17 min read

Context Matters: Writing for Engineers with Adam Kimmel

Understanding the context of why and who makes all the difference when writing for engineers and technical buyers.

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Adam Kimmel, Principal Technical Content Writer at ASK Consulting, spends his days boiling down highly technical information into consumable content targeted to specific audience personas.

In this episode, we cover a ton of ground -- from what behaviors make a technical writer successful to how to extract the right information from subject-matter experts. Aside from the numerous nuggets of advice, what struck me most is one word that kept creeping in throughout our discussion: context.

When interviewing a subject-matter expert (SME), it's important to contextualize why a solution is significant and where it fits into the broader market landscape. Data is great, but the context of why the data is significant (e.g. competitive comparisons, etc.) helps to demonstrate value and build preference. 

Your audience needs to first care about a topic, then be enticed to go deeper and learn more. Understanding the context of where your content piece fits into the buyer's journey helps you to position the material at the right technical level and build upon information served elsewhere. 

 


 

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Transcript

 

Before you tackle that next writing project, listen to this episode of Content Marketing Engineered. I brought on an expert technical content writer who shares his secrets for creating that perfect piece and spoiler alert. It has a lot to do with a successful collaboration with subject matter experts. He gives lots of tips during the episode. You'll get a lot out of this that you can apply to that next writing project. Let's do this.

 

Welcome to Content Marketing Engineered, your source for building trust and generating demand with technical content. Here is your host, Wendy Covey.

 

Hi, and welcome to Content Marketing Engineer. On each episode, I'll break down an industry trend challenge or best practice in reaching technical audiences. You'll meet colleagues, friends, and clients of mine who will stop by to share their stories, and I hope that you leave each episode feeling inspired and ready to take action. Before we jump in, I'd like to give a brief shout out to my agency, True Marketing. True is a full service agency located in beautiful Austin, Texas, serving highly technical companies. For more information, visit Truemarketing.com. And now on with our podcast.

 

Hey, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Content Marketing Engineered. I'm joined today by Adam Kimmel. He's the principal technical content writer for Ask Consulting. Welcome to the show, Adam.

 

Thanks, Wendy. Glad to be here.

 

Glad to see you. We worked together for a few years now, so it's so fun to have you on the show. And I can't wait to first hear a little bit about your backstory because there's something I've never asked you, and I'm so excited to ask you here on the show.

 

Okay.

 

So I go to LinkedIn and I'm looking at all things, Adam. Right. And I see this bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, this master's degree in mechanical engineering. Okay. That's a lot of work, a lot of school. And here we are talking about writing for engineers. So. Okay, what the heck, Adam? I think we need to hear the backstory of how you became a content writer.

 

Yeah. And I get that question a lot because it isn't a typical path, which is sometimes the most fun, I think so. I love engineering and technical things. Science and math are always the strength and the skill. And so I kind of became excited about climate change and helping the environment early in my life. And so this really led me to wanting to become an engineer to help the environment. That's my personal overall mission. I worked for companies early in my career that made fuel cell products and things for alternative energy. The problem with those is that there were new technologies and there were things that people didn't really understand. So I would develop something, show it to an executive, and they would go, okay, I know this is they would think, I know this is something, but I'm not really sure why or what to do with it. So they would try to explain that to their managers and then their customers and clients. And so through all those different translations, it got diluted and sometimes way off track of the problem it actually solved. And so I would get these requests. Can you give me three bullet points for what the heck this is?

 

Not really, but okay, so that was really when I tried to say, all right, well, here's this really complex topic. How do I boil this down to something that someone understands what it does, who it helps, and ultimately why I would buy it. And once I started to do that, I realized the power of that writing, communication actually have. And then the other part of it was we would try to patent some of these research inventions, and the patent attorneys didn't understand either. So I would have to write summaries. So there's kind of the business executive summary, and then there's sort of the technical patent office summary. These things are very different, but they still communicate the same features of the same product. So it's kind of leaning to one style, to another to see how to explain these great inventions that we created. So that's really what sparked my interest in writing. And it was kind of a way to accelerate and highlight some of the technical solutions that I found.

 

Yeah, I find that so interesting because not every engineer can, let's say, keep themselves from diving way deep into details and forget about the audience personas, perhaps that you're trying to educate with your material. So having the ability to appreciate who that audience is and what level of technical detail is appropriate, that's a really amazing skill and needed skill in this industry. It is.

