Experts have in-depth knowledge of their material, a thoroughness of understanding that has usually been developed over many years of diligent study, focus and reflection.
Yet, when it comes to communicating that knowledge, experts often struggle to get across ideas in a way that other people can understand and act on. Here are three difficulties I’ve observed experts struggle with – experts from diverse areas such as environmental science, taxation law, insurance, mining and government.
1. Assuming the reader knows more than they do.
Experts live and breathe their content and are continually immersed in it. They sometimes falsely assume that their readers have a good knowledge of the topic. The most obvious sign of this is using jargon or patterns of speech that are peculiar to your area of expertise.
2. Providing more detail than the reader can absorb.
Experts have a complete knowledge of their subject, and so they sometimes tell too much. If a reader is encountering new material for the first time, they may need time to absorb it. After all, experts have often grappled with the topic for 20 years or more; it’s unreasonable to expect someone else to pick it up in just a few minutes of reading.
3. Confusing a lack of passion for objectivity.
This is sometimes a problem for scientists who, rightly, want to base their communication on sound science rather then emotional ravings. However, writing with passion does not mean you have lost objectivity. In fact, if your conclusions are based on sound science, you may completely justified to be passionate about them. Consider communication about climate change – much if it is both objective and passionate.
So, what can experts do to avoid falling into these traps when they write?
Firstly, make every effort to understand the needs and existing knowledge of your reader. Write for them above all. Often this will mean organising material in a way that moves the reader from the simple to the complex, or from the known to the unknown. And it will nearly always mean writing simply.
Some people call this ‘dumming down’. But it is not. Only when you can explain ideas simply do you fully understand them. As Albert Einstein said “Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in language comprehensible to everyone.” And Leonardo Da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
Secondly, test what you have written with readers. Find people similar to your target audience and ask them to read what you have written. Questions to get you started when testing:
- Which sentences did you have to read twice to understand?
- Ask questions about the content. How does xyz work? What does the abc do?
- So what? What should you do now that you have read this?
Refine your material until people get it. (The reader is always the judge of effective communication, never the writer.)
Thirdly, consider including other expertise when developing communication products. Bring communication expertise and content expertise together for the benefit of your readers and users. (I know; this paragraph is a shameless advertisement for Think-write’s services. But it just may help.)
Expert: ex – the unknown quantity; spurt – a drip under pressure