How to Describe Complex Topics in Common Language

by Firefalls on April 22, 2011

When you’re tasked with teaching people how to do something or having to explain something that has multiple steps or parts, it’s your job to make sure you don’t leave your readers with that “deer in the headlight” look on their face.

You may think the subject is really easy to grasp, but think back to a time when you first had to learn something, roller-skating, karate, how to eat with chopsticks, things you take for granted everyday, like writing in script, the point is no matter how easy something seems to you there is someone who doesn’t have a clue about what you’re talking about.

So when you’re describing something fairly complex, with multiple steps, assume some of your readers are complete newbies, some have a little knowledge  (intermediate students) and others we’ll call  advanced.

Here’s the trick: You have to write to the newbies, while giving enough information that the intermediate will find it useful (and hopefully will get them further along towards becoming advanced students).

What role  do the advanced students  play?  Some will tune out immediately (this is realty), some will read through your writings hoping to gain an extra ounce of knowledge that they didn’t have before and lastly, and this is most often the case, your advanced students will chime in and help you help the others. They may comment on things you forgot to include, or tell their experiences, but most of all they usually help answer the newbie questions.

So what’s the trick?

Here are steps that will help you out.

  1. Break down every step as if your learning it for the first time. Remember you don’t want to go over anyone’s head so be as detailed and specific  as you possibly can. 
  2. If your writing about learning to drive a stick shift, don’t say hit the clutch, put car into 1st gear, lay off the clutch as you hit the gas, and off you go!!

    Break it down ridiculously detailed (think: more = better)

    So you may say: Push down the clutch with your left foot (assuming you drive on the right-hand side of the road), take your right hand and grab the gear shift, it’s in the middle of the two front seats, follow the pattern on the shift knob to where 1st gear is located (slightly left and up), tap the gas slightly with your right foot (just enough to give it a little gas) at the same time as you lay off the clutch easy (with your left foot). You will feel the gear catch as your car starts accelerating down the road. Catching the gear is the trickiest part to learn so you will probably stall a few times but keep practicing and your be driving in no time.

  3. Never assume somebody knows something. A bad mistake people often make is skipping steps because you think that “everybody” knows that already. I’ve gotten stumped when following someone’s steps because they left out one or two little steps, so what I was doing (say something online) didn’t quite match the output I was getting. The reader will probably wonder whether or not they missed something or did something incorrectly. The little steps might seem trivial to most users but to someone who isn’t familiar with what you’re describing it could make them stop what their doing and go somewhere else for direction to make sure they didn’t miss a step.

  5. A picture is worth a thousand words (at least). Nothing helps me more than seeing exactly what I’m supposed to do, exactly where to click, what the next screen should look like…etc.
  6. I would get into the habit of using pictures and videos to explain how to do things. If you have a video showing exactly how to hang wall paper then the person you are teaching will know the exact steps involved and whether or not they should tackle the project. Maybe they’ll decide to call in an expert but at least, from your detailed description, they’ve made an educated decision.

So next time you have to describe something fairly complex put yourself in your readers shoes (the newbie readers) and explain every possible step involved in the task you are describing. A good rule of thumb that I always use is I try to anticipate what someone would ask me and then answer that question before it’s even asked.

Give it a try.

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