Making the complex simple: writing for a technical team
Good copywriting is important because it makes information accessible to audiences. At matterlab, this is essential because of the nature of our work, which is very technical. If we want people to understand what we do and how we do it, we need to make sure that we are communicating as effectively as we can.
In April 2020, I joined matterlab and this posed a new challenge for me. Programming, computer science, coding, nodes, computational design, generative design – writing for our team means technical writing on topics that are not only niche but new to the world in general.
So where do you start? How do you find a way of writing for audiences with varying levels of expertise? And how do you achieve that without compromising professional credibility or integrity?
In this piece, I’m going to try to explain my own journey as a copywriter through these issues. I’ll share with you some tips and resources that hopefully can help you to write and communicate for your brand more effectively.
Find your voice
First thing’s first: find your brand voice. If you’re part of an older, more established company, then this may well already be defined. However, if you’re part of a younger team - maybe a start-up - then this might not be the case.
Brand voice is the way your brand comes across in the world. In a writing context, it’s the language you use, the way you structure your sentences, whether you use ‘!’ or ‘?!’ - or neither of them. It’s all of these things and more. And they’re important because they tell the reader what type of brand you are, where you place yourself as a business and why you’re different. Audiences glean this very quickly and, in a world where attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, it’s important that you convey your brand in the way you mean to.
For example, Nike’s ubiquitous ‘Just Do It’ works for them because it’s quick and to the point; it signifies competition, motivation and success. It’s a great tagline for a sportswear brand because it tells consumers in three words that that their main objective as a business is to be effective and instills confidence in audiences that their products will do the same.
Innocent are another great example – if you head to their website, you’ll notice that the language and layout of their navigation bar (pictured below) has been designed to encapsulate the idea of ‘innocence’. The word choices like “things we make” (rather than something generic like ‘Our products’), the fact that nothing is capitalised, the pseudo hand-drawn vertical line that separates the logo from the navigation links, and the curvy, friendly, childlike font they use – it’s all a bit quirky and childlike, and these elements work together to shape their ‘innocent’ voice and communicate their ethos of simple, natural foodstuffs.
Pinning down your brand voice is a process. We went through this recently at matterlab, kicking off with a chunky workshop to get under the skin of the brand. We explored different areas of the business, including the story behind it, core adjectives to describe it, long-term visions, and loads more - all with the goal of developing a sort of brand ‘foundation’ that defined our personality, values and mission; who we are, what we do, what we stand for and how we behave.
These are the cornerstones of your brand and having this will allow you (and your team) to communicate your brand’s messaging consistently and with confidence. It will shape the language you use (perhaps an obvious one) but also will inform what you write about and how.
Swot up and learn
Once you have your brand figured out, the next step is to understand what you’ll be writing about – or try to at least.
As a starting point, read up on your industry. Scour the internet, find some industry publications and sign up to newsletters, search Google News with some key words – there are lots of things you can do to upskill so make sure you put the time in. Be a sponge and try to gather a basic understanding of what’s going on and who’s who.
The next step is to dive deep into your company’s work, right back to the start. If you have a cloud-based server, use this to your advantage and browse through the assets available to you. Try to understand the terminology and write it down if it helps.
Finally (and this one is probably the most useful), talk to your colleagues. If you’re trying to write for people who have knowledge that you don’t, pick their brains! Ask them questions about their work, why they do what they do, what’s exciting about it, how they do it, and everything in between. Even if it’s a single term that’s bothering you, then ask someone. While the internet is good for a lot of stuff, it’s vital that you understand your own team’s idioms and vocabulary so that you can write for them in a way that works.
When it comes to the actual writing, the aim is to make the complex simple. Ironically, that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a real craft.
More than anything, write simply and plainly. This is good because, even if some terminology is exclusive, a clear, accessible context will help your readers go much further. Think of Apple products, for example. Arguably they make products that are technologically advanced and require a lot of expertise to make. However, the interfaces they create for them are stripped back, plain and accessible for most people (even my 95-year-old gran has an iPad). The same applies to language – make it easy to understand and your audiences will get a lot more from it.
At matterlab, we use the Plain English Campaign (PEC) and the Guardian Style Guide for most things. The former is good because they champion simplicity in writing (and punctuation especially) and the latter is good because The Guardian mostly write to inform (so it needs to be clear) and they have a very wide readership (so it needs to be accessible). This article from English language guru Steven Pinker is great too, and very much aligned with the other resources.
I’ve actually gone as far as to base our brand writing style on the PEC’s guides, which means that all our external comms should adhere to their guidelines. I did this because of the level of technicality in matterlab’s work. Having a simpler framework means that we can create content that can be understood easily, no matter what the subject is or who is reading it.
Finally, you have to bear in mind that you can’t win them all. There will always be some information that simply cannot be made accessible for everyone - and this is sometimes the case with a technical team like ours. Their level of expertise is underpinned by many years of training and professional experience, which is something that can't necessarily be conveyed through language alone, no matter how hard you try. But do try.
Other tips and treats
Share the knowledge. Let your team know where they can find resources on how to write, and every so often give them a workshop or presentation on best practice.
Synonyms are your friend. Use Google to find a better word for the word that you have.
Avoid complex grammar or punctuation. Simple choices often work just as well, if not better.
Proofread out loud. The act of reading aloud helps you to pay attention to every word and phrase.
Be consistent. Language is a minefield when it comes to different spellings and ways of writing, particularly between American and British English. Pick one and stick with it across all of your output, whether it’s internal or external.
Repetition is alright. It’s okay to use the same word twice in a sentence.
Play with it. It’s also okay to flout grammatical rules in favour of style, as long as the context is right for it.
Language is fluid. It’s changing all the time so be flexible when new words come along or when hyphens disappear. Just make sure to let your team know any updates to writing style.
‘A picture tells a thousand words’. Sometimes this is true so if a GIF works better than a page of writing, definitely do that. It’s a much better experience for the audience. We use GIFs to showcase our products, as it would just take too long to explain in words.