S3: E6: Getting Technical Writing Right

Written by Lucy Mowatt

In this episode of the Content Conversations podcast...

Lucy Mowatt speaks to freelance writer and digital PR specialist Sabrina Cooper about writing technical content.

  • Why jargon can put potential customers off.
  • The importance of asking questions.
  • Who creates technical content well.

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Lucy Mowatt: Wow, have we got a great episode for you this week!

As a content marketing agency that specialises in working with organisations in technical and complex sectors, I really enjoyed speaking to freelance writer and digital PR professional Sabrina Cooper about how to get technical copywriting right.

As often happens, our conversation comes back to the subject of the audience. Understanding what they need from your copy and their level of knowledge is essential. We also cover the importance of questioning everything, so you don’t take anything for granted or use unnecessary jargon.

So if you’re a marketer or copywriter who has been asked to write a technical piece, or a brand looking to commission content focused a complex subject, you’re going to want to listen to the whole episode.


Hi, Sabrina, welcome to the podcast.

Sabrina Cooper: Hi, Lucy, how are you?

Lucy Mowatt: I’m not too bad. Thanks. How are you doing?

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, I’m good. Thank you.

Lucy Mowatt: Before we get into the topic of technical writing and jargon, would you mind introducing yourself and what is you do?

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, of course. I am Sabrina. I have worked in several agencies for the past, I think, around seven years.

I specialise in content and digital PR and yeah, I think now I’ve gone freelance it’s nice because I’ve had that agency experience. I’ve worked with a variety of clients in different industries. So it’s nice being able to put that to the test.

And alongside freelancing, I work part-time at small agency called Lem-uhn. They specialise in pure digital PR and I do a lot of copywriting for them and some press release stuff as well. So it’s good. I’m really enjoying it at the moment.

Lucy Mowatt: It sounds very varied.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, it’s super varied, which is why I like it. I think that’s why I was always drawn to agencies and why I wanted to become a freelancer because I think you just get that nice variation of work and all the clients I work with are just lovely and positive and it’s good. I really like them all and it’s also nice to say no, as well. As a freelance you have that power. You can just be like: ‘actually no this isn’t a good fit’.

Lucy Mowatt: You’re getting better at setting boundaries. If you could teach me how to do that, that would be great.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, I will try.

Lucy Mowatt: And it’s actually just as we start talking about technical content and jargon and you said that you work with a lot of different clients. How do you find that you adapt to those different topics?

Sabrina Cooper: I think a lot of it is really heavy research and also just speaking with the client. I think, when you first get any new client, you start by looking at the website and their offerings, but I don’t think you have a full understanding of it until you speak with the client because that’s where their passion comes through.

When you speak to them about their service or product or why they’re doing it and then you get those personal stories. How they came to become a founder, or head of marketing, for whatever company it is, depending on the size, of course. I work with lots of small businesses so I get more interaction with the founders and their stories. So yeah, I think just getting to know them and immersing yourself in those topics is the best thing to do.

Lucy Mowatt: And with the more technical side of it, how do you balance the technical knowledge and topics with the jargon that might come with it so that you don’t alienate or confuse your audience.

Sabrina Cooper: You need to have a really comprehensive understanding of the audience. As a copywriter, I’m probably not going to know a lot about something that’s super technical. That’s not my remit. I think where I come in is where I try and take the technical and then put it into copy that’s going to resonate with audiences and then be that middleman.

A lot of the time clients who are in a really technical, complex industry are going to be so immersed in their product. It’s their day-to-day. It’s what they live and breathe. It’s their baby. So sometimes they can get really wrapped up in it and they end up using super technical terms and terminology that can sometimes alienate an audience. And then there’s also the aspect of: ‘Of course, the audience is going to know some of those technical terms’. That fair. I’m probably not that audience, so I need to put myself and their shoes and ask what would the audience understand? How much do they understand? But also making sure that the copy is friendly and warm and open.

A lot of the time, if you overflow your copy with technical jargon, it can come across really cold. Yes, it might be accurate and factual, and it might say what the product does, but it’s going to be cold. And if your competitors have similar existing content or they’re offering the same products and services, but they’re pushing it in a more easily digestible way, then obviously that’s probably why your competitors are performing higher in some regards. Because you’re still trying to sell a product and you want to make sure that while you have the technical terms in there, it also has to read nicely, basically.

