How do you create a piece of digital content that’s simple for a reader to understand – regardless of how complicated the subject matter?
The plan is simple:
You need to explain things in simplest terms, but without boring readers so quickly that they leave and go search for something else to consume.
Sure, the plan sounds simple.
But executing on it is hardly simple.
How do you make content about complex or boring subjects (think ethnographic research of how automobile traction control works) simple to understand and exciting for the target audience?
Most of this clarity-driven task – I’d argue about 85 percent – is up to the writer.
It’s More Than Just the Writing
Words alone sometimes can’t make a complex subject clear and simple to understand.
Other elements also play a role in the story your content is telling, such as:
- Website layout.
- On-page SEO elements.
- The use of video or infographics (for visual and audible learners).
Great writing, combined with poor execution of any of these elements, can make your audience shut down and click away.
But It’s Mostly About the Writing
Read anything by Ernest Hemingway.
His prose is simple and effective, the majority is in active voice, and the paragraphs further keep the clarity of mind.
Hemingway’s style is needed more today than ever – especially in a time of short attention spans and hundreds of distractions.
When you can combine great writing with great layout?
That’s when clarity happens.
Simplifying the complex sounds easy, but takes practice.
Here’s where to begin.
1. Avoid Jargon/Complex Words
It’s a theme that will continue to show up throughout this article.
Simplicity to ease the task of unraveling the concepts behind complex content begins with a lack of topic-specific jargon and complex words.
If you’re writing about a complex topic, “big” words pertaining to the subject will be necessary. Back to the ethnographic research for business.
First, a good writer would immediately define the term; ethnographic derives from ethnography – the study of people and cultures.
“Ethnographic research” would then be defined as studying businesspeople in their natural environments, and taking that data to use in research.
The more complex a subject, the more complex the jargon.
The mission is to use super simple language to describe exactly what that jargon means.
The clear-headed writers will explain exactly what they are saying and use simple words to clear up the jargon or complex words.
This also shows evidence of thinking, something everyone should crave in a world of constant disruptions – ones that are condoned by many small and large businesses due to needing immediate attention for items that don’t necessarily need immediate attention.
One author that comes to mind is Anthony William, known as the “Medical Medium.” His book “Liver Rescue” is thick, and gets into very tough medical talk.
Because of his simple style of writing, readers like me that have no medical knowledge but want to improve health can read the book with ease, and grasp all his important lessons and guidance about strengthening a liver for optimal health.
If William filled the book with complex medical terms and jargon, a majority of the non-medical types would lose interest, and William’s messages would quickly dilute and not reach such a large audience.
Just think of what Albert Einstein said: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.”
That is how to get your message across clearly and concisely.
2. Write with Energy & Get the Reader Involved
Most readers can immediately spot a fake writer or writers who are bored by their own words.
The best way around this is to write with pure energy.
Let your writing reflect just how excited you are about a subject.
The more complex the content, the more energy you should display.
A simple way to create energy around a complex topic is to use many anecdotes that people can easily relate to.
Just think of current events or stories that would interest anyone.
One book I read on leadership was “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win” by Jocko Willink.
I’m not a military buff, but the stories were so energetic that I couldn’t put the book down.
These anecdotes raised the energy, and were embedded with some complex leadership skills that Willink was able to explain simpler now that he had your attention with his war anecdotes.
This kept my energy high, and made the leadership lessons easier to digest.
And don’t forget some straightforward analogies.
In his book “Medical Medium: Secrets Behind Chronic and Mystery Illness and How to Finally Heal”, Anthony William writes:
“Your heart serves as the compass for your actions, guiding you to do the right thing when your soul becomes lost.”
That’s memorable – and brings clarity to such a complex subject.
Also, check Google Trends and do some keyword research for high-volume terms when creating your anecdotes.
The little bit of research will likely help you stumble onto a topic you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
3. Active vs. Passive Voice
Active voice delivers a clearer message over passive voice.
The difference is simple.
When you use an active voice, the subject performs the action. In a passive voice, the subject receives the action.
A quick example:
- Active: Danny wrote the blog.
- Passive: The blog was written by Danny.
The active voice here is much simpler to understand, and is vital when writing about a complex subject.
Though you need passive voice sometimes to emphasize action over the actor, always stick with the active voice.
An active voice delivers clear messages – much quicker and much easier.
While writing in the active voice, try to keep sentences short and punchy.
