What They Don’t Know Can Hurt You

By Jessica Albon

What they don't know can hurt you

Polar Bear by Alan Wilson from naturespicsonline.com

When I was in college, I had a heck of a time choosing a major. So, to figure out what was the right fit, I took a lot of classes–so many, in fact, that I had enough lower division credits (the overview classes) for a Bachelors, if only they didn’t require those pesky upper division credits (the in-depth classes).

I find the basics of just about everything interesting, but in order to want to learn all the details, it has to be a subject I really love. (Like design and writing.)

This means I know a little about a lot of things, and it comes in pretty handy. It means I know, for instance, that polar bears are usually left handed and I can still explain exactly what’s happening during El Nino in California.

When it comes to writing your newsletter–or any content, really–you can’t know exactly what your people know. You can’t know if they’ll get that reference you made to Firefly or whether they’ll have ever heard of Matt Nathanson.

Not knowing can be frustrating. But it’s also an opportunity. The trick is to drop in just enough background to keep all your readers on the same page, without going into such detail that the readers who are familiar think your writing is too basic.

Here are three ways to walk this line:

  1. Use links liberally. Whether links to your stuff or to other people’s stuff, don’t be afraid to link. Sure, sometimes you want to limit linking (like on a sales page), but usually, taking advantage of the intertextuality of the internet is a good thing.
  2. Engage in conversation. Social media is a great place to find out what people know, so don’t be afraid to ask! You can ask directly, like, “Am I the only one who always hears  ‘It’s a good thing’ in Martha Stewart’s voice?” or you can ask people to brainstorm with you. Either way, knowing what people already know shows you what you might want to explain in depth.
  3. Don’t only teach advanced stuff. It can be tempting to want to write the content that’s really advanced–the stuff your peers will admire and quote from–instead of the more basic stuff. But, the fact is, your Tribe needs both from you, and although you can spend more time with one type than the other, on balance, you want to make sure you’re not teaching all “500-level” classes.

Most of us write to an audience that has a pretty wide experience level, and it’s useful to keep that in mind so that we don’t alienate any one segment. Keeping these tips at hand can help make sure that when you’re writing about something your readers don’t know, their lack of knowledge won’t hurt you.