Clear Language Means Clear Understanding

As a content strategist, it’s easy to focus on clear language. But in my experience, the first step is understanding what you’re trying to say.

A colleague recently asked me for help making a presentation clearer, before handing it off to a client. He sent me the paragraph of text he was struggling with. As he had promised, it was very confusing. I honestly wasn’t sure what he was trying to say.

Here’s a snippet of our conversation:

Me: Can you tell me what you’re trying to get across here?
Coworker: I’m explaining that the graph is showing the statistics, but that the statistics are impacted by the dates and the range.
Me: Can you explain to me how those statistics are impacted?
Coworker: Sure. The range is [pointing] here, and the statistic’s accuracy is impacted by the dates here.
Me: I’m confused. How do the dates affect accuracy?
Coworker: …actually, I don’t know!

The issue became clear: my coworker couldn’t break down the confusing paragraph into simpler concepts because he didn’t fully understand them either. And I can’t write something in clear language if I don’t understand it.

Understanding “Why”

This is not an isolated incident, and happens with many people. In this situation, my coworker was very intelligent, and understood how to read the graphs. But it had never occurred to him to wonder why the elements in the graph worked together. Yet if he was going to explain why the elements needed to be in the graph, he needed to answer that very question.

The same thing often happens with advanced subject matter experts. They are specialists in their field(s). They use language that makes sense to them, though it’s not what you or I might consider “clear language”. But the fact is, it’s rare that someone asks an SME to break down the terms they use for a layman. And as a content strategist, that is exactly what we need to do. We are the three year old, asking “but why?”

Clear Language for Clear Communication

To many people outside the world of content strategy, it may seem that my job is about finding synonyms or easier ways to say things. But I often begin a rewriting exercise by asking a SME to explain the concept in their own words. Then I say it back to them, in my own words, and we go back and forth until we both understand the concept and can say it in a few different ways.

In other words, my job isn’t to find simple ways to say things. My job is to find simple ways to understand concepts. That means the first step for any content strategist is to learn. We need to learn why people use the words they use, how they define them, and how they relate to the rest of the words.

Here are a few tools to help get clearer communication:

  • Domain mapping is a great way to learn about a new field
  • Jobs To Be Done, or the Five Whys are both good methods for understanding the base rationale for an action
  • Conversation. Don’t be afraid to sit down with a subject matter expert and ask them all your questions. Acknowledge your lack of knowledge, and try repeating what you hear back, in your own words.

How do you improve your understanding of complex topics?

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