Lucy Mowatt: Do you ever come across clients who maybe don’t have a good grip on who their audiences is or who their customers are? Do you ever come across that as a situation?

Sabrina Cooper: I think, in that respect, it would be clients who think that their audience is as well in the know as they are. So they think: ‘Okay, they are definitely going to understand this. Of course they’re going on to understand this’. But there’s been instances where… let’s just take an example. Okay, there’s a company that needs coding software. The coder, who works for the company, is going to understand it because he’s the coder. He knows coding software. But actually, it’s the sales guy who has the final call. So the sales guy then has to research the site look into it and if he doesn’t understand it, he’s going to be like: ‘Okay, I don’t get this. I’m going to move on to something else I understand’. And then, if he finds a competitor that’s selling the same product or service, but it’s just in a more easily digestible and easier to understand but still has those technical elements that are crucial to explaining the product then of course, the sales guy’s gonna go: ‘Okay. Yeah. This looks easier. The website’s easier. Let’s go with these guys.’

So it is about thinking about who your audience could be as well and thinking widely more widely.

Lucy Mowatt: And you ever find that the stakeholders, for instance… It might not be the marketing manager who comes to you, but maybe the company founder who comes to you and says: ‘Actually our client does understand this and we’re nannying them’. How do you balance the needs of the stakeholders versus the audience?

Sabrina Cooper: I think there has to be a lot of consideration with that. So I’m a very honest person and always say it how it is. I’ll tell you straight. But also, I’m quite considerate in the fact that I understand it’s their baby. It’s their product. I’m not going to step on toes. But what I will always bring up is hard facts and data and insights.

I would look into things like the user journey and look at how the current users are navigating the website. For example, if they’re on the home page for a little while, but they always go to about page, then that’s kind of telling us that either they just want to find out more about the product or they’re not being told what they needed to know in the first instance at the first entry point. So they’re going to the about page to find out more because it’s either too technical, or the copy is thin on the home page, or something like that. So I’d kind of gather those little pieces of insight and present it as: this is why we’re asking for the copy to be a bit simpler and easier to understand. While the technical elements are brilliant and you’ve perfectly just described what it does in a way, it’s still not as approachable as it could be and we just need to finely tweak a few things.

It’s about offering solutions, not just picking at the problem and being like: ‘No, it’s too technical you’re going to alienate everyone.’ It’s more like: ‘Actually I think we could just improve it a little bit or we can enhance a little bit’. It’s about just being a bit diplomatic and just being nice.

Lucy Mowatt: I think it’s something that’s undervalued. Having that conversation and being able to make it a back and forth about: ‘We’re seeing this and this is how people are engaging with you’ and taking on the needs and wants of maybe the product owner or the business owner and balancing those.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, I think it’s worthwhile.

Lucy Mowatt: In general, how do you find making copy and understandable? I know that, in my experience, we’ve come across clients who maybe like to use long words and long sentences and be very verbose. How do you explain that to clients and the importance of that?

Sabrina Cooper: I would always seek out really good examples.A good way to get them to listen is by name-dropping a few of their high-performing competitors. That seems really in their face, but it’s really not. As any creative or business person or founder… that’s a better word: founder not business person. You can tell I’m good with words!

As a founder, you do your market research. You do your competitor research and look at the whole landscape. So I’d probably look at some competitors and see if their copy is really good and really tight and really concise and they’re just performing better overall. I would use them as examples of what we need to be doing. And also not just competitor examples, but also, looking just in general.

I guess it’s a little bit obvious, sometimes. If the sentence is super long, it’s not going to be digestible or easy to read. I think you can look at engagement metrics as well, where shorter sentences work better. People’s attention spans aren’t what they used to be, so let’s keep everything short and concise and nice. You can bring in ondustry data, you can bring in competitor data and you can also bring in just general knowledge of the world.

Lucy Mowatt: I think that was the thing that always surprised me. I remember learning it, I think in media studies or something at school, that the average reading age in this country is eight years old or something like that. And that should inform your copy. It doesn’t necessarily have be primary school level, but just bear in mind that not everybody is going to have the same level of reading ability or attention span. So making the content as accessible as possible is really important.

Sabrina Cooper: Wow, yeah, definitely.

