Words Can Say a Lot about You. But Don’t Let Them!


Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya

My wife is Australian, and I’ve spent a lot of time overseas with people who comment on my accent. (Of course, we all know that THEY have the accent!)

This is fine, and even fun sometimes, but on occasion it gets annoying. For example, when I’ve just told a killer joke that should have had them begging for oxygen, it’s frustrating when the person listening seems to have missed the punch line.

Awkward silence, then “————I love how you say /hot/ instead of /hawt/.” That’s when I know.

The delivery got in the way of the message.

Luckily, as a writer, my accent is rarely an issue. But there other ways that a writer can lose the message in the delivery, and the result can be more frustrating than missing a laugh. The key, as usual, is to remember the goal.

The Goal!

For tech communicators, the goal is simple and always the same: to put what’s in your brain into your reader’s brain. And on your quest to accomplish this goal, the words you choose can help or hinder you in ways that aren’t always obvious.

So let’s talk about words.

I’ve posted before about how the words you choose define you as a writer. If you use interesting and varied vocabulary, perfect and precise grammatical construction, and evocative metaphor, then you’re presenting yourself as an intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, creative person.

Which is great. People might say, “wow, such expressive language. Such beautiful prose. Such wonderful writing.”

In other words, you’re doing it all wrong.

Because, most of the time, your job isn’t to say something about yourself, however obliquely. Remember the goal? That stuff you’re supposed to be transferring? It’s not about you.

I’d rather be telepathing.

Really, the ideal transference method would be to skip the writing altogether and simply implant the idea right where it’s supposed to go. And someday, humans may evolve into bulb-headed brainiacs, or at least invent a telepathy machine with a cheap long-distance plan.

But until then, we’re stuck with writing as an imperfect and meddlesome middle man. The idea goes from your brain, to an analog recording we call writing, to the reader’s brain.

As a tech communicator, your goal (the transference of the idea) calls for making the writing as invisible as possible. If you can’t eliminate the middle man, at least you can minimize his impact. Because, to say it yet another way, the more your writing is in the foreground, the more the message recedes to the background.

So use the small, simple words. Use the same word for the same thing EVERY TIME, even if it gets boring. Break the grammatical rules if they get in the way. And usually, except in rare cases where it really helps comprehension, leave metaphors to lovers and poets.


4 Responses to “Words Can Say a Lot about You. But Don’t Let Them!”

  1. May 24, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Hey, Rob,

    I find that I do that a lot…. over-articulate instructional text. You’ve come back in after me and tightened it up in exactly this way and I was like “Shit, why didn’t I think about that?” It’s so obvious and yet so… not…. but it’s great advice. One of the best computer science professors I had — as far as his ability to teach — was the one that was talked about “thingies” and “doohickies” and used plain, simple language to describe very complex things like 3-D modeling, matrix manipulations, ray casting, etc..

    I can tell I’ll like this new blog. I’ll definitely be following a long – and learn something in the process. Thanks!

  2. May 24, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    That’s why I always loved Richard Feynman. He could be complex and simple at the same time.

    Of course, HE was actually thinking and discovering as well as communicating.

  3. May 24, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    Great post, Rob. I was having a conversation on Twitter just this morning about style guides, and they fit right into what you’re talking about above. Getting the writing out of the way is exactly why we have style guides – so we all sound like one person and our organization’s writing is consistent enough to not throw people off from absorbing the *message*.

    I look forward to reading more!


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