This article was originally published in the AMWA Journal.
You can write. That’s why they want you. You have experience writing the types of materials they need: regulatory documents, continuing medical education activities, promotional education materials, journal articles. That’s why they want you. You specialize in the central nervous system or metabolic disorders or cancer, and you know all the regulations and guidelines and American Medical Association style rules. That’s why they want you. This experience and training, and these skills, are the technical proficiencies you possess.
However, it’s only half of what you need to be a “complete professional.” The other half is that constellation of qualities collectively referred to as “soft skills”: the nontechnical characteristics that make a technically talented person a desirable professional. The term soft skills (in some places they are referred to as transferable skills) is unfortunate; the soft implies that they’re not that important when, truth be told, they are as important as your technical skills.
What Are Soft Skills?
So what are they? Before they acquired their own titular status, soft skills were the kinds of things you learned in kindergarten, scouting, church, team sports, and yes, even from your parents and teachers. No cheating, killing, lying, or stealing. The Seven Deadly Sins might be entertaining at a party, but gluttony and vanity would be looked upon with disfavor in the workplace. There is no official list of soft skills. You can find many resources online, but rarely will two of them have the same set of skills, or group the skills the same way, or emphasize the same items as the most important skills.
Soft skills crop up in every job description. That’s usually the de rigueur part of the job description you gloss over, since of course “everyone” has those skills: “enthusiasm,” “ability to work in a fast-paced environment,” “good teambuilding skills,” and the ubiquitous “deliver on time and under budget.” I gloss over these desirable qualities myself when I read job descriptions, despite the flaws I know I have:
I am not enthusiastic when clients wait 3 months before signing off on a project; the “fast-paced environment” is just fine until I get four concurrent assignments; I break out in hives when directed to role-play during corporate teambuilding retreats; and there truly is no such thing as “under budget” when clients start down the path of “project scope creep.”
This makes me a bit of a hypocrite to talk about soft skills, but at least I know what these critically important skills are, even if I sometimes struggle with manifesting some of them. So what are they, exactly? Here is a sampling of them. No one truly possesses of all of them (even if some individuals think they do possess them all, which is actually worse than not possessing some of them). Think about the items on the list. Can you apply them to yourself? It will probably be easy to think of people you know who lack some of these skills. What’s important is being able to recognize if you are lacking a particular skill. If you can identify your challenges, you can work to improve them. Note that these skills are universal; they do not apply only to medical writing.
Smile, make eye contact, be nice, listen to others, be sensitive, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and practice good grooming and hygiene.
Turn your mobile phone off during meetings, and never answer it in a restaurant or when speaking to someone. Lose the ear buds. Be sincere when saying please and thank you, and say these things all the time. Be polite.
Assume your projects will succeed. Conversely, never go into a project thinking it is doomed to fail.
Believe in yourself, and believe in your skills. Recognize your strengths. Poor self-confidence is obvious to others and will limit your responsibilities and opportunities for promotion. Self-confidence is not, however, the same thing as “arrogance.” Unfortunately, the arrogant are pretty clueless about this.
Work hard. Work full days. Miss work rarely, but avoid “presenteeism” if ill. Take your work seriously. Help others even if it’s not your job. Take on extra responsibilities if you have enough time. Enjoy your work. Work hard but maintain work-life balance.
Cultural Competency and Sensitivity
Recognize that not everyone is like you with regard to age, country of origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, political affiliation, or marital and family status.
Never ever miss a deadline. You often have people working downstream who require your deliverables before they can start their work. Do not be late to work or meetings. Do not procrastinate (you know who you are). You do not have to “just finish this e-mail” while your colleagues wait for you for lunch. I heard the movie producer and director Steven Soderbergh speak once, and he said the greatest thing I ever heard: “If you’re on time, you’re already late.”
Being a Team Player
Go on that retreat. Try to role-play without being snarky about it. Help your teammates, consider and support their ideas, make suggestions, and help. Serve as a mentor when possible, and be a respectful mentee when the situation calls for it. Tolerate and try to help improve the limited competencies some of your teammates might have, but at the same time do not tolerate incompetency or toxicity in others.
Written and Spoken Communication
As a writer, your competency in writing is assumed, but you also need speaking skills: lucidity, clarity, animation, enthusiasm, eye contact, and engagement. And you also should know when to shut up. This applies to one-on-one interlocution as well as speaking to a group or an audience.
