In my job as a consultant to high-tech companies, I am constantly writing and editing technical materials. Inevitably, almost all technical articles that I review and edit from third parties start out with the wrong perspective. Once I finish reading the first two paragraphs, I can hear the author’s voice shouting off the page: “This is all about me and my product!” How can such a personal perspective creep into a technical article, you ask? Easy. It’s what I call the Lazy Perspective.
The Lazy Perspective in technical article writing starts out innocently enough. The goal is to create customer-facing content (a white paper, article, or blog) that imparts knowledge to customers and prospects. Prospects turn into customers when they read about how your product can solve their very complex problems. Therefore, you may feel like you should only write about how your product is the only way to solve a problem. More than likely, you will go forth and explain in tedious detail all of your product’s features, while leaving out the benefits and most viable applications.
If your company’s articles are like this, don’t worry; you’re in good company. The most common mistake that company-authored technical articles make is to narrow the perspective so finely that only your product can be the solution. This is called the Straw Man. Set it up, knock it down. The reviewing editor will reject this type of self-serving article every time. The misguided technical article always has the same conclusion: All problems end with my product as the solution.
How to Improve?
How can you improve your technical content creation? The answer is easy, but taking it to heart in practice is very difficult: Write from the perspective of your customer. Why is this so difficult? The reasons are many, but the core of the problem is that most technical writers haven’t visited a customer, talked to a customer, or read a trip report. Ever. The tech writer is often doomed to be on the inside looking out without a proper perspective. In order to overcome this handicap, a few basic ideas can help you.
Start With the Problem to be Solved
Back in the design phase, someone knew what the problem was. You may even know what it is. But somewhere along the way, the problem got lost. In its place is a pile of marketing materials that now describe only the solution (your product), feature by feature, along with a mind-numbing pile of specs.
You can comb through these materials to mine them for some good nuggets, but mostly they won’t be of much help to you. You’ll need to dig deeper. Use the web to review competitive products. Search for the market and product requirements documentation, or better yet, talk to people in Tech Support. Find out what customers are calling to complain about—the most vexing problems. These are the seeds of great articles that focus outward to the customer rather than inward on the company.
Write a Goal Statement for Your Article
Every company should have a long list of articles that should be written, with potential authors or recommended Subject Matter Experts (SME) to draw upon. If not, then your PR and marketing team needs some help. If you have trouble getting started putting pixels to paper, write a simple goal statement. This is the goal of your article. The goal should always put the customer first. It is not a sales pitch. It is not an advertisement.
Your article goal statement might go something like this: “Carrier aggregation is a key component of LTE-Advanced networks. I would like my customers to be more informed about what carrier aggregation is (in technical terms), how it will affect their existing LTE networks, and which specific tests they need to assimilate into their test plans.” Very simply, the problem is laid out, and a solution is proposed in the form of a suggested test plan. The focus of the article is squarely on the challenges faced by the customer (LTE is morphing into LTE-A and you better know how to deal with it) and how you are helping them (you tell them what a good test plan ought to be). You’ve informed and educated. The customer will appreciate your effort on their behalf!
Where’s the Promotional Value?
When you are writing a technical article, you will state the problem, and then show the reader how the problem can be solved. If this is done in generic terms, you might ask, “How does my company benefit?” That’s a good question. For technical articles to be effective, they need to take a more academic tone without being boring. If your tone is informative and educational, you will improve your chances of influencing the reader. For years, marketing studies have shown that
informational content is more influential than pure sales content. Click-throughs for technical white papers far exceed click-throughs for banner ads.
Don’t get me wrong; you need to generate both technical and sales content. But for now, set aside the sales pitch and reject piling on the adjectives when writing for a technical audience. When they read the source of the article (your company), there is a halo effect that accrues to your brand. You are the envy of your competitors for writing so well.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
A good technical article varies in length from 1,500 to 2,500 words. It should include 2-5 excellent, copyright-free high-resolution (300 dpi) graphics, charts, and photos or screen shots. People scan graphics and captions to see if they want to read any further. Nothing ruins your credibility like having poor graphics. Your customers will feel insulted while they try to interpret your illegible diagrams. It sends a message that you didn’t care enough to spend the time or money on graphic design, perhaps that is a subtle signal about your products, too? Brand impressions build up over time. Make certain that your article makes a good impression and is as well thought-out as your excellent products and services.
Pay it Forward
One way to get your deep tech folks more involved in writing good technical content is to reward them separately from their regular compensation. Some years ago, I managed a very successful article incentive program at a global test and measurement company. There are many ways to set up a good incentive program, but the main thing is that it must be worth the effort to the writers. You won’t attract anyone with a $10 Starbucks gift card. The average incentive for a full technical article should be in the range of at least $1,000 (after taxes). Most companies also stipulate that this writing should be done off the clock, so it won’t interfere with work schedules. To keep people from churning out useless garbage to earn the incentive awards, make certain you have a detailed article “Wanted List” first. Only the targeted content articles should be accepted.
Help is Available
There are good writers who can help you formulate a winning customer-focused article idea, write an article for you, or edit what you have so it will be accepted by the publication of your choice. If your company is still having trouble getting published, the answer is to reach out. I may not be an engineer, but I guarantee that using this simple shift in perspective, I can get you into print.