My smart Belgian Shepherd mix, Robbie, has chased off a large coyote that was threatening the neighbor’s little terrier—but he can’t tell you anything about how he did it, because he doesn’t have the words.
Sometimes we feel as though our tech teams have a comparable problem: they’re doggedly good at what they do, but not so clear on explaining it.
Could these three vital insights help?
It may be that your tech team feels pressure to “sound smart” or “sound techy” in their communications, so they’ve convinced themselves that their business writing has to differ in tone from their conversational voices. You can help them overcome that misunderstanding with three vital insights:
- Readers want to read what you wrote only once, and understand it on one reading, whether they’re reading your technical writing or the New York Times.
- To grasp what you’re saying, readers who aren’t technical experts will need a comparison to something they already understand.
- Fear of sounding “too simple” is an empty fear. There is no such thing as being “too clear” in business writing.
First, readers want to understand your document on one reading.
The truth is even harsher: they will only give it one reading. They are already drowning in e-mail overload, so they are not going to study your tech team’s missive. Try this exercise with your tech team: ask one member in a meeting to explain what she or he is working on, using complete sentences. Then ask the next team member to explain what the first person just said. Keep going around the table with the same question about the original speaker’s work until someone gives you a simple, clear explanation—then pounce! Repeat what the last person said and identify that clear, simple explanation as the way to write it the first time.
The most amusing pushback to writing clearly that I’ve heard in a workshop was, “But they’ll think they’re paying me too much!” It would take a psychologist to unpack that blurted-out fear, but it simply takes a good manager to extinguish it. You need to write to express, not impress. Tell doubters that you’re paying the team to be clear, not arcane or confusing. This is business communications, not a competition for “most obscure.”
Second, think of a device or process readers already understand, and compare your work/design/process to it.
Explaining complex or abstract concepts is tough. Does your tech team’s software/device/idea remind you of playing Monopoly when you were a child? Ask them to explain it that way, referring to a widely known rule in the classic board game as a way of explaining their own work. Imagine how many paragraphs of explanation that could save you—and the readers!
People who can see and explain the similarities between their own highly technical work processes and common activities in daily life are prized communicators. Tell your team you will be rewarding this skill and handing back overly complex drafts for rewriting. Behavior will change.
Third, there is no such thing as being “too clear” in business writing.
Readers do not subtract points for clarity. They add points.
Tomorrow I have to attend a business event on South Benton Street, which the invitation describes as being “south of Benton Street.” Huh? Will I rely on what the writer wrote? No. I will get help from a mapping app. The app will be clearer.
In many years of working as a business writing coach, I have never had anyone tell me that a reader complained because the writer was being “too clear.”
Bonus: giving readers shorter reading times will translate into your tech team’s spending less time writing. Everyone’s productivity goes up.