Thursday, 5 March 2015

Overcoming the "curse" of technical knowledge

An origami swan
An origami swan - not as simple as it looks © M. Gove

An expert is very close to the technical details of his field on a daily basis. The terms become so familiar. He forgets how unfamiliar those same terms once were. This is known as the curse of knowledge.

Different target audiences
Many experts are unable to explain their subject simply. "Doing simple" feels very uncomfortable. It feels like you are "dumbing down" years of hard-earned education and painstaking research. Yet, there are many times when an expert needs to persuade or communicate with target audiences outside his field - for example:

·      to access funding and support
·      to maintain or renew existing funding
·      to influence policy-makers
·      to access the Media - both trade and non-trade press
·      to debate ethical and other issues with university management, etc
·      to work with the private sector
·      to launch and market a prototype or product
·      to seek advice from experts in other fields
·      to report on research progress
·      to present findings at international/multicultural conferences
·      to publish online, newsletters, emails, short videos, etc
·      to take advantage of the growing trend for MOOCs
·      to engage with the general public.

Academic writing
Academic writing often encourages an intellectual approach. It is seen as good to sound clever and obscure. You are supposed to sound like an expert. However, it is also said that you do not know your subject well enough if you cannot explain it simply. 

Cultural differences
There are also cultural differences in approach to academic writing. When studying in France, I remember English students being berated for a meandering style. Our writing was likened to that of the great French Renaissance philosopher Montaigne. As I loved Montaigne's essays, it felt like a compliment. However, if you wish your writing to be accepted in another culture, you have to conform to their current expectations and norms.

German academic writing expects the reader to find his own way. English academic writing requires clear guidance for the reader. English is the language of science. You need to publish in English if you wish to reach the widest possible audience. Rewriting can improve readability for target audiences outside the academic world. Machine translation will not convert academic German into academic English. Nor will it create material fit for 21st Century digital consumption. Greater attention needs to be paid to presentation and formatting as well as technical content.

Improving the readability of a text does not mean lowering the research's value or content. The simplest way to improve readability is to talk your subject through with someone outside your field. Explain your story and aims to them. A technical writer or professional translator is the perfect choice as they work with different target audiences on a daily basis. Their questions will help you fine-tune your material for your new audience. Your message is much more likely to be heard and understood.

Choose an expert
Simplicity may look simple. It takes time and thought. It is easy to underestimate the skill involved. It requires the hard-earned education and painstaking effort of an expert to make technical translation and writing look simple. 

If you would appreciate some expert help with your technical communications, email or call Karen on +44 (0)20 8581 9369.

Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. She is a
technical writer and 
translator with over
15 years' marketing
experience. Anglicity offers
marketing consultancy and
content marketing with a 
particular focus on innovation.

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