I thought I would share some of the knowledge I’ve gathered over my years spent communicating complex ideas into easy-to-understand language for a wider audience. Scientific and other technical data stands to lose a lot of value if it is not adequately translated into language that has meaning to audiences beyond specialists in that particular field. It’s the job of the writer to ensure that the value of that technical information is accessible to the largest audience possible.
There are two complimentary ways to approach this task. First, is to ensure that scientific and technical data and information is available in a variety of formats, each of which provides differing levels of technical details. Second is to write each piece in a way that presents the most critical information first, and then drills down into the details from there.
Producing Variety of Formats
Often scientists and/or researchers might label this effort as dumbing-down the information that they are presenting. I like to think that it’s more about reaching a wider audience, which could ultimately lead to greater exposure for the cause. Each technical report or piece of research should have several smaller documents, each descending in size and level of technical detail, and expanding in audience.
As an example, it might get broken down like this:
Technical Report – presents the full, gory details of the research, findings, and methodology. Audience limited to specialists in the particular area of that field.
Summary Report – presents enough technical details for a somewhat technical audience to understand. May be called a “White Paper.” Audience expands to include generalists in the field, specialists in other areas.
Fact Sheet – much shorter document with limited technical details. Audience may now include individuals outside of the particular field, science journalists, and others who have a basic understanding.
Industry Article – written for those in the know who may not be well-versed in the specific field. Some technical information, but not an overwhelming amount. Audience includes the widest definition of industry members.
General Article – written in layman’s language with the least amount of technical details that still allows for comprehension. Focus is on main points. Widest audience possible.
Of course this is just one example. There are infinite varieties of publications and formats that can be produced. The main point is that in addition to the original technical document, additional more general publications are produced.
Using the Traditional Approach
I still maintain that the traditional, journalistic, inverted-pyramid style of writing — in which you present the most important ideas first and then work to the least important in descending order — has high applicability in scientific and technical writing. By concisely presenting the most critical findings first, you prepare the reader to understand the more complex details that are presented later in the publication. And if the reader loses interest, and cannot get past the main point, you have at least reached them with the most important elements.
Here are some tips on getting this done:
Summarize the findings right up front. The reader should understand the most critical points within the first few paragraphs of any publication. In fact, the writer should include a single summary sentence of no more than 25 words.
Use good quality illustrations. Use charts, graphs and other illustrations to help reinforce the points being made. Be warned, however, that all graphics must be clearly labeled (axis, bars, lines, etc.) and include a simple, yet accurate title. A brief caption should clearly explain the meaning of the illustration. One test is: Can this illustration stand on its own? The answer should be “yes.”
Employ subheads to break up ideas. Subheads give the reader a break, and allow them to digest what they have just read. It also provides an opportunity for the author to logically structure the publication. The subhead should be accurate and active-voiced.
Summarize again. It’s always nice to send home those main points a second time near the end of a given publication. Doing this additional summary helps to drive the point home, and, hopefully, increase the odds of reader retention.
Consultant and writer on sustainability and the environment
Helping you leave a green footprint on the world…