How to Speak Your Audience's Language

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Libretto is frequently asked to write about technical matters for a lay audience. What constitutes “lay” depends on the particular project, but often encompasses a rather large swath of humanity: students and their parents, the press, people for whom English is not their first language, and potential donors, employees, and partners. By the same token, technical content also takes many forms. It could be a description of medical research, technical product information, or documents written in legalese or profession-specific jargon. Whatever your audience and whatever your material, if you don’t know how to deliver specialized content to non-specialists, you’re going to have technical difficulties of the worst kind. Here are some tips for how to pull it off.

1. Respect your audience’s intelligence

You may be thinking, “How can I dumb this down effectively?” The answer: don’t. Your audience may not be full of experts, but it’s surely composed of intelligent readers fully capable of understanding clear, cogent content. They may not know their way around a genome or a terabyte, but they’ll know if you’re talking down to them. You can never assume what they do know, but you can explain a complex idea thoroughly and clearly without resorting to oversimplifications. After all, you want them to be insightful enough to agree to buy your product, give you philanthropic gifts, join your company, enroll in your current admitted class, or write articles about your organization. How you write for them will demonstrate what you feel about them.

2. Write about results

The next thing you need to do is answer these questions: Ultimately, who benefits from this? And how? Very often, an organization will write about some technical breakthrough or describe a process of some sort (such as how a drug interacts with the body) from the perspective of the engineer or doctor or researcher who has generated the information to be communicated. Typically, these persons have in their minds an audience of their peers; i.e., not a lay audience at all. To write for a lay audience, you want to tell your story from the perspective of the end user. How will this molecular research help me, a woman with diabetes? How will this piece of hardware help me, a small business owner? While the lay audience may not understand genetic engineering, they do care an awful lot about the potential to cure devastating diseases like cancer. And if you can explain your topic in terms of its impact, you’ll often find readers become a lot more willing to spend the time to understand the complex description of how it works.

This idea comes up all the time in our development work. A school or a hospital may want funding for a new building, or an expensive piece of equipment, or an endowed chair, or a clinical trial. A prospective donor will most likely be interested in just one thing: its impact. How many people will be served? In what ways will it help people? What issues will be advanced, what problems are being solved and how will those solutions achieve their aims? None of this requires a technical explanation, and in many cases donors aren’t particularly interested in the details. If you can’t describe it simply and succinctly, you’re not likely to get much of a check.

3. Involve experts in the process – but don’t let them drive it

The final piece of advice is to use your experts wisely. A researcher might write a brilliant scientific paper to be published in a technical journal. This doesn’t mean you should ask them to turn it into a customer-facing piece. Similarly, an engineer might create a complex plan for a new technology that is intended for programmers and peers, but that is not at all useful for those who can sign off on the purchase of a new technology. Experts are typically too close to their subject to translate it effectively for laypeople who know very little about the field, are not familiar with the technical vocabulary, and can’t naturally infer what ramifications the work may have down the road.

Instead, ask these valuable subject matter experts to make themselves available to a communications professional who can ask them questions and elicit the underlying value and impact of the information, rather than the nuts and bolts and double helices. They may claim they are too busy to participate, but you must help them to understand that they are a critical part of a widening funnel of information that will spread their important work beyond the closed communities of peers, and into the broader and more lucrative audiences who want to invest in things that are useful to them.

Your communications team is therefore an essential intermediary between the creators and the consumers of information. As intermediaries, we don’t strictly translate technical matter into simple language (because sometimes some of that technical stuff simply has to be included). Instead, we apply the principles of good writing to it: clarity, concision, a logical structure, and mindfulness of the needs of the audience. You’ll find that when you don't talk down to your audiences, they will in fact look up to you.

Got a thorny subject that needs to be written about in a compelling, accessible way? Learn more about our content development services.

File under Technical Writing, Writing, Communications, Science, Research, Technology

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