How to simplify your B2B content (without dumbing down)
David McGuire of B2B copywriters Radix Communications explains how to tackle complexity in your written content – and get your stakeholders to agree.
When I deliver copywriting training for B2B marketers, I’m always asked the same question: “Our work is complicated and technical. How do I make our content easy to read?”
Or rather, to be more accurate: “How do I get our product guys – and my boss – to let me create content that people can be bothered to read?”
It’s a common quandary. Nobody likes boring, longwinded content that’s hard to understand. But in B2B, your reader is often an expert in their own right. Before they’ll trust you to solve their problems, you need to prove you understand their issues – and speak their language. The last thing you want to be is patronising.
And so we reach a standoff that’s as old as B2B marketing itself: the marketer trying to make things accessible, and other stakeholders complaining that their content is being “dumbed down”.
There’s a reason it’s so tough to resolve – you’re both right. Almost.
The truth is, most B2B writing has up to three different kinds of complexity, all happening at once. Some of it is helpful; the rest is Kryptonite. And it’s only when you untangle these strands that you can work out which bits help to demonstrate your expertise, which sections confuse your reader, and which parts make you sound like a pretentious arse.
Get that right, and you can create content that’s both authoritative and easy to read… and maybe even stand a fighting chance of getting it signed off.
Here’s the short version…
This guide is about to get pretty detailed. So if you only have time for a quick version, what you need to know is:
- If it’s technical jargon, make sure you and the reader both understand it.
- If it’s formal language, make the words and sentences shorter and simpler.
- If it’s corporate bullshit, kill it with fire.
…that way, you retain technical accuracy, while also making your copy easier to read. And if your stakeholders argue that your audience expects technical language, show them evidence rather than engaging in a debate about what they learned at school.
That’s pretty much it. But if you’d like to know the difference between those three threads, or to see links to the evidence you need, read on…
Thread one: good jargon (yes, there is such a thing)
Your grumpy stakeholder does kind of have a point. If your content doesn’t use the real language your customers use every day, they’re unlikely to believe you know what you’re talking about.
Sure, jargon is difficult for a non-initiate to understand, but that’s kind of the point. By handling professional language appropriately, you’re showing you’re part of the same tribe. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se.
(Note, when I say “jargon”, I mean specific, technical terminology particular to a sector or job role. The term is often confused with trendy corporate buzzwords, but language like that has its own linguistic designation; it’s called bollocks. There’ll be more about that later.)
Oxford English Dictionary,
Jargon (noun): Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.
But that doesn’t mean you can scatter technical terms around willy-nilly, and it’ll add to your credibility. There are two important principles to bear in mind.
First, be certain your reader understands the terms you’re using. If you’re not actually part of their sector, you need to be sure you’re using their language, not yours. For a company that sells technology to HR leaders, talking about “employee experience” or the Equality Act 2010 might be perfectly fine; tell them your SaaS platform solution is more scalable than their legacy on-prem package, and you’re probably getting a blank look.
Second, be certain you understand the terms you’re using, and how to use them well. Nothing’s more cringeworthy than someone who starts using language with a knowing wink, as if it’s some kind of membership badge, when they don’t actually get it.
In short, specific technical jargon that genuinely helps you communicate something complex, to someone else who understands, is generally a good thing. Jargon that’s trying to paper over a lack of knowledge, or is basically there to try and impress? Not so much.
Thread two: excessively formal language
After *cough* years of writing, reviewing and editing all kinds of B2B tech content, I’ve discovered a secret. The big problem with a lot of B2B copy is not the jargon; it’s the language that surrounds it.
It’s perfectly possible to take detailed professional terminology, and use it in a simple sentence. But most people don’t. Somehow, the more technical the vocabulary gets, the more the rest of the copy tends towards:
- Long meandering sentences, in the passive voice (like “The customer is reminded of the necessity to maintain a proper schedule of preventative maintenance”)
- Posher-sounding versions of everyday words (like “utilise” instead of “use”, or “methodology” when you could say “method”)
- Lots of nominalised verbs (often words that end in -ion, like “implementation”)
- Words that are brilliant for scrabble, but nobody uses in real life (like “plethora”, “archetypal”, and “byzantine”)
(Top tip: read it out loud to yourself. Every time you have to re-read a sentence because you couldn’t get it right first time, rewrite it.)
