Technical Writing For a Non-Technical Audience

by Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp — all-in-one help authoring tool

The technological world has its own specific knowledge and language. Within that specialist world, experts communicate with other experts, and that’s a good thing. It’s their common language. But a technical writer must share technical information with an outsider.

We live in a world full of technicalities of different kinds, and oftentimes a non-technical audience needs to make sense of technical information. From the label on a medical product to a car’s user manual, that necessity can be critical.

Crucial information should get lost inside unknown jargon, unexplained acronyms, or unnecessary detail.

There is a particular term, “the curse of knowledge,” first used by economists in the ’80s. This term describes how difficult it generally is for highly technical people to reconstruct their thinking before becoming so knowledgeable. It’s now used more broadly to describe a failure to empathize with an audience that doesn’t have your technical command.

To get technical writing right for a non-technical audience, you must recognize that much of what’s in your mind almost certainly isn’t in your readers’ minds. They don’t have your grasp of the terminology.

What you consider as evident may confuse your audience unless you address gaps for them. However, there is a temptation to overwhelm them with the details they don’t need for their purposes.

Audience is King

Effective communication is all about the audience. Technical writing is done by people who are in sync with complex technical things. It’s OK to use jargon with people of the same technological level of knowledge as you. But when your audience is non-technical or outside your particular field, you must speak their language, not yours.

Keep the conversational tone to put them at ease and maintain their engagement. Your guiding principle is to direct their attention to real things in the world they can see for themselves.

Alongside thinking about the audience, think about the purpose. Focus on where you want to take the audience and how you want to change or direct their thinking or actions.

Mind the style of writing and the terminology. It should make sense to the readers. Single out which parts of the information are genuinely vital to meet that objective.

The sufficiency of information is vital: the information should be pure and simple — enough detail to be effective, but nothing redundant that could confuse them or overwhelm your message.

Things to Consider When Writing for Your Audience

Credibility and understanding aren’t built with complexity. Always look for ways to make your technical information and data more concrete, visual, or tangible. Or start with a problem for which you have a solution. This guidance is a great starting point to adapt youк writing to an audience.

  • Analogies are a particularly powerful tool for communicating complex ideas. Direct the audience’s attention to real-life equivalents they will instantly recognize.
  • Language. As I already said before the language you use needs to suit the audience and purpose. You have to adjust based on the document or communication in question — and not just the jargon but the words in between. Try to keep the words between your specialist terms as simple as possible. Use mostly short, everyday words and short sentences.
  • Particularities. Any person can visualize only the concepts that are based on their own experience. Be careful with theories, concepts, issues, assumptions, ideas — they all describe something theoretical. Use concrete terms wherever possible or find parallels in tangible, everyday experiences.
  • Voice: active and passive. Be aware of the voice you use in writing since it affects tone. The active is more conversational, direct, and concise, and it’s generally easier to follow. The passive is often wordier and more formal — overuse it and your writing can become too dense and dull. But they both have their strengths so don’t rule out any. Just use them as appropriate. Be aware of the choice you’re making and the effect that has each time.
  • Use commands (especially with instructions). We all use more direct forms of address today than we used to. A good example is the use of the imperative or command form of the verb in software instructions. Consumers need simple commands like Press, Turn, Delete, Open. It means the program will do what they want when they follow these commands. Clear, direct language is the bridge between technical specialists and a non-technical audience.
  • Test your writing. Give your draft to a person with a similar level of understanding to your target audience. That person should understand what are you talking about, grasp your main message, and be able to explain it. The content shouldn’t contain any uncertainties. Your audience should get all the benefits of your expertise.

The information can be complex, difficult to understand, or tedious when it comes to technical writing. There can be many ways to approach sharing information. However, it’s essential to keep two main things in mind — audience and purpose.

Awful technical documentation can cost a company thousands of dollars as it is difficult to understand how to use your products. When your audience is common people, it’s essential to keep communication simple, especially involving advanced technical documentation. You may have a degree in engineering, a 60-year old John Doe next door might not, and that person probably wouldn’t want to read a textbook when all that is needed is to find out how to reboot a computer. Use the tips I mentioned to write decent technical documentation for a non-technical audience.

Have a nice day!

Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp.com — best online documentation tool for SaaS vendors

Content Manager at https://medium.com/level-up-web 👈. I write about web design, web development and technical writing. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook