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?

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

Heroic Narrative: Motivating Readers in Technical Communication

In the blogosphere this week, “Persuasion Ruled,” especially during the recent edition of “Kitchen Table Talks.”

There, Chris Brogan and Joe Sorge, of Kitchen Table Companies, kicked off the theme, by interviewing Sally Hogshead. Author of Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation, Hogshead described seven ways to help small businesses grow, by identifying and honing their best persuasive triggers.

The next day, in a livestream interview at his blog, Brogan hosted Nancy Duarte—author of several books on making powerful presentations.

Presenters as Mentors

Touching on themes from her book (Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences), Duarte referred to the Hero/Mentor Archetype. Instead of the presenter as hero—dispensing information—Duarte explained how today’s best presenters act as mentors, helping the hero (the audience) overcome obstacles and accomplish goals.

Technical Writers as Facilitators

As applies to technical writing, Brogan’s webcasts made me recall Anne Gentle’s Conversation and Community, which predicts two roles for technical communicators, on the Social Web:

  • Sage on the Stage – instigator of conversation
  • Stagehand– enabler of conversation

In either role, the technical communicator isn’t leading the conversation, so much as helping to facilitate customer conversations.

Audience-Centered Learning Models

In his review of Gentle’s book, Stewart Mader ties in the related audience-centered focus from instructional design, where the metaphor for instructors is now “guide on the side,” as opposed to traditional information authority.

In this kind of mentor role, technical writers can support community managers or move into community manager roles themselves, Gentle’s book suggests.

“Emplotting” the Reader

In “Motivation and Technical Documentation,” David Goodwin observes how the age-old “heroic narrative” (Goodwin 99), “emplots the reader.” “What better way of motivating readers or users though a site than by providing them with a [heroic] journey, one rich with agreements, opposition, and problems,” Goodwin asks.

According to Goodwin, “not only does this “action-oriented role” apply to manuals, but it also can be built into content and navigation.”

Who’s Your Hero?

What ways do you know, of emplotting the reader, in the product documentation? How does your documentation place the customer, at the center of your product’s story? Is the customer the hero of your story?

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