Pandas and Empathy

I love pandas. Their cute little faces, their big fluffy bodies. Their slightly comedic gait. I love it all. The mythology around the panda is fascinating too.  In the written history of the Xizhou Dynasty (the Shangshu) of 1027-771 BC, Chinese lore describes the panda as an invincible animal, a warrior as strong as a tiger. According to legend, the panda was once an all-white bear.  Legend has it a little girl saved a panda cub from the clutches of a hungry leopard. In doing so, she became the new focus of the leopard who then decided to eat her instead. The pandas were so moved by her sacrifice that they attended her funeral with black ashes dawbed on their arms as a mark of respect. As they comforted each other in grief, they smudged the ashes on their bodies thereby creating their hallmark bichromal appearance.

The panda’s ability to empathize with another creature, a different species to them, one who surely seemed strange, perhaps even dangerous, is touching. For me, the story has personal and professional significance. For me, the story is a reminder not to lose sight of the other. To maintain an interest and an appreciation of motivations and experiences that are foreign or removed. It reminds me that taking an interest in humanity and the wider world can make us stronger, that empathy and efficacy are not mutually exclusive.

Traditional Technical Writing

Traditional technical writing/instructional design attempts to deliver instruction to the nth degree. Nothing less than instructional totality is acceptable. Whether it be a user-guide, a white paper, an on-site instructional manual…the method is the same. Every facet, angle, and probability is covered. There is no room for uncertainty and very little margin of error. But technology is not a constant, it is a flow. Technology is rapidly evolving and so too our documentation processes. Contemporary technical communication means information on an as-needed basis. Sometimes this is also a just-in-time, as needed basis but always there is the need for restraint. Technical writers must provide the right amount of information without overloading their audience with superfluous and distracting instruction. Current writing practices require us to present information that is at once meaningful and minimal. This is new and, like most change, takes some adjustment to become habit.

The central tenet of tech writing is empathy. Like our panda friends, it is important that we step out of our comfort zones and into the shoes of another. When we allow ourselves to relax our thinking, to loosen the strictures of our processes and naturally explore the experiences of our end-users we can truly say we are communicating. When our work is excessively effortful, when we try to compress too much information into our content we succeed only in creating a them-and-us scenario where the end user is an afterthought, subordinate to the process.

The Balance Between Pandas and TechComm

Empathic writing is balanced writing. It achieves a harmony between the need for information and the end users capacity to absorb it; Yin and yang. It enables instructional designers/writers to convey important information while themselves learning something about their fellow humans; Yin and Yang.

It is important not to lose sight of the key truth here, pandas are sooo cute!

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