Put people first in sustainable communication

Earnsy Liu | November 13, 2019

TechCommNZ (New Zealand’s association for technical communicators) recently held a conference on sustainability.

I learnt that sustainable communication has these characteristics.

Yes, technical knowledge, software, and techniques matter too. But what kept cropping up was people, people, people. Your users. Your team. And you. Find out why people matter and what you can do to help them.

Image, line of people outside the Walk A Mile In My Shoes exhibition

The Empathy Museum encourages you to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes so you better understand the person. Watch their video of people taking unsteady steps in unfamiliar shoes. Image by Alprimrose / CC BY-SA 4.0

Focus on your users’ needs

A clear message that puts the user first won’t need as much rewriting, and will remain helpful and relevant longer. Can users understand your message easily? Can they find what they want in your document? Have you asked them what they need, or are you giving them a ‘brain dump’?

Identify what your users need before you start

Why do your users want that report or manual? Why are they looking on your website or reading your email? Your users aren’t only customers. They could be your colleagues, manager, or subordinates. Fill in these blanks:

As a ______, I want to ______ so that I can ______.

Keep that manual simple — research shows people don’t read them because they expect manuals to be too complicated. Give them what they need, and no more. Remember that we’re all influenced by our experiences and expectations. And don’t forget that not everyone has good eyesight, or a good internet connection.

Empathise with your users

See where this is going? You can’t produce sustainable documents in a vacuum. You need to empathise with your users. Try this.

Focus on team communication

If you’re part of a team, look out for signs that things aren’t working. Are people communicating less and less or getting abrupt? Do they often turn up to meetings late?

Talk to each other. There’s room for a good dose of empathy here too.

If people can’t find time to write, you could schedule writing and review time. If you have trainers who help users, you could support them with training and guides.

Look after yourself

You need to look after yourself so you can keep helping your users. Know your core skills. Work out what fulfils you.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need information or guidance. If you’re a manager, this applies to you too. You can’t know everything, and your staff member may well have the answer.

Practise good writing habits and be clear about what you want to achieve. Bad habits aren’t sustainable.

It’s all about people

Sustainable communication is about people and empathy. Next time someone says they can’t understand a manual or report, don’t brush them off and tell them to RTFM (read the fabulous manual) — put yourself in their shoes and try to understand why.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.