Writing for impact: Why readability matters in your marketing messages

Imagine working with an outside firm to fill jobs at your company and they describe their process like this:

“Once the candidate’s goals are established, one or more potential employers are identified. A preliminary proposal for presentation to the employer is developed. The proposal is presented to an employer who agrees to negotiate an individualized job that meets the employment needs of the applicant and real business needs of the employer.”

Would you hire this firm? Do you know what you’d be buying? Perhaps not. Why? This passage does not read well. Rudolf Flesch explored this concept in his books The Art of Readable Writing and The Art of Plain Talk. Flesch’s theory focuses on simple writing that’s clear to the audience.

Marketers strive to create interest in what they sell. Flesch found readers tune out when writing gets hard to understand. If you know what makes writing more readable, you can craft better messages.

In Microsoft Word®, the Readability Statistics window shows word count, sentence count, Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. You can see this box after running spell check. Readability scores for the body copy shown in black type only are listed above.

What is the Flesch readability formula?

Flesch based his formula on the number of words, syllables, passive verbs, sentences and paragraphs in a piece of writing.

When these are few, writing is easier to read. Most word processing programs score this for you. Scores of 70 or more mean easier reading. Scores of 60 or less mean difficult reading. A score of 30 or less means “very difficult.”

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Readability helps create interest, connecting the audience to your message.
  • Rudolf Flesch developed standards and formulas for readability that measure how easy it is to read and understand your writing.
  • Using shorter words, shorter sentences, dialogue and informal language all make writing more readable.

Won’t “easy” material insult the intelligence of educated readers?

Making content readable is not the same as “dumbing it down.” Just because a customer can read complicated writing doesn’t mean they want to. Studies show that most Americans—even the highly educated—prefer to read at a grade level of 10 or below.

 

How can you improve readability?

Don’t use passive voice like is, are, was, were.

Focus on the reader, not on yourself.

Don’t write long paragraphs. They are more difficult to read. Focus on one idea per paragraph.

Use good verbal illustrations, like direct quotations, stories and case studies.

Don’t use long or unfamiliar words.

Use contractions. (You’d be wrong if you don’t.)
Use personal words (you, we, I, he, she).

Don’t write long sentences. Flesch says, “All you need to do is stop being stuffy and talk like a human being.”

Write like you talk, using informal language and dialogue.

Don’t write headlines in all caps.

Choose words with fewer syllables (such as “complex” instead of “complicated”).

Don’t use a lot of industry jargon and acronyms—this forces the reader to decipher your meaning.

Use clean and familiar typefaces, at least 10 point in size.

Readability in practice

The passage on the right reads more easily and it holds your interest. If better readability can make baseball sound simple, think what it could do for the products you market. Better comprehension of your message may be just the encouragement your customers need.

Microsoft Word is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.