Keep it simple! – even during the kick-off

Structure technical writing projects well from the very beginning.

© magele-picture / Fotolia

© magele-picture / Fotolia

It is 8:59 a.m., and we are in a packed conference room at a mid-sized equipment manufacturer. Snippets of conversation fly through the air and blend in with the monotonous hum of the projector fan. While a group of six design engineers and mechanical engineers conducts a heated discussion about the state of security on Russian building sites, the managing director and his two purchasing officers attempt to translate the small print into a visa application.

In all this babble, today’s visitor, an increasingly stressed technical editor, finally manages to find the sheet with the meeting agenda at the last minute in a stack of A3 design drawings.

The technical editor as intermediary between the worlds

This admittedly challenging start to a kick-off meeting for a complex editorial project may be a little exaggerated, but it illustrates a fundamental challenge that technical editors often face when working with documentation service providers. How is it possible to provide a new customer with perfect service from the first meeting to the final conclusion of the project?

This question is certainly at the top of our harried editor’s mind; after all, even the first encounter with a new customer can turn into a tricky situation. Kick-off meetings are usually attended by representatives from different parts of the company; among other things, they want to verify the documentation specialist’s expertise in person. After all, they want to be certain that their tight budget is in competent hands. The larger the group of people involved, the more varied and often contradictory the individual concepts of successful documentation.

For technical editors it is not always easy to keep a cool head in such a challenging starting situation. A frequent mistake is to overwhelm conversation partners with the entire tool set from the depths of the documentation cosmos during this initial project phase. From an editorial perspective, it understandably seems a major advantage to deploy standardisation tools early on and thereby set the course for an efficient writing process. But as soon as complicated technical terms such as modularisation concept appear on the projection screen, it is easy to miss the mark and get involved in an editorial sideshow instead of dealing with the customer’s needs.

Simplicity as a basic principle

In order to prevent communication from breaking down at the start of a collaboration, it is advisable to concentrate fully on the very essence of the documentation trade throughout the first joint project: to create a manual that complies with the standards and has been implemented editorially without flaws. To improve cooperation with the customer at this point, it can be helpful to bear in mind a principle that has often proven effective, particularly in project and process management: “Keep it simple!”

For our editor, that can mean slipping out of their own filter bubble and focussing intentionally on the needs and worries of the other person when first in contact with the customer. The editor and customer can then draw up a project schedule on which basis the technical editor and the contacts at the customer can coordinate the collaboration.

From the first day on, the key question should be how to best enable future readers of the documentation to safely operate the product and all its functions. Ideally the customer will nominate a main contact person who can answer questions from the editor about technical matters. This is a way to prevent the project from getting bogged down in matters of detail because too many actors are involved.

But well-coordinated communications between contact person and editor are also an important foundation for the success of the project: As a central port of call for questions about the product, the contact can better control the flow of information at their own company and thereby reduce the additional effort expected from their colleagues. For the editor, a collaboration based on trust not only secures an important supply of information, but it also helps them choose the service style with which the technical editor should react to the specific needs of every customer. If a customer wants very little consultation on documentation, it makes sense for the editor, for example, to exploit the collective knowledge available at the editorial office when things are unclear.

But no matter what challenges occur over the rest of the project, rediscovering simplicity can always be a worthwhile exercise for technical editors in their everyday editorial work. With this thought in mind, even a large kick-off meeting becomes a motivating start signal for a successful collaboration.

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