you haven’t had experience in working with thousands of guests in one of the world’s most high-demand tourist locations? The short version of the Disney philosophy comes from the word “guest.” When you’re working with a client, customer, vendor, or other business acquaintance, you need to think of them as someone you would have as a guest in your own home: you be hospitable to the most reasonable extent you can. When they become unreasonable (rude, insulting, profane, violent), you have more freedom to be firm in kind, but even in the rude, insulting, and profane stages, you can still focus on maintaining your politeness. Your goal is to maintain a relationship, not win an argument.
I’m certain other thoughts will come to me along these lines, but this covers the basics. As much as I wanted to think that it would be just me and the content, that was wishful thinking. The content comes from people, and the end users are people, so you can’t avoid “soft skills” in your quest to develop good technical communication. The challenge isn’t always “overcoming” your people challenges but working around or with them. You can’t avoid people by becoming a technical writer. Learning how to work with them is an absolutely necessary “survival skill.”