March 2017

Image: © Viktor Bondar/

The case for the classics

My involvement in technical communication training has made me aware of some weaknesses of modern education. Have you seen the videos of American university students failing to answer basic questions about history, politics, and science, but knowing the latest gossip about celebrities? And what about those terrible social media typos? If you are like me, you may not know whether to laugh or cry.

I applaud the inclusion of more modern topics in high schools, colleges, and universities. Technology subjects, for example, are important and relevant. However, they cannot be at the expense of critical core topics. In all white-collar professions, you need basic math skills, basic knowledge of history, and the ability to read and write at a high level. In a profession based on the ability to communicate clearly and correctly, we should expect a much better mastery of grammar, syntax, and punctuation than I see in many of my adult students.

Our profession is uniquely challenging in that the best practitioner must be a true Renaissance man; that is, an individual who is well-educated in a wide variety of subjects. I see three gaps in young technical communicators entering the field: general knowledge, logic, and public speaking.

The case for general knowledge

Our profession demands a breadth and depth of knowledge that is rare in today’s world of specialization: A successful technical communicator needs to know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. Ours is a career well suited for individuals with a passion for learning rather than a passion for a specific subject.

Broad general knowledge is what allows someone to recognize patterns, put things into context, and even recognize what he doesn’t know. It allows a technical editor to identify a product name or marketing slogan as problematic because of its association with a negative historic event. It allows technical authors to connect to a wider range of audiences.

The problem is that general knowledge is only gained through extensive reading and exposure to a wide range of subjects. There is a strong correlation between intellectual curiosity and good general knowledge. Personally, I will always prefer a technical communicator with intellectual curiosity!

The case for logic

Stephen Brookfield is part of a generation of educators who viewed critical thinking as the most important element of an education. But while it is important in all professions, it is crucial in ours. As technical communicators, we are faced with a steady stream of information from our SMEs. Our job is to analyze this information and make good decisions about what content to present (and how to present it) to our users. Therefore, we must have superb logic skills to be able to spot missing information, unnecessary information, and incorrect information. We must be able to question "facts" that are contradictory or illogical. Sadly, when I present students with illogical source content, fewer than 20 percent are able to spot glaringly obvious problems.

How can this be possible? These are people who are blessed with an above-average IQ and a university degree. So why are they not capable of critical thinking? Why do they accept information passively?

The answer is complicated. First, very few primary schools teach critical thinking (logic). Children are expected to memorize and regurgitate facts, rather than think for themselves or question information. These are skills that are best developed at an early age; when children don’t learn critical thinking, they become the next generation of passive students and then mentally lazy adults, accepting information rather than spotting logic flaws. Teaching logic and critical thinking to adults isn’t impossible, but it takes skillful training and plenty of reinforcement.

The case for public speaking

The case for critical thinking is obvious. But why do I consider public speaking to be an essential part of the "classical" education of a technical communicator?

I could argue that our profession is technical communication, which means all forms of communication, not just the written word. However, the ability to express our ideas in confident, effective, articulate speech is more important for our individual success and career development than for the skills we bring to our employers.

I have seen qualified, competent technical communicators ignored in meetings, or forced to produce substandard documentation, because they were unable to make a compelling oral presentation. Learning to speak means learning to speak up in an effective way; to be able to explain the benefits of your ideas; to be able to gather support for your suggestions.

Adults who learn public speaking skills are more likely to get ahead in their careers. Ginger lists seven reasons why public speaking helps your career, including improved clarity of thought (there’s your connection to critical thinking) and setting yourself apart from the competition.

A word to tech comm managers

Don’t make the mistake of only looking at a job candidate’s knowledge of tools and how well they punctuate. Consider their general knowledge. Ask questions that allow you to gently probe their critical thinking. And listen to the way they speak. Let’s bring back the classics!

Do you have an opinion about these "classic" technical communication skills? I’d love to hear from you.