Ask KL: Translating Technical Information Into "English"


Commander William T. Riker: Mr. La Forge, we need warp power now!
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Matter-antimatter mixture ratio settings... at optimum balance. Reaction sequence... corresponding to specified norms. Magnetic plasma transfer to warp field generators per program specs. Commander, we should be going like a bat out of hell!
— Star Trek: TNG, "Booby Trap" (1989)

Technobabble. It happens to the best of us. Chip and Dan Heath refer to this as the "Curse of Knowledge," what happens when we know so much that we cease to make sense when we explain things to others. Taking completely alien vocabulary and industry jargon and turning it into plain and simple English is difficult, but not impossible.

1. Understand It Yourself

First, take the time to understand it yourself, at least on the surface. That might mean researching help articles on the Internet or setting up a quick meeting with a more knowledgable colleague. It's impossible to explain it to someone else without at least a base knowledge of what you're talking about.

There's no excuse with information at your fingertips: google it. It adds context to what you're trying to write and puts you on the same level as your readers: people who know a little bit, are generally intelligent, but are looking to learn more.

2. Let the Experts Speak For You

If you're really lost, let the experts speak for you. That's the beauty of writing! Your article can give voice to someone else through quotes within the text or Q&A style writing. Adding humans into a technical article builds a deeper emotional connection and makes your post, well, more human.

Ann Handley writing tips

To do this requires a little digging. Research known experts in your field, or take to twitter to find your thought leaders. This doesn't mean you have to interview them; depending on the content and your audience, it's worthwhile to link to relevant books, sources, or use well-known quotes...like the one above (see what I did there?)

3. Explain It Like You Would to a Friend

Imagine explaining something to an intelligent but non-industry friend over a few beers. You wouldn't dive into the details of what you're working on; you'd stick to the high level, key principles. Just enough for them to say, "Wow, cool!" and ask more questions. That's when you add the detail.

When you write, it might be worth practicing literally saying what you want to say out loud. (It might turn into a cool post like this one.) Then, write it down. Smooth it over for grammar errors, ums, likes, and y'knows. As they say in the 'biz, good writing boils down to good editing.

This doesn't mean simplifying your story to the point of worthlessness--far from it. Put yourself in their shoes and tell them what you know. Keep it friendly and informative. That's what great communication is about.

4. Start At The Outcome, Not The Very Beginning

Often, we make the mistake of starting at the very beginning. We're caught on how things happen when we haven't explained why it exists in the first place. To the reader, that's almost as if you started with, "At the beginning of time, when the universe was not yet in existence..."

You see what I mean. They start nodding off. And you haven't even gotten to the point!

When you start explaining a complex technical issue like adding SEO keywords or self-service IT models, start with why the person should care about that issue and make it clear right away. When we write, that might mean a hook or catchy title; no matter what, your first paragraph should introduce your subject matter NOT from the beginning, but to outline the reasons they should keep reading.

5. Keep The Journey Alive

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When you've exhausted your explanations, don't end the article there. If you want it to be truly helpful, you need to include more information. In marketing, we call this the call-to-action, where you tell your readers where to go next.

That might be more detailed technical information or specs, or additional resources. Don't be afraid to help your readers out, even if you didn't write it.

Writing is hard. Technical writing? Even harder. If you're still stuck, check out these additional resources: