Why professionals need to get naked to write simply


Strip off your professional persona if you want to write well for the general public…

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
  • Etc.

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




  1. Sarah Arrow says

    Did I read get naked with a cup Of

  2. What great advice – sometimes even if we are writing for an audience we think will be familiar with our terminology, they might not be. The best knowledge in the world is no good if we can’t communicate it in a way people will understand.

    • That’s absolutely right, Jane. So often you see topic experts being brought in as lecturers or trainers, but whereas they are experts on their topics, they have no knowledge of how to teach or train. A lot of money and time can get wasted that way.

  3. My dad–who was a professor and a scientist–used to have a sign in his office that read (something like) “If it can’t be explained to an intelligent seventh grader, someone is jiving someone.”

  4. Some good advice there, it’s something I’m trying to do at the moment. I’ve had my head in a very technical world and trying to explain things to people I’m so tempted to go into the technical and philosophical side of things as it does sound a bit patronising to dumb things down.

    The advice I’ve been given to overcome this, especially in presentations, is to present things as real life story that people can follow and be interested in, dropping the technical bits in here and there for those who might be interested but keeping the story going so not to lose people who are following it… I’m learning from good advice…

    • That sounds like good advice, John. And don’t worry about being patronizing; you can always smooth over explanations of a technical point by writing (or saying) something like “I’m sure you know this already but in case it has slipped your mind, XXXXXXX means YYYYYY.” Good luck with your presentations – it sounds like you’re definitely on the right road!

  5. The title got my attention so I read on.

  6. I write often and use an attitude I learned a long time ago in several of my experiences that Mary’s dad’s poster (in comments above) says best … “If it can’t be explained to an intelligent seventh grader, someone is jiving someone.”

    First from the book “Mastery” published in 1982 by George Leonard where one of the things he says you need for mastery is to take little steps at a time and master each one until you move on to the next. Have a beginner’s mind.

    The second came from teaching special education in the 70s. My kids were non-readers (ESL AND many of their parents couldn’t read either) so I had to not only be creative but take “baby” steps and not move on until they understood.

    Third was that I was one of first to use a microcomputer in the classroom in 1978. There was limited software at the time. In Ontario we have a non-profit TV network called TVO. At about that time they were creating a show called “Bits ‘n Bytes” which was about how to use computers. When you signed up for the course you got a book on programming which I wrote. We had to write and show everything in very tiny steps since people were brand new to computers.

    So all three things converged for me to make sure that everything I do or write about how to do it or teach it is always done step by step … and always with an eye to beginners.

  7. That’s so very, very wise, Trudy. Thanks for sharing it with us. Far too many people are afraid of “basic” because they fear that “basic” will somehow reflect an image of inadequacy and ineptitude on them.

    “Basic” is good, and is the foundation upon which nearly everything should be built. Trouble is many so-called experts, being afraid of the “basic” label as I mention above, try to impart their knowledge at utterly inappropriate levels thus confusing everyone, including themselves.

    How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

    If only everyone could remember that and live by it…