Are you a good judge of readability?

Wikipedia defines readability as “the ease with which a reader can understand a written text.” The easier a text is to read, the faster you will read it. The more you understand, the more you will remember. And if it’s easy to read, there’s a far greater chance you will read the whole document.

For content marketers, there’s also a far greater chance people will find your content online. Google has publicly stated that readability is one of the factors in its ranking algorithm.

So how do you know if the text you’ve produced is clear and easy to read? It would be great if we had a reliable panel of judges inside our heads that could accurately score our work. Unfortunately, it turns out our inner compass is mostly askew. Many writers underestimate the difficulties a piece of text presents to the ordinary reader – sometimes significantly. Why?

Good writers are often excellent readers. They often do not realize how difficult their writing is for others to read. Or, how much their own knowledge base simplifies comprehension of a complex subject.

With practice, you can increase your accuracy in predicting the readability of your documents. But there is another way to get a more objective measurement of readability: readability formulas. The Flesch Reading Ease scale, developed by Rudolf Flesch, is one of the most commonly used readability measures. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score, which came later, is also widely used. These formulas use two main factors to predict the difficulty of the text:

• How simple or complex the vocabulary is

• The length of the sentences.

Just remember: while these tools are quite accurate in measuring what they measure, they don’t consider other elements that can affect the readability, such as organization, design and relevance of the content. That means they can’t replace a good writer or editor. At least, not yet.

By the way, this article has a reading ease score of 57.6 and a grade level of 8.4. The goal? Try to keep your reading ease score between 50 and 70 and your grade level around eighth grade when writing for public readers.

Mind your email manners

In 2017, a study by Carleton University reported that Canadian workers spend more than a third of their time on email. Yet unlike other job requirements, many of us have never had any training in how to write emails effectively. There are many do’s and don’ts that can increase productivity and make sure the right message comes through.

Here are my top 5 clear writing tips for email:

1. Write a clear subject line. Many people receive over a hundred e-mails every day. So, make your subject line specific and clear. If there’s an action you need the reader to take, signal it here. Don’t bury it in the last paragraph – which they may only skim and could miss.

Should you change the subject as soon as the thread or content of the e-mail chain changes? Yes! Never open an old e-mail, hit Reply, and send a message that has nothing to do with the previous one.

2. Send a copy only to the people who really need the information. Think before you click “Reply All” or add names to the Cc or Bcc lines. If you think the person is likely to read very little or skip over the note entirely, think again. Take time to send your message to the right people.

3. Manage the tone carefully. When you communicate by email, you can’t provide the visual and sound cues that help people interpret your spoken messages. What might sound straightforward and direct to you, the writer, can come across as stern or distant to your reader. To avoid misunderstanding, use positive language and be sure to include courteous, softening words – unless you intend and want to talk tough.

4. Get to the point. State the purpose of the email within the first two sentences. Move key points or messages up as early as possible. The person reading your e-mail should not have to dig through several paragraphs to figure out what you’re asking. And, where it helps to bring key points forward, get out of paragraph style altogether and use bullets.

This technique also works well when you have a list of questions or actions you need the reader to take. Readers are far more likely to respond to your requests when you make them clear, concise and easy to scan.

5. Pick up the phone. When a topic is sensitive or complex – and will generate too many questions – don’t handle it via e-mail. In general, if you need to deliver bad news, a phone call works better.

Where this isn’t possible, and you must turn down someone’s application or request in an email, explain the reasons clearly. If you can, suggest other options for the reader – including the option to appeal the decision if this is possible.

 

Before you sign on the dotted line

How many times have you signed a contract that you haven’t read? Or clicked “Accept” to download some software or an app without looking over the terms and conditions?

Many of us are guilty as charged. We figure the terms are standard and can’t be changed anyway. Or, we’re too busy to read through all the fine print. And we likely wouldn’t understand it even if we tried.

In effect, we’re giving up the chance to protect ourselves – perhaps with the hope the courts will stop anyone from taking egregious advantage of us through a confusing contract.

