Copy-wise: You DON’T have to explain every term

November 15, 2016 11:00 am

Sure, ‘explain your terms’ is what your high school English teacher drummed into you. It’s best practice in certain areas, such as academic writing.

But for your content marketing? You don’t need to do it.
One saying I have burnt into my soul from training as a journalist is: “Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence. Never overestimate their memory.”

That’s why you see recaps in news stories from one day to the next. But it’s also why your never, ever, speak down to your audience.
You gauge the level they’re at and write accordingly.

‘Megatrends’ – explain

I have two recent examples. In one case, someone at a company (someone outside marketing) was looking over a short article of 500 or so words. Near the beginning it referred to something as a ‘megatrend’. (It was something along the lines of: ‘Cloud computing has been one of the megatrends in IT in the last decade.’) He wanted it explained.
Several things come to mind.

  • This was a short piece – even a paragraph-long explainer would have been too much.
  • Big consultancies have been using this phrase for about 20 years (we checked).
  • A link out to a well-known site carrying a definition was deemed insufficient.
  • And if, by some chance, the reader in question had never heard that phrase, do you think they could have worked out what a megatrend might be?

DevOps and beyond

The next example was from a different piece of work. Similarly, the goal was a concise piece of content on a certain theme. But towards the beginning of a first draft that we were reviewing was a big box out about DevOps.

For the audience – experienced IT types such as CIOs – this has been well discussed in the past few years. But again, the original writer felt a need to devote 300 words to the subject.

Aside from the detour, delaying the time it’d take a reader to get to the meat of the article, the thing is that DevOps is made up of several components. One of them is deemed to be quality assurance (QA) or, in other interpretations, testing.

So why not create a box out inside the box out (a ‘box in’?) that explains QA? Do you see the kind of rabbit hole this takes you down?
The good news is that more than ever online readers are used to using a link to a definition or supporting material when they need it, able to ignore that link when they don’t.

So the message here is focus on the core subject you feel the need to communicate about. Don’t get side-tracked. Assess your audience’s level of understanding carefully. Never talk down to them.

And if you’re worried about linking to other pages on the web and ‘taking traffic away’ from your content… then stop worrying right now.


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