Every year, meteorologists have the unenviable—but necessary—job of communicating information to viewers and readers about major weather events like hurricanes and snowstorms. They walk a fine line between taking technical information and putting it in a form people can understand, and doing so in a way that gets people to act in a particular fashion (e.g. evacuating coastal areas).
And they constantly run the risk of “getting it wrong,” even when they have all the correct information and communicate it over and over again.
We see the same thing when talking about whether different types of food are good for you or not. A few years ago, eggs were pretty much a forbidden food; now they’re not only okay to eat, but a critical part of a good diet.
Coffee. Butter. Meat. All these food items have been on the merry-go-round of scientific okayness.
And then there are the controversial subjects: climate change, fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, medical procedures. Do you really understand everything your doctor tells you? Or what the difference is between climate change and global warming?
But it’s not just the hot-button topics. If you’re writing about anything with a specific lexicon or specialized knowledge—software development, car repair, taxes, being a digital nomad, rocket science—you have to be able to communicate information to an audience that may not be familiar with the language you use.
It’s your job as a writer to inform readers or move them to action, and you can’t do that if your reader doesn’t know what you mean.
Context is everything when you’re writing a technical subject. Your audience may be entirely industry insiders, in which case you want to use the appropriate jargon in order to get their attention. Your language may be different when writing for a popular blog, as opposed to a scientific journal, for instance.
It is possible to write smart without dumbing things down for your reader if you consider your audience, how you’re communicating (the medium), and where you are coming from as a writer. Here are five ways to communicate like a scientist when you’re writing for non-technical readers.
Science is fun. No, really. There’s this cat in a box and it might be dead, but it might also be alive. It’s both things at the same time until we open the box and look inside.
Quantum physics is some seriously weird shit, and I will never grasp the full measure of what it means or how it can be used. But I totally grok the idea that we don’t know what something actually is until we take a close look at it. (Come to think of it, it’s a lot like writing.)
Whatever you’re writing about, there’s something interesting and fun about it. So, don’t suck all the joy out of your subject. If your subject is weird and cool and interesting, let it be weird and cool and interesting.
Part of the reason I write (and I imagine it’s the same for a lot of writers) is that I want to know the “why” behind things. Your reader is likely on that same page. They don’t want to simply be told the final answer, they want to know the how and why and what happens next. It’s fun to talk about the possibilities behind something—not just the conclusion.
As with Schrodinger’s Cat, it doesn’t really matter if the cat is dead or alive. All that matters is that you’re talking about the mechanics and the possibilities and the weirdness — and that’s the fun part.
You can take your subject seriously without making it sound too serious. In many ways, this kind of writing is about being authentic. Your readers trust you, so if you know this neat trick to make coding easier, be enthusiastic about it. If you get giddy over giving advice to small business owners, be giddy! If you learned how to build a bookshelf or grow a tomato or brew beer and boy did you screw up the first five times, be honest about your process.
How can you write factually without sucking all the fun out your idea?
Everyone is an expert at something. Which means they are not experts at a bunch of other things. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t automatically interested in a topic, however, or that their interest cannot be piqued.
How many of you don’t know much about the Sun (other than the fact that it’s a giant mass of incandescent gas) but still went outside and stared up in awe at the recent solar eclipse? Or were one of the 61 million people who watched it online or on TV?
There’s a story behind everything. It might be the story of how a scientist made a discovery or how a new invention actually works.
One of my favorite science fiction tropes is the “lower decks” story, where the reader or viewer gets a look at how low-ranking officers or support staff see things. So, maybe your story behind the story means taking your idea and looking at the people around it who are affected by it.
Readers connect with stories that are told with passion. They also connect with stories told through different mediums—a story told by video or in a tweet thread can be just as effective when writers use their chosen medium effectively.
Just because your audience doesn’t know everything about your subject doesn’t mean they can’t be interested. If you tell the story well without being condescending, you can grab their attention and keep it.
Whatever your hook is, find the story that will interest your reader and build on that.
Technobabble, or the science-sounding dialogue used by most science fiction stories, can either add to your universe or take your reader right out of it.
The same is true of any non-fiction writing with a technical aspect. If you use too much technobabble (or jargon or business-speak or whatever you want to call it), your reader may not understand you.
For example, if you’re an astronomer, you might talk about ‘optical’ telescopes, but your audience might be thinking “don’t all telescopes see things, though?”
If you’re a programmer, maybe you use the phrase “deploy to production” or talk about DevOps or use acronyms like IDE and OOP.
And if you’re writing an article on starting your own business, you might wax rhapsodic about bootstrapping and co-working.
It’s great when your reader speaks the same language as you, but it’s not something you can count on. If you want to bring in new readers, you have to meet them where they are.
Some writers use their specialized technical knowledge as a cudgel. They bludgeon readers with how much they know, showing off their expertise on the subject.
A few even write specifically as a form of gatekeeping, using words as a tactic to keep those who don’t speak the jargon from participating in that field.
