Keep it simple, stupid* is a principle that ought to be at the heart of technical writing. But some consultants are tempted to show off their education, and engineers may unintentionally build barriers by using impenetrable language.
Although the concepts we communicate are often complex, for example, new chemical processes for turning household waste into sustainable fuels, the language used need not be – and should not be. This is especially true when communicating with an international audience for whom English may be a second or third language.
Here are five tips we’ve picked up over the years.
1 Lead with the benefit or pose a question
The background and details may be important, but your audience needs a reason to read on.
A few years ago, we were asked to rewrite a case study titled, “ABC company completes asbestos survey”. Not until the third paragraph did readers learn that the project saved a well-known business (let us call it XYZ) £1 million. Our new version led with “XYZ saves £1 million through asbestos survey”. The case study was ABC branded, so there was no doubt who did the work.
Now the customer is in the spotlight and the value clear. In the body text, we then empathised with the customer’s challenges, such as the need to keep people safe and minimise the cost of disruption, and presented the solution – using XYZ’s services.
Over the years, this approach has taken many guises, including ‘diagnostic marketing’ and ‘the challenger sale’. Launching with how you, or your product or service, saved the world sounds arrogant. Instead, lead with the benefit and give your customer kudos, but then empathise with their challenges. Show the consequences of inaction and the benefits of the project, product or service, whether it is green infrastructure or a low-carbon fuel.
Another good tactic is leading with a question: “What is green hydrogen?” or “How do we produce more renewable fuels without affecting food-production or virgin land?”.
2 Keep it short
Brevity is key: seeing a consultant’s report leading with “Prior to the commencement of …” makes me wince. What is wrong with “Before we started …”? A good editor will strike such phrases from your work.
We have clients who are marketing managers. Increasingly, they want bitesize content for social media, and we can help distil down complex concepts into simple messages.
There is still a place for long-format articles, often to back up more focused messaging. These should also avoid waffle and jargon. And presenting bitesize content graphically, as bullet lists or in boxes helps break up longer documents with easily digested morsels.
Engage your audience by speak directly and keeping your voice active. Even scientific papers are now usually written in the first person and actively.
“Prior to the selection of the innovative new carbon capture technology totalling $100 million of investment, a number of potential solutions were considered.” [Third person, passive and wordy]
“We considered three innovative solutions before making a $100-million investment in carbon capture technology.” [First person, active and brief]
3 Use simple language
Avoid unusual words or those with ambiguous meanings. It may be acceptable to ‘expedite’ operations if you’ve overused ‘speed up’ and ‘accelerate’, but will your readers understand? Are you just showing off your vocabulary?
I was listening to my son reading a wonderful poem – a dialogue between a sleepy badger and an energetic woodpecker:
Each and every excavation doubles up my irritation, expedites deforestation; save us all some enervation, undertake a transformation – quit your tunnelling fixation.
“Woodpecker”, The Lost Spells, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
I had to explain ‘expedite’. Then we had to look up ‘enervation’.** That’s fantastic for poetry, but making potential customers or stakeholders reach for a dictionary or search engine is likely to alienate them.
4 Mix it up
Short and simple is not an excuse to be boring. You need to keep people reading and so must be engaging, and vary your language and sentence length. In general, keep sentences short, but not all of them. “This sentence has five words” is a great example of the problem and solution.
5 Reach out
Self-publishing is easy, especially on social media, and there is a place for that. But marketing and stakeholder engagement materials that are poorly written and designed, or error-strewn, make an organisation look careless and unprofessional.
We all have different strengths. I am a writer and like to think I’m good at coming up with visual concepts, although my design and animation colleagues may disagree. But I am no graphic designer, a poor editor and a dreadful proofreader. So I write from interviews with engineers, freeing them to focus on engineering, and a professional editor shapes my words, ensuring they flow and are grammatically correct. Our designers present these words in creative ways, helping to break up and illustrate the copy. And a proofreader and production manager ensure errors are ironed out and that the end product displays as intended.
*Attributed to the lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works, but variations predate this use.
**To reduce mental or moral vigour