Writing for Einstein (and other sophisticated readers)

I’m often asked whether good readers and those with specialized professional training need or benefit from clear writing or plain language. This would include people in the fields of law, science, finance and engineering. Maybe even an Einstein!

My answer is that even highly proficient readers don’t want to deal with unclear writing or unnecessary complexity. There are some specific things that we as writers can do to meet their information needs and help them process information more efficiently.

Here are the top 5 things on my list when writing for skilled readers with a high level of subject matter knowledge:

1. Make it easy to find the most relevant information. Use techniques that make your text scannable. This includes the frequent use of headings and bullets. For longer documents, such as a report, provide an executive summary that sets out the main ideas or conclusions.

2. Layer your content. The Einsteins of the world want to see the data or research on which your conclusions rest. To establish authority and trust, provide references to any ideas or information taken from a source. But be careful not to bury your readers in facts and findings. By layering information, people can get the gist quickly and then delve into details as needed.

For example, create a summary at the top. Follow with more detailed information in clearly identified sections or pages. On the web, use hypertext links to take readers to more detail on following pages. Readers can check out and move elsewhere in the text once they’ve read enough.

3. Write concisely. Remove weak or unnecessary words. Watch out for frozen verbs, phrases where you use three words where one would do the job. For example, change “make a decision” to “decide.” Change “provide an explanation” to “explain.”

4. Prefer shorter sentences. This is one of the easiest ways to help even masterful readers speed through text. You can often replace commas with periods and remove parenthetical statements without significantly altering the expression of your ideas.

5. Think clear language rather than plain language. Experts in many fields share a specific and well-defined common vocabulary. If everyone in your audience shares this language, you can use these complex terms freely. You do not need to explain widely used terms and concepts. In fact, doing so may work against you. Why?

If a term is so common that any member of the field should know it, readers who see it explained at the beginning of a piece of text may conclude that the content is not meant for them. This is likely NOT the reader experience you are aiming for!

Remember, even sophisticated readers will likely appreciate a clear, concise writing style. As Einstein himself said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you haven’t understood it well enough!” Just be careful not to simplify in a way that fails to meet your readers’ needs for precision and nuance.

[PS – In my next blog I’ll talk about the challenge of writing for good readers who are NOT subject matter experts. Again, a different strategy applies!]

How healthy is your reader’s health literacy?

When’s the last time you googled something about your health? My guess would be fairly recently. It’s the third most common online activity. Did you easily understand what  you read? Many health web sites do a good job of presenting clear, actionable information. However, a lot of health information out there would not pass the test of clear writing.

What’s more, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 60% of adults and 88% of seniors are not health literate. What does this mean? It means they cannot:

  1. Confidently and knowledgeably access, understand, evaluate and communicate information that is related to their health (and the health of their loved ones).
  2. Find their way through the often-complex health care systems across Canada.
  3. Decode the information that we all need to live healthy, productive lives.

It’s a vicious circle. People with low health literacy are more like to have poor health. They are also more likely to misuse medication, misunderstand medical directions. These mistakes and misunderstandings increase the burden on the health care system – requiring more time, more money and more emergency care.

How can you help challenged readers better understand what they need to do to be healthy? Here are some quick tips from the clear writing world:

1. Grab your audience’s attention. Use interesting headlines, a catchy image and a good hook. Watch out for slow-loading photos or multimedia that require extra clicks.

2. Find an angle that readers can easily relate to. Remember, people love good stories. If your story is long, rely on the principles of narrative journalism: find a main character and build a dramatic structure.

3. Remember: positive messages are empowering. If you are writing about a particularly dark or challenging medical issue, such as Alzheimer’s disease or obesity, offer possible solutions or a place to go for help. Offering a spark of hope can make your reader feel more empowered.

4. Write conversationally. If your media and topic allow, use humour and a personal voice. This will help you connect with your reader. A formal voice will increase the distance between you and your reader.

5. Use plain language. In one of my workshop series for the Ontario government, I demonstrate how an announcement of a new medical scan, called a PET scan, could be written entirely without any technical terms except the word “PET” (which stands for positron emission tomography). Everything else of importance to the public could be explained without a single complex medical term. The original draft announcement had more than 15 such terms or unnecessarily sophisticated words.

Of course, health information can be complexed and nuanced. Clear writing retains nuance if it’s needed to clarify the meaning. But we look for ways to present health information so that people with little subject matter knowledge or other reading challenges can find the information they need, understand what they read and act on it.

Writing for the Silent Generation (Part 2)

If you want to reach the Silent Generation online, it’s going to take more than big buttons and large type fonts. Ask yourself: has your Web site been designed to meet the needs of older users—who might not be as experienced with navigation and who might have visual impairment, for instance?

