Friday, June 17, 2011

Unless you’re targeting only geeks, don’t ask a geek to write your stuff.

There is a common mistake being made in corporate job ads for communications, writing, editing, copy writing, technical writing, and similar positions.

These ads usually start with listing requirements of the job that are very industry-specific.

In other words, for a respondent to be considered for a technical writing position with Ace Widgets, they must possess a detailed knowledge of Ace Widgets. Many times, a specialized degree or certification is specified as being required.

Later in the list of desired qualifications, “strong writing skills” will be mentioned, along with familiarity with Microsoft Word, and so forth; the kinds of general skills anyone needs to be effective in an office environment.

This is backwards.

Hire a writer, not a technically trained expert

If you are looking to hire someone whose primary output will be writing – for brochures, speeches, technical manuals, the web, or whatever – you want to hire someone who is first and foremost a writer.

You want someone who has been successful across a variety of fields writing in different markets. You want a writer who writes well in any and every circumstance.

You do not want to hire an engineer to write technical manuals. You do not want to hire a nurse to write hospital brochures. You should avoid hiring an insurance salesman to write web copy for your insurance website.

You don’t want to hire someone who is so familiar with the technical details of your products or services that they can’t translate those into jargon-free plain English aimed at your customers. These are your subject matter experts (aka geeks) from whom the necessary information can be drawn, and who can read and validate the output.

A good writer will know how to interview your subject matter experts and digest your industry-specific information in order to create engaging and understandable copy for your customers.

Subject matter experts, as a rule, are not writers. And when they are called upon to write, they will write for others like themselves. They will produce copy only other subject matter experts in their field will be able to understand. Your customers will be left scratching their heads and call your support line.

The result is frustration, not clarity or customer satisfaction.

Engineers know engineering, not writing

When I worked at AT&T developing international sales proposals, all of the material for our proposals came from engineers and others who were immersed in their different technology niches.

These men and women were smart, conversant, and skilled at their jobs. But they couldn’t write a clear layman-focused sentence to save their lives when it came to writing for their jobs. Because they were so immersed in their area of expertise, they often forgot what various acronyms stood for. They could tell you the XYZ was a piece of equipment, and they could tell you what the XYZ did and why it was important. But they couldn’t tell you what XYZ stood for.

That’s why the company needed me and my colleagues. We were not technically trained in telecommunications, but we could write. We knew how to ferret out definitions of acronyms, but more importantly, we could sit with the engineers and others and talk with them, learning what they were trying to communicate. Then, we could take their inputs and “translate” them for the lay reader.

A good writer can write well about almost anything

I have worked in education, manufacturing, telecommunications, aerospace, religion, magazine publishing, retail, book publishing, finance, tech support, call centers, and other industries. I wasn’t trained in any of these fields and I was successful as a writer in all of them. In fact, I was frequently sought out by the top executives to help with various writing projects.

It is rare that someone with deep subject matter expertise will also have strong writing skills and be able to filter their technical expertise to appeal to a lay reader. The jargon is too ingrained.

A good writer is able to write well because they possess a broad knowledge of many subjects. This enables them to create stories, metaphors, and examples that will connect with your customers, most of whom are not medical geeks, insurance geeks, or technical geeks.

If you want to produce news releases, brochures, flyers, direct mail, web copy, books, publications, collateral, and all things that involve writing that will connect with and engage your customers, hire writers who are excellent writers.

Don’t hire geeks to do your writing. Or you could end up with copy that sounds like this...


1 comment:

  1. I may have to use this video in my writing class. It's totally epic!!



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