Strategic Technical Writing

I am not a documentation writer. That’s the usual assumption when I speak to engineers, but in fact, I usually explain that “I translate Engineerish into English.” In reality, I write presentations, conference papers, and speeches for program managers. That means I must have enough command of my subject to make it understandable and (occasionally) enjoyable for outside audiences.

What the heck does “strategic” mean? That means I am writing content about a program with the intention of advancing the goals of the program. That, in turn, means that I am usually writing content to a key “stakeholder” audience, i.e., an audience that has a direct financial, technical, or policy interest in the work of my program. To engage in strategic communication, then, is to share information about a program, project, etc. that matters to the stakeholders and enables them to better understand and support the work that the program is doing.

This is different from “pure” technical writing because the precise concern of the audience (or the writer) is not with executing the technical content of the activity–say, sharing satellite-based Earth observations or launching large amounts of cargo into space–rather, the concern of the strategic communicator is with advancing the interests of the program itself.

So what do you need to know to be a “strategic communicator” instead of, say, a documentation writer? The difference is in the user/consumer of the information. In both cases, the goal is to communicate specific, useful information of a scientific or technical nature in such a way that the audience can act upon it in the way the writer intends. So rather than focusing on the technical activities–say, Earth observation or space launch–you are focusing more on the “why” of such activities or the aspects of the technology that enable stakeholders to advance their own goals.

Does this sound like blah-blah-blah or business doublespeak? I apologize. It’s a little philosophical, what I do, and I’ve just more or less taken it for granted. Let’s say the program manager is going out to talk to a group of companies that would do the work you’re trying to do. They are going to want to know things like what are the financial opportunities they might explore in the program? What are the deadlines for submitting proposals to do new work? What sort of progress is the program making? How many workers might your organization need for future work? These are the sorts of statistics (technical information) that your audience wants. Yes, the technical aspects of the project are important to provide context (where are you going, how, and why?), but your emphasis as a strategic communicator is to provide information that the audience can use to plan for the future, lobby their congressperson, encourage their employees, or propose future business.

“Strategic” communication, then, is about sharing technical information that enables your organization or its supporters to continue pursuing the work you are engaged in doing. It requires a slightly different mindset from documentation writing because while documentation exists to ensure that users of a technology/process use it correctly and safely, strategic communicators are providing information so that stakeholders can accurately and honestly support your cause.

This is a little more “fluffy” than traditional technical writing, and I must confess that I prefer it in many ways to documentation. It is more philosophical and less practical. It requires a different type of creativity because it is dealing with different types of actions–social and political as opposed to technical. With documentation, you want to make sure that each audience member understands and uses your information in precisely the same way so that the technology works correctly. With strategic communication, you are aiming for your audience to take some action on your behalf. You are not always certain what that action is, but in the end, you want your audience to advance your cause, whatever it is.

So…are you looking for a writing job in a technical field, but are more interested in winning hearts and minds than ensuring correct use of hardware or software? If so, strategic communication might be for you.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in advocacy, audience, philosophy, technical writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Strategic Technical Writing

  1. Pingback: Is DoD Strategic Communications Going Away? « To Inform is to Influence

  2. Pingback: Interview: Kristina Hendrix, Director of Communications | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication – T.E.N.

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