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Explaining Complex IT Processes in Lay Terms

By Cedric Jackson, January 25, 2018
Explaining Complex IT Processes in Lay Terms

Information technology is one of those things that is so weaved into the fabric of our lives that we tend to take for granted all the things it helps us to manage and accomplish. It is also one of those things that everyone uses every day but that few really understand.

In 2018, a large number of people still consider themselves “computer illiterate” (and wear the moniker proudly). When one considers this, it isn't hard to understand how difficult it is to communicate the need for various processes and services, particularly to corporate executives or small business owners.

Most companies don't do regular upgrades or roll out all the hardware and software updates they should. This is mostly because whenever their IT department sends a memo, it has all the effect of sending a scroll full of hieroglyphics via carrier pigeon to its intended recipients. Most of the people who make decisions on how to manage their IT needs have no clue what they actually need to do with the information, and the average IT department is often of little or no real help.

The simple fact of the matter is that you can't expect engineers to be able to effectively communicate to a floor supervisor or manager the complex processes that keep the interoffice email flowing. Even familiar terms like HTTP, IP addresses, IMAP, and peripherals are usually completely foreign in terms of definition to the people responsible for making decisions about them.

So, what is the solution? It boils down to assigning a real-world application to those processes and explaining them from that perspective. This, of course, is easier said than done. The process typically involves direct communication between the aforementioned engineers and a writer who is versed in IT-ese. This subgenre of copywriting is referred to as technical writing, and some writers are better at it than others.

Technical writers often wear many hats. They are the ones called upon to write heady IT manuals, but they also write the setup guides for routers, repeaters, and other consumer tech gadgetry. Just one look at the average quick-start guide, and it becomes all too clear where a particular writer's strengths lie.

Today, I would like to give you a short but important list of things to look for in technical writing samples that will give you confidence that your writer only understands the intricacies of IT technology but can also convey those concepts in a way that someone who isn't all that tech savvy can understand.

1. Focus on Specific Organizational Needs

If you are an IT manager trying to persuade a floor supervisor to approve the rollout of a new piece of software or computer hardware, the request needs to be framed the right way. Most technical writers will immediately start touting the advantages of the new system over the old, using terms that mean nothing to the average person.

Good, mass-appeal technical copy identifies the problems associated with the current system and simply shows how the upgrade will benefit operational areas like productivity and workflow.

No one outside the IT department cares about the impact of an upgrade on the network. They care about how the upgrade affects their department's ability to meet its responsibilities. For managers and execs who are charged with regulating these things, this kind of approach is what will get their attention and take the request seriously. Driving a sense of urgency is also a good idea.

2. Use Direct, Concise Details

It is easy to write an entire book on most IT processes, even those that seem the simplest and are most widely-used. The thing is, if it is perceived to be simple, it has to be presented simply. A detailed answer to the question of “What is Wi-Fi?” can yield something like this, or it can look like this. Which one do you think will communicate the concept better to the layman?

Now, I'm not throwing shade at Cisco by any means. The above example is an excellent white paper, but – like with any kind of marketing copy – it is designed to appeal to a tech-savvy demographic. It assumes that the reader knows what “IEEE” and other heady acronyms and terms mean going in.

The article from Scientific American, on the other hand, appeals to a much broader demographic. It conveys to the average person every key concept he or she would ever need to understand about Wi-Fi to be able to make informed decisions on how to implement it in the workplace.

3. Assign Real-World Application to Complex Terms

You can't always get away with ditching the terminology. It is important. The key here is to never assume that the reader knows what the significance is of a specific term. Many of us have now been online for 25 years, but how many know, after all that time, that HTML stands for “hypertext markup language?” Moreover, how many people really care? We care about what HTML does for us and why it's important.

Like with most modern copy, good technical writing makes specific emotional appeals. Copy written for non-tech people needs to identify the “what” but center on the “why.” There is loads of copy out there that accomplishes just the opposite: long-winded explanations of the process with little to no real-world application.

Final Takeaway

Whether you are writing full-length IT manuals or simply sending an interoffice email about a software patch, it is important to understand the intended audience for the message. Yes, there are times when a Cisco white paper is the most appropriate way to present a complex concept. Most of the time, however, you are far better off writing in a way that has a broader appeal and is easy to understand.

If you are working with a freelance technical writer or copywriting agency, be sure to vet the people you hire and demand to see samples of their work. See how well their writing matches up with the criteria presented in this article, and only hire writers who can demonstrate an ability to translate heady concepts into user-friendly language. 


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