Lucy Mowatt: If there are multiple stakeholders, how do you juggle that? So, within the marketing world, there’s this sense of building a camel. The marketing department has been asked to produce an article for instance, but everybody has had their input into the document… There’s one example I’m thinking of, that’s really clear from last year where it came to us from the marketing manager and then went around five different departments who all sort of ripped it to shreds, well not really to shreds but changed it and added technical language back in that had been taken out. How do you diplomatically handle that when there’s a big group of people all trying to put their technical knowledge and expertise in there to try and prove their knowledge?

Sabrina Cooper: I think again it’s just about having those open and honest conversations. And being diplomatic, without stepping on toes. And then even just saying: ‘Why don’t we test it? Why don’t we see? We can test your copy, we can test this copy, we can test this version. Let’s have two or three versions and do some A/B testing. Let’s see which one works.’

So I think if you’re not telling them to commit right now, they’ll be open to the idea of just trialling something, because why not? It’s not going to harm them in any way, unless the copy was really bad, which it wouldn’t be. I think trial and error helps. And I think that would probably be the way I’d navigate things as a freelancer.

It’s important that I give my honest opinion and my expert opinion, but if it comes to the point where a client just doesn’t want to hear it, or I’ve done the best I can, I can’t force them to do something they’re not comfortable with or they just don’t want to do and they’re just not moving. So, as freelancers we can do the best we can and we can give as much expert insight as possible but that’s as far as it goes.

Lucy Mowatt: Yeah, I think you have to. Draw a line in the sand somewhere. I certainly approach clients by saying, I’m the expert marketer. I’ve been a writer for 20 years and you’re the subject matter experts. So let’s work together. How can we produce the best possible thing for the audience by bringing our two knowledge sets together?

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, and that actually reminds me of something that happened recently. I was trying to sort out my own professional Indemnity insurance, like just a freelance PI insurance and I was speaking to this lovely lady on the phone and she had to go through what I did in order to give me the most accurate policy possible. So I didn’t even think. I said I do PR and I do copywriting. She said: ‘So what’s PR?’

‘Oh, that’s public relations.’

‘Sorry, what’s that?’

And she just had no idea. And I was quite shocked and then I found myself scrambling. I haven’t actually had to explain exactly what public relations is. I’ve always explained what digital PR is but not just public relations. I realised I lost my train of thought and I started using all these technical terms about brand awareness and this and that. And then talking about copywriting and how I do a lot of SEO copywriting.

‘What’s SEO?’

And I thought ‘Oh no I shouldn’t have mentioned SEO.’ So then because she was an insurer, she kept saying to me: ‘As an insurer, I really need to understand everything you do.’ So then it became just like this huge conversation about what I do. And, even though I was saying: ‘I don’t think I need to go into this much detail’, she started giving me a lot of terminology around the insurance industry and why she needs to know these things. And then it got into a bit of a battle because I don’t know insurance and she doesn’t know what I do. In the end, I had to say that we need to come to a middle ground because I don’t know what you need to know and you don’t need to know what I do. It’s was this whole thing.

I guess where I’m going to with this whole tangent is that it about being very patient and calm about the whole thing and just trying to put yourself in your audience’s positions and never assuming either. You can’t ever assume what your audience knows and what they don’t know. Obviously, I made that mistake by assuming the insurance lady knew what public relations was when she really didn’t.

Lucy Mowatt: That’s a really good point. That’s something else I often say is (and alluded to it earlier), I’m often in the client’s position. So we work with a lot of insurance clients at Method and I often say: ‘I am your client if I don’t understand this, then Joe Bloggs out there isn’t going to understand either’.

Sometimes you do have to find that middle ground. Although, actually, your example’s a great one about the conversation. By talking to a subject matter expert, you end up uncovering questions that you never would have thought of just doing desk research.

So like you’re saying, you didn’t know that she didn’t know what SEO was. Without having that conversation, you would never have known that insurance people don’t know what it is.

Sabrina Cooper: Exactly, and it was so weird because I think I had this conversation with her maybe last week and I was thinking about this podcast and thought that is exactly what I’m talking about next week.

Lucy Mowatt: Do you often book in interviews if you’re doing a project for someone? Do you book in interviews with subject matter experts, or their teams, or customer service teams to drill into topics that you might find online?

Sabrina Cooper: Do you mean in terms of, once I onboard a client, then trying to get to know their product and things?

Lucy Mowatt: Yeah.

