Learning to listen

Rufous hummingbird (female)This year one of my goals is to learn more about social media. It’s not something I’ve been exposed to in a work capacity, apart from searching blogs for answers to tech writing implementation problems. So I’ve started a couple of blogs, this one and a personal one, joined Facebook, and signed up for Twitter. And this past weekend I attended my first Wordcamp, a one day conference for WordPress users.

I learned all sorts of valuable things, such as the basics of securing your site (don’t leave your main administrator account with a username of “admin”). But one piece of advice particularly got me thinking.

When you arrive at a party, you don’t loudly introduce yourself to everyone at once. You slip in, chat to one person, then another, and then another, slowly making your way around the room. And this is what you should do on Twitter. Follow a few people, listen and learn. Talk to one or two people, build relationships, follow people that they follow.

It struck me that this is exactly what we need to do as contract technical writers.

1. Listen more than speak.

For the first week or two, or month, I listen to the others in my team. Since they’ve been there longer than I have, they know the company expectations, they know what’s been done before, what worked and what didn’t, and they know who makes the decisions. I follow their lead.

2. Offer one suggestion at a time.

No matter how tempted I am to say “This needs to be completely reworked” I’ve found it’s better to make one simple suggestion at a time. Usually things are done a particular way for a reason, and until you’ve been part of the team for a while, the reasons may not be apparent to you.

3. Consider your language.

Like with email, it’s easy for our words to be misinterpreted. If I feel compelled to make a suggestion, I try to phrase it as “something to consider” rather than a directive.

4. Be flexible.

As a contractor, I’m there to fill a gap in the team. I’m not there to prove that I’m an awesome technical writer. I’m there to do a job, to write what needs to be written, and to make it sound like other documents the company has written. Even if I think there is a better way, my job is to follow the styles and standards that exist (assuming the company has these things set up).

5. Be willing to learn.

There is no one right way to do things. Tools and techniques that work well for one company might be inappropriate in another. Every new contract is an opportunity to learn new tools, new processes, and new strategies.

I love taking on new contracts for these very reasons. New people, new tools, new experiences. What could be better than that?

Photo via Flickr user Steve Berardi

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