By Michael Belfiore
We’ve all seen them: technical papers, websites and brochures that launch into lengthy descriptions of exotic technologies without telling you what they’re for or why we should care. Such documents make great bedtime reading, but they’re not so good at persuading readers to take action—anything but!
To be fair, uninspiring technical writing isn’t entirely the fault of its authors, who face unique challenges - not the least of which is having to persuade and educate at the same time. But a few principles help keep me on course as I write for my technology-focused clients.
Technology Is About People
People read white papers and other marketing materials, and people create the technologies we write about. Job one in writing about technology is to get close to the engineers engaged in the hard work of writing code or bending metal to create new products. Which isn’t always easy.
During my stint as a technical writer for a major airline, I watched in dismay as an engineer I had to interview actually got up from his desk and walked rapidly in the opposite direction when I approached for our meeting. It wasn’t until after I spent some time in the break room with engineers chatting about their aviation and video-making hobbies that I developed the rapport I needed to do my research.
Even if you are working off-site, you can still gain the confidence of experts by treating them like the people they are rather than simply research subjects.
It’s just as important to pay close attention to your audience. Picture your intended reader and ask yourself: “What does this person want to know?” “How can the products I’m writing about help this person do his or her job more effectively?” Even better, track a few of them down and learn about their needs first-hand.
Less Is More
Chances are you’re writing for a business (not technical) audience that needs the CliffsNotes version of the story you’re trying to tell and not the whole novel. Derek Walters, communications manager at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in North Dakota, uses what he calls the “tell your grandmother test” when interviewing engineers and scientists. If Grandma won’t get it, chances are your readers won’t either. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Enough said.
Benefits Sell, Not Functions
If your subject is technical, you have to spend some time introducing the technology involved, but don’t overdo it. You want to focus on the benefit the technology can provide. Readers aren’t so concerned about how it works; they mainly want to know how it will help them make more money, save time, have fun, or otherwise improve their lives.
XCOR Aerospace public relations director Douglas Graham has boiled down the central message of his communications to this: “We are developing reliable, reusable rocket engines so that people like you and me will be able to afford to go to space.” Any discussion of how individual rocket engines work or whether they use this or that type of oxidizer pump is secondary to the central message. “That puts it in a context for the average person,” says Graham.
And that’s ultimately what all technically focused business writing should be about: putting technology in the right context for actual people.
For more on this subject, see my free paper “Selling Breakthrough Technology: 10 Secrets to Writing Better White Papers, Press Releases and More” at http://www.michaelbelfiore.com/breakthrough.
About the author: Michael Belfiore is the author of The Department of Mad Scientists (Smithsonian/HarperCollins, 2009), the first book on the agency that created the Internet. His corporate clients have included Sharp, Canon, Target, and American Express.