Sabrina Cooper: So I’d always speak to them and I’d speak to the teams about what they do because it’s fine doing desk research. That’s okay. But really you want to speak to the experts because they’re going to tell you snippets of information that you’re just not going to find anywhere else. Especially if the product or service is very individual. So it’s nice to hear it in their own words. I’m a huge fan of speaking with the clients, speaking with marketing teams, to see how they do everything.

Lucy Mowatt: We’ve found clients who just want to send bullet points over. So they said: ‘Right, we want an article on this. Here are some bullet points.’ And actually having to go back and say: ‘No, can we book in a half an hour chat? Reading through this has raised more questions, then it’s answered.’ And if the writers feel that way, then you can bet your audience is gonna have similar questions.

Sabrina Cooper: Definitely. I think a good way to tackle that… I know not everybody wants to call and that’s fine. Sometimes I don’t want to. It’s just that way. If it’s something really really straightforward and they’re quite time-poor, so I don’t want to be like ‘can we just call about this?’ and be annoying. What I tend to do in that scenario, if they just want to speak via email, is I’ll just write really concisely all the questions I have so that when they put one bullet point, I’ll probably write five questions and just to be like, please give me more clarity. A lot of the time they do think okay, actually, I understand and then they write something back. I think speaking is always fine. And I think as long as you’re constantly question things.

I always question things. This is something I’ve always done. I always like to understand because I never trust people that don’t question anything. If they’re new to a job or something and I’m like, ‘Do you have any questions?’ and they say no I think ‘red flag’. I know that sounds really judgy. Maybe it is, but I think everyone should ask questions all the time. Everyone should continue learning because otherwise, what’s the point?

Lucy Mowatt: I think it suggests to me that the person was listening and understanding as well. Asking questions and drilling down suggests that they’ve taken it in and they’re taking something away from it and that they’ve got more interest in it by asking that question.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, actively listening and engaging in that conversation.

Lucy Mowatt: I tell you one thing… This is going to turn into a rant now… One thing that slightly bugs me is when you get a link sent over to you as a response. So a competitor has done an article and you found that there’s an opportunity to write something else, you’ve asked for a brief, you asked for a call, but got nothing back. And then you get a link to a competitor’s website and it’s like: ‘You’re just saying you want me to plagiarise this?’

That’s immensely frustrating and it adds no original thought and no originality to the topic and doesn’t demonstrate your company’s expertise. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across that situation before.

Sabrina Cooper: I’ve definitely come across that and that is frustrating. There’s only so many times you can ask the question before the client just doesn’t want to speak to you any more. So again, it’s quite difficult, but I think that’s always a good caveat is if you don’t receive enough information and you’ve been really pushing for it, and then you end up producing something that’s missing the mark, then it’s not on you. It’s in on them because you’ve raised it several times you’ve asked these questions you’ve asked for extra insights and if they’re not willing to give it to you then what can you do?

Lucy Mowatt: I think it’s just worth bearing in mind that, as a business, you’re not gonna get anything original if you’re not gonna invest the time in having a meeting of minds with the writer.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, exactly.

Lucy Mowatt: Are there any sort of really common pitfalls that you find with businesses who are producing technical content and copy?

Sabrina Cooper: Yes, so I think what I’ve seen is a lot of repetition. in particular. It’s as if they know the product and they see it in one way. They just have this one vision of this product and they’ve been able to describe it in one way and they just reiterate and repeat it over all the pages on their site. I’ve come across that quite a few times because, of course, they’re so close with the product. They’re so immersed in it. Whereas, when you end up speaking to them (I think this is what I was talking about earlier) when you end up speaking to them and asking them about it… I’ll often say to them: ‘Can you speak to me about the product in your own words?’

Speak to me if I’m completely new and I know nothing. And a lot of the time they’ll end up describing it accurately, but in a much easier way. And I’m like: ‘Yes! Put this on your website. Everything you’ve just said is what you need to be saying.’ And it’s always really funny because it’s just the simplest of things. It’s just write it how you want to say it and then you can refine it.

Lucy Mowatt: That’s a really interesting point. I often say to people before they publish things to read it out loud. And if it doesn’t sound like you or doesn’t sound natural. Then maybe you should go back to the drawing board.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, I think that’s really key.

Lucy Mowatt: I mean you sound like a berk standing there reading your website out in your office, but there’s a practical application. It does work. I think a lot of the time people forget and again coming up to that for verbosity in writing is you don’t talk like that. So why would you write like it?

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point.

