Social Hacks for Techwriters

As a technical writer, your job is to research and create information about technical processes or products for the benefit of your target audience.

In the research part of the job, you’ll most likely come in contact with subject matter experts of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Your job is, much like a Special Forces  rescue task force, to get in, extract the information and get out without leaving a trace!

The main difference between you and a band of armed soldiers however, is that you most likely will need to maintain a sustainable relationship with your SMEs, since you’ll need to extract information on a regular basis.

The ideal situation is where you get along well with your SMEs  – while still acting as the user’s advocate and extracting the relevant information: relevant, complete and accurate.

Not delving too deep into the realm of asking the right interview questions right I’d like to explore different ways to maintain the relationships needed for continuous Techwriter-SME cooperation.

The bible of social hacks is Robert Cialdini’s book on Influence – Science and Practice, where he reviews the arsenal of weapons of influence – “social hacks” that can help you get what you want using different techniques that trigger biologically rooted responses in your fellow man:

  • Reciprocation: The Old Give and Take … and Take. Provide a small favor, ask for a bigger one.
    (Dilbert interpretation:
  • Commitment and Consistency: Hobgoblins of the Mind. Get me to make a commitment, and it’ll trigger an automatic (and sometimes ill-considered) consistency with that earlier commitment. Once you take a stand, there is a natural tendency to stubbornly comply with that commitment.
    (Da Vinci interpretation: It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.)
  • Social Proof: Truths Are Us. We think of a behavior as correct in a given situation based on how the majority of others are performing it. Aim for a critical mass of compliance, and the rest of the dominos will fall.
    (Dilbert interpretation:
  • Liking: The Friendly Thief. Think Tupperware parties. “We’re friends – right? Can you review this topic?”. People prefer to say yes to individuals they know and like. So you just need to make friends, and you’ll get all the reviews you need.
  • Authority: Directed Deference. Most of us, when reacting to authority in an automatic fashion, have a tendency to respond to the mere symbols of authority rather than to its substance. Time to suit up, and get some of that silver back authority.
    (Dilbert interpretation:
  • Scarcity: The Rule of the Few. People assign more value to opportunities when they are less available. Make sure your SMEs sees helping you as an opportunity, and provide a strict deadline: “act now or forever hold your peace”.
  • Instant Influence: Primitive Consent. With increasing cognitive overload, decision-making shortcuts are gold – don’t give your SMEs to many options – keep your requests simple, and make sure it’s as simple as possible for them to comply (e.g. print the material you’d like them to review if that’s what you know they prefer).

If you’re not really interested in short term manipulation of your coworkers and other SMEs you should focus on improving your emotional intelligence. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves have written a book about Emotional Intelligence 2.0, where after an online assessment of your EQ, they offer some real hands-on advice on how to improve your own life, as well as relations with others. Here’s a selection of the advice they provide:

  •  Be open, and be curious. Strive to be an open book, and show an interest in others, ask questions like Santa Claus asks a child what he’d like for Christmas – and listen!
  • Avoid giving mixed signals. People trust what they see over what they hear – make sure you vocal message is aligned with your body language.
  • Build trust. “Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use”.
  • Don’t avoid the inevitable. Accept the situation you are in, and find ways to work it out. It’s all about listening and communicating.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Everyone has a right to experience feelings, even if you might not feel the same way. You don’t have to agree, but you have to recognize and respect other’s feelings.
  • When you care, show it. Don’t hesitate or put it off – give thanks and show your appreciation.
  • Explain your decisions, don’t just make them. To avoid feeling stressed and in the dark we all need to know why decisions are made, take time to explain your decisions to make people feel trusted, respected, and connected.
  • Make your feedback direct and constructive. Make an effort to understand your target audience, and make sure you frame things in a way they can take in an appreciate (i.e. don’t sugarcoat it if you know Johnny appreciates direct input, but add softeners like “I think” and “I believe” if you know that Jacob is a more sensitive guy).
  • Take feedback well. Consider feedback a gift. It’s meant to help us improve in ways that we cannot see on our own. Constructive feedback is all about sharing opinions and offering solutions.

To exercise high EQ in a given situation: think of what the pointy haired boss from Dilbert would do – and do the exact opposite!

If all of the above strategies fail – don’t worry , be happy – it might actually improve your productivity. Worst case scenario, you’re just happy – and that can’t be bad, right? 🙂 For some inspiration, see Shawn Achors’ TED talk at

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Posted in Technical communication

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