Mind the knowledge gap | Can customers understand your content?

Mind the gap blog Thomas Editing

Is your content clear? Or is there a big gap between what you and your potential customers know and understand?

The knowledge gap

The danger of the knowledge gap

Knowledge gap example: not-so-smart meter reading

Jargon has its place: it’s not on your website

Just one more thing: interrogate your content

No offence taken: it’s not dumbing down

Three tips

Is your content clear? Or is there a big gap between what you and your potential customers know and understand?

Is there a knowledge gap, with you thinking ‘that’s obvious’ on one side and your customer scratching their head in confusion on the other? If so, you can’t rely on customers to leap over it. They’re more likely to move on.

So, it’s good to make sure your business content is clear and straightforward, and free of jargon that could confuse.

What is the knowledge gap?

Have you looked at a website and just thought ‘what are they talking about’?

‘I’m interested in this product or service but I feel like they’re trying to trick me or make me feel stupid?’

It’s probably not a trick. It’s more likely the business owner knows so much about what they sell that they forget what others don’t know.

What’s the danger of the knowledge gap?

BEWARE the knowledge gap! You could fall into it. Something could slither up and grab your ankle. Your customers could be left stranded on the other side.

As a rule, people:

  • don’t have time to ask ‘what exactly do you mean?’
  • don’t want to sound stupid by admitting they don’t understand
  • don’t always realise that they’ve misunderstood in the first place.

So, we continue to click, swipe and drag in search of answers to our questions and solutions to our problems. 

Knowledge gap example: not-so-smart meter reading

I’ve just signed up with a friendly new green energy supplier. Our previous supplier (big and unfriendly) installed smart meters in our home but the new company is not connected to the system yet. So, I had to provide a manual meter reading. Questions came to mind:

  • how do you get a reading from a smart meter?
  • where are the whirling dials?
  • can you use the LED panel in the kitchen that shows how much the gas cooker costs to run a day?

The new supplier realised this might be a question and provided a help page. This was a good start. There were some diagrams of different meter types and descriptions of what buttons to press. But none of them matched what I was looking at. 

It turned out I was looking at the wrong thing and it took some time on the supplier’s live chat service to work out what I had to do. (Staffed by a friendly and helpful chap). As our conversation continued, I realised there were two key elements I didn’t understand. These were:

  • the ‘thing’ in the kitchen was a misleading distraction. It doesn’t show the meter reading and serves only to show you the cost of your energy use throughout the day (I think).
  • there are two smart meters – one for gas, one for electricity. Both in the cupboard under the stairs. I’d thought there was one whizzy combined dual fuel meter… somewhere.

Never assume it’s obvious

Obvious? Maybe to some, but not to me after a busy day. Though it all turned out fine, it felt quite stressful, with:

  • sudden panic that our fuel couldn’t be metered
  • fleeting embarrassment at my lack of knowledge
  • annoyance at bumping my head as I ducked into the cupboard-under-the-stairs for the third time.

Ok, maybe I could have read the instructions and paid more attention when the meters were fitted a year ago. But who does that for every appliance or service they use?

And is it a good idea to rely on your customers to do the sensible, organised thing? Maybe it is a safer bet to assume that they are always busy, stressed and never read instructions. 

I wanted to rewrite that help page straight away because, though it used a helpful tone and simple language, it was missing a few significant bits of information. It created a knowledge gap. It was lucky that the live chat guy was there to throw me a rope bridge so I could scramble across and get my meter reading.

How can you close the knowledge gap?

My purpose as an editor specialising in small businesses is to spot and close the knowledge gaps. There are various methods – fill them up with concrete, build bridges or squeeze the two sides closer together – but here are some for you to think about:

Just one more thing: interrogate your content

It’s difficult to read your own content objectively, isn’t it? Especially if you are short of time and you’re not an expert writer. (And why should you be? You’re running a business doing something else, after all.)

It is hard to make yourself look for mistakes and find better ways to explain your services. And then, when you do try, your brain doesn’t let you see the errors. It’s trying to help – it knows you’re busy.

That’s why newspapers traditionally have reporters to find the stories and editors to tidy them up and check they are safe to print. 

If getting professional help isn’t an option right now, find someone willing to read it who doesn’t work in the same line of business as you.

