A very interesting issue often comes up in workshops I give for senior professionals who need to write text for the general public.
These writing workshop participants are experts in their field and they find it hard to “detune” their vocabulary and way of communicating to the level required so that their audience can understand what they’re talking about.
And when they do, they feel as guilty as hell about it, because they think they’re being patronizing. They forget that simple language – as opposed to technical jargon and complex terminology – is what everyone speaks every day .. . including them.
Remember what it’s like to be human?
Something I have been banging on about for years is that the last person who should ever write text, a speech or anything else is an expert – as I ranted about in this HTWB post back in early 2011. If you don’t want to read the whole post, basically I said that experts know too much and assume too much prior knowledge of the subject matter on the part of the audience.
However members of this group I was working with recently – and they’re typical of many such specialized groups in both commercial and public sectors – have to write information for the general public whether they like it or not. They find it difficult. Yet it’s not hard for them – and others like them – to leap over the credibility barrier and communicate with their audiences in ways that work, as long as they see that it’s OK to detune their language.
You have to get naked
That’s right: strip off your uniform, your business suit, and your professional persona. Consumers, recipients of information from the public sector and other “ordinary” people are intimidated by all that and if you so much as utter a term they don’t understand they will click right away from your text.
Especially if you’re someone who is a senior expert in your field, get off your high horse and think – and write – in the sort of fashion your key audience uses. I know it’s hard … I have spent many, many hours over the last umpty-dump years re-wording information produced by “experts” in a way that mere mortals can understand.
I shouldn’t say this because I might be doing myself out of some business, but hey – why not just detune your text yourself?
It’s not that hard – just talk to your ordinary self
This idea of detuning your text actually shouldn’t be that difficult, provided that a) you accept that you need to do it and b) you can relax and become a member of your target audience while you’re writing.
When I set exercises for my workshop I ask participants to imagine they’re sitting around a table with a cup of tea or coffee, explaining the topic in hand to someone like this (depending on the nature of the intended audience):
- A close friend
- A bright 12-year-old
- Someone you’ve just met
- Someone who doesn’t speak English very well
- An elderly aunt or uncle
Then I get them to write down what they would say in those circumstances.
If you can’t write it, speak it
Quite often, workshop participants start off very well in their written attempts but sentence by sentence creep back into their own jargon and tone of voice.
The answer here, is to forget writing for the moment, and speak the topic through. Record it, transcribe it, and use that as the basis for your writing.
It’s very simple, really. To write effective information for the “general public,” you have to strip off and become a member of the general public again, yourself.
Some help make sure you don’t need to get naked:
“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well
“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write
“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English