If you work in professional services or manufacturing, or any other industry where technology and complex processes are fundamental to the business, then at some point you will face the challenging task of explaining aspects of technical concepts to customers.
This is challenging because most buyers are managers with little time on their hands. So, while they are likely to be intelligent enough to understand these concepts, given enough time, they do not have that time to spare.
If you are not a technical specialist, then you will need to get familiar with the subject before you can write about it. And the best way to do this is to chat with the experts within your business. These are some of the key things you are trying to find out:
What makes your offering unique? What do we do differently to anybody else?
How do the processes/ software/ technology/ other contribute towards that?
What are the three most important factors governing the quality of the product/ service?
Are there any interesting stories/ facts/ peculiarities around the product/ service or personnel?
When talking to technical experts there is one question to keep asking: “why?” Get to the root of the issues. Why do we use X process? Why do we do it like that? What is the alternative approach and why don’t we do that?
Two golden rules of research: 1) Ask for an explanation, if at any point you don’t understand (don’t accept a technical answer you don’t follow); 2) Don’t be afraid of sounding stupid.
Always make sure that your research is up to date – technology changes rapidly, and even company systems can transform radically with changes of personnel, product or service. Don’t base your article on research you did last year.
Empathy (for technical writers)
For technical experts, the challenge in writing for non-technical readers is to put yourself in their shoes; to empathise with their viewpoint.
If you find this difficult, or have not done it before, I would recommend talking to experts in a completely different field you are not familiar with. Ask them questions and try and understand their field of expertise. Now look at the questions you are asking, and how you feel about asking them.
Remember that it is NEVER about your readers being dumb, but about their lack of time, grounding in the basics and experience in the subject.
Most technical experts, no matter how intelligent or experienced, would flounder if asked about a subject they had never studied.
If it helps, imagine you were trying to explain the subject to a family member or friend (assuming they are not in your line of business too!).
For a technical writer, education is part and parcel of what the task is all about. In fact, educating your customer is a vital part of marketing when you are dealing with a technical product or a professional service.
Very often, the significant advantage your product or service has over a competitor’s may be complex or technical in nature, so helping your customers to understand the issues and what they mean in real terms that will impact their business, is essential to making an eventual sale. Teaching them why they need that complex or technical difference and relating it back to their bottom line is key.
This is, after all, where inbound shines - providing useful and educational content that helps a buyer come to a well-considered decision.
One key way to communicate difficult and complex technical concepts is through analogies and metaphors: storytelling. Explaining the concept in a story, especially one the recipient can relate to, is the most effective approach to communicating ideas.
Many writers use analogies and metaphors – such as William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.”
Religion also uses metaphors to convey difficult to grasp ideas: “I am the good shepherd, … and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Even Albert Einstein used analogies when explaining things to laymen: “You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.”
In a similar way, you can use examples of how the product or service has benefitted past customers – case studies – which can also be a powerful way of communicating the real-world impact of technical features or complex processes.
The way you write about complex subjects is crucial too. In general, if people have to try to understand something; it requires will on their part. So, make it easy for them; don’t make it difficult or put them off.
One thing that will put anyone off is an article that uses lots of insider jargon; especially if you don’t explain it. It’s best to avoid jargon if you can, but if there are widely-used terms within your industry, which you cannot explain things without, then make sure you cover what they mean the first time you use them.
Incidentally, a possible excuse for using some jargon is so that the writing works for search engine optimisation (SEO), where people may be searching for those specific jargon words. Additionally, if your product or service advantage revolves around something which is commonly described using that jargon, then educating the buyer so that they understand, use and become familiar with it, would be a key communications task.
Nobody likes to be patronised. Despite the number of current TV presenters and journalists who seem to talk down to their audience, it’s an approach that will put off a prospective buyer. Concentrate instead on being helpful and informative.
Practising a little humility, especially if you are a technical expert that knows their subject backwards, will put the reader at ease.
We talked earlier about analogies and metaphors. It’s important to relate everything back to the audience’s own experiences. This is why understanding your target market by developing a buyer persona is so important. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and imagine how they might react to your writing.
It’s important to run a quick check on your success or otherwise of tackling a complex subject. One way to do this is to get a friend or colleague unfamiliar with the subject to read it and then explain it back to you.
Talk about benefits not features
Out of all of this, THE most important thing to remember is Benefits NOT Features. This is an old marketing saying that hits the nail on the head. No manager wants to know about the intricacies of how you do things, or that the software has less code than before. What they want to know is: what’s in it for me? Or what does that mean for my business? They need to know what benefit your new technical development or latest process will give them, the buyer.
Yes, you can talk about features, but only in the context of how that improves life for the buyer (or the buyer’s company).
Writing about technical and complex issues is certainly challenging, but if you follow a few simple guidelines it will be a lot easier and a lot more effective.
Remember, inbound marketing is all about providing useful and helpful content. Making the buyer aware of the issues and offering solutions so that they may make an informed decision. One that, ultimately, should benefit both parties.