Series of dictionaries

If Little Red Riding Hood were reading much of the material on the web these days, she’d say “My goodness Grandma, what big words you are using.”

Wherever you look, the Internet is full of massive words. Much business writing – which makes up the bulk of “content marketing” – is formal, stuffy and full of long words. The idea behind this is to make the writing appear professional and to avoid people thinking that the business itself is too lax and informal.

The problem is this. When we see big words, we stumble and slow down. That leads to misunderstanding, even if we manage to wade through the material. Mostly, people give up when they see long words. They can’t be bothered to waste their time. And it’s not just big words that dominate the Internet; it’s long sentences too. Many businesses seem to think that they only appear “proper” if their text has loads of long sentences with plenty of subclauses.

Worse still, we tend to think that people who use long words are distant and not very clever. We think they are just trying to impress us.

A study done more than ten years ago showed us that the unnecessary use of long words was a real problem. The researchers from Princeton found that if the writing was simple, the reader thought the writer was smarter than when the words were long and complicated.

KISS your readers

“Keep It Simple Stupid” (KISS) is the idea that if something is simple and straightforward, it is easier to follow. That’s the same with writing. Evidence shows that short sentences are easier to grasp than long ones. Short paragraphs make it flow better. And little words are quicker to understand than long ones.

However, many businesses seem to believe that being formal, or being “erudite” is important as it shows how serious they are. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It makes people abandon what you are reading and makes them think you are aloof and somewhat “too big for your boots”.

So here are five things you can do to make sure your content grabs readers and keeps them believing in you and your business.

  1. Write as you speak. Forget those clunky rules about grammar. When you talk you tend to use simpler words, short sentences and you will even start sentences with “and” or end them “against the rules”. If you have “grammar police” within your organisation, they need to limit their impact…! This doesn’t mean you should not strive for good grammar. It means you can bend the rules. If you use a service like Grammarly, then be sure to set the “style” to “informal” and the “domain” to “casual”. That way you’ll get great advice and support to help you produce online content that works very well indeed.
  2. Read your content out loud. When you have finished writing your content, read it out loud. What happens is your brain has to start doing more things than just reading “in your head”. You have to read the words, speak them and listen to them. Instead of doing one thing, your brain has to do three things all on the same item. So, it means you concentrate more, and you can spot mistakes more easily. Also, if you can’t read it out loud quickly, if you stumble, then you will realise the writing is too complicated. Change it…!
  3. Check the reading age. Use your word processor’s “grammar checker” to calculate the reading score. Or go to The Readability Test Tool and paste in your text. Look for the figure shown as the Flesch-Kincaid score. Add 5 to that score, and it will be the age at which a child can read what you have written. Aim for a Flesch-Kincaid score of between 5 and 7. That way your writing is suitable for 10 to 12-year-olds. Research shows this is the kind of age of writing that is suitable when adults read fast, as they do on the web. You are not “dumbing down” but making your writing accessible.
  4. Just go with it. Set aside your feelings that writing in long sentences and using long words is “professional”. Give it a go by using short words, and you’ll see the value in more readers for your blog or your web page content. You’ll even find you get more interaction, such as extra sharing on social media. Eventually, you’ll realise that you are achieving more by being “less professional” in your writing.
  5. Read more. Read the most popular blogs in your sector. Read things like The Huffington Post or a tabloid newspaper. The more of the successful material you read, the more you will think about simple words. The top publications all use simple language. If you read them regularly, you’ll start to write like them.

The best content on the web is simple, approachable and uses short words, not big ones. If you insist that your business uses “business speak”, then all you are doing is making your content inaccessible and suggesting that you are less smart than the competition when it uses short words.

Dictionaries flickr photo by quisnovus shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license