This helps not only with a clearer message, but also reads better on mobile devices – something all digital writers must consider.
4. Simple Images
Some people go crazy creating colorful images.
But this is another example of where simplicity reigns.
Russell Brunson explains the concept of using simple graphics in his book “Dotcom Secrets”.
He uses smaller graphics that are basically stick-figure images.
Why? He explains:
“The reason the pictures are so basic is because I want you to be able to look at the image and immediately recall the concepts. The graphics are engineered for instant recall.”
The simple-type images – say a stick-figure image of a ladder that represents different tiers of sales – are easy to grasp and lighten the load up on the mind.
If you take a complicated topic, and besides the words further support it with a simple graphic, that graphic will help deliver a much clearer message, especially to visual learners.
5. Video Content
People watch more than a billion hours of video every day on YouTube, according to Google.
That’s because people love video content.
Adding a video recap to your complex content can help you educate a wider audience – ones who don’t learn best from reading
There are four learning styles, according to Neil Fleming, who is best known as the designer of VARK model.
VARK is an acronym for:
Video covers both the visual and aural learners who rely on images and listening, respectively.
You don’t have to go crazy in depth with video recaps. They can just summarize your content.
With video, you’re simply providing another medium to reach additional learners.
But if you’re into video, and have the budget/time to get deep, go for it.
This will also allow some cross-channel exposure if you host the video on a dedicated YouTube or Vimeo channel.
Add infographics when possible – but again keep things simple with simple images and short text.
These will speak to visual learners.
When combined with clear and concise writing and video, infographics can drastically simplify the learning process when you’re trying to educate your audience about a tough topic.
Plus, infographics have serious viral potential, which can help further spread your simplified message about a complex topic.
7. Reference Other Respected Professionals
Another way to ease the simplicity of complex content is to reference or quote respected individuals within your vertical.
The more popular the person, the better.
This helps creates relationships in the mind with what your writing and what other known professionals have written or spoken about.
All of this eases digestion, and as a result simplifies the message.
Using direct quotes will naturally garner stronger reactions and offer quicker insight, but make sure to choose a simple quote from the reference that lacks its own complexity of jargon and/or complicated words.
8. Use Subheadlines Graciously
Subheadlines dramatically ease tension when reading.
Breaking up larger pieces of content into subtopics not only is easier on the eye, but also easier for your readers to digest the information in related chunks.
Also, the more complicated a piece, the more you should use subtopics.
Subheadlines also allow your reader to quickly glance through each subtopic to see if anything piques an interest.
Again, it’s all about simplifying the message from both a visual and content perspective.
Here’s a quick example:
9. Use Space – Shorter Paragraphs
When shorter paragraphs are used, it creates space on the page, which psychologically makes things much easier to digest.
Let’s go back to Hemingway’s shorter paragraphs.
They’re easy on the eyes.
Think about it – splitting one super long paragraph into several short sentence makes content easier to digest.
I truly realized the power of space when I read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” back when I was 20 or so.
I read the novel in one sitting.
Sure, the raw subject matter helped, but the smaller paragraphs and space psychologically cleared the way for me to read quickly and digest as easily.
10. Use a Miniseries for Easy Consumption
If your subject has multiple levels of complexity, create a miniseries that will allow your audience to easily grasp the concepts over time rather than one reading.
Search Engine Journal does this with large topics (e.g., SEJ’s Complete Guide to SEO).
Another example is when I wrote about ghostwriters.
I could have done one epic post.
Instead, I broke the topic into two parts – one covering the benefits of ghostwriters, and the other on how to find, hire, and train ghostwriters.
Both posts are about ghostwriters, but both are deserving topics on their own.
Plus, a series keeps your readers anticipating more after they finish the first piece in a series.
When writing about something complicated, your goal is to keep things simple, but also compelling.
This will make your message clearer, and allow a much larger audience to fully understand what you’re trying to explain.
This article focused on writing about the complex for a more generalized audience.
Sure, if you’re writing for a medical journal that goes to the top tier of doctors worldwide the complexity can remain high, but continue to work on keeping the message simple.
Even the world’s top in their fields need to relax their minds, and the simpler you can make that job, the better they’ll digest your content.
And don’t forget to immediately explain your simplicity mission within the opening of your article – sometimes you have to quickly explain that you’ve made things simple so readers can understand quicker.
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Screenshot taken by author, December 2018