 

And it also helps to kind of know how those audiences get their content, because often if you have a business or non technical audience, they're not going to dive into a white paper right away, first of all. And so it's understanding, well, how do you excite this person about a technology they don't understand? And so understanding what motivates them, what is their background and what do you want them to take away? And maybe really, what conversation do you want them to have next about your product? If they're reading in a technical Journal or something, they'll want to engage their engineering people really quickly. If they're just looking at LinkedIn, that style might be very different. And so it's knowing where they go for content and how they get to the information they want. I think that kind of guides the way we write.

 

This is so dreamy hearing a writer appreciate the full buyers journey and the marketing context around how that piece will be used. So I love that. Well, tell me, what industry do you enjoy writing for and why?

 

Well, as I kind of highlighted the environment, alternative energy is probably my favorite. This is a group of people that are so passionate. I mean, anybody that's really worked in this industry for any amount of time, you hear that passion come out. You hear the urgency around what they're doing, the excitement around what the options could be. So anytime someone's excited, it's fun to write in that industry, the passion just comes out. And then I just become a conduit. How do I get overflow this passion to get the audience as excited as the person I'm writing for. But in addition to that, electric vehicles and automotive, I mean, I worked in this industry for over 13 or 15 years. There's so much disruption with electrification and through all the craziness of the last two years, autonomous vehicles are still there. You don't hear about them as much because of all the noise, but there's still all this momentum around autonomous vehicles and the benefits that they can provide and now connected in the smart cities and things. So certainly technology in all forms I love to write about. So IoT 5G another one that I'm finding is the manufacturing industry.

 

They're coming along. The technology has understood the value of content for a while, and I feel like manufacturing is the next one that's kind of waking up to, wow, this is really an opportunity for us. Let's increase our efforts around this content to really explain some of these innovations. Now that we have IoT, how can we just improve industrial automation and tie it to supply chain friendly things? So manufacturing is another one. Product development. I spent my whole career in product development, so I love writing about how do you get the product cycle quicker? How do you have supply resiliency in case of a global pandemic or something?

 

What a hot topic right now.

 

Yes, exactly. And then really chemical processing and healthcare it or the other two that I love writing about just because of how they're really technical and good solutions tend to be. I don't know. The people that understand what the solutions are are really excited about those. Those are kind of the six that I love writing about.

 

Those are good ones. And I agree what you said about manufacturing, just waking up to digital marketing and content based marketing. It's so interesting because we'll work with components companies, for example, or electronics companies, and they get it. They're further ahead. And then over in the manufacturing world, you touched on IoT or IIoT, and it seems like that heightened sophistication of technology coming into the plant where it's like, okay, we're sophisticated over here, but then our marketing is still like, hey, let's go to some trade shows. And then here Covet hit and caused this marketing disruption and the sales disruption, if you will. And I think those laggards are finally like, oh, wait, this is actually working. My website is actually really important, and I can gather leads on my website at a fraction of the cost. Let's do more of this. Let's explore more. So it's great I think it's good career growth for us both.

 

Yes. I mean, they kind of take a step back and breathe and go, all right, well, we know that we're doing great work in the automation industry, but our marketing is just because it kind of overwhelms, I think. And so they go, I don't even know where to begin. And so the pandemic wasn't an opportunity for them to step back, kind of exhale and go, all right, we need to start talking about some of these critical initiatives and critical disruptions that are starting to take hold. And so I think that's the reason that we've seen such acceleration there.

 

Good. Well, when you're working with these technical companies, one of the most important things is getting your messaging right, your value proposition, your appeal to that buyer. What are some of the challenges you face in helping companies craft those value propositions?

 

Yeah, I mean, I didn't realize that this would be such an important part of what I do, but being a research engineer for most of two decades, I take the research piece for granted. But what it does is when you go to engineering school, you learn how to learn. And so once I learn about a new technology, the process I apply kind of naturally goes to, well, why is this any better than the other client I was just working with? Yeah, that's so what exactly? So I think talking with the subject matter experts and understanding their perspective, they'll tell you why what they have is so, so difficult. And what were the biggest challenges they solved and why the technology is so good? What they struggled to do is contextualize where it fits. And so just some of the leading questions of. All right, well, what was the problem that you were trying to solve when you stumbled upon this invention? Because very often the initial problem isn't the one that they ended up solving the best. We tried to solve this, but found this along the way. Oh, wow, this is great and big.

