Nine Ways to Engage Customers in Technical Documentation

Persuasion involves making compelling appeals to both our emotions and logic. Most people don’t consider technical writers natural persuaders, but the discipline of technical communication actually falls under the umbrella of Rhetoric, in most college programs for technical communication.

With its factual subject matter and informative style, technical communication appeals mostly to our logical sides. What many are surprised to learn is there have always been subtle ways that technical writers also appeal to our emotions.

Examples of emotional persuasion at work in technical documentation include the way technical writers directly address customers as “you,” the parallel writing structures, and the sense of trust technical documentation instills, through the credible presentation of detailed information.

Here are some traditional ways technical writers motivate customers to stay engaged with the text, complete steps, and refer back to the instructions, the next time they’re stuck.

1. Credibility

The accuracy and completeness of technical content—whether print or online– is the most important factor in convincing customers to follow the instructions or  refer to the instructions again. It doesn’t matter how pleasing content is presented or how well-written it is. If the steps are inaccurate or incomplete, your content—and product—loses credibility.

2. Visual Design Cues

Headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists help customers more easily scan the text. These navigational cues also create a mental hierarchy—in classic rhetoric what’s known as a schema— that structures the way readers think about our products. This technique is especially useful when explaining or understanding how products work, or grouping similar concepts, including tasks and roles. Templates and checklists reinforce these schemas–what in instructional design are known as learning scaffolds.

3. Entry Points

Convincing customers that they’ll find the information they’re seeking is one of the most important challenges technical writers face. Navigational aids—such as traditional TOCs, headings, online breadcrumb trails, print cross-references, online links, indexes, and other metadata—all reassure readers that the information they’re looking for is present and findable—and that the content is worth referring to, in the first place.

4. Concise Writing

In an increasingly visual, online world, concise writing–the hallmark of a task-based writing approach—is more important than ever to keeping distracted readers’ attention and encouraging customers to complete required actions.

5. Active Voice

Addressing the audience directly as “you” (with active verbs), not only ensures more concise writing, it also sets up a conversational and lively tone.

6. Parallelism

In Effective Rhetoric, Effective Writing: Parallelism in Technical Communication, Helen Fawcett shows how the repetition of parallel structures—as applies to headings, transitional elements, steps, and sentence parts—helps effectively group and present similar information, as well as create a sense of rhythm.

7. Visuals

Technical writers use tables, charts, graphs, and illustrations to present or reinforce information. Visual techniques apply even more so, for today’s social-media savvy customers, who prefer to process pictures, sounds, and video rather than text.

8. Consistent, Plain Language

Using the most concise terms consistently across all your media ensures that customers understand the underlying concepts and apply them, appropriately. Introducing different terms for the same concepts only frustrates readers and complicates translation for global audiences.

9. Professional Editing and Layout

In a “good enough,” real-time publishing world, the bar for professional-level documentation is lower than it used to be. It’s still worth remembering that writing, typographical, or other formatting issues can detract from our customers’ overall impression of a document’s usefulness, as well as its actual usability. Both factors affect how much customers want to use your documents.

Your Tips or Comments

How do you motivate customers to engage with the product documentation? Are digital media, audience-generated content, and personalization replacing, changing, or reinforcing the traditional ways we encourage customers to refer to and engage with our content?

As marketers incorporate a more informative, logical style of writing into their
content, how relevant will technical writers remain, if we don’t incorporate
more emotional appeals, directly into the user assistance? Wouldn’t this style
of writing be more natural to our customers?

Is there any way to reconcile a more affective approach to technical documentation, with content re-use and globalization requirements? or must by definition, these approaches remain incompatible?

About This Blog: Copyright Information

Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

2 thoughts on “Nine Ways to Engage Customers in Technical Documentation

  1. Hi Peg

    The link Effective Rhetoric, Effective Writing: Parallelism in Technical Communication isn’t working. Can you please fix this as it seems like an interesting article.


    • Hi Ally, Thanks for bringing the broken link, to my attention. Sorry about that. It’s fixed now, and yes, it points to an excellent article. ~Peg

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