The lecture hall is full. The air is stuffy. The professor’s monotonic voice is slowly becoming part of your dream. It should have been a really engaging topic. But when you wake with a start, you realize you have zoned out and remember nothing.

Writing is the same. While we all know that content is king, if readers check out within the first few sentences, it’s time to look at how you’re “doing” content. You may have a great story. But are you making it easy for your audience to engage?

How often do you skip the small print on legal contracts? Or hit the “Accept” button on a privacy statement without reading the policy?

And when you do give it a go, the complexity is too much. Why do you zone out? Because the mental effort (cognitive load) to read it is simply too much. You don’t want your content to compare to legal small print.

So, can you simplify? Many non-professional (and professional) writers have an inherent shortcoming when creating content: they lack objectivity. They often suffer from what psychologists call illusory superiority. This is where the person overestimates how good they are, compared with the general population. In effect, we all think we are good writers. So, how do you take the subjectivity out?

Well, all is not lost. Objective metrics and technology come to the rescue. Technology has advanced to the point where it can test language readability and clarity based on a set of metrics. This removes subjectivity and the fractious human element. It opens reader engagement through a scientific and quantifiable approach, increasing the value and quality of content. Most importantly it functions as a level set, regardless of who the writer I, and in what part of the organization.

What is readability?

The easier language is to read, the less our brains need to work. This so-called cognitive load. The more the cognitive load, the less readers’ will engage with our copy. Conversely, clear and simple copy keeps readers’ attention and reduces churn. And for marketers, makes copy valuable.

The idea that text should be easily understood was found to be crucial in the military. In the 1970s, the US Navy developed the Flesch-Kincaid system of metrics for their manuals so that soldiers in combat could clearly understand instructions. This is based on readability expert Rudolf Flesch’s work in the 1950s, when he created the Flesch Reading Ease test. Although content consumers aren’t in ‘combat’, they are overloaded with competing content and under pressure to absorb the message quickly.

Or not at all…

The Clear Language Group says 43% of adults in the US have basic or below basic literacy skills. This is based on the most recent national assessment of adult literacy. That’s 93 million people. They say that for those with limited literacy, copy should be written at 6th grade or lower. For the general public, it should be written at 8th grade or lower.

You should not view this as patronizing. Rather, it means that time-poor people will have some chance to consume key information. You’re unlikely to read the terms and conditions of your insurance policy voluntarily. But when it comes to making a claim, if the terms are easy to read, you’ll consider the insurance provider as being more transparent.

Tabloids are popular precisely because they adopted plain language years ago. Their readability scores are high. The everpopular Reader’s Digest and Time magazines score well for readability. On a scale of 0 to 100, the higher the better, they score at about 65 and 52 respectively.

Readability

As mentioned earlier, we should be looking at about 8th grade for good readability. Context matters here, of course, and if you’re writing for a specific audience, say healthcare professionals, you would adjust to take the audience into account.

There are several readability metrics supported by technology solutions. For example, solutions like VisibleThread support; Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid and the lesser known LIX measure. LIX is used primarily for scoring non-English content