To some extent, the courts do. A decision in 2017 by the Supreme Court of Canada, called the Sabean decision, asserts two important principles related to clear writing and clear language:

1. Courts will interpret the terms of a contract based on their plain and ordinary meaning. A consumer is not expected to have industry-specific knowledge unless they are part of that same industry. The onus is on the company to ensure that contract terms with an industry-specific meaning are clearly defined so that an average person can understand its meaning.

2. Ambiguity can be claimed only where two reasonable interpretations of a contract are possible. Where one of those interpretations relies on specialized knowledge – knowledge that goes beyond the clear words of the contract – the Court may deny any claims of ambiguity.

The Sabean decision will surely touch many industries that use standard contracts with consumers. Think about the contracts you’ve signed for insurance. Borrowing money. Buying a car. Buying a home. Renovating your home. Replacing your furnace or water heater. When’s the last time you saw a clear contract that’s written in plain language the average person can understand?

So, contract writers be forewarned. If you are preparing a contract for consumers, it will likely be given a plain language interpretation. Make sure that’s the interpretation you want your customers – and the courts – to make. 

Look to your letters

Letters and email are two of the main ways organizations have direct contact with their customers and other external audiences. Yet how clear are these important communications? Too often they are unhelpful or even damaging to the relationship.

Consider the case of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). A few years ago, external reviews showed that many of the communications that the CRA sends to taxpayers each year were poorly organized, unprofessional, unduly negative or just hard to read. In one online survey of taxpayers, half of those who received one CRA notice could not figure out they were supposed to write a cheque to the government. Yet many of these people thought they had correctly understood the letter. That’s scary!

It’s easy to beat up on the CRA and other government organizations for crimes of unclarity. But many private sector companies who sell products and services to the public are equally guilty.

Sadly, there’s a cost to all this gobbledygook that goes around: your confused customers will likely call or write to your organization for clarification. That adds cost to your organization as staff must answer these calls or reply to these letters and emails. Sometimes more than once.

Even worse, your customers could become frustrated and have what I call “a negative brand experience.” They might see you as difficult to do business with. They might even turn to your competitors, given a choice. And if you lose a customer, it could be hard to replace them.

How can you nip this kind of miscommunication in the bud? Here’s one sign to watch for: if you get many follow up calls or mail about the same thing, or you get many similar errors in a process, the root cause may be confusing information. Fix the source of the problem before it starts costing your organization time and money. Clear writing makes sense!

Don’t give your readers the fuzzies!

In 2007, David Meerman Scott published The Gobbledygook Manifesto. In it, he scolds marketers and PR people in the IT sector for using jargon and vague, abstract terms to describe products. Some of the more common offenders include “flexible,” “robust,” “world class,” “scalable,” “easy to use,” “cutting edge,” “mission critical,” “market leading,” “industry standard,” “turnkey,” and “groundbreaking.”

The problem with this kind of language is that it doesn’t translate into meaningful customer benefits. For example, why is it a good thing that the system can scale? Or that it’s a turnkey solution? How will these things translate into better performance? Better business results? Lower costs?

There are benefits embedded within each of these terms. But you need to spell them out simply and clearly.

When writing for IT audiences, start by focusing on your reader. Who uses this product? Is there more than one type of customer? What are their problems and how does this product solve them? When I was writing for IBM, we always used to ask “What keeps this manager up at night? What are his or her pain points?”

In other words, start with the buyer, not the product. Use concrete, clear language. Prove your points. Make it clear exactly how your product can help them. Don’t give your reader the fuzzies!

Executive briefings: Finding the story

When preparing a briefing for decision, writers often have an ocean of information at their fingertips. The job is to create a clear, cohesive narrative that brings forward the essential facts the decision maker needs to arrive at a sound decision. No more, no less.

To start, write a purpose statement. This doesn’t have to be fancy. You can use a formulaic phrase – much like “Once upon a time,” the conventional opening line in fairy tales. Here are a few examples:

▪      The purpose of this note is to present recommendations to address [insert topic] 

▪      The purpose of this note is to present options in response to [insert topic]

▪      The purpose of this note is to provide advice in response to [insert topic] 

Then focus on the 3 most crucial parts of a briefing:

1. What is the problem or opportunity? Why is this issue coming up now? What are the triggering events or situation? Write this down at a high level, in 5 sentences or less. You can do this easily if you stay at a high level, summarizing the key facts. Don’t get into the details.

