​Pair writing on a tricky content project

4 minute read

Picture a Venn diagram of plain language advocates and MBA graduates. There is some common ground. But when it comes to preferred words to use, the overlap is limited to profit, loss, debt — oh, and the likes of which, and, in.

This Venn diagram illustrates my recent content project for the NZ government’s website for small businesses — a project to help owners be more strategic about their finances so their business can survive and thrive.

I’m on the plain language side of the diagram. My MBA-adorned client — and other subject matter experts (SMEs) — are on the other.

The project was never going to be a quick shake of the magic content tree. It would need careful handling to meet everyone’s needs. Business.govt.nz already covered business finance basics. This would be next-level stuff. Maybe even next-next-level.A month or so after project kickoff, a GatherContent newsletter arrived. Its topic? “Find content solutions that work for stakeholders, users and you!” — a webinar on the push-me, pull-you between stakeholders and content creators.

Webinar: Find break-through content solutions that work for stakeholders, users and you

New tactics

The webinar was perfect timing to help tackle a topic as gnarly as strategic finance. It’s a test to turn it into plain English, not to mention make it motivating and relatable for our time-poor audience.As I dived gratefully into the webinar, two tactics stood out.

  • Find a third way, instead of client or content creator bending to the other’s will. Invent something new that works for you, your client — and your audience
  • Pair writing

Pair writing helped us find a third way, a way to integrate my plain language expertise and my client’s financial nous. It was also way more effective than our early attempts, which flip-flopped between siloed research and lecture-style working sessions, with my client in an “if we build it, they will come” fervour of graphs and formulae. And me… not so much.

These early attempts entrenched our positions on opposite sides of that Venn diagram. But at least client and content creator shared a goal — to help small businesses confidently handle money matters. We just needed to find our way to common ground.

Pair story shaping

I first tried pair writing on case studies to pepper across key pages. Our audience responds well to case studies, so these were always part of the content plan.My co-writer and I had already drafted pen portraits of four fictional small businesses — house painter, baker, clothing designer, tech entrepreneur — to follow across four stages:

  1. Mastering financial statements.
  2. Using financial figures to analyse business performance.
  3. Financial modelling.
  4. Seeking funding from lenders or investors

Early on we’d started to map out their financial journeys and come to a juddering halt. We’d added notes and queries, asking subject matter experts for help. Notes that exposed our sketchy understanding of the topic. Notes that exposed how hard it is to find information in plain English, let alone pitched at small businesses. Their answers left us largely in the dark. Our SMEs knew and loved the topic but were used to sharing it with like-minds — not financial novices, and not in story form.

I know from my days as a journalist that saying “I don’t get it, please help me understand” is a great way to extract information. It’s very effective when talking to someone, less so in a comment on a document. So I set up a pair-writing session with my client — who doubled as a SME — to iterate the case studies. Not only could I say “I don’t get it” and get answers face-to-face, I could pretend to be a curious-but-confused house painter or baker to help shift the dial on those answers.

Purists might not call what we did pair writing. Pair story shaping is perhaps closer to the mark. But it proved to be a breakthrough.

Together we bounced around ideas for realistic scenarios for our fictional business owners. We explored different goals and levels of financial capability, plus pain points for each to solve. We typed, we talked, we deleted, and typed again. The end result was a co-written summary of each fictional owner’s four-part story. I then wrote up each story in full — four businesses, four case studies each — and we came back together to fill in any gaps and co-correct any errors.

Pair writing again proved invaluable when draft pages came back from the subject matter experts.

Some points of contention remained, including how to refer to sums on a financial model:

Me: “Results.”

Him: “Indicators!”

Me: “Results.”

Him: “Metrics.”

Check out who won that round on the page Financial models: Step-by-step guide.

Collaborating in person, on one keyboard, helped us anchor financial concepts in recognisable scenarios and everyday language.

Our pair story shaping laid solid foundations for creating other content types. We kept our fictional small business owners front and centre of our minds throughout. For a financial modelling workbook — the first drafts of which were very MBA-ish — we discussed how far Sam (keen to buy a van) might delve into forecasting compared to Merryn (tooling up to expand into Australia), and designed for both. Instead of generic assets to support the page How to read financial statements, we made Sam’s balance sheet, Anika the designer’s cash flow statement, and Merryn’s profit and loss statement.And if a subject matter expert’s feedback got a little mind-bending, Sam, Dani et al helped us all refocus on the audience.

Time to redraw our Venn diagram with a much bigger overlap.

Takeaway tips for tricky topics

  • Own your ignorance, make it work for you — say “I don’t get it, help me understand”
  • Collaborate in person, on one keyboard
  • Co-create fictional people with relatable pain points
  • Pretend to be these people to find solutions to common mistakes or cast light on gnarly concepts

Pair writing resources I used

Webinar: Find break-through content solutions that work for stakeholders, users and you — Jonathan Kahn, Together London

Find breakthrough content solutions that everyone buys into — Jonathan Kahn at 2018’s Agile Content Conf

Use pair writing to work together with subject matter experts — Audun Rundberg, Agile Content Conf 2015

About the author

Megan Lane

Megan is a perfectionist plain English writer who specialises in interpreting government requirements and the law for business. After 15 years at the BBC News website — mostly on The Magazine (now called BBC Stories) — she returned to New Zealand in 2014. She joined business design studio Empathy, where she leads content projects for public and private sector clients. You can also find Megan on Twitter: @laneasinlois.

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