Featured TC: Cathy Gillespie of Like-Minded
Cathy Gillespie is co-founder director of Like-Minded Learning, which is based in Christchurch. She recently caught up with Jim Costello to share her experiences about TC work.
First, tell me a little about Like-Minded – how did it start, what does it do?
Well, I was originally a scientist and then transferred into the training industry. Arriving in New Zealand in 2002, I worked for several organisations, and more recently worked for a company creating learning experiences in a wide sphere for a range of corporates and companies. I worked there for a few years and gained a host of new experiences, until it was my time to move on. I took a role to project manage the SCIRT Learning Legacy [Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team] through The Quake Centre, University of Canterbury, collating the learning gained from the SCIRT earthquake repairs. Over the last three years, the business has grown. I took on a business partner two years ago and now we have a small team and work with clients to create complete learning experiences.
Our clients come to us with a training need and we work collaboratively with them to structure the learning, write it, and confirm technical accuracy. Our team builds the material for the target audience, whether it is a document or online course material. We are always looking for what next and to build engaging and interesting learning. Now we are looking at the best ways of incorporating the modern technology – 360° photography, augmented reality, virtual reality. We are enjoying the freedom to work with the clients in the way that we want to. To be perfectly honest, the core of the company is our drive for producing high quality material, and our adherence to strong values and ethics. That means being fair, openly sharing information, and collaborating with others where we can.
How do you get the content technically accurate?
We work closely with the subject matter experts, so we encourage the companies to take ownership of the content. We ask the subject matter experts what they want to get across and we translate that into learning, going back to them to approve the translation and to make sure we haven’t lost meaning. We like to be fully integrated with the company itself, we are not just operating as a content production line. At every step, we work with the company to make sure we are on the right track – managing each change and minimising rework.
So how does the initial contact with the client work?
It depends on the project. Often, a learning team or manager comes to us wanting to have a workshop or documents put online. So, we use our experience and we develop a process for what they need to do and in what order. We work with them to make sure they follow the pathway and sign off at each stage. We also advise them how to change the way they present their information, because writing for a workshop or a PDF is very different to preparing material to go online. Being alongside the client at all times, and in tune with what is happening in the organisation, is essential.
So how do you work between the subject matter expert and the TC?
Normally, we put a technical communicator with the subject matter expert. It’s their job to explore the information that the SME wants to get out, but they can write it in a learning-effective way. There are two of us here at Like-Minded who do some of this work, but we are not specifically trained in that area. Quality is important to us and I recognise that technical communication is a specialist skill. I need to know at what point we should step back and bring in a professional technical communicator. Sometimes, I might write the material myself to get an understanding of the topic, and then send it to a TC for a QA check.
So what sort of skills and qualities do you look for when you engage a TC?
They need to be able to communicate with me and with clients simply and plainly, because that is a good indication of how they prepare their content. But I also want them to understand the importance of the audience. The subject matter expert will be telling them how important a topic is but when they analyse it that may not be the appropriate focus or the right language style for the audience.
I also like having TCs with a qualification, or at least proof of their ability. Coming in with twenty years’ experience is not enough to convince me that you are the best person for the job. If I am taking someone on, I ask them what makes them a technical communicator. I am ideally looking for proof that they are a trained specialist – it may be just their portfolio, but I do hone in on qualifications as it gives me measurable standards. We recently had a large project where we had to hire quite a lot of people, some we didn’t know. There was mixed success. Some TCs were great, others crept out of scope, which was not what the client had asked for.
So, the TCs that are great, what makes them great?
I can give them a task and it is done on time and to the level I have asked for. So there is no additional management for me. The worst thing is to have to sit over someone’s shoulder and be constantly checking the work. So, it is about understanding instructions, understanding the scope of the job that they have been given and staying within that, and still meeting the deadlines. Deadlines are important to us because we are juggling other people in the chain, to build the online learning, for example. So we are looking for people who are self-driven and work to a quality standard.
What would you advise someone starting as a TC?
These days you can’t separate the words from the visual design. How that information is laid out is integral to the success of the communication. You need to be attentive to both sides of it really. You may not need to use so many words if there is a picture that will be more effective at getting the message across. So it is not just about writing plain English for the audience but also writing the appropriate length and using appropriate visual cues for that audience.