Ask tough questions

And ask them to be really honest. Ask them to be fastidious. Like US TV detective Columbo, they need to keep asking ‘Just one more thing…’ before being convinced that they really understand what you are trying to say.

If this was before your time, the mac-wearing, shambling Columbo would finish his apparently absent-minded interviews with a casual ‘just one more thing’ question. This always put his suspect on the spot and solved the case. Your reader has to be like the world-weary homicide detective. They’ve got to keep pestering and have an eye for detail. Don’t let your content off the hook, however rich and clever it thinks it is.

Jargon has its place: it’s not on your website

It is easy to blame everything on ‘jargon’. But as Oliver Kamm says in Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usagejargon can be very useful. 

‘The term is usually interpreted as meaning willfully obscure language. In fact, there’s a use and a place for jargon, and the sticklers should pipe down about it. It’s not only legitimate but economical to use jargon when addressing a specialist audience…’

Specialist audience is the key term here. 

For example, I worked on a local weekly newspaper where we could shout ‘splashes’ and ‘NIBs’ and ‘downpagers’ and ‘WOBs’ across the office*. You could almost smell the hot metal. (Actually we could just smell the Mars factory which was near our ramshackle office on Slough Trading Estate. Especially if there was a fire in the nut oven). 

It was a verbal shorthand that also helped us feel like a team.

No doubt you’ve experienced the same in every job you’ve ever had. Working at the British Medical Association for 12 years revealed layer upon layer upon layer of NHS speak. And living with a project manager has tuned my ear to ‘scope’, ‘agile vs Agile’ and ‘measurable criteria’.

(Susie Dent’s entertaining book Modern Tribes: The Secret Languages of Britain covers the common languages of footballers, builders, soldiers, entertainers and many more professions.)

But jargon hasn’t got an official dictionary and dialects vary

But jargon hasn’t got an official dictionary and dialects vary. To return to the bustling newsroom, some people understand ‘ragged right’ while others insist on ‘ranged left’ *see below for definitions

Always think: will everyone, even in my line of work, understand this phrase or acronym?

Even if you are selling B2B (business to business), explain acronyms or unusual terms the first time you mention them – like I did just there with B2B. 

Imagine a new employee is reading your content. They’re clever and keen but not fully embedded. They haven’t had time to learn the unwritten language. Or maybe they’re someone who has switched sector or industry. Or they want to be reassured that you know what you’re talking about.

No offence taken: it’s not dumbing down

And don’t worry that people will be offended by having things spelt out or ‘dumbed down’. Do you feel annoyed when you read something that you recognise and understand? Or are you more likely to feel reassured and confident about what you’re reading?

(You might be helping your readers too. Maybe they’ve been pretending to understand that acronym for years.)

‘You are not dumbing down. You are opening up’, to quote the superb book Content Design by Sarah Richards.

You are showing respect. You are being kind. You are being thoughtful.

Three tips

  • Be alert: look for potential knowledge gaps
  • Be helpful: assume the reader doesn’t know and translate the jargon
  • Be Columbo: keep asking ‘Just one more thing…’

Need some advice on making your content clear for customers? I love to play Columbo and ask the awkward questions, so get in touch for a free chat and let’s get started!


‘Rebecca turned a long, technical document into a straightforward guide for our customers.’
Tracey Proudlock, Proudlock Associates


*Newspaper jargon explained

  • Splash ? biggest story on the front page
  • NIBS ? news in brief. 50 to 10 word short news stories that run in columns at the side of the page. Often announcing flower shows or reporting minor crimes
  • Downpagers ? the 4th or 5th shortest story on a page, apart from the nibs
  • WOB ? ‘white out of black’ – white text on a black background, which is a way to make stories stand out on the page. A tabloid favourite
  • Ragged right or ranged left? Copy that has an uneven, or ‘ragged’, column width on the right or is ‘ranged’ to line up on the left. Like this list, whichever way you say it

Productivity tip: Background noise website

I’ve written this listening to a train on Noisli, a website that plays natural sounds to work to. (Dee dum, dee dum, dee dum, click-aty clack, click-aty clack … I am going over points on the Orient Express, not sitting in my North London spare room). Trains, birds singing, rain, crackling fire, booming thunder, take your pick and tweak the volumes. Silence is… well silence, and music distracts me because I want to sing along. So I find this helps my productivity when I need to concentrate. Worth a try!





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