Other writers genuinely aren’t aware they’re using words or references their readers won’t recognize — this is how they naturally talk about what they know. They’re so excited about their topic that they write as they would speak to a peer, forgetting that their audience may not have the same background.
Some writers use big words because they think it makes them sound like an expert, even where no expertise is needed. (Tough love/pro tip: sprinkling “utilize” throughout your writing does not make you sound like more of an expert. “Use” is a perfectly lovely word.)
How do you write for an audience that doesn’t have your background or level of expertise? There are a few things you can do:
And the good news is, writing in plain speak doesn’t have to be boring.
One of my favorite stories about Star Wars is Harrison Ford telling George Lucas: “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.”
When you’re passionate about something, or an expert on a particular topic, it can be exceptionally easy when writing to forget that not everyone has the same base of knowledge as you do. You can get caught up in your writing, thinking that everyone knows what you’re talking about.
And then, when someone who doesn’t have a special brain-side seat to your inner monologue reads your writing, they get lost. They don’t understand the concept that was so clear to you when you put it down on paper.
This advice isn’t about using words that are fewer than three syllables or writing on a fourth-grade level. You shouldn’t dumb things down just because your audience isn’t familiar with a subject.
But you should take their level of knowledge into account as you’re writing. You may need to add explanations or think of other ways to get your point across.
Consider the medium you’re writing in. Lucas was trying to translate complex ideas into dialogue that would flow on the big screen. Harrison Ford was pointing out that it may have worked on paper, but wasn’t something the actors could say easily.
If you’re used to writing academic papers or government reports, moving to a more informal blogging style takes a bit of practice. Writing for one client is not like writing for another, just like how writing a book is different from writing a Facebook post. (Or at least, it should be.)
What are the best ways to look through your draft and make sure it’s understandable to the audience you’re writing for?
Writing clearly is even more important when your goal is to persuade your reader to act in a certain way.
Just as everybody likes to be a Monday morning quarterback, everybody thinks they know weather. And sure, using terms like ‘derecho,’ ‘bombogenesis,’ and ‘superstorm’ sounds awesome, but do you really know what these terms actually mean?
And more importantly, does your reader?
I’m convinced that one of the worst jobs in the world is to be the person who has to decide if school is closed for snow. If the meteorologist says your area is getting 4–6 inches of snow between midnight and 9 a.m. (and you live in some place that doesn’t get a lot of snow — stop laughing at the rest of us, Minnesota and Wisconsin), you’ll probably close school.
But if only the western third of your school district gets four inches and everyone else gets a dusting, and parents are stuck at home with kids who could have been at school…
As writers, we need to consider the impact of our words. How we say things matters. We have the power to sway readers to take action and persuade them to do something. With this great power comes great responsibility.
Writers, like any subject matter expert, have a responsibility to be credible and honest. They also have a responsibility to think about how the specific language they use can spur their audience into acting one way or another.
You may also have to deal with getting something wrong… or “wrong.” Again, I give you the fascinating world of meteorology — too many people don’t understand things like percentages (if there’s a 60 percent chance of rain, there’s also a 40 percent chance of no rain), or how forecasts or storm tracks work.
As writers, we have to acknowledge that our audience may not have the same technical background we do. In fact, that’s a good thing, because if everyone had the same background, there’d be nothing to write about.
Perception is everything. If your audience thinks you’re wrong, it doesn’t matter if you’re technically correct. (See: 2017.)
I don’t advocate telling your audience what they want to hear, especially when it comes to technical information. But you may need to do some extra legwork and foundation-building to meet your audience where they are.
For example, it can get tricky when you’re using technical terms that your audience may interpret in different ways.
One of the most misunderstood words in science is “theory.” The theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, the theory of missing socks from the dryer.
Guess which one hasn’t actually been proven?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines theory as: “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.” When a scientist uses the word “theory,” she means an explanation of something based on facts that have been repeatedly observed, tested, and confirmed.
But to most people, the word means a wild-ass idea that nobody knows whether it’s true or not.
Scientists aren’t going to stop using “theory,” because to them it means something specific and measureable. But non-scientists aren’t going to stop thinking that it means an unproven idea.
So, what’s a writer to do? On one hand, using really cool words like ‘bombogenesis’ is guaranteed to get clicks. On the other hand, you’re likely to freak out your readers.
What do you do when words themselves mean different things to different people, and how do you balance getting your story correct with telling it in a way your reader understands?
One of the best examples of how to communicate technical ideas without dumbing them down is the show Mythbusters. They never talked down to their audience, they explained technical things in a way that people of all backgrounds could grasp, they entertained while being factual, and, most of all, they had fun doing it.
Writing technical subjects for a non-technical audience doesn’t have to be hard. Whether you’re the subject matter expert — the person who knows everything about that topic — or an author trying to learn about a subject and then convey information, there are a few things you can do to keep your audience interested and engaged:
Put your reader first and consider your medium. Not only will you get their attention and spur them into action, but you’ll make them smarter, too.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.