Laymen’s terms. This is the “simplified” version of your industry jargon, and yet, it’s anything but simple to achieve in your content. How important is it? Honestly, if you’re not breaking you expertise down into laymen’s terms, you might as well stop typing now, because the 99.99% of people who don’t do exactly what you do aren’t going to read it.
Years ago, I met a friend of a friend at a party. In the spirit of awkward small talk, I asked what he did. Offhandedly, he said, “I’m an SEO analyst.”
At that time, I didn’t even know what SEO stood for (Search Engine Optimization). To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if we were talking about websites, or medical equipment, or rockets.
I nodded and smiled politely, as I did often out of intense shyness. I finally worked up the courage to blurt out: “So, what does that mean? What do you actually do?”
“Well, I mostly just measure traffic metrics,” he said.
I nodded and smiled again, and when he turned around to grab another drink I made a note in my phone – “Google: SEO and traffic metrics.”
It’s easy to assume someone else has your specific background knowledge. When specialized terms become normalized for you, they don’t just become ingrained in your perspective – they make up your perspective. That’s why it’s difficult for someone with high-level knowledge to even recognize that they’re being obscure or unclear.
Unfortunately, when you presume your audience has background knowledge they don’t actually have, you’re unintentionally doing two things:
Making them feel stupid or ignorant, and,
Creating an end point to the interaction, because no one can (or wants to) engage with something they don’t understand.
A similar encounter a few months ago really hit this point home for me. I asked a website content client if his marketing strategy included a blog. He looked at me with a blank stare and said, “what’s a blog?”
I thought he might be joking. I waited to see his expression. He was not joking. As I explained (struggled to explain, really) what a blog was, I wondered how many times I’d mentioned blogging to clients who had no idea what a blog was.
While my client learned about blogs in that meeting, I learned not to make assumptions about what my audience may or may not know. It changed my writing style completely. In a face-to-face meeting, it’s important to speak in clear terms, but on paper, it’s critical, because here’s the thing about writing: you don’t get to see your audience’s reactions. There’s no opportunity to insert that explanation after you’ve dumped a specialized term on them. Instead, what you get are people who can’t engage with what you’re saying. Those are people whose cursors are already heading to the back button.
The Solution: Break it all Down
When you need to explain the basics of your industry, business, or profession, try not to think of it as dumbing it down. If you think of it that way, you’ll come off as condescending. The reality is, there are terms in almost every industry that people outside the industry can’t be familiar with (86’d, anyone?)
Instead, imagine your content as a pyramid of information. If someone can’t approach the bottom level of the pyramid, they’re never going to make it to the top. So, take the commonplace terms in your business or industry and break them down into basic chunks. If you aren’t sure whether a term is familiar for someone outside the industry, ask someone outside the industry. Better yet, ask a few people.
Simplify your solution even more by saving yourself some time on (and space in) your content. If you’re an SEO analyst, you don’t have to explain SEO every time you write a new blog post. Instead, dedicate a single blog post to explaining it. Then, whenever you mention SEO in a post, you can link back to that resource. Anyone who gets stopped up by the term “SEO” can simply click on the link to do a little background reading.
This will also be an exercise in deconstructing your language; it can train you in how to speak clearly about your work in face-to-face interactions, too. Whether on paper or in person, you can start to avoid those blank stares!
What are some terms in your industry other people might not be familiar with?