Experts Who Write Conversationally Gather the Greatest Audience

By Eric Althoff  

I’ve been engrossed in the HBO miniseries “We Own This City,” co-created by David Simon of “The Wire.”  Long before his exceptional TV career, Simon spent years on the city desk of the Baltimore Sun, and thus, his gritty portrayals of inner-city Baltimore and expertise with the timbre of street-level conversations are second to none. And, as a fellow longtime journalist, I appreciate his attention to detail and ability to truly bring the viewer into another America hidden in plain sight.   

Such praise aside, I’ve found myself Googling a great many phrases of police-ese and acronyms of agencies that appear on the show, such as GTTF (Gun Trace Task Force), which are lobbed out as much as the more familiar FBI, BPD, etc. Simon and his writers probably toss these codes around like it’s no big deal—but that doesn’t mean everyone watching will understand what they are. 

This is an object lesson not just for cable television writers but for any expert who wants their message to reach as wide an audience as possible. When you are a subject matter expert, your goal should be to get your thoughts distributed as far as possible while also creating a voice that the layperson reading your column can both learn from and relate to.  

Think of writing for the lay audience as akin to teaching: Maybe you already know the textbook backwards and forwards, but your mission is to help others learn the material. Continuing with the pedagogical idea, many instructors are too used to interacting with their equally informed colleagues, which leaves little to no room for the non-expert. Frankly, this is what academic journals are for: highly technical people speaking to one another. But that doesn’t help the general public understand complex topics.   

Fortunately, there are methods and techniques that an expert can use to write a column for the lay audience. As with any other skill, it takes practice and patience, but keeping these little tips in mind will help you impart your specialist’s wisdom to the non-expert audience.  

Resist the urge to show everyone how smart you are 

There’s a difference between being an expert and being completely self-absorbed with one’s own expert knowledge. No one likes a showoff out to prove their IQ; that’s what solving the New York Times crossword puzzle alone is for. One pitfall I find is expert commentators sometimes cannot resist the urge to “talk down” to their audience. Being smart also means being “intelligent” about how your words might be received. It is a common understanding that the smartest people on a certain topic can make anyone fully understand it – from a 5-year-old to another industry expert. Purposely writing over the heads of your readers is both a poor show and plain rude. It’s cliché, but the golden rule applies. 

Spell out acronyms the first time out  

Imagine coming upon the following head-scratching sentence: 

“The DOJ and the DOT are relying on SOP in working with the FBI to put out an APB related to the EOT project…” 

Does your head hurt yet? It most certainly would for the average government outsider unfamiliar with these three-letter terms. So, especially on the first reference, it’s best to use the expanded term and then put the acronym in parentheses afterward. However, a little bit of appeal to “common knowledge” is also a good idea: It’s probably safe to assume the average reader knows that FBI stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation—assuming the reader is an American. 

Again, use your good judgment. Which leads us to… 

Don’t assume your audience knows all the industry terms 

In the holiday classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” there’s a scene where Chevy Chase’s boss exhorts him to use “laymen’s terms” in an upcoming presentation versus the inside jargon that “no one understands.”  Of course, the moment is played for humor (it is a comedy after all), but this illustrates an object lesson for any well-meaning expert author: Bring it down to earth level and explain industry terms that are likely unfamiliar to people outside your field of expertise. 

Explain and provide examples 

I’ve worked with a fair number of lawyers over the years, and they operate on a highly intellectual level, given their many years of study and the intricacies of legal policies and precedents they must know to practice. However, most of us never go to law school and don’t read legal journals on a regular basis. In his nonfiction book “The Innocent Man,” John Grisham made the complex legalities surrounding an Oklahoma murder case thoroughly accessible to the non-attorney, providing brief, reader-friendly explanations of relevant case law and legal precedents that never seemed to interrupt the flow of the incredible true-life story he weaved.  

A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself: Would someone outside your field understand? If not, then be like Mr. Grisham and provide relevant explanations and examples.      

Be conversational 

In my own work as a writing professor, I try to make my courses more conversational versus the traditional stand-and-deliver lecture method. The same goes for my writing. I try to imagine my writing as an extended conversation with someone instead of a tirade—something I would want to read and be engaged in responding to. While it is true that the art of writing is basically a solitary endeavor, consider what kind of feedback you might hope to receive. What would you like your readers to think about and discuss with their colleagues and friends when they finish reading? 

In other words, your expert column should not be the end of the conversation but rather the beginning! 

Perhaps not all my tips will work for you, but I find that a common practice of truly engaging writers is to marry expertise with a gentle pedagogy—and, if at all possible, a little bit of humor too. Everyone enjoys a giggle while they learn.