How > What

According to my experience, the most frustrating aspect of customer communication is not dealing with complaints or negotiating a better rate or as we all imagine, doing what is told to do. It is being told How to do.

The definition of “customer” might not be universal, so let’s say it is whoever giving you orders at any point. A customer can be our boss, colleague, boy(girl)friend, parent, child, police officer, or of course paying client. They all peck us one way or other.

When I started working as a technical writer several years ago, I looked upon marketing writers with envy. Conducting a chorus group comprised of customers and making them sing whatever corporate jingle in unison certainly seemed more fun than endlessly typing up a to-do list.

Technical writing soon turned out to be a gold mine of creativity. Because virtually nobody cared how a manual was composed, I immersed myself, without interference, in solving puzzles for potentially puzzled customers. As long as legitimate information was there, nobody questioned how it looked like (until an end-user complaint rolled in). What to write was pre-defined but I could turn it into creative restrictions to up the challenges of that intellectual puzzle.

Marketing writing, on the other hand, was a wasteland of aspiring writers. Every single sentence was dictated by How: How forward-looking a corporate introduction appeared, how rich a product brochure looked, how calm and easygoing a pseudo-cover up damage control letter sounded… What went into a piece of writing took a secondary role to how it all sounded in the end. To make matters worse, people who had no taste in appreciating a good piece of writing (=executives) had the final say (and final edit, frequently).

What I experienced in the documentation industry might also apply to our work in general. We frequently say that we don’t want others to tell us what to do, and while it is a legitimate request, I am not sure if it is ideal or even practical. What we really want is to control the process, not necessarily the goal.

To live is to communicate, and to communicate is to exchange something, be it a piece of information or a tangible stuff. And what to exchange is largely defined by the situation rather than our modest desire to decide “what to do.” Whether we sell coffee, teach kids a language, design a house, we do something other people want in order to make a living. The What part of an exchange is our communication itself.

Therefore I believe the key lies in controlling the How. Isn’t the following line what we all want to say? “I am happy to do what you want. Now, will you leave me alone?” Even when we collaborate to achieve a common goal which is by definition external, we want to choose How we help each other.

Whether we control the How or not, the end result might be the same. I am sure there are marketing writers who have total creative freedom, but do we ever notice any difference? What really changes by having the How freedom is more in the process than in the result.

Thus when we decide to pave a unique life path by becoming our own boss, we might not be significantly improving the end product or service, which are again largely defined by whatever situation we are in. I think it is fine; what matters in the end is that the results work, not how unique they are. (Though it is nice to have a unique solution that also works.)

We can have a hell of a time by controlling how differently we reached the same result. They say The Journey Is The Reward, and when I think of that very true phrase what pops into my head is not the image of myself marching proudly into the open field (with a green background for later CG effects). It is my old me rolling my back in my desk adjusting a Microsoft Word template settings.