Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Empathy for the non-technical reader

Many years ago, while working as a senior editor for Honeywell, I taught an in-house night course on business writing. The students were wonderful to work with: they were highly motivated adults who were taking the course voluntarily, to advance their careers.

I began the course with the important topic of empathy. I explained why a writer must try to understand as much as possible about the intended reader. In business writing, that means especially the reader’s position, responsibilities, amount of experience, and level of knowledge.

As the course progressed, I noticed that some of the more technical people in the class were having difficulty empathizing with non-technical readers. They understood the concept – don’t assume that your readers know things that they probably do not know – but they were having difficulty writing accordingly. They kept sliding back into their habitual writing style: writing for their technical peers.

What they needed was a good example. They needed to look at a technical manual that successfully included all the background that a beginner would need in order to understand and use the manual. I brought to class a famous example: The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook.

Cooking is actually a technical topic. It involves precise lists of ingredients – sometimes unfamiliar ingredients. It involves measurements (volumes, weights, counts, temperatures and durations). It involves multi-step processes that in most cases must be followed strictly as to tools, technique, sequence and timing. Almost every recipe requires some knowledge, skill or experience that many readers do not have.

This cookbook assumes that the reader knows virtually nothing. For example, that he may not know a chef’s knife from a carving knife; or what an eggplant looks like or how to buy one; or how to boil (more correctly, cook) an egg. The book explains all this, and much more, via words and pictures. This masterly cookbook showed my students how to keep their writing simple. It made the concept of the non-technical reader come alive. I have used the same cookbook in teaching and coaching ever since.

The Takeaway: If your work requires that you empathize with non-technical readers, learn how from a master. Buy or borrow a copy of The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook (1980), by Zoe Coulson. (My comments in this post apply only to the 1980 edition.)

No comments:

Post a Comment