 

Let's go here. And so just kind of having them walk through that whole process and journey gets them thinking about where it fits. And they do have a chance to take a step back at those initial meetings and conversations with sales and marketing to go, what was the need that we were initially trying to address and what do we have? And so once they understand where it fits, it's much easier to then understand what parts of the product or service that they've created to highlight because we know what the pain point is. Now we understand where your customer or audience is struggling, and we can pull out the features that address those pain points versus the minutiae of, yeah, this is real difficult to do, but not really impactful for your customers. It's just kind of good to know. And once you get to that point where they're asking you about how you went through it and what was all the low level detail process? Well, then they're with you, but it's just getting that first pain point address that I think is the key thing. And so the value prop is understanding where things fit.

 

Yeah. Who do you usually have in the room for those discussions?

 

For me, I'm the most comfortable speaking with engineers. So when I work with marketers, often, like with our partnership and either others, like, there's an agency contact a marketer who sometimes likes to be very into the details, sometimes likes to be more hands off. So it will typically be me and the SME. There might be an executive and a marketer, but very quickly, the discussion goes to technical, the technical and the business people kind of sit and realize they want to be there to hear. And it's usually recorded, but it's typically peer to peer. And I think the benefit with being an engineer is that I know how to talk to engineers to get them to open up. If you come in as a marketer, there's an apprehension because historically, engineers were always a little bit nervous about, why is marketing in here? Are they auditing me? They get into the weeds of what I've done here.

 

Yeah. What's really going on.

 

Yeah. Whereas for me, it's kind of I can draw on a similar experience and go, this is what I saw in work I've done. Like, while this is similar, can you tell me more about that then? There it is. They don't get as defensive.

 

There's no conspiracy here.

 

Right.

 

A case study.

 

Well, it is. And I think once that bridge has been crossed, then they're much more helpful and collaborative. And it's usually in the noise between the questions you ask that the magic can be found. And so once their guard is down and they're open that's I think when you really get an impactful piece of content out of it, great.

 

I mean, those subject matter experts sometimes not only are they skeptical or wary of marketing, but they're not really excited about collaborating on a writing project. Right. They're maybe not good writers or the whole process is uncomfortable. So any tips for people out there that are approaching that subject matter expert interview and wanting to just have it go.

 

Well, I think the worst thing that you can do is hand them a pen and go, you write this, and then I'll tweak it. That's never going to work, because what they'll do, like in the case of me, when I started writing, I kind of said, well, I wrote a 200 page thesis. I was published in a few technical journals. That's how to write. So I go there. I found it. The point of a master thief, as I found quickly, was how many syllables can I shove into every word in this title? Well, nobody wants even the people that are on the committee don't understand what the heck everybody's talking about with those things. And so even if there's low level technical experts, there's only a small number of people that can do it. So what I would offer is, even if you want them to write down some preliminary thoughts or bullet points, really get to what is the goal of all of this and where does this fit? And then let them know that. Let them know how their input is going to be used, one, again, to make them at ease, but then two, so that they highlight the right parts, getting data from them.

 

Engineers love data, but I think one of the things that people miss with technical audiences, that's all they want. I think they need to understand why they should care about the data they see versus if you just blast them with graphs and data without any context. I mean, we're not machines, we're human, right. We want to know what am I reading and what is it helping? And so I think framing that data before you present it is important. So getting the most important data to tell that story, it establishes credibility and authority, but it also helps the engineers speak the language he's used to and then understanding where it fits. So having them tell both sides of that before supplying this critical data, I think would be another one.

 

Yeah, that's great. And then as a writer, you've already mentioned you have the context of where this is going to be published or promoted. And so you're being mindful of that, even if the subject matter expert doesn't need to know that information.

 

Yeah. They often are curious because they want to make sure they don't say too much. And so the other thing is, if there's something proprietary, I think level setting. Okay, here's where it's going to be. Is there anything I should be careful about? Is there anything I want to make sure not to say? Is there an NDA that needs to be discussed or in place, or is there something that you want to go back and check with your legal team to make sure that we can say? Because the worst thing you can do is get into trouble with some proprietary items or issues. You want to make sure that that's addressed upfront. So that again, the guards down, and then the technical people can talk freely. If there's too many guardrails around the discussion, nothing will come out of it because they'll be just too much trepidation. So just framing up. Okay. Where is it going to be used? But then where the don't touch zones of the topic.

 

Yeah, good advice. One other one that I've heard quite a bit from some of our writers at True is don't ask stupid questions, don't ask things you can find out yourself ahead of time. So in other words, come in prepared, read up on the subject. If there's anything that's been published in the past by this company on this. Just don't ask things you can find out on your own, be resourceful ahead of time. And I could see where that would be really annoying to have somebody viewer coming cold, not understanding the subject, asking really just remedial questions about the subject.

