How to Write Clearly About Complex Topics: 8 Tips
“Write what you know” is classic writing advice. But when it comes to complex business topics, I think it needs a rewrite: “Write what you know in a way your readers will care about.”
Here’s what happens: You want to explain something important, something that could help potential customers, hires or investors. You know it inside out. The problem is, when you sit down to write, you get so involved in the details that you forget all about your reader. You’re too focused on sounding good and being right.
Sure, readers have a shorter attention span these days. That’s true. But the bigger issue is that when you write a long, dense, difficult article, it doesn’t matter if the reader has time or attention. You didn’t earn their time — they’ve already moved on.
If this is a scenario you’re familiar with, here are 8 tips to make even your most complex ideas clear and interesting:
Tell your reader why they should care. Why should a small business owner care about artificial intelligence? How can marketing automation help the average entrepreneur? Readers are curious, and smart, but you must tell them (in the first few sentences) WHY what you have to say matters.
Then, you can layer complexity back in for those who are interested. Try what Anett Grant in Fast Company calls the “Sandwich Approach,” which works for speaking and writing.
Use storytelling techniques to break down difficult topics. If you research investing advice online, or retirement saving tips, you’ll often encounter hypothetical stories. For example: John saved $500/month for 5 years, but Laura saved $400/month for 10 years. Who’s in better shape?
This technique works because it’s entertaining, it’s clear, and it underlines basic financial principles without using a single piece of jargon. (Which is why it’s also important to know what details to leave out.)
Avoid jargon and big words (unless you can explain them with smaller ones!). I don’t want to discourage you from using any jargon at all; it serves an important purpose in some fields. Sometimes, explaining terms or ideas might be the whole purpose of your article, in which case avoiding them is silly.
But most jargon and big words are used by writers to make themselves sound smart. And in the end, they just sound boring (or worse, pompous).
Compare these two examples:
- "It’s critically important that modern thought leaders aim to simplify and clarify even the most complex of ideas in order to ensure that customers are able to comprehend their messaging."
- Write clearly so customers understand your message."
Avoid long, complex sentences and paragraphs. That kind of writing might have its place in a technical journal but falls flat online.
Focus. Get clear on which problem you’re solving and stick to it and ONLY it.
Bonus: Nine times out of 10, the clearer your thesis is, the better your headline and the more useful your article.
Ask a (non-expert) friend to read it for you. Try running your draft by someone you trust. You’d be surprised how useful their questions can be when you’re revising. (You’ll also get the benefit of similar feedback from our team, of course!)
Say it differently. Here’s a fun list of 18 experts explaining major scientific concepts using only the simplest English words.
You don’t need to go to this extreme. But when you seek to simplify, you force yourself to break bad habits and really clarify your thinking.
Put another way, if you met a customer on the street, would you explain it differently?
Read examples from fellow experts. Look at the thought leaders in your industry who are publishing in similar outlets. Which of their articles have the most shares and comments? What do the most interesting or valuable articles have in common?
Here are a few examples handpicked by our editors. In each, you’ll see that the author took the time to break down complex ideas into useful, helpful advice.
- Five Smart Ways To Feel Very Confident About Your Retirement
- Why You Should Know Your Cost Per Lead Like The Back Of Your Hand
- 10 Killer White Hat Local SEO Link Building Tips
- How Does A Machine Learn?
I hope these tips help you as you work on your next article. Happy writing!
This post is part of a series on how YEC members can best utilize their personal branding and publishing benefits. If you're not yet a member, see if you qualify.