3 Tips for Writing Reader-Friendly E-mails about Technical Subjects
People with technical knowledge have a valuable skill: they can look at data and draw conclusions most readers could never reach. They grapple with questions like Do these readings show a serious problem or a normal flaw? Why might high-nitrogen soil be worth the price? Is it really so important to put an O-ring on the piston?
Writing gives you the chance to convince others of your ideas, but it’s a tool to wield strategically. When you’re e-mailing readers who don’t know what you know, you run the risk of confusing them with too many details and too little context. Applying the principles of reader-centered writing can help you avoid misunderstandings.
Tip 1: Write from the readers’ perspective.
Your technical job tends to involve concrete, hands-on knowledge. If your readers are varied, though, you might be addressing people who create high-level strategies—but who don’t know much about your subject.
It’s your job, then, to create a clear bridge between your work and your audience’s. To do their jobs, what do they need to learn from you? Details of a process? Facts about an end result?
Your technical e-mails aren’t meant to prove you’re an expert. They just have to provide what your readers need, written in a form they understand.
Tip 2: Include visuals, analysis, and comparisons.
Make sure that you deliver more than one kind of content. When your writing is varied, you’ll reach a broad range of readers with different priorities and learning styles.
Here are a few ideas:
Lists and tables provide a break from the harder mental work involved in reading paragraphs.
Well-labeled diagrams and screenshots can present data efficiently.
Everybody pays attention to illustrative stories. Adding a story to a technical e-mail means acknowledging the people behind the process—and the why behind what you did.
Making comparisons is a quick way to explain tricky ideas and help link unfamiliar concepts to what readers already know.
Tip 3: Be careful with acronyms and technical terms.
“Our 2/11 OS is an online 1G/1EC BIZ.”
What does that mean?
“Our open seminar on February 11 is an online Reader-Centered Business Writing workshop. It involves one day of group instruction, then another day of coaching via e-mail.”
That first sentence is an easy read for the Better Communications staff. It’s full of our shortcuts. For anyone else, it fails to do what business writing must do: communicate.
Specialized terms can speed up an in-group conversation, but bring less informed readers to a halt. So if your technical e-mails address a wide audience, your writing should look more like the sentence in blue. If you need to bring up a difficult term or an acronym, define it in parentheses the first time you use it. That’s one of the best ways to empower nontechnical readers.
Technical writing isn’t doomed to be dry and dense! Done right, it can be enlightening. Focus carefully on what your readers need to hear: both you and they will get the job done faster.