Can you assess things legitimately for their merit and accuracy? Can you set aside your biases (you have them, everyone does) when judgment is called for? Can you restrain knee-jerk responses? Can you listen to opposing views and assess them for their merits? Can you practice both analytic and holistic thinking? Do you understand logical fallacies? Can you think on your feet and reflect and evaluate evidence? Are you scientifically literate? You need critical-thinking skills to be able to use…
Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills
Can you assess a problem rationally and critically and evaluate the pros and cons? Can you use both inductive and deductive reasoning? If you look at the trees, can you back up and look at the forest? If you tend to see the forest, can you zoom in to the trees? Can you brainstorm new ideas, even wacky ones? “Thinking outside the box” may be a cliché, but it is a good skill to possess. Good problem-solving skills are necessary for…
If you are on a team and everyone agrees with each other, or you work with a client who loves everything you pitch, you’re working in some kind of fantasy dreamland. Business would slam to a halt without compromise. Dig in your heels when necessary, but be able to identify the things you can cede to others and the things that can be acceptably modified to satisfy the parties involved. Be respectful, but be tough.
Technically under the aegis of problem-solving, conflict resolution is a type of problem-solving that is interpersonal. Conflicts can be toxic, affect morale, delay project completion, imperil deadlines, and lose you your clients. Conflicts need to be identified and resolved as soon as they appear.
For many of us, avoiding math is a lifelong goal, but you should be able to understand budgets and cost modeling, basic math, and statistics commensurate with the type of writing or editing that you do. If you’re a freelance or entrepreneur, understand the math associated with running your business.
Personal, business, and medical ethical behavior is a must, for yourself and for those you affiliate with professionally. If you work for a company that alters, withholds, is selective about, or outright steals data (or that plagiarizes regularly), quit. Quit even if you don’t have another job. Unethical behavior in medical communications can result in damage or death to a patient.
Working Under Pressure
Writing is by default a deadline-driven profession, and there is nothing like a deadline to ramp up the pressure in one’s life. Pressure can be compounded by multiple simultaneous assignments, travel, family demands, and working with difficult teammates, superiors, clients, or consultants. When the job description actually mentions “working under pressure,” they’re not kidding.
In any job, you will be faced with problems and choices, and you may suddenly find yourself in awkward situations. You may have to make snap decisions. Does your behavior sometimes reflect bad judgment, such as relaxing too much with a client or consultant, telling inappropriate jokes, or downing too many drinks at a reception? Good judgment includes being a good judge of character. People might not be who you think they are; they might not be as trustworthy or respectful as they outwardly appear.
Taking and Giving Criticism
Criticism is necessary for personal and professional growth. Criticism can range from positive feedback to scathing rebukes. Criticism is effective when it is constructive and respectfully tendered, whether you are on the receiving end or are doling it out yourself. You have to be open to receiving it. It might not all be legitimate and might not all be useful, but listen to it. You will never make it as a medical writer if you become devastated or infuriated by criticism.
The last thing you want to hear (apart from “we’re going to do a little role-playing exercise now”) is a client saying “I think we want to go in a different direction” after you have submitted a project you have been working on for 3 months. You have to be able to adapt when project managers quit, new bosses arrive, or you are suddenly shifted to a new project.
You don’t have to be a vice president to be a leader. There are responsibilities you’re going to have where you are the de facto leader. It is easy to define a good leader: He or she simply possesses all the soft skills. A good leader listens and is compassionate, transparent, fair, inclusive, and respectful and avoids top down management. And, at least in my opinion, he or she will never make you role-play.
No one has all the soft skills. You are deluding yourself if you think you do. Individuals who are confident that they possess all these qualities are arrogant and serve as toxic speed bumps on teams or in management. It is important that you recognize where you have challenges and try to improve them. I know my failings: I can be uncooperative and stubborn at times, I procrastinate too much, and I can get snarky and sarcastic when pushed. I’m dismal at math, and by all that is holy I will resist role-playing until I draw my last breath. Sometimes, to get what I need, I have to take the “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” route, but if that’s what it takes to yield a flawless product, I’ll do it. So much for my leadership skills. But recognizing where I am deficient in soft skills does help me to develop and strengthen them and become a better professional.
Think hard about each of these skills. Don’t do the “job description glossover.” Make a table. Write an example of one thing you do right for each, and one thing you do wrong, however minor. Think about the qualities and flaws of other people. There’s a reason certain coworkers annoy you, and it’s very rarely because they don’t write well or don’t know AMA style. It’s because they interrupt you when you are speaking, are always late to meetings, are reading e-mail on their mobile phones during meetings, or they are arrogant or insulting. Or they make you role-play.