By Erin Lebacqz
Today's readers need more than just information: They need information that's presented in a digestible way—information they can access, remember, and use. The way we write something is often even more important than what we write.
But for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), or anyone who knows a lot about what they're writing about, this can be a tough reality to manage. How can writers share important, high-level information in a way that's also easy access for busy people pulled in all directions?
Yesterday, I had the joy of teaching a thoughtful, curious, insightful group of SMEs. Teaching for a high-performing IT Team within a high-performing Credit Union, we talked about how hard it can be to create brief, accessible updates about topics within Informational Technology — especially when writing to peers outside their department, to the public, to the board.
Writing for Today's Readers Can be Tough—Especially as a SME
If you're an expert in your field, you're probably used to trying to explain the complexities of what you do to readers (or listeners) who don't have the background knowledge needed to understand those very complexities. You're probably used to trying to put things into plainer, more common words—to translate, in a way, for readers who need the information but without some of the more specialized details.
But here's where it really gets tough: The kind of writing needed by today's readers wasn't rewarded when SMEs were building their education and early experience. Today's readers need brevity and simplicity, whereas SMEs were schooled in deep analysis and explication. SMEs have typically been asked to use precise language to describe incredibly specific phenomena. Complex, precise, analytic writing was rewarded.
Throughout our schooling, we've typically written to show what we know. But, this Show What You Know model doesn't work for today's readers.
SMEs also tend to be highly-educated. (That's how they developed their Expertise, after all!) That means more school after high school or college, and more demands to show what you know through writing. And, it means SMEs typically have a lot to say within their discipline—but possibly more than the average everyday reader is looking for today. Showing what we know isn't what readers really want or need at this point.
Today's Readers Need Plain Sentences with Concrete Nouns and Verbs
Scientific journal articles, like all genres of writing, have their own norms around style. Those particular norms don't happen to align with the communication norms of today's average reader. So, when SMEs really want their message heard—by any reader, regardless of education level or just regardless of how stressed and busy their day might be—they can turn to some strategies for writing for today's readers. For many writers, that means consciously breaking some habits from writing for scientific analysis or peer-reviewed journals.
Today's readers, of course, come from today's society. This means we want to consider factors like literacy rates, graduation rates, and the cost of higher education when we write for today's readers. With costs for college bursting beyond many people's financial capacity and many parents too busy working overtime to help their kids with reading and homework, not everyone has access to an in-depth education these days.
I'm based in California. Our schools, like many across the country, don't get enough funding. (Yes, I've taught in The Portables!) This means students get less prepared and less practiced with reading.
California's ranking for literacy? In a country where the states plus DC make 51, we're sitting at a square #50.
Yes, you're thinking about that correctly. This means we have the 50th best literacy rate in the nation. The SME's I've worked with care deeply about these truths, but haven't always experienced them themselves. With some intentional writing strategies, we can share about complex topics in a way that works for readers of all preparation levels.
The Biggest Issue Readers Face? Stress and Content Overload
And most importantly, we're all stressed. Regardless of education level or industry, most people in the U.S. and around the world right now face fairly constant emotional and financial stress. We still haven't processed what we went through during the pandemic. Our world faces polarization rates we haven't seen lately. And we're all running ragged, trying to remember lists of information and chores we need to do and work that's still waiting for us.
How is this relevant to business writers? Reading requires thinking, and when readers' brains are crowded and stressed, that gets a lot harder.
Cognitive loads are heavier when you're stressed, over-busy, pushed to the max. And many of our readers are.
We're all carrying heavy cognitive loads—the amount of information our brain tries to deal with at a given time. To help with this, business writers can make sure their writing's easy to understand and requires less cognitive load.
Using Active Voice, for example, is scientifically proven to make writing easier to read. "HR provided these resources" is easier to digest than "These resources have been provided for you by HR."
Same goes for shorter sentences, and even for shorter words. Swapping out a "modify" for a "change," and a "demonstrate" for a "show" can make a big difference.
To Include Others, Let's Not Alienate Them—or Stress Them Out
What's the least inclusive thing a writer can do? Scare their readers. Personally, I get easily intimidated by reading tax-related documents. Both the words and concepts intimidate me—all the more because of the potential consequences if I mess up. We all know the feeling of reading about a topic that intimidates us. It would be great if the word choice and sentence structure didn't add to the fright!
One of the easiest ways we can make our writing approachable and accessible—even when discussing complex, intellectual topics—is to use familiar concrete words a reader can visualize.
Even better? Get rid of distracting information and extra words. Why add to a reader's cognitive load with words that aren't even contributing to your writing's meaning?
Avoid Slow, Intimidating Lead-Ins to Increase Access
Sentences that start with slow-lead-ins like "This is to inform you that" only delay information for our readers. And, they can add to intimidation. The bureaucratic voice of some of these boilerplate lead-ins isn't exactly comforting! Instead, let's get right to the meat of things! Who's doing something? What are they doing? That's all concrete information a reader can relate to.
Instead of "This is to inform you that your credit card information is in need of updating," then, we might write, "We need your updated credit card information." Or to focus on the problem/need, "Your credit card info needs updating."
Or, even better: "Please update your credit card information [through this link]." That one leads with the implied or "invisible" YOU, so maintains the Who + What format. Thus, it's one of the easiest to read.
With a few simple writing strategies, SMEs can strategically expand their audience and the reach of their message. Keeping our focus on the needs of today's readers is Step One. Get in touch with High-Value Writing if you'd like to bring a Strategic Writing for SMEs workshop to your team.