According to the latest research from Jakob Nielsen, users aged 65 and older are almost 45% slower at using websites than users aged 21–55. Why? The most common culprits are small font size, the use of dropdown menus and other design features that require fine motor skills, memory and superior vision.

Here are some tips from the clear writing world to make your digital content easy to use and easy to understand for the Silent Generation:

  • Keep web pages short to reduce download time on older computers.
  • Use the same set of navigation buttons in the same place on each page. Label each page in the same location with the name of the Web site.
  • Keep navigation simple and yes, make buttons large enough that they do not require precise mouse movements for activation. For the same reason, use pull-down menus sparingly. Have static menus whenever possible.
  • Provide site maps and use techniques such as “bread crumbs” (a list at the top of the page of what page(s) were followed to get to the current page).
  • Choose a plain, clear typeface. Use at least 12-point type for eyes that are middle-aged and older – but 13- or 14-point is even better.
  • Have lots of white space on the page. Leave wide margins and space between paragraphs to avoid crowding text.
  • Use dark print on a light background. It’s easier to read than reverse type — where text is white on a dark background.

Whether you run a business, a government program serving seniors, an agency delivering health information, or you work in a social service agency that supports older users, these practices will contribute greatly to how well you meet their information needs online.

Remember, the Silent Generation is not likely to complain if your web content is not easy to read or easy to understand. They’re more likely to just quietly click away.

Writing for the Silent Generation (Part 1)

In an article from November 5, 1951, Time magazine used the term “Silent Generation” for the first time. It described the generation of people born before 1946. Older than Baby Boomers, this audience is often labelled as “aging” or “elderly.” But you have only to look at actress Jane Fonda, rocker Neil Young or the former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin to know people in this age group are not at all ready for the rocking chair.

Yes, they may have literacy challenges, as literacy tends to decline with age. They may have visual or physical disabilities that can make reading difficult in some formats. Others, however, a living vibrant, healthy lives. So what advice can the clear writing world offer on how to communicate effectively with this diverse generation?

It’s essential to use a range of methods if you want to reach people across this segment. In Part 1 of this blog, I’ll give you some general tips to apply when writing for the Silent Generation. In Part 2, we’ll look at tips specific to digital media.

  • Research shows they may prefer print material, but give them other options. They may choose large print or braille, audio- or videotape or CD/DVD formats if you make them available. And yes, they do use the Internet, especially for information.
  • Keep your design elements consistent. Fancy can be confusing. Use a standard page template and the same symbols and icons throughout your document or web site.
  • Write simply and concisely. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Use short, familiar words. If you must use technical language, include a glossary. Even if some of your readers don’t need the help, it will make your message accessible to the greatest number of readers.
  • Start with the most important ideas first. Use headings, bullet lists and bold face type to highlight your main ideas. Don’t assume your older readers want to get down into the weeds with you.
  • Use a tone that is slightly more formal. Don’t use slang, sloppy grammar and buzz words. Many in the Silent Generation learned their grammar lessons and may prefer a more formal style.
  • Think visually. Use concrete examples, illustrations or photos if it makes them easier to understand the text.

You can apply these tips any time you want to write clearly for the Silent Generation. In part 2 of this blog, we’ll look at specific tips when writing for this audience online.

Writing for busy Baby Boomers (Part 2)

Once you understand the mindset and lifestyle of Baby Boomers, you can develop communications that engage them with clear, relevant information. In Part 1 of this blog, we talked about Boomer health, wealth, work and other interests – including their strong online presence. Here are my top 5 tips on how to write clearly for Boomers:

  1. Speak their language. One of the first tenets of clear writing is write for your intended reader. So do key word searches to learn their lexicon and understand their wants, needs, interests and fears. Then create a fully formed profile or persona for the type of person you are trying to reach. You can imagine this person vividly when you write for them.
  2. Meet them online. Make it easy for Boomers to find you when searching on Google. Use search engine marketing, including SEO (search engine optimization) and PPC (pay-per-click) ads. Also consider online news releases.
  3. Consider print as well. Even though many Boomers are digitally savvy, they are still strong newspaper readers. New research from News Media Canada confirms that more than 90% of Boomers read newspaper content weekly in both print or digital – but many still prefer print. And Boomers are almost 60% more likely to respond to direct mail than any other generation. In a study conducted by InMan Marketing, almost 7 out of 10 consumers aged 45 to 64 said they strongly prefer direct mail to other forms of outbound marketing.
  4. Educate and inform. Boomers do their homework before they spend. They want to get the best product at the best price. So, teaching Boomers about your product or service may work better than a hard sell. Share reviews, testimonials and recommendations with them. Almost two-thirds of Boomers spend time reading blogs and online articles as a source of information. About 7 out of 10 enjoy watching videos about products and services. (Forbes, 2017)
  5. Keep content simple and get to the point. Unlike marketing to younger audiences, Boomers aren’t as likely to be drawn in by trendy jargon, slang or internet acronyms. Use plain language. They will also likely prefer larger fonts and lots of white space, which make communications easy to read. Busy Boomers want to quickly connect their needs with the products and services you offer.

At the end of the day, if you serve the Boomer buyer, provide great customer service. One Australian study showed that more than half of consumers aged 45 and over have a ‘nemesis’ brand – one they’ll never do business with again because of the poor customer service they received. Boomers have long memories. And they will never, ever forgive you for treating them poorly.

Writing for busy Baby Boomers (Part 1)

About 1 in 3 Canadians are Boomers, the generation now between about age 54 and 70. They grew up in a time of anti-war protest, civil rights and women’s rights. They remember a world long before the Internet and social media were dreamt of. But don’t call them “old.” Research Now says almost 60 percent report feeling younger than they are.

This is one audience you don’t want to forget. After all, as a group, they control most of the nation’s disposable income. So, what do we know about these busy Boomers? Turns out a lot more than I can cover in one blog. So in Part 1, we’ll explore some of the latest research. In Part 2, I’ll provide tips on how to communicate clearly with your Boomer readers.

1. Boomers tend to stay longer in the workforce than their parents did. According to Statistics Canada, almost 2 out of 5 people age 55 and older are either employed or looking for work. That number has almost doubled since 2000. And many of those working Boomers are self-employed. Turns out they like being their own boss.

2. Many Boomers are doing well financially. A Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) is following 50,000 people age 45-85 for 20 years. The study reports that a small portion of Boomers – around 6% — have incomes of less than $20,000 a year. About a third of participants have family incomes ranging between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. About 4 out of 5 own their own homes.

3. Boomers are online and connected. A recently-published Adobe Digital Insights study found that 66% of those ages 50-64 report being either “moderate” or “digitally savvy.” You may have heard that those age 55+ have taken over Facebook. In a 2017 survey by Sprout Social, almost two-thirds of Boomers chose Facebook as their preferred social network. That’s more than any other generation.

Boomers are also among the biggest online shoppers. According to KPMG, Boomers shop online as often as their children, the Millennials, do. And, on average Boomers spent more in each transaction.

4. Many Boomers are healthy and active. More than 90 per cent of participants in the CLSA study describe their health as good, very good or excellent. They’re interested in activity, adventure, change, growth and personal happiness. They’re not as interested in sitting at home and watching TV.

5. Many Boomers are busy taking care of others. Almost 2 out of 5 Boomers in the CLSA study are providing care to loved ones.

When you communicate with these busy Boomers, it helps to remember these common characteristics. It’s also essential to consider their reading needs and preferences. In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll share some tips on communicating clearly with your Boomer readers.

Tech talk for non-techies

If you’re in the technology business, be careful how you talk to business people or consumers who might use your products or services. You may have spent months to develop and launch a new solution. It may be a roaring success in every way from your IT team’s point of view. But your announcement may be met with yawns or blank stares when you take it to your intended users. Not the outcome you were hoping for.

How do you make sure you communicate technology clearly and effectively to non-techies? The key is to try different ways to get your messages across. Here are 5 quick tips:

  1. Focus on benefits, not features. Why does this matter to your reader? How will it make their lives better? For instance, if your audience is financial, they’ll want to know how your solution can save time and money or improve productivity. They may also be interested to know what it will cost the organization if they don’t adopt the solution. Business readers or consumers won’t be interested in all the finer details that might excite the hearts of a true techie.
  2. Watch your jargon. Technical terms offer a convenient shorthand for people in the know. But to those outside information technology (IT), it’s like an unfamiliar language. So, avoid technical terms if you can. Instead, take the time to explain what your solutions do in clear language. Or, if this isn’t possible, give readers a glossary or define the technical terms you need as you go along. Whatever you do, don’t make them feel they need to take out a dictionary to understand you. They probably won’t bother.
  3. Explain things from the reader’s point of view. For example, don’t say things like “The software will . . .” Instead, use phrases like “The user will . . .” Or, even better, use the pronoun “you” or “your users.” This gives your text a much more personal tone.
  4. Tell a great story or use an example or analogy. It’s a proven principle among educators that people learn better when you connect new concepts to things they know already. For instance, to explain the safety of their particle accelerators, Fermilab in the United States explained the energy involved wouldn’t be strong enough to knock over a bowling pin. Stories and analogies are great tools for explaining complicated concepts or benefits.
  5. Use visuals. They can grab your reader and pull them into your content – especially if they are visual learners, which about 65% of people are. That’s likely why Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest remain among the fastest growing forms of social media today. Even Statistics Canada now asks you if you’re a visual learner when you visit their web site – and pops up some beautiful pie charts to get your attention.

Whatever you do, don’t just simply repeat the same thing over and over. If they didn’t understand you the first time, they won’t likely hear you on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time around. Your reader will simply stop listening — and you’ll lose the opportunity to tell them about a great innovation that could solve their business problems.

Pension plan communications: How’s your fit?

It’s not one size fits all when it comes to helping people understand their pensions. What works for one employee, will not work well for the next. We have five generations in the workforce today, at different stages in their careers and in their lives, and their information needs can vary widely. Their communication preferences can as well.

From a clear writing point of view, effective communication starts with meeting your reader where they are. Here are just some of the options to consider when planning your pension communications:

  • Traditional print media, such as posters, booklets and hard-copy mail pieces
  • A video from an executive sponsor for the plan and another from employees on what they think about their pension plan — for posting on the company intranet
  • Periodic email/social media campaigns to keep employees abreast of updates to their plans – as well as an accompanying email to managers with a list of frequently asked questions about the changes so they can meet with their staff and clarify
  • A dedicated intranet site to support online enrolment with interactive tools – including learning and decision tool.

Using a mix of these tactics, you’ll be able to reach more of your employees where and when they can best appreciate the information. In every case, the key will be to use simple, everyday language to educate and inform. If your content isn’t clearly written, it won’t matter how you talk to your employees. They won’t be able to hear you.


Making numbers make sense

How do you get people who aren’t accountants to understand and care about numbers? Or improve their financial knowledge? Turns out this is a challenge not just in clear writing for the public. It’s also a concern in getting more employees to engage with corporate results and financial reports.

The problem has its roots in the financial literacy of the entire country. The 2014 Financial Capability Survey of Canadian adults showed:

  • Few considered themselves “very knowledgeable” financially. One in 20 women considered themselves “very knowledgeable” compared with almost one in 10 men.
  • Many Canadians barely passed a financial quiz with 14 questions. Almost one-third failed, correctly answering 7 questions or less. The questions related to topics such as inflation, debt repayment, banking fees and credit reports.

So, if your intended reader is not someone with an accounting or financial background, how do you help? Here are 5 great tips I’ve learned from working with Chief Financial Officers, Board Secretaries and experts on economic education.

1. Focus on why the numbers matter to your reader. From a clear writing perspective, the principle of relevance is always a good place to start. How will these numbers help your readers? What’s going to get their attention? How will they use this information? To perform an action? Make a decision? Think it through a provide only the numbers they truly want and need to know. And if you have more than one distinct reader avatar, tailor your approach for each one.

2. Get rid of unnecessary jargon. Financial terms can be intimidating and off-putting for people who don’t live and breathe them every day. So, if you need to use a technical term, provide a plain language definition. Examples can also illuminate the meaning of abstract financial concepts.

3. Tell a story. Readers often want the story behind the numbers. For example, what are the highlights in a financial statement and why are they important? What story do they tell – in plain language? Sometimes the trend over time is more important than the specific numbers. If so, simplify the story to bring the key points forward.

4. Instead of numbers, use images. Graphs and dashboards can provide a quick visual on key performance indicators. Use a simple colour code that’s easy for everyone to follow: for example, red for high alert, yellow for monitor and green for good.

5. Be consistent. Use the same terms and the same metrics every time. Don’t talk about return on people one week and return on resources the next. Your readers will build up familiarity over time as you repeat terms and concepts. And familiarity, in turn, builds confidence and trust.

The most powerful word?

Never underestimate the power of a thank-you. According to a study by an email productivity company, Boomerang, the closing word that gets the highest response rate is “thanks in advance,” followed by “thanks” and “thank-you.” This doesn’t mean that you should throw in a thank-you where it makes no sense in the context of your email. But it’s a good idea to remember that people always appreciate appreciation – and to offer it where you can.

Lack of gratitude is a major factor driving job dissatisfaction, turnover, absenteeism, and often, burnout. A study by Glassdoor found that 80% of employees would be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss. About 70% said they’d feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly.

So, should you take time out of someone’s busy day to write an email whose sole purpose is to say thank-you? There’s a lot of advice that discourages this practice because it contributes to email overload. I disagree. It takes seconds to write a quick, clear thank-you and even less time to read it. It goes toward maintaining civility in the workplace – something on which many organizations are spending time and resources  to get right.

Don’t let the last thing that someone remembers about you be the fact that you didn’t say thank-you.