Highly technical content has long presented a unique problem for bloggers and marketers. After all, how can you comprehensively explain a relatively difficult concept without alienating 90 percent of your audience? Perhaps even more importantly, how do you enable said content to gain the elusive “sticky” quality that so often determines whether your audience clicks through or bounces?
Google’s resident spam-killer, Matt Cutts, recently addressed this issue in his video series for webmasters. And because Google is the search engine to keep happy, it’s probably in every marketer’s interest to keep Cutts happy as well. To this end, you can watch the video here:
As you can probably see, much of what he says falls under the old tried-and-true “KISS” paradigm, and the title itself — “Should I focus on clarity or jargon when writing content?” — is clearly a loaded question. However, the video also offers a few valuable insights into simplifying and clarifying your content for a wider audience. Apply these principles and, with any luck, you’ll be able to transform your technical content into something that’s both understandable and that has viral potential.
Principle 1: What Einstein Said
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Significantly enough, many writers who deal with technical topics make a crucial mistake right off the bat. Possibly in a misplaced attempt to establish an authoritative voice, these individuals load their content with technical language and terminology. Depending on the writer’s execution, of course, this may work pretty well for a very particular spectrum of your audience (i.e. the experts). If your objective is only to appeal to that narrow demographic, then you may want to go that route.
But by relying heavily on technical terms and lingo, you’re almost certainly limiting your content’s ability to resonate with a wider audience. In most cases, the highly technical terms and concepts you’re discussing aren’t empirical to someone with a layman’s understanding of the topic. The trick to simplification, then, lies not in stupification; rather, it’s in distilling your own understanding so it can then be grasped by others.
Many writers and marketers may bristle at the idea of “dumbing down” your content. In reality, though, there’s a distinction between “simplification” and “stupification” that just cannot be over-emphasized. Sticky content (or, content that resonates) is always understandable, but it’s never dumbed-down — rather, it’s a reflection of your own comprehension of the subject. “People say the best way to understand something is to teach it,” Cutts explains. “And if you can’t teach it, you can’t explain it well, then you don’t really understand it.”
Principle 2: Err On the Side of Clarity
None of this is to say that technical language is off the table; rather, Cutts’s advice is that “if you’re erring on the side of clarity, you’ll be in better shape.” By making an effort to be clear and simple, you’re opening a door for your audience that will allow them to engage your content regardless of its level of complexity. Technical terms are perfectly fine, so long as they’re contextually supported and well-defined.
Case in point: In 2008, National Public Radio’s This American Life ran an hour-long special on the housing crash and resulting crisis titled The Giant Pool of Money, which stands as an excellent example of this principle in action. The broadcast took a formidable string of complex subjects — sub-prime mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and credit derivatives — and rendered them into clear, comprehensible terms for its listeners.
Subsequently, the episode spawned the Planet Money podcast, which tackles a berth of financial topics and explains them in a similar manner. Whether you agree with NPR’s politics or not, it’s among the top 10 US podcasts on iTunes, and it’s consistently one of the most downloaded podcasts on the planet.
While Planet Money’s success speaks volumes for the value of clarification and simplification, it’s also worthwhile to note that Google’s stated mission is to deliver answers to users as quickly as possible. Clarity, then, may even play a crucial role in how well your content meshes with Google’s overt objectives. Without clarity, those answers are likely harder for Google’s algorithm to find.
“The clarity of what you do and how you explain it often matters as much as what you’re actually saying,” says Cutts, “because if you’re saying something important but you can’t get it across, then sometimes you never got it across in the first place and it ends up falling on deaf ears.”
Principle 3: Smart Content + A Clear, Simplified Angle = Social Currency
Okay, so this concept of “social currency” doesn’t come directly from Cutts; however, it does tie together the principles introduced in Cutts’s video rather nicely. As Wharton Associate Professor of Marketing Jonah Berger has observed, “people want to seem smart.” This impulse to be viewed as intelligent or “in the know” is the very impulse that drives people to share content with their peers.
By explaining a technical concept in a way that’s clear and understandable, you’re actually generating social currency. You’re allowing your audience to feel like they’re part of an educated minority, and they’ll be more likely to reciprocate. As Berger writes in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, “to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency. Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way.” By making this content clear and comprehensible, this is precisely what you’re setting it up to do.
So will this approach necessarily rocket you to number one in the SERPs? It’s hard to say. Cutts ends his video saying, “It’s not going to make that much of a difference in terms of ranking.” His response does indicate that this approach is likely to make some difference and, when coupled with the potential for generating social currency, you’ll probably see a decent ROI for your efforts.
Perhaps just as importantly though, you’ll be making Matt Cutts happy. And in a Google-driven world, that’s something everyone on the Internet wants.