Tip #11–Use plain language when conveying technical information

Posted on August 17, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development, Technical writing |

Gobbledygook, jargon, geek-speak. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not language the everyday reader understands. Maybe the author’s intent is to try to impress the reader; perhaps the technical language is deemed necessary to convey the message; or maybe the writer just doesn’t understand that not everyone of us reads and speaks the same language. Whatever the reason, the point is this: language must be plain and unambiguous if it is to be understood by the common reader.

Tip #11 states:

Consider using stories or analogies to convey difficult technical information. This helps the receiver of the message maintain a sense of confidence and understanding, whereas that same person may feel insecure or defensive when hearing unfamiliar technical language.

What is the purpose of putting something in writing anyway?

For most authors–whether you are the author of a technical document, a set of instructions, or a simple business letter–the reason for writing is to convey some information to the reader so the reader can take the appropriate action. The problem we encounter when writing in technical language is that our readers often don’t have the same level of expertise that we do; so when they read our document, they are left with uncertainty about what we want them to do and how we want them to do it. We’re much better off writing at the simplest level possible to ensure the greatest possibility of understanding.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that insulting to our readers? In a word: No. Rather than be insulted by documents that are easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to act upon, our readers are going to send up silent praises! They are going to see the stark contrast between the usual convoluted messages they get and our clear, concise messages. They are going to begin looking forward to hearing from us while dreading the prose of others. And when it comes down to who gets the response quicker: that will be us!

What about stories and analogies–do they really have a place in technical writing?

Yes. When readers are faced with unfamiliar information and concepts, they benefit from having them associated with something they easily understand. The more clearly you can connect technical concepts to everyday experiences, the more easily your non-technical reader (or at least the reader who isn’t an expert in your subject) will grasp your message.

When trying to find everyday experiences to explain your topic, think of what we do each day. For example:

  • brush our teeth
  • drive our cars
  • shop for groceries
  • work with our children
  • exercise
  • learn from and teach our pets

I often tell my management clients that working with staff is somewhat like raising children and pets. Children–and pets–respond to praise. So does staff. Children and pets benefit from clear guidelines about behavior and having those guidelines consistently enforced; so does staff. While these are not heavily technical concepts, the message comes through more clearly and easily when it’s associated with a common experience.

When writing, consider your readers’ level of experience with your topic. The more simply you can express your message, the more analogies you can draw, and the more stories you can tell to demonstrate your point, the more easily your readers will grasp your message.

Want some help making sure your messages come through loud and clear? Check out my Document Review Services brochure

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