RE: Writing to your audience

Subject: RE: Writing to your audience
From: "Porrello, Leonard" <lporrello -at- illumina -dot- com>
To: 'Phil' <philstokes03 -at- googlemail -dot- com>, Dan Goldstein <DGoldstein -at- riverainmedical -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2011 18:31:50 +0000

Interesting story about NASA, but I am not sure that's the real story. A documentary I saw indicated that it was more a matter of willful ignorance (on the part of management) than either a want of communication or an inability to understand. Be that as it may, sometimes material is too complex for even some members of the target audience to comprehend.

Einstein stated, "Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler." There is no guarantee after you have made everything "as simple as possible" that everyone in even your target audience will understand what you are talking about. Granted, in the case of NASA, the engineers may have culpably failed to reduce their message into language that even my toddler could understand: "If you launch now, the whole thing may go big boomie!" But even had they used such a description, it would have provided little to help the technicians who were tasked with repairing the shuttle. The techs would have required detailed, technical information that may have simply been beyond the ken of project managers. Similarly, while Sachse's writing may not have been simple enough of Popular Mechanics, he may have described his structure as simply as possible, and that may have been beyond the grasp of his reviewers.

Before we can damn Sachse as a poor communicator, I think we have to look at how those who eventually validated his structure talked about it. Was what they wrote significantly more comprehensible then what Sachse wrote?

As tech writers, we need to ensure that our "target audience" understands what we are writing. At the same time, we have to admit that it is theoretically possible to be tasked with writing about a topic that is complex to the point that certain people in even the target audience may be incapable of understanding it. (In which case, you may say that the target audience hasn't been defined well enough, but that is another argument.)

"It's never the audience's fault if they fail to understand me" is an aphorism, not a truism.



-----Original Message-----
From: techwr-l-bounces+lporrello=illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com [mailto:techwr-l-bounces+lporrello=illumina -dot- com -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com] On Behalf Of Phil
Sent: Monday, February 28, 2011 7:01 AM
To: Dan Goldstein
Cc: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Subject: Re: Writing to your audience

Great story, both from Peter and Dan's response. Reminds me of Tufte's re-telling of the Space Shuttle disaster and how all the facts were known by the engineers, but nobody at NASA understood what they meant.


On 28 Feb 2011, at 21:42, Dan Goldstein wrote:

> I passed this on to a science educator I know. Her response was, "Why
> blame Sachse for his failure to communicate? Why not blame the other
> chemists for their failure to understand?"
>
> I explained to her that, from my point of view as a tech writer, it's
> never the audience's fault if they fail to understand me.
>
>
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Peter Neilson
> Sent: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 1:15 PM
> To: TECHWR-L
> Subject: Writing to your audience
>
> I happened to be looking up cyclohexane and came upon this short piece:
>
> http://www.chem.yale.edu/~chem125/125/history/Baeyer/Sachse.html
>
> It tells of Hermann Sachse's discovery in 1890 of the correct
> conformational structure of cyclohexane, and of his failure to
> communicate it to other organic chemists. He even made 3-D models, but
> his work was rejected precisely because it required the reader to cut
> out and fold a paper model. "It is not possible," wrote a reviewer, "to
> write an abstract of this paper, especially since the author's
> explanations are hardly understandable without models."
>
> Sachse produced various explanations of the structure, using very hairy
> trigonometry and geometry, that no chemist bothered reading. He died
> three years later. The structure was not validated until 1918, and not
> fully recognized until 1950.
>
> The article concludes with:
>
> "Know your audience, and express yourself in terms they can understand."
>
>
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Follow-Ups:

References:
RE: Writing to your audience: From: Dan Goldstein
Re: Writing to your audience: From: Phil

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