Here in the inner sanctum of the Idea Grove, the writing team spends a lot of time talking about the tactics and methods that make content about business-to-business technology more interesting and effective.
One principle we hold closest is that our writing must be easy for a non-techie to understand without being unsophisticated. I’ll call it sophisticated simplicity. Difficult concepts must be broken into pieces and carefully connected to the real-world needs of our clients’ potential customers.
The best technology writing is not technical and dense. It is elegant: precise but simple, with an up-front statement of why the reader should care.
That’s why I was excited to come across the writing of a kindred spirit, Frank J. Pietrucha. His recently released book, Supercommunicator: Explaining the Complicated So Anyone Can Understand, is aimed squarely at the problem we’re always talking about.
Frank was nice enough to answer a few of our questions by email:
What is the No. 1 mistake that writers make when trying to explain technology products or companies?
The one mistake I see over and over again is that techies rush into the weeds too quickly when explaining their big idea to non-techies. They often delve into how it works without sufficiently explaining what it is. Take the time to think about your audience. What information can I provide them that will be meaningful? Deliver more meaning and offer fewer technical details.
In Supercommunicator, I write about how difficult it was for me to comprehend why the Higgs boson was an important discovery. Many news outlets told readers that it was a paradigm-changing event then charged into explanations only physicists could understand. I could have used less information about the science and more help in understanding why the discovery of the “god particle” was such big news. People only take the time to understand new content if they think that information will be useful.
Consumers and business buyers are more technology-savvy than in the past. How should that shift in knowledge affect the way companies produce content?
Out there in cyberspace there are trillions of bytes of data waiting to pulse through our fingertips at the command of a click. The Internet has fundamentally changed our relationship with information. We used to be careful, deliberate readers. Now we’re power scanners … hungry predators on the hunt for data. Communicators need to produce content that reflects this shift. This means not only embracing new digital age tools but comprehending that your data-drenched audience wants information that’s easier to access.
The increased use of multimedia is an exciting development for communicators. We can now easily use video, audio, infographics and animation to help us explain technology and other complicated subjects. But communicators need to use these new tools strategically. Ask yourself: “does including this element help deliver greater meaning to my audience?”
How do you recommend that tech companies begin the process of creating content?
Brainstorm. Get your colleagues together and think about your audience: Who are they and what content do they need from you? Think about what buttons you can push to get them to care about your product or service. Is there a way to make an emotional plea? Or at least keep them engaged? Can you humanize your complicated topic and make it relevant to the real world? Always think about the big picture of what the product or service will do. Plan your communication effort around the benefits it will deliver, not the tactical details of how it works.
How do you know you’re “in the weeds” enough to interest those in the know but not so far that you lose the C-Suite reader, who is not likely to be as knowledgeable?
It’s all about empathy. A successful communicator knows how to put herself in the shoes of anyone she’s trying to reach … whether it’s someone in the C-suite or the general population. This isn’t rocket science, but so many fail on this critical part of the communication process. I’ve met a lot of techies who charge forward in building a presentation deck without considering the technical knowledge of their audience. You can simplify content – take out steps in a process – if you believe they don’t need a high level of detail to do their job. But if they do need critical information, you can’t simplify if cutting out data or steps prevents your audience from gaining the insight they need. In those situations, you need to clarify your content. The onus is on you to figure out how to explain your subject more clearly.
What inspired you to write the book?
I’ve been in the business for making content accessible for non-specialists for over 25 years … so the idea for the book was a natural one. But what really drove me to write Supercommunicator was my recent experience consulting at NASA. I worked with brilliant engineers and scientists there who, despite their brilliance, had a difficult time explaining what they did and why it was important. I saw, rather dramatically, how great ideas get overlooked by decision makers when a presentation or proposal is not articulated in an accessible manner.
What's the most important lesson tech writers can take away from your book?
The digital age is about information. Finding new ways to obtain, analyze and share data is essential. Our mandate should be to strive not just to deliver information, but also to bring meaning to our audience through thoughtful explanation.