How expertise can get in the way of clear understanding

Creating complex communications

1.0 Introduction

2.0 Why do experts create complex communications?

3.0 So what should organisations do?


Communicating clearly and persuasively is necessary in all areas of a business. Risk managers need teams to understand and comply with policy. Managers need to inform and inspire. Teams need to be able to convey ideas – and marketers need to get customers interested and eager.

So identifying and dealing with anything that gets in the way of clear communication should be a high priority for all businesses.

One of the things we often see getting in the way of clear communication is expertise.

Most organisations couldn’t survive without people who’ve dedicated their lives to honing a particular area of specialism. Yet the deeper their knowledge, the more complex their communications can become. Which can confuse potential customers – and prevent them from seeing just how good your offer is.

2.0 Why do experts create complex communications?

Experts can be too close to the subject

If you’ve spent years becoming Very Good Indeed in an area, it’s easy to forget that the people around you don’t share your knowledge. So with the best of intentions, experts can launch into levels of detail that aren’t interesting to most people – or just leave them behind.

2.1 Experts tend to focus on features

If you’re very close to a subject, it may feel obvious that a certain approach or product is desirable. So experts can think it’s overkill to talk about benefits. Of course my whizzy widget is good for business – now let’s talk at length about the construction of the underlying algorithm…

But as marketers know, clearly communicated benefits are what hook the people you want to be interested. They want to know how your product will make their lives better – and usually they’ll just assume you’ve made a cracking job of the coding.

For example, practically no-one who buys an iPhone gives a second thought to the processors it contains. They just care about the photos they’ll be able to take, the fun or inspiration they’ll get from apps, how easy voice recognition will make things – and generally being able to carry their life around in their pocket. They care about what’s in it for them, not what’s hidden under the case.

2.2 Experts are highly qualified

Whether experts have received their education in universities, business schools, law schools or secretarial colleges, they are likely to have a strong impression of the “correct” way to communicate.

This often results in people still trying to write university essays or lab reports – where the conclusions don’t come until the end of lengthy documents. But the reality is that in a commercial setting, no-one has the time or patience to read several pages before they get to the point.

2.3 Experts sometimes fear appearing less educated

Universities in particular encourage students to use difficult language. The thinking seems to be that anything worth studying should be as hard as possible to get your head around.

So PhD students study The neuropsychological processes involved in the purchase decision-making process, rather than What we think when we buy.

From the beginning, budding experts are encouraged and rewarded for communicating their ideas in the most complex ways possible. And by the time you become their colleague, they may have developed a strong aversion to conveying ideas simply.

The fear is genuine. If I write like that, I’ll look a complete duffer. What will my peers think?

Simple words are, of course, powerful words – but experts have often been educated to fear them.

They’ve bought into the fallacy that just because something’s easy to read, it’s been simple to think up and write.

2.4 Experts are writing for peers, not for customers

Sometimes, experts don’t know to consider how an end reader or consumer will understand the communication they’re creating or signing off. The audience that’s front of mind for them is their peers – fellow lawyers, scientists, analysts or investment specialists.

And that shouldn’t really be surprising. Experts may be far more used to, and geared up for, peer review than they are for consumer or colleague communications.

3.0 So what should organisations do?

Complex communications cost organisations dearly. Yet complication and expertise usually go hand in hand.

The first and most important thing for organisations to do is:

3.1 Understand that ideas can’t change the world unless they’re communicated expertly

Experts create and protect your products. They may have even founded your company. But if your products and services don’t connect with your audiences, your business simply won’t be as successful as it could be.

So incorporate marketing approaches into your business process – and understand that what your customers need and want should guide your communications.

3.2 Review the sign-off process

As part of this, you could make roles and responsibilities in the sign-off process clearer. A product expert’s responsibility should be to check communications for accuracy, legal or compliance issues.

A communicator’s responsibility should include positioning the product, naming it, controlling the key messaging around it, creating campaigns to get it out in the marketplace – and, of course, the wording and look and feel of any communications.

We sometimes advise our clients to adopt a colour-coded approach to feedback. Red feedback is for legal, compliance and accuracy points. These have to be changed.

Blue feedback is for personal opinion. Any feedback that conveys an I don’t like this message – or comments on non-traditional grammar – appears in blue and doesn’t have to be acted on.

It can be a useful technique because it forces experts to separate out why they’re giving feedback, rather than just working on gut reaction to a communications style they’re hardwired to dislike.

In the organisations where we’ve introduced colour-coded feedback, blue feedback soon begins to drop off and eventually you just get red.

3.3 Take a unified, company-wide approach to language

It can be an excellent idea to introduce an organisation-wide approach to language.

Going down this path means that the tone of voice and messaging you use – as well as the conventions you adopt for naming new products and services – are dictated by your brand personality and values.

This takes much of the personal opinion and backwards-and-forwards out of creating and signing off communications.

There’s a framework in place, and an agreed approach. It’s the organisation as a whole saying this is how it should be, rather than individuals pitting their own educations and experience against one another.

3.4 Make sure the customer always comes first

If you don’t have the resource to roll out wholesale change, then smaller-scale internal campaigns reminding everyone of the reader and their circumstances can be useful.

A while ago I walked into a financial services organisation we’d been supporting for a couple of years. I overheard a conversation between two lawyers. “We can’t say that,” one of them said, “The reader won’t understand it.” I almost punched the air.

If you’d like help getting your experts to embrace simplicity – or transforming complex communications – please do get in touch. Don’t let complication cost your company.