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3 Secret Writing Tricks You Aren’t Using

March 31, 2010

confusionIf you’ve ever struggled with trying to make a complicated topic easy to understand, you’re not alone.

As business writers, we’re often asked to “translate” something technical, jargon-filled or esoteric into everyday language our audience can understand. And many times we may not even understand it ourselves!

For example, have you ever talked with an IT person who used so much jargon and acronyms it sounded like a recipe for alphabet soup? Or tried to understand the rational behind the actuarial formula used to calculate an insurance rate? Bah!

As a writer, it’s your job not only to understand what these subject matter experts (SMEs) are saying, but convey it in understandable terms to your audience. So how do we do that?

  • Secret 1. Play dumb. People like to help others. It’s human nature. And one of the easiest ways to get a better understanding of the topic at hand is to let the SME know up front that you don’t get it. That’s why you’re coming to them as the expert. This sets the stage, letting them know you view them as the expert, and makes them more willing to convey the information in an educational way.
  • Secret 2. Pretend you’re an alien. I know, it sounds weird, but it works. It goes something like this:

SME: This cool [jargon], [technical term] tool is great because it [jargon], [technical term], [jargon], [technical term], [technical term], [technical term], [jargon], [jargon], [jargon] for all our employees.

You: Uh-huh, right. I need you to make this as simple as possible. Pretend I’m an alien from outer space. I’ve just landed here, and you’re trying to explain this concept to me. I know nothing about your Internet, your computers or this cool new tool. Start from the beginning and pretend you’re talking to an alien.

I used this technique all the time when working for a computer company and talking to the developers about new products we were promoting/marketing. It worked like a charm.

It’s like a lightbulb clicked on over their heads and they’d say, “Ohhh. Got it. We’ve created a tool you can use to improve your productivity. It works by taking complicated tasks and simplifying them, shaving off loads of time you’d otherwise be wasting.”

Bingo! We’d never have gotten there without the “pretend-I’m-an-alien” trick. (You can also ask them to pretend you’re a five-year-old. Works the same way. Alien’s more interesting though, right?)

  • Secret 3: Say it out loud. Once you have a firm grasp on the concept you’re supposed to be promoting or explaining, it’s sometimes hard to write it as simply as you’d like. A sure-fire way to do this? Say it out loud. If you were to summarize what you want to say in one sentence to someone who knew nothing about the topic, how would you explain it? Often, we writers speak in much simpler terms than we write. By saying it out loud, you clarify exactly what you’re trying to convey, and can then write about it easily.

What are your secret tricks for understanding and writing about complex issues?

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