While at the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) conference in 2012, I attended an interesting talk by Olessia Smotrova-Taylor, a world-class proposal manager and the president of OST Global Solutions, Inc.
Olessia spoke on the tricky task of writing on a topic that one knows little (or nothing) about. It’s a challenge Dragonfly writers face every day. Our clients’ copywriting needs range from finance and accounting, to construction, to medical devices, to IT software and beyond.
So what’s a writer to do? No encyclopedic knowledge required—according to Olessia, you simply need to become “an expert at becoming an expert.” Fortunately for us (and proposal writers everywhere), there’s an actual process that can get you there.
- The first step, says Olessia, is to absorb. New projects can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to shut down. Don’t panic; a project’s beginning is prime time for information-gathering. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything at first.In early interviews with new clients, you may experience total information overload. But if you pay attention and take notes, you’ll be learning more than you think. Your mind will gain “passive vocabulary” that will come in handy later.
- Next comes the research phase. Your job is to become a sponge; learn as much as you can about your assigned topic. Even if you just read a few Wikipedia pages or look up quick definitions of concepts, you’ll build your vocabulary—and your understanding.If content is highly technical, you’ll likely be hit with lots of unfamiliar words. Create glossaries for yourself by writing down what you find. Approach the process as if you were learning a foreign language (sometimes, you’ll feel like you really are).
- Now it’s time to practice active listening. In interviews with subject matter experts, repeat back statements made to ensure you’ve understood correctly. You don’t want to wear your naïveté on your sleeve; you want to be taken seriously, after all. But ultimately, what matters is accuracy: Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if there’s an idea you don’t understand.
- Finally comes what Olessia calls the common sense phase. If you’re an experienced copywriter (and you’ve followed Steps 1 through 3), this step should be the easiest of all. In this phase, your job is to translate a client’s ideas into clear messages for readers.And here’s a secret: Your relative ignorance on a topic actually gives you a leg up, because it allows you to think like a consumer. If clients have handed you lots of jargon that you can’t understand, you can bet that readers won’t get it, either. Your outside perspective allows you to highlight what’s really important, and explain ideas so that everyone understands.
Even if you use this step-by-step process, starting a new writing project is always going to be uncomfortable. Tackling unfamiliar content is tough—there’s no getting around it.
But things really do get smoother with time. The longer you work with a client, the more the technical jargon that once sounded like gibberish will make sense. You’ll come to understand what your clients really want to say. Little by little, you’ll become something of an expert yourself.
Before you know it, you won’t be faking anymore.
To learn more about this and other topics discussed at APMP, check out http://apmp.sclivelearningcenter.com/. For a small fee, you can get access to recordings of conference presentations like Olessia’s.
Samantha Enslen, the president of Dragonfly Editorial, has written about dozens of topics she previously hadn’t thought much about—from telecom deregulation to aluminum doors to pretzels. This post was originally published in 2012.