Making the Complex Plain

Expertise and clarity

People sometimes assume that plain language principles only apply to simple content. They think that a technical audience will not appreciate reading about complicated systems or theories in plain language.

Experience has taught me the opposite is true. The more complex information is, the greater the benefit from sharing it plainly.

Have you ever met one of those wonderful people who have genius-level knowledge about their area of expertise? This is rare enough, but it’s rarer still for such a person to be able to share their knowledge equally well with people who share their interests and those who don’t. Plain language makes this possible.

Think it through

Writing is merely thinking in words. The clearer the thinking, the plainer the language. This is particularly important with complex ideas. Before you start writing, think about the most logical approach.

You can do a lot to help people understand if you begin with what they already know. Start with the familiar, then explain the exceptions and additions. Use an example that people can relate to and don’t be afraid of including more than one.

Apply the idea

Another trick to ensuring that people understand a complex idea is to give them a chance to put the idea to work. Ask questions or pose problems. Give people a chance to think and then provide the answers. Not only will people understand what you’ve written, they will be more likely to remember it.

Be concrete and specific

Sometimes we need to think in abstract terms, but people are more motivated by ideas they can relate to experience. We take in what we can see, touch, hear, or smell much more readily. That’s because our senses allow us to imagine more vividly. Be as concrete and specific as you possibly can.

Make the complex plain

When you’re explaining complex ideas, it’s especially important to write sentences that are easily understood. Follow these tips to avoid common sources of confusion in technical documents:

  1. Avoid noun strings. As much as possible, try to find a single word to describe each thing. If you find yourself describing something by a series of nouns, consider how each noun is related to the others and add more explanation.

Unclear (string of nouns): This report explains our market stimulation growth projects.

Clearer: This report explains our projects to stimulate market growth.

  1. Replace noun forms of verbs with a simple verb. You can spot many noun forms of verbs by the “tion” suffix. These nouns are weak imitations of the verbs they seek to exploit. You’ll get better results if you use the verb.

Unclear (noun form of verb): The preparation of the claim will require two hours.

Clearer: The claim will require two hours to prepare.

  1. Use the active voice. The active voice clearly identifies who is performing the action. This is particularly helpful with complex information. Readers can more accurately visualize if they can imagine the people responsible for the action you’re describing.

Unclear (passive voice): A decision was reached to postpone the vote.

Clearer (active voice): The Board of Directors decided to postpone the vote.

Plain language principles are powerful tools when explaining complex ideas. I’ll be including more tips on writing in plain language in upcoming blogs.

© Debbie Bateman 2021. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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