I forgot what I was gonna say now… If I ever get writer’s block, I think that really helps. If I am writing something that’s more technical or a little bit more complex than I’m used to, then I start overthinking and I start over-complicating it. Some of the briefs received are really technical and they want me to include all of this… Sometimes I just think: ‘Okay, I’m just going to write it how they said it to me.’ And then it flows after that and then you can drop in the technical terms. You can drip all those things in because if you’re writing something that you don’t understand, it’s never going to come across well. So just write it how you interpret it and how you understand it and then obviously your audience will understand it, too.

Lucy Mowatt: Yeah, you’re right. And I think you can tell those people who don’t understand the technical content. You can tell content has been written by someone who doesn’t get it because it’s thin.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Lucy Mowatt: And there any companies or businesses you think create technical content well?

Sabrina Cooper: That’s a tricky one.

Lucy Mowatt: Sorry! Curveball question!

Sabrina Cooper: It’s already tricky one. I’m thinking about all the past clients I had and I don’t want to name them just in case. I can’t think of one company.

Lucy Mowatt: There’s a company that I really like in The States called Lemonade. And again, they’re in the insurance space. I really like the way that they have made it completely…. The language is completely streamlined, very tight and very natural. They write about technical subjects really accessibly. I think there’s a lot that could be learned from them.

I guess they must use small print and legalese because I think contractually they have to put certain things in, but the copy on their website always stands up as a really nice example of technical copywriting and technical subject writing.

Sabrina Cooper: Nice. And they’re called Lemonade?

Lucy Mowatt: Yes, and they’re insurance. I think they start out as car, but I think they might be more than that now.

Sabrina Cooper: I’ll have a look at them. I did just have a think of one and it’s actually a bit of a strange one. So it’s not technical to us. But for a brand owner that doesn’t really know much about digital marketing, I guess it could be seen as technical.

So there was this social media marketing website. I think the brand was called something like Wholesome or Wholehearted Social, something like that, and they explained what they do so simply. I was looking into a lot of different social media agencies for a particular task I had to do and out of all the agencies I was reading about, even though this one looked quite a lot smaller and they didn’t cater to global brands or anything like that, I just loved their website because they explained really simply what they do, which I think is so useful. A lot of the time you get brands who know they need digital marketing, but they don’t know much about it.

I think there’s certain audiences that when reading an agency website they’re of course going to know exactly what they need. They’re going to be clued up on SEO and that kind of thing and social. But you’ll also get people that don’t really understand it. They might be more traditional marketers. They might not be on the digital side of it. So, of course there’s also educating them and simplifying the content and not putting loads and loads of different and technical terms in there as well.

Anyway, going back to the example, I’m gonna have to find the brand name now because I cannot remember what it’s called. It’s something like Wholehearted Social or something. I just love their site. I thought they said everything really simply they seem to have a really good vibe about them. I think it was just the style which they wrote. And it wasn’t heavy on the copy like a lot of the other sites. I was comparing. They were just very simple, straightforward and easy to understand. Just very user-friendly.

Lucy Mowatt: I think a way around it is having your site maybe light on copy and if you have to use technical terms, is maybe have a glossary. I often think that that’s a really useful thing to have on a website if you’re working in a technical sector.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think that a glossary does help.

Lucy Mowatt: But also quite rare. I feel like you don’t see it very often.

Sabrina Cooper: Yeah. I think that part of that is just assuming, isn’t it? You tend to assume what your audience knows and what they don’t. Whereas you should never assume.

Lucy Mowatt: No, that’s saying isn’t there. It makes an ass out of you and me. And it’s true because I think a lot of the time, if you are coming something blind and you read it you like what does this mean? So what if you’ve got this particular flange? It’s just like I don’t know. I don’t care what that means. What’s the benefit for me? Linking that technical stuff to your audience and what does your audience need? Why are they coming to you and remembering that? And then asking ‘so what?’ on the technical term. Do you need that technical term or not? And if you do so what does it mean?

I think that’s all of my questions and slight tangents gone through. Before we sign off, Sabrina, where can people find out more about you and what you do, or connect with you?

Sabrina Cooper: I’m on LinkedIn. You can find me on there. LinkedIn is probably the best way to find me. I’m quite active on there. So yeah, feel free to reach out.

Lucy Mowatt: Thank you for coming on the show.

Sabrina Cooper: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been so lovely speaking with you Lucy.

Lucy Mowatt: Take care.

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