Separate the technical from the needlessly formal, and you’re halfway to understanding the difference between dumbing down and opening up.
To sell that simplicity to your stakeholders, you need to understand why the content got so convoluted in the first place. It’s usually one of three reasons:
- The writer assumes all work-related content *needs* to be formal. After all, most of us formed our writing habits in education, where the longer the words and sentences you used, the higher your marks. That’s a hard habit to break, so the more work-related the terminology becomes, the more they want it to sound “proper”.
- The writer isn’t confident in the subject, and is compensating. Often this is subconscious; a lot like the over-use of jargon, there’s a reflex to try and sound impressive in areas where you know the least. But actually it works the other way: if you can’t explain something simply, you usually don’t really understand it.
- The old “the audience is senior and/or highly educated, so they expect formal language” argument. It’s a weird idea that time-poor executives will somehow be offended because you made something quick, clear and easy to read, but it’s still one of the most prevalent misconceptions in B2B. In fact, it probably merits a little section to itself…
A senior audience does NOT need formal language. Here’s how to prove it.
If you can, stay away from a discussion about the relative rights and wrongs of writing, grammar, and who learned what at school. If they have the idea that formal = high status, you won’t convince the otherwise, and it’s just your opinion versus theirs.
Alexander Pope, poet
'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
Instead, bring evidence. Like this behavioural study, referenced by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in the massively-influential “Thinking, Fast and Slow”:
“If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly," he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.”
Better still, break out the table of results from Christopher R Trudeau’s 2012 study The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication – in which he shows that the more educated you are, the less likely it is that you’ll be impressed by complex language.
Most importantly, give them a sample – to show that it’s possible to keep the technical accuracy, but lose the stuffiness.
Thread three: meaningless corporate bullshit
See? I told you we’d come back to “bollocks”.
This is the part many people think of when they hear “jargon”. But really, it’s just annoying business speak. It means nothing, it undermines your credibility, and if you live in the world of B2B marketing, it’s surprisingly easy to use when you think you’re just speaking normally.
Again, they fall into three buckets:
- Stuff that’s obviously crap, because it’s clichéd, or generally sounds like Siobhan Sharpe. If you find a world-leading blue-sky thinking paradigm shift in your copy, it goes in this bucket.
- Stuff that B2B marketers say every day, but nobody ever thinks about in the real world. “Digital transformation”, “impactful”, “experience” (as a verb), and “relevancy” (which is just a shit version of “relevance”) go here.
- Stuff that’s so ubiquitous it means nothing, and just takes up space – but is so generally accepted it’s almost certainly on your “About Us” page right now. I’m talking about phrases like “committed to” and (especially) “passionate about”.
Take all three buckets outside. Douse them with petrol. Stand well back, and throw a lit match. These words are not your friends, and they never were.
Remember, it all depends on your audience
Although I’ve given examples, there are actually very few words and phrases that belong exclusively to one thread or another.
Depending on who you’re talking to, “engagement” might be crap business speak, or it could be a specific marketing or HR terminology. “Legacy” means something entirely different in technology than if you’re talking about the Olympics, or probate law.
The important part is, the meaning and the readability are defined by your reader – not by your brand. (Also, not by an AI algorithm, but that’s a debate for another day.)
If you talk to a true expert in any subject, they’ll likely have a way of making their subject accessible. Probably, they’ll start by establishing what you already know, then draw parallels that you’ll recognise and put things in terms you can understand. They’re putting their expertise to good use, effectively becoming an interpreter for you.
If your brand can do the same for your customers – digesting all the relevant information, and giving them an informed view in a way that’s quick, easy or even entertaining to read – that’s not patronising. It’s profoundly helpful. And it demonstrates your expertise in a far more practical way than complicated language ever could.