I’m not a doctor. I’ve never gone to medical school. I could barely sit through frog dissection day in seventh-grade biology. (The smell of formaldehyde still haunts me.)
As it turns out, none of that matters. In the past five years, I’ve taken the most complex topics from medical publications such as the New England Journal of Medicine and Gut and made them more readable for mainstream audiences.
In most cases, that involved things I never thought I’d do: poring through clinical manuscripts—the sequence of abstract, background, methods, results and conclusions—pondering them, deciphering them, and simplifying them for news releases, blog posts and bylines.
Any good journalist will tell you that you don’t have to have a degree in a topic to write about it well and confidently. It just takes time, practice and enough self-awareness to know when you don’t know what you don’t know.
Writing for a brand is a different beast. You’re telling (and selling) the story of an organization, something you’re supposed to know a thing or two about, but sometimes that story is buried in a complicated topic, or a confusing one, or a boring one. Sometimes it’s not easily told or understood.
Here’s how to write clear, compelling content about things you don’t yet understand:
1. Find crickets, consensus, and controversy during online research.
Ask the internet your questions before you ask your experts. Find out what’s already out there, and identify what’s not: Gaps in coverage can flag big opportunities. See whether there’s consensus or controversy. Either one makes a good angle.
Look up every complex topic on Wikipedia if you have to, one by one, until the basic nuts and bolts take shape in your mind. Throughout your search take copious, attributed notes as you outline the central points of the piece. No, you can’t trust online research 100 percent-that’s what your experts are for, to validate the research or point out new things—but it’s a foundation you can’t build good content without.
A lot of what I do involves words I don’t use every day-like atherosclerosis. So I’ll Google the term, find a basic description, take notes and click around to get more in-depth information until I find the angle—either an open canvas for a topic that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, or an opportunity for my client to jump into an already-thriving conversation.
Then I move on to the next word. Yes, it’s painstaking. Yes, it’s worth it. Yes, the next time I have a project that involves atherosclerosis, I’ll remember it.
2. Don’t nod your head when you don’t understand.
A good writer is a resourceful one. At the onset of every project that involves a tough topic, map out the people who know way more than you do.
In my case, that usually means physicians. I usually ask whether they can spare a few minutes to clear things up. Prepare your questions; if you ask nothing else, ask this: Can you explain it to me in layman’s terms?
Your job is to cover the topic accurately and in a way that fulfills the objectives that have been set forth for the content, so there’s no time to pretend that you know more than you do. “Fake it until you make it” has no place here.
Admit when you don’t understand something, and ask for clarification when needed. Never nod your head in understanding if you didn’t get the point well enough to write about it later.
There truly are no dumb questions. Making a mistake that could have been cleared up at this stage is what’s not smart.
3. Diversify the way you learn.
Textbook copy takes you only so far. You’d be surprised at how many complex, academic things are explained visually on YouTube. In 2012, Mashable listed a few: Pluto’s great demotion, the Electoral College,comparative anatomy and Einstein’s grand equation. It’s like an entire bank of visual resources that can simplify the topic before pen hits paper.
Infographics, photos and charts can also provide visual information on tough topics, so include a Google Image search in your research process. For a recent project related to immunology, this image search helped me out quite a bit.
4. Walk in the shoes of your audience.
Maybe doing this is easier for health care because we’re all consumers of it, but I think it applies universally. Identify who’s affected by this content and what it’s like to be them. Entrench yourself in their perspective, and work to fully understand—from every angle—why this topic matters.
Resist the temptation to puff up the corporate view. It’s hard not to talk about how advanced the product is or the caliber of the staff’s talent, but the story isn’t about those things, not really. It’s about the end user; it’s about those who are affected, now and in the future.
It’s not about how innovative the medicine is, nor how talented the team administering it is. It’s about how the patient kicks cancer’s ass-and moves on with her life.
5. See the magic for yourself.
Online research, interviews, videos and imagination get you only so far. There may come a point where you just have to see the action yourself to understand.
I’ve visited hospitals to see how my clients save lives. I’ve seen behemoth machines the size of entire rooms that kill cancer. I’ve gone to the client’s turf—time and again—to see what they do and how they do it.
There’s no better way to learn something than to see it done or to do it yourself. Watch the magic as it’s happening, and you’ll learn the best approach to tell your story.