Translating the technical

Technical writing on a laptop

How to make technical stories work for less technical people

We work in an industry where real innovation often starts with the research scientists. But to have any impact, the results of that research need to be understood and employed by engineers, designers, contractors, tradespeople and building occupiers. None of whom are scientists.

Taking the essence of the innovation, working out what is important to your audience and then finding the most appealing way to communicate this message is a skill that is not mastered quickly.

After over twenty years of translating arcane subjects into accessible messaging, here are my top five tips:

1. Identify your audience

Sounds basic, but it’s often overlooked. You really need to know your audience because you need to understand the language they use as well has how best to reach them.

It probably goes without saying that a technical document aimed at persuading scientist peers is a very different proposition to a story prepared for the Daily Mail, but the key is to understand what is important to your audience first, and then work backwards to decide how your message meets their needs.

Profiling your audience also tells you where to find them. Of course there are the industry events and trade journals, combined with social media and browser searches, but don’t be put off approaching national press too. If you get your story onto Good Morning Britain, The Times or the 10pm news, it’s surprising just how much reach you can achieve with a wide range of audiences.

Start with a profile – remembering that there is likely to be more than one type of person you want to influence. Be as specific as possible: think about age, qualification levels, daily work life and interests and re-work the story for each audience group.

2. Summarise your arguments

However complicated an argument looks at first sight, the number one task is to distil it into a single sentence. Work out what is the essence – you can expand and add detail as appropriate, but you have to start with absolute clarity.

3. NEVER use words you don’t understand

It can be tempting to simply borrow terminology or phrases from the documentation you are using for your research. Don’t. 

You don’t need to understand all the formulae or the scientific principles, but you must understand their implications for your audience.

If you borrow phrases you risk using them inappropriately and blowing your credibility. As you are likely to be ghosting this copy for a real expert you have their reputation in your hands. 

4. Remember your experts

This process of simplification will be deeply uncomfortable for your experts. Most will have been trained to respect research, accuracy and detail and we are asking them to accept a summarising of their work that will necessarily be brief and may appear superficial.

You need your experts on your side, and you need to put in the hours to gain their trust. Make sure you have done your own research before you meet so you have at least grasped the basics. It can also be useful to come prepared with examples of how other organisations have spread a story – look for good examples in parallel organisations who have respect.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Understanding is often lost because the questioner feels embarrassed to ask what they think is a really simple question. This is fatal.  Provided you’ve done your homework properly and have a grasp of the basics, you must ask questions. 

5. Don’t go native

Most experts will inhabit a world where the free exchange of information is carried out in an arcane language that can be impenetrable to the outsider. The longer you work with a client the more likely you are to fall into the trap of adopting their language – particularly as you will be encouraged to do so by the experts themselves.

Keep your distance. At Ridgemount, if we see one of our writers “going native” we may simply switch the writer working on the account. At the very least, all copy must be checked by a non-expert to make sure the language we are using is inclusive, and not a barrier.

 At Ridgemount we are passionate about communication. We can see great work being carried out to help make our environment more efficient, sustainable and productive. But a great idea cannot influence unless the right people hear about it.

6. Experiment

Trying an entirely new marketing activity is always an adventure but remember that not everything works. We’ve had some astonishing success with influencer marketing, but we are very aware that getting it wrong could be expensive!

And that’s our job.

As PJ Barnum so rightly pointed out “Without publicity, a terrible thing happens. Nothing”.


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