 

Well, especially if it's an authority piece. I think the type of content really matters in that context, too, because what I found engineers do appreciate is for a topic they're familiar with, but not expert level, which is most things they do appreciate a little bit of a reground on some definitions. So I think you could come in with this is my understanding of the high level definition of what this is. Is this right? And I'd like to just rebrand the audience on this topic. You can assume everyone reading it knows exactly what it is, but more often than not, they don't. And they appreciate being acknowledged as a technical person so that you're not walking through it in such painstaking detail that you can't even stand to read it anymore. But they do appreciate just kind of a little reminder and reinforcement of, okay, this is really what we're talking about. And then we get into the lower level. But there is a balance because you don't want to come in too remedial, but just acknowledging and sort of giving them the authority on the topic and not coming in as a peer, necessarily letting them understand where you are and what your understanding is and how they can help.

 

I think it's important.

 

Good. Well, obviously the subject matter expert is central to creating good meaty technical pieces. Tell me about, if you can think of one, a project that maybe went sideways on you.

 

Well, like a lot of technologies, the subject matter expert, usually the name that's on the patent, if that exists, is the most passionate person about the technology. And so where I've struggled is if there's too much micromanagement or oversight or involvement in the writing process. And so I learned very early on that I need to say please combine your revisions between all stakeholders. And how about two rounds of revisions? Because when I didn't do that, the about page of a website. So I was writing copy for this company that had a really cool rapid prototype manufacturing solution. So they had a really nice platform. When you go on there, you can pick the features and design the part just online with an Internet connection. Order the part and it comes to you. It's really like Amazon for product development. Super cool. So we had the hard pages, I thought went really smoothly, and I was excited. So then the last thing was to write the about page. And it took me seven revisions, and I don't even know how many weeks of time to get everyone's opinion. And the worst of it was the argument within the company in the comments section of my document.

 

So they were arguing with each other, not aligned on what the about section say as part of the third revision or something. That was a lesson learned. So I always make sure that before we even write any words down, let's go get everybody together with combined revisions, and let's just do it twice. You can have more, but let's talk about Scope.

 

Then one person will be responsible for reconciling all of those edits, making sure that has the authority to make those decisions. That's a really good one.

 

That's happened before, right?

 

Yeah. Well, for those listening or watching that are about to tackle their next writing piece, whether that be a white paper and About US page, what advice do you have for them?

 

Really understand where you fit in the world. Honestly, not everybody can be the number one in what they do. So I get a lot of well, we have the best service and we provide the best customer support, the very best. Adam, it's like all these signs of number one. We watched Elf a few weeks ago and had Christmas in July, number one, world's best cup of coffee or something like that. Everybody can be number one, really. If the writer knows where you actually are and who your main competitors are, they can help with researching some of the things that okay, maybe they do better than you at some things, but there's got to be some things that you're advantaged in, and those are the things to highlight and make sure that the audience understands are critically important. So really having an honest view of the competitive landscape and then also, what action do you want the reader to take? It's amazing to me that we get to the end of a really fun piece and we come to the CTA, like the last sentence, what do you want? What do you want them to do next?

 

Yeah, I mean, if the conversation stops there, then you're in trouble. And so I think in addition to telling them what you want them to do next, making sure the content is at least there's some counterpoint to be seen. Like if you make a very generic vanilla point, that's almost impossible to disagree with or have another opinion, there's no conversation to be had. So the goal typically is engagement. You want to get to the next conversation or a request for the next piece of content. Don't accept content projects that stop a conversation. You want things that promote engagement in a conversation and tell them what you want them to do or how you want the conversation to continue at the end of the piece.

 

Okay, good advice. Well, how can people connect with you and learn more about your services?

 

So I'm fairly active on LinkedIn, so Adams Kimmel is my LinkedIn handle and the website is Askconsultingsolutions.com, so it's a little bit to spell, but I've got a lot of updates there. And my digital portfolio is there and so my calendar and ways to connect are there and it's Kimmel with two M and one L just like Jimmy who I'm not related to but yeah.

 

I'm not related to Stephen Covey either but I get that question a lot so I'm with you.

 

I always just say sure I'm his cousin and they go really? No.

 

Come on.

 

No.

 

Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

 

All right. Thanks. Great discussion. Have a good day.

 

Thanks for joining me today on content marketing Engineers for show notes including links to resources, visit truemarketing. Compodcast. While there you can subscribe to our blog and our newsletter and order a copy of my book content Marketing engineers also I would love your reviews on this podcast so please when you get a chance subscribe and leave me your review on your favorite podcast subscription platform. Thanks and have a great day.