Explain it to Me Like I’m Five: The Art of Clearly Describing What You Do
March 18, 2021 | Education
You’re a smart person with highly competent customers.
And you want them to know that you are a professional who understands their world and their language.
What a lot of us do in that situation is try to prove ourselves by using highly technical or corporate language on our websites and in our proposals. We mirror what we hear in conferences or in meetings and stuff our materials with words and phrases like “synergistically”, “portfolio of brands”, “siloed working”, or “optics”.
It’s the type of thinking that made the world’s most ‘magical’ brand create a mission statement like this:
“To be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products” – Disney
And one of the country’s most well-known beacons of creativity to pen this statement:
“To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all in the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards.” – MoMA
But here’s the secret.
People will assume you are professional by your actions, like invoicing on time, responding to emails quickly with the relevant information, or being there when you say you are going to be. Not because you know jargon and three-letter acronyms.
Your colleagues and customers are human too. They are excited by simple, direct, and engaging stories. They don’t enjoy reading long, meandering paragraphs with complicated terms.
Corporate Executive Board did a study summed up in Harvard Business Review, “After surveying thousands of consumers and interviewing hundreds of marketers and other executives, the Corporate Executive Board found that the single biggest driver of customer “stickiness” is the ease with which consumers can gather information about a product and confidently and efficiently sort through their available choices.”
This isn’t to say you can’t use any fun, Moira Rose-style vocabulary in your writing. It just means that almost everyone you encounter will appreciate clarity and brevity.
If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough
Over the span of your business, you’ll have to explain what your brand does and why hundreds of times.
Sometimes we over-burden our messaging with our internal struggles for cohesion and the caveats of our offering. We keep the board happy by covering our backs so much that we don’t say anything of substance or we try to make sure that every corner of our business is accurately represented and forget to make the big picture engaging.
Like Cisero said, “Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.”
- Consider your audience first
- What do they care about?
- How much do they already know about the subject?
- What do they need to know?
- What questions might they have about this topic?
- What action do you want them to take?
- Be specific
Instead of saying, “Use this new eye cream regularly to energize your skin and revitalize your look”, try, “Use Hydrocool Gel twice a day to hydrate your skin and firm and smooth your eye contours.”
- Keep sentences short and consistent
While variety can add some interest, readers generally prefer short sentences and a consistent tone.
If your business is in a new field or has a new offering that people will struggle to understand:
- Chunk down
Chunking down is when you start explaining a concept at the general level, and then gradually get to a more granular level of detail. It works well when you have to detail the reasons for your decision-making and get technical, or introduce a lofty topic to someone who’s new to the subject.
- Try analogies
Used sparingly, similies, metaphors, and analogies help your reader grasp new ideas in a realm they already understand.
The importance of flow
Cognitive fluency is how scientists describe the ease with which our brains process information. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all have a strong bias towards information that’s easily processed. It’s just a fancy way of saying flow.
Especially at work, our aim is to make the reading process as smooth as possible and to avoid roadblocks.
What are roadblocks?
Roadblocks are the things that halt our readers’ eye as it glides over a paragraph:
- Jargon, or business speak
- Redundant or irrelevant information
- A change in tense halfway through the piece
- A switch between the first person and third person
Our aim is to allow our reader to get the substance of our content, without tripping over the language.
A camel is a horse designed by a committee
If you’ve crafted a powerful key message and need to draw down on it to create website pages, a deck, or proposals, you’ll need input from your team.
But even the tightest teams are made up of members who live in the nuances of the brand, and can have different priorities and experiences of the business.
“Writing-by-committee is in theory a fine thing, based on the notion that none of us is as smart as all of us. But in practice, none of us is as dumb as all of us, no matter the collective intelligence of the individuals involved.” Rob Asghar told Forbes.
One person is worried about legal exposure, another doesn’t think the message covers the full scope of work; communications thinks it’s too long, and operations thinks it misses detail. Collectively, we keep watering down until it’s mush.
We compromise and we tweak until we have a Frankentext that doesn’t represent the original key message at all.
- Owning the message yourself, or delegating a chief-editor you trust.
- Being clear about the scope and exposure of the message.
- Having a system where people in your team can give controlled feedback to the chief-editor, but don’t have access to directly edit.
Edit like a pro
Make it easy on the eye
Avoid run-on sentences and long paragraphs.
A run-on sentence is when we forget to put a full stop and just continue our thoughts over what should be two or more sentences.
And long paragraphs feel laborious and weighty for the reader, so try breaking up text with headings or bullet points.
Eliminate weak or flabby words
You might know that you’re using a weak word when you have the urge to put words like really or very in front of it.
Mark Twain said “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Very big → Huge
Really tired → Exhausted
And we also try not to use adjectives to tell readers what something isn’t.
It’s not good at all → It’s terrible
N.B. Of course, if you replace “very big” with “gargantuan”, there’s a danger your writing will become hyperbolic. Try to find a happy medium.
Other filler words to avoid
Some words and phrases are so common that we don’t think about using them but they bring down the energy of our piece. It’s usually apparent when we write a few words when one or two will do.
And identifying them is simply a skill that we develop over the course of our careers.
You can find hundreds of lists of phrases like these online if you look for them.
But the fact of the matter is → But
Due to the fact that → Because
Utilize your time → Use your time
With reference to → Regarding
You’re going to have to → You’ll need to
Choose the active voice
In the active voice, the subject of a sentence performs the action. The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing or idea that is doing or being something.
In the passive voice, the subject is acted on by the verb.
So it’s the difference between saying.
“The bartender poured the drink,” and
“The drink was poured by the bartender.”
“Sue updated the menu,” and
“The menu was updated by Sue.”
When we were at school and we learned formal letter writing or resume writing, we learned how to do it in the passive voice because it sounds more formal. We took these lessons to heart and started replicating them in our business writing.
The issue is that sometimes isn’t clear what the subject of the sentence is, and as formal as it is, it can also sound meek.
You’ll also see politicians doing this to try and remove themselves as the subject of the sentence. So they might say something like ‘the youth center was closed because of budget cuts’ rather than saying ‘we closed the youth center because of budget cuts’.
We’re forcing the reader to do more work to get to the same conclusion.
And as entrepreneurs, we don’t want to remove ourselves from our activities. We’re proud of the work we do and we want to express it in a clear, honest, and direct way.
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