Write What They Mean…

As you prepare to write a case study, white paper or data sheet, you’ll gather as much information and background material as you can. Next, you’ll probably record an interview with one or more of the stakeholders. It’s always useful, too, to have transcripts of your interviews, especially if you plan to quote people directly. Here’s something to keep in mind, however: very few people speak in simple, declarative sentences.

How to handle interviews

Some interviewees are more direct than others, certainly. But a few speak in such fantastic verbal loops and switchbacks that they cross their own tracks while trying to answer a simple question. (The best business card I ever received was from an Intel executive in Silicon Valley, who listed his title as circumlocutionist, although actually he was a fairly straightforward fellow.) Newspaper editors in Chicago decades ago supposedly asked reporters covering the late Mayor Richard J. Daley to write what he meant, not what he actually said. You may realize why when you review your interview transcripts.

If you can create your own list of interviewees, minimize your challenges by selecting the natural communicators. People who get straight to the point and make it clearly. But assembling the list might not be up to you, and nobody speaks perfectly anyway. You’ll need to massage your transcripts to some extent (or your notes, if you’re really Old School).

Typing up a transcript

Here’s how a typical transcript might read: “What we offer our customers that’s different in the marketplace is that we are very, very focused on offering a handcrafted, high-quality product, and to go along with that great customer service.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with the statement, which reflects how most people speak. But here’s how you might rework the sentence. “We are very focused on offering a handcrafted, high-quality product and great customer service.

You need to straighten out those verbal loops into straightforward sentences. Use an active voice. Delete words or phrases you don’t absolutely need. And paraphrase, if that makes things simpler and more understandable. Make the person you interviewed look good—but get approval for your revised language, to make sure you didn’t accidentally change any meaning.

Don’t make everyone sound the same, though. This is especially true for people whose first language is different from yours. Their phrasing and word choice is often distinctive, even eloquent. Try to retain some of that voice, especially if their name, title or company indicates their origins and background.

And remember, you’re writing a case study or white paper, not a novel. So keep it simple. You can do whatever you want in your fiction.

ABOUT Jim Leeke

Widely experienced in journalism, marketing communications and advertising, Jim has worked with top creative agencies to deliver print, Internet and interactive projects to Fortune 500 companies. His expertise ranges from technology and healthcare/pharmaceuticals to defense and veterans issues. Jim is also the author/editor of six books, writing extensively on the Civil War and baseball. In addition to his Wordsmithie role, Jim is Co-founder and Creative Director of Taillight Communications.