I invited Cathy Wellings, an expert in business communication skills, to write another guest post for us, this time about communicating technical matters to a non-technical audience.
Her advice is particularly relevant if you need to communicate a technical subject online, where you cannot assume that your audience will have a technical understanding of your subject.
Over to you, Cathy…
Technical Writing for Non-technical Audiences
Technical experts whether in IT, engineering, scientific or other specialist fields are not always well known for the simplicity of their communication. More often than not their spoken presentations or written reports risk baffling their audience or ‘blinding them with science’. Full of jargon, confusing and/or irrelevant charts and graphs, and lengthy technical explanations, technical reports in particular, can seem like a labyrinth of unfathomable concepts and assertions to the uninitiated reader.
It is the responsibility of the writer and not the reader to ensure that the message is understood. And furthermore, technical experts are increasingly required to write to persuade, convince and inform decisions and making the need to create impact even more imperative.
Below are some simple tips that any good technical writer should have at the forefront of their mind when communicating complex subjects to audiences that potentially have less knowledge than they do.
- Consider your Audience
For any writing to be effective it needs to have its reader at the centre and this is paramount when it comes to technical writing. What is the point if it doesn’t make sense to the reader? Wherever possible engage with the reader to find out what they require and how much they already know. Why have they requested the document and what will be its end purpose? Speak in language you know they understand and make reference to their context.
- Say What’s Important First
Your audience will not thank you for leaving the best until last. The reality is that many readers will not reach the end of a lengthy technical report and if you want to create real impact it is much more effective to make your most important points first.
- Talk Benefits not Features
Technical experts often have a tendency to spend more time describing the ‘what’, giving detailed descriptions of the product or process rather than explaining the ‘why’, focusing on the benefits or added value of what is being described. It is only human to want to know ‘what’s in this for me?’ or ‘how will this add value to what I do?’ and so to be an effective technical writer you should focus on providing answers to these questions.
- Avoid Jargon, Acronyms and Technical Language
Make sure your language is user friendly and accessible to your reader. Using jargon and expressions that our audience doesn’t understand risks alienating and confusing them. If you need to use very technical language make sure that you define your terms.
- Resist the Temptation to Show off
Writing a successful technical report is not about showing how much you know about the subject but more about how well you convey your message and convince your audience of its value. Again, keeping it simple will be more effective than using overly complicated language and structure. And you certainly don’t want to run the risk of making your reader feel less intelligent.
So, the message is clear. Keep your audience at the forefront of any technical writing and make sure your document gives them what they really need rather than what you think they need.
Cathy Wellings is Head of Communication Skills at Communicaid a communications skills consultancy offering business writing courses and other business communication skills training.