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How to Write Simply About Sophisticated Subjects

By Annie ZelmApr 22, 2014

writing simple content
Leonardo Da Vinci said it best: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” It’s a beautiful quote, you say, but his subject matter was humanity and heavenly beings, not manufacturing or software systems. He wasn’t trying to explain the benefits of an executive recruiting firm in a tight market. His job was to create masterpieces for the sake of creating them, not boost revenues by convincing people to buy a product. You have a sophisticated audience, and you need to speak directly to them, not talk down to them.

We hear you.

One of the biggest misconceptions among B2B companies is that the content has to be heavy and unimaginative because the subject matter seems to be. It doesn’t have to be this way. Forget what you’ve learned about writing research papers. Instead, challenge yourself to educate and entertain your readers by using a conversational tone.

Here are six practices that will sharpen your ability to write about dull subjects.

Write for your reader, not for yourself.

Imagine your reader is a hospital patient with severe stomach cramps, and you’re the doctor. In that moment, you could imagine your patient doesn’t want to hear how many studies you’ve published or how your new research on digestive health could impact future treatment. Your patient only wants to hear what you’re going to do to stop the pain— right now.

Think about your buyers— the ones who actually make the purchasing decisions— and ask yourself what keeps them up at night. This is why it’s so important to create buyer personas, or customer profiles based on interviews with those who previously purchased your product or considered a purchase. A quick search of a Q & A site like Quora or Google Bazara can give you clues on what kinds of questions people are actually asking about a specific topic so you can use that to guide your content.

Don’t tell them what you think is most impressive about what you do. Tell them exactly what’s in it for them and how you’ll meet their needs. They’ll be so thankful to you for offering to solve their problems, they’ll put you on their short list when they’re ready to make a decision.

Set the scene.

Let’s say you’re trying to convince your readers to try your recruiting software. Before you fall back into the habit of telling your readers about its benefits, stop right there. Da Vinci knew a picture was worth a thousand words. Your job is to paint one. Let your words take them to a Fortune 500 financial services company that manages more than 40,000 employees. Let your readers imagine what it’s like to be the hiring manager tasked with bringing in 30 employees by the end of the month. Your readers can relate to the feeling of being flooded with emails from candidates who expect to be hired with no prior experience.

Be descriptive. Use active verbs. Whenever possible, use relevant examples and quotes from real people. Use analogies to make a concept more visually interesting, and tie them into current events when you can. Here’s an example of a writer who drew comparisons between marketing and draft day, something any sports fan can visualize.

Imagine you’re talking to your college pals.

Many businesses are afraid to write the way they speak because they want to sound professional. They refuse to use sentence fragments or words that sound too casual. The problem is their “professional” language is sterile and makes them sound like every other business in their industry.

As long as it’s done tastefully, taking some creative liberties won’t undermine your credibility. Use strong language, active verbs and phrases that lend themselves to imagery whenever possible. Consider this introduction on the homepage of a manufacturing company that produces custom parts and equipment for businesses:

“Specializes in the Engineering and Building of Manufacturing Processes and Equipment for Assembly, Welding, Machining, Press Room Automation and Testing! The Talent and Experience we bring to your program, Insures you get the Best Results, Cost Effectively!”

The introduction on this website is a full six paragraphs. Most of the words are capitalized and bolded, and there’s an exclamation point after nearly every sentence. By the time you get through reading it, you realize you’re shrinking into your seat in an instinctive response to all the shouting. I’m willing to bet this is a group of highly talented mechanical and electrical engineers, but they sound like some fast-talking hosts of a late-night infomercial hurling one pitch after another. That’s not the worst part. It’s the fact that when you actually take in the words, they really don’t say much about the company’s identity.

This could be the best equipment manufacturer in the Midwest, but it sounds like any other company. There’s nothing here to distinguish what makes it different, although it does mention its location and proclaims, “We Proudly Support our Troops.”

That’s fantastic, but most people would agree they support the troops, as well. I’d like to know what this company is doing specifically to show their support. Do they have a program to hire veterans? Do they partner with the USO? If so, they should emphasize it to illustrate their identity.

Here’s how this company might consider rewriting that paragraph:

Transform your aging assembly line into a profit-producing machine with specialized equipment designed by the same engineers who built self-propelled artillery for the U.S. Army.”

Now the company is using its engineering and military expertise to build a unique identity.

Use humor.

Yes, your audience may be CEOs, CFOs and medical professionals, but they’re still people. People appreciate a good chuckle now and then. Think about your reader’s biggest source of stress and look for the humor in it when you can. Are they having a hard time attracting qualified candidates? A 30-second video of amusing interviewing faux pas might resonate.

What’s funny to you may not get a laugh from someone else, so think about where your audience goes for a good time. Maybe it’s the golf course or the shooting range. Could you use a hunting analogy to describe the recruiting process?

Here’s a great example of how Cisco used a lighthearted video to show how its company uses technology to target products to the right customers.

Ask a recent college graduate if he or she can grasp the general idea of your piece. Better yet, ask your teenager.

Although your ultimate goal may be a meeting with the C-suite, don’t assume they’re making the decisions about your product. More than likely, it’s going to be a mid-level gatekeeper— perhaps an executive assistant, a human resources manager or department supervisor— who is tasked with obtaining quotes for your product or service.

The first person to visit your website may or may not have a college degree. She may not have any experience with your industry at all. Assume she doesn’t, and it’s her first week on the job. If you’re using industry jargon or unfamiliar acronyms, you’re losing her. That goes for generic business clichés, too. Leave out the talk of core competencies, leveraging and low-hanging fruit.

Take a chisel to your copy. Then go back with a hacksaw.

Like cutting ties with old college friends, editing is a painful but necessary part of your writing’s development. No matter how brilliant your words, you have to part with some of them. Start by losing the least significant: the cliches, the redundancies, the superfluous words. Imagine every “that” or “very” is a curse word infecting your copy, and you’ll see them in a different light.

That’s the easy part. For the harder part that involved hacking away entire sentences or paragraphs that aren’t working, you need the kind of friend or colleague who gets right to the point. Ask this person  to eliminate anything that doesn’t strengthen your piece or isn’t important to your readers.

What works best for you when you’re trying to use a conversational tone to talk about complicated subjects? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Creating Content for Marketing Automation photo credit: Lívia Cristina
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The Author

Annie Zelm

As the content manager, Annie manages a team of brand journalists and is the driving force behind the content strategy for companies in a wide range of industries, including healthcare, technology and professional services. Relying on interviewing skills she developed in her seven years as a journalist, she uncovers insights about what motivates buyers in these industries and uses that knowledge to shape client websites and editorial calendars.
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