2. What’s the recommended response? Use one sentence per action. You’re just setting out the overall idea here. Not a detailed plan.

3. Why is this the best course of action? Here, think about the most likely questions your decision maker will ask. For example, are there strong, quantifiable benefits? What’s the economic efficiency, which means the benefits are in line with the costs? Is there strong stakeholder support or opposition? A low or manageable level of risk? Think about the kind of evidence that will tell the story. Include the most authoritative, timely sources you can find.

These three topics provide the essential story line for the briefing. In a typical briefing note template, this content would constitute the following key sections: Issue, Recommendation and Analysis.

You can then build around this core by adding context. Provide a few quick facts related to the Current Status of this situation. Add Background or historical information and your clear, concise story is complete. The end.

Do we really need 50 shades of grey?

Nuanced writing is valued in business, government and many professional fields. It can help elucidate the complexities of today’s world. A clear writer carefully chooses descriptive words that express the right tone and meaning with clarity and brevity. If you overdo the shading, it can bury anything resembling a clear, forceful idea.

How do you know how much is enough? In clear writing, we take a minimalist approach. Here are two helpful rules of thumb:

  1. Omit descriptive words (adjectives, adverbs) that make your writing unclear or wordy. This includes jargon, technical terms and unnecessary words.

Example:

Instead of this: In all essential ways, the second iteration of this software significantly surpassed the first one in overall performance.

Write this: The second version of this software performed significantly better than the first.

2. Include descriptive words if they help to clarify and add precision. A well-chosen word ensures your reader will understand you correctly.

 Example:

 Instead of this: The purpose of this briefing is to present options in response to environmental issues in Hope township.

 Write this: The purpose of this briefing is to present options in response to urgent environmental issues in Hope township.

 

Just one small extra word, but a world of difference. It raises the priority on this issue from business as usual to critical.

So, if the nuance is essential to a correct understanding, leave it in. Write concisely – but avoid the pitfall of being too brief to be clear.

 

Snip! Snip! Snip!

A good film editor has an eye for the scenes that best forward the story. If they do their job right, a lot of material ends up on the cutting room floor. Every frame in the finished film is there because it needs to be.

It’s the same in clear writing. A clear writer makes content cuts based on the principle of relevance. The goal is to provide just the right information for the reader at just the right time.

How do you make those tough editing decisions? It helps to develop a system that allows you to sift the essential from the extraneous. The ultimate test? The functionality of the information.

It this content useful? What purpose does it serve for the reader? This can help you figure out how far down in the weeds you need to go. For example:

1. What’s primary? For example, what are the top 3-5 key messages that you want your reader to remember? What are the main topics you need to address? What are the top questions your reader will have about this topic? What are the answers, as briefly as you can state them?

This is the core of your content. Failure to communicate this information means your reader will have a serious gap in their understanding. This can lead to frustration and misunderstandings. And if the reader is using the information to make a decision, the gap would mean a significant consideration has been left out of the decision-making process.

2. Is a secondary layer of information needed to make the core content more meaningful? Again, this depends on how your reader will use the document. For instance, do you have any data or other evidence to support a key message? Are there contrary points of view you need to address? If you are presenting numbers, can you make them more meaningful by providing some context?

When I worked with IBM, for example, sometimes we used to write things like “One terabyte is equal to 16 days of continuously running DVD movies. That’s 8,000 times more data than the human brain retains in a lifetime.”

3. Is any background information needed to make the core content easier to understand? This can include historical information, a jurisdictional scan or industry research, or a legal or policy framework, for example. Just remember: when it comes to background, less is often more.

You can then structure your document so the most relevant information is easy to find. And if the information you have does not fit into one of these three categories, stop and ask if your intended reader truly needs it. If it’s not useful, then snip, snip, snip!