How to write about technical subject matter

ButterflyLearning how to write about technical subject matter in terms that non experts can understand is an essential skill for journalists and PR practitioners.

They are used to simplifying content and putting it into terms that anyone can understand. But learning how to write technical content in a way that is fit for other experts to digest can be even more taxing.

Experts may feel patronised if it seems like you’re telling them something that they consider to be obvious or common knowledge. Indeed, many technical experts prefer to use complex language and to write at length, before coming to the point.

Why is this?

Perhaps there’s a belief that to be technically credible you need to use technical language. Anything less may feel like ideas are being ‘dumbed down’. Take engineering for example; there is often an assumption that because engineers like to examine things in detail, that editorial also has to be detailed.

This is faulty thinking. The key to technical editorial content, as with all communication, is about knowing your audience. Even if you are writing for a group of engineers, you can’t assume that everyone within that community has a detailed knowledge of your niche.

In this case, perhaps your engineering audience also includes recent graduates, with lots of knowledge but not so much experience. Maybe your audience includes non-technical project managers or support staff. Even if your audience is knowledgeable AND experienced AND operate within your niche, they are still unlikely to appreciate dry and turgid content.

There is a need to entertain as well as inform. Yes, entertain. You don’t need be a comedy script writer, but you do need to sufficiently engage your reader so they pay attention, understand and remember what you have said. They are more likely to remember what you have said if you have also made the editorial an interesting read.

So what does that look like? Well, for me it involves using captivating stories, metaphors and examples. No-one really remembers a list of specifications for a design or a product.

Take science broadcaster and presenter Professor Brian Cox, for example. In his latest book, Human Universe, he talks about whether there is life on other planets. This is a potential mine field for providing too much detail. He could have started off with a long equation but begins instead by explaining his life-long interest in aliens, science fiction and astronomy, taking us on a trip from Star Wars to Isaac Asimov and Patrick Moore.

Some will say that stories don’t have a place in technical content, and that this goes against the point of keeping things simple. But even if you don’t use full-blown stories like the one above, you may still use a storytelling structure and use rhetorical devices to produce the same effect. The point is that you are trying to make yourself understood.

So writing technical content does not need to be overly detailed, but it must entertain in order to stand out, to persuade and to leave a lasting positive impression.

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