Friday, 9 January 2015

From ‘What?!’ to ‘Ah!’ How to explain complicated messaging

Making complex messaging accessible is a key part of the copywriter’s remit. So here’s how we go about it.

While perusing the magazines on offer in the rather dilapidated Tesco Express lurking by our office, I was struck by a tantalising promise from New Scientist: ‘HOW TO THINK ABOUT EVERYTHING – Get your head round the 13 boldest concepts in science’.

It got me thinking before I’d even got to the till. In business, there are always complicated messages and processes that need to be explained.

-       Tech companies have to try and translate that subtle technical breakthrough that sets them apart into something consumers can actually grasp.

-       Global conglomerates need to encapsulate complex HR strategies into something which will galvanise their army of employees.

-       Conference agencies are routinely tasked with taking high-level information and turning it into something entertaining.


Lifting the curse
'Capture that in 50 words. And make it punchy.'
Copywriters have a pivotal role to play in this ‘explanation process’ – right from the early planning stages. One of the reasons for this is ‘the curse of knowledge’. Esteemed psychologist slash linguist, Steven Pinker, defines this unfortunate phenomenon as ‘the common failure to understand that other people don’t know what we know.’

A non-expert opinion
Brands are highly susceptible to this curse. It’s why corporate brochures are often pockmarked with jargon. And it’s why bringing in copywriters from outside the company bubble is so vital when it comes to explaining potentially confusing information. Not only are we a fresh pair of eyes, our understanding is usually closer to the audience’s than the client’s.

Establishing the information gap
When approaching a complex job, a copywriter should always ask the same two questions:
-       How much does the audience know?
-       How much does the audience need to know?

Keep it simple
Only with these questions answered, can you set about explaining the information as clearly as possible. The key to this is simplicity. Those with a mastery of their subject are always the best at explaining it in Layman’s terms. They don’t try and bluster and baffle because they don’t need to. They’re secure in their expertise. It’s the same with copy. Strip it right back to as few simple phrases as possible. This doesn’t mean it has to be short, mind. Sometimes more is more. Just make sure all the detail is clearly explained and really, really worthy of inclusion.

Don’t say it all at once
Of course, sometimes you can hack and cut and distil and still find yourself staring at a big slab of copy. Don’t fret. Instead, try and chop up your messaging into more manageable chunks. Headlines, sublines and bullet points are your friends here.

Make ‘em laugh
If you really want your complex messaging understood, you need to make it worth the reader’s while.  Whether it’s a wry tone of voice or the odd unexpected simile, entertaining the reader gives them an incentive to persevere. It’s a reward for pushing themselves. And it makes taking on complicated messaging feel a lot less like a chore. Bill Bryson does this expertly in A Short History of Nearly Everything. (In this link he succeeds in making atoms accessible.)

Explain what’s in it for them
You don’t need to be Bill Bryson to know that we humans are a selfish bunch. That’s why linking complex messaging to the lives of your audiences works so well. Make it relevant to them. Draw out the benefits they’ll experience.

Spin a yarn
You know we’re all about utilising storytelling techniques in copywriting. And they’re handy here too. A few years ago, we were commissioned to write an annual report for QinetiQ. This included explaining the vast commercial potential of their scientific research activities. Not easy. So we pried open our storyteller’s toolkit.

“We can tell you what it’s like to sit on a tube train in the Arctic.”

Quirky headlines like this one pique the reader’s interest. They’re thinking, ‘how?’. They’re not thinking, ‘this sounds like it’s going to make my head hurt.’

Use metaphors with caution
Metaphors are another narrative technique often used to make the complex more accessible. And they can be effective. The bowling ball on a bedsheet to explain space time is a classic. However, they can also be a distraction. Unless they’re based on something the audience is familiar with they’ll end up being just another thing they need to wrap their head around.

As we said in that little italic intro bit, making complex messaging accessible is an important part of a copywriter’s job. So here’s a handy process to follow.

From ‘what?!’ to ‘Ah!’ in five easy steps
-       Ask what does the audience know already?
-       What does the audience need to know?
-       Strip back the answer as much as possible
-       Give the reader a reason for sticking with it
-       Reiterate the key message

We can’t make it any simpler than that.

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