If you ever get asked to write about a complicated idea — like, say, blockchain or a new stem cell therapy — then you know my challenge. It won’t take long to discover that explaining something easily is, well, not necessarily so easy.
Conveying the most difficult subjects directly and clearly can be tricky for even the best, most experienced writers. But explaining ideas well is also an opportunity for skilled writers to connect with readers — if you can get your writing to sing.
It takes practice, technique and a bit of art, and it’s especially important nowadays to get it right for clients. We live in an era of short attention spans and competition for readers’ eyeballs across an ever-expanding array of platforms and digital devices.
There’s no single magic trick. But there are guidelines that a professional can follow to make technical topics more tuneful, so they jump off the page. Here are a few:
- Respect the subject — No matter how complicated your subject may be, you need to be able to explain it to someone who knows less about it than you do. But remember, there’s a reason why some technical topics are hard to grasp — they really are complicated. It can be helpful to focus on one major aspect of your subject — a fact or idea that can serve as a gateway for readers to explore the depths of a topic later on if they choose. You can build on this with other facts and ideas. Don’t try to do everything at once. If you do, you may get lost in the complexities — and your reader will, too.
- Respect the idea — Maybe there’s a big idea that just needs another description. The basic fact about blockchain, for example, is that it’s a “distributed ledger.” Still confused? How about calling it a “shared record book” that just happens to be on the Internet? It’s a list of financial transactions that everyone can see and agree on, which people can add to but can’t tamper with. So it’s just like a ledger; the “distributed” part is that you can open it on your own device. Lose the jargon and use concepts your readers can relate to.
Respect your reader — I hate the term “dumbing down.” Readers are your audience and they come in all types. Respect them by explaining subjects well with clear language. A tip: the more difficult the subject, the simpler the words. When Winston Churchill needed to mobilize his nation to resist the Nazis, he didn’t use big, flowery phrases. He said “We shall fight on the beaches,” and took it from there.
- Respect your goal — Why are you writing about whatever you’re communicating in the first place? Remember, you’re not trying to be clever, you’re trying to be clear. Use examples, analogies and easy comparisons. Try to be helpful and anticipate likely questions. For example, if you explain how stem cells are grown in tissue culture, you might also explain why — they can grow into specialized cells such as muscle or nerve cells to fight diseases and ailments.
Ideally, someone will quote your explanation to try to sound smart to someone else. There’s a simple description for when that happens: Success.