Scoping New Work


When a potential client asks me how long I think something will take and I tell them, I get a ridiculous amount of push-back. Why won’t they take me seriously?

It’s tempting to blame this on not being a white male, because everyone knows white males have more credibility due to implicit bias. However, even white males with good hair get plenty of flak. Instead, think about bedside manner. What you need more than anything else is presence.

Consider a patient who goes to see their doctor. They’ve been in pain for a while, and tried to forget about it, but it’s getting steadily worse and now they’re truly worried. Our society still preserves some reverence for physicians, partly because of their life-saving abilities, and partly because they wear white lab coats and use mystifying terminology.

The doctor sits them down and in a very serious tone, says, “Mrs. Fahrenheit, I have some bad news. Your kidneys are shot and they’ll have to come out right away…” Most of us will have a tendency to believe our own doctor, even if we undergo some shock and denial at first. We start weeping and protesting, but even in our panic and desperation we know we have to trust this guy, because hey, white lab coat!

Sometimes, doctors look closely at things in jars. When I was looking for some ideas for pictures, I came upon a few images of medieval doctors. One showed a guy just looking up knowingly, holding a beaker full of someone’s pee, while the patient languished in the bed behind.

What you want as a writer is the ability to generate that level of instant respect. “Mr. Pointy Hair, that document needs to come out right away.” Try saying it in a tone that combines funereal respect and urgency, but DON’T over-explain yourself. Combine an air of gravitas with a sense of utmost sympathy. Bring accomplices with you to look at you with awe and fear as you speak.

Hey, it’s a scam, but someone who can’t take facts at face value DESERVES to be mystified. They might even find it reassuring. I think tech writers, like many engineer-y types, tend to over-explain things or present too many choices, and that can cause people to think that we don’t know what we’re doing.

The one detail I can’t figure is what to wear in place of a white lab coat. If you dress up in a suit they might think you’re too expensive (as opposed to being glad to pay your exorbitant rate). Power attire for women has always been problematic. Personally, I can’t stand those cute little “Lean In” suits with tiny jackets. Think Maggie Thatcher, who dressed big and used her clothing to take up more space, but who wasn’t drowning in her clothes, either.

What about appropriate male attire for tech writing services? Maybe dressing like a senior accountant: immaculately crisp pinstripe button down shirt, but no suit jacket. You want to look supremely competent but still technical.

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