Remember the Greek myth of Icarus?
Master craftman Daedalus crafted a set of wings made out of wax and feathers for his son, Icarus, so that he could escape Crete. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun or his wings would melt. Icarus didn’t heed his father’s advice and ended up soaring too high. His wings melted, he plummeted to the ocean, and died.
The cautionary tale that we learned from the story: listen to your parents, don’t disobey your elders, and don’t disregard the rules.
Writer and business marketer Seth Godin argues in his book The Icarus Deception that there’s another part of the myth that isn’t widely known. Daedalus also reminded his son not to fly too close to the ocean because the water would ruin his wings.
Writes Godin: “It’s far more dangerous to fly too low than too high, because it feels safe to fly low. We settle for low expectations and small dreams and guarantee ourselves less than we are capable of. By flying too low, we shortchange not only ourselves but also those who depend on us or might benefit from our work.”
He argues that citizens need to fly higher than ever, not “play it safe.” He spends most of the book arguing that economies reward art, not compliance. In the past, workers were rewarded for playing by the rules. Not any more.
Godin argues that the following traits are important in the new economy:
Trust and permission: We do business with those individuals and organizations that have earned our attention. “We seek out people who tell us stories that resonate, we listen to those stories, and we engage with those people…who delight.”
Remarkability: We are drawn to those companies or individuals that stand out, who are different. No one sits around talking about the company or person who blends in with everyone else.
Leadership: Leaders are companies and individuals who take risks and take us all to a different place. An obvious example is Steve Jobs, who revolutionized how we listen to music and oversaw the creation of the iPhone and iPad.
Stories that spread: This involves delivering a message that is worthwhile to spread. “After trust is earned and your work is seen, only a fraction of it is magical enough to be worth spreading. Again this magic is the work of the human artist, not the corporate machine,” writes Godin.
Humanity: Instead of focusing on just the cheapest product, we focus on originality and caring instead.
How do these traits apply to technical communications?
Credibility and trust: We must ensure that the content that we write is technically accurate. Not really surprising, given that this is the primary responsibility of our jobs. When I started in this career, I tended to rely on Subject Matter Experts to vet my content. Some SMEs are excellent at reviewing technical documents; most don’t have the time or interest to review large documents. I realized that it’s ultimately up to me to make sure the content is as accurate as possible. Over time, I try to immerse myself in the subject so that I become a quasi-SME on a subject. In addition, I strive to do what I say I will do. It is simple advice but it’s surprising how many people will say one thing and do another. Or do nothing.
Remarkability: Scan most technical communication job advertisements and companies want some variation of the following skills:
- Experience with different authoring tools: Word, FrameMaker, Madcap Flare, Acrobat, RoboHelp, SharePoint, Captivate, and so on.
- Demonstrated writing skills and a related certificate or degree.
- Ability to juggle multiple priorities.
- Ability to work well with others.
- Demonstrated self-starter.
- And so on…
For a given job, let’s say 20 candidates apply for the job, including you. How are you different? What skills and personality do you possess that are different than the other candidates? Being the same as everyone else—essentially blending in—is not a strength. Perhaps you have experience writing content for mobile? Have you worked as an instructional designer or business analyst? Do you have deep domain knowledge on a given subject? Is your attitude a differentiator? Do you guarantee your work?
I’d suggest you think about and cultivate your differentiators so you stand out from the pack.
Making connections: Technical writers generally aren’t the life of the party. They don’t go out of their way to connect with others. They focus on their deliverables, not fostering a network.
There are exceptions. There’s one writer I know who really makes an effort to meet others for a coffee. He enjoys it. And he benefits from this effort: he frequently hears of contract jobs before they are advertised. Other writers recognize that he excels at networking.
As writers, we could all benefit from making connections with others, whether it’s another writer, or another contractor on your team, or a potential employer.
Do you agree? How can technical writers demonstrate trust, remarkability, leadership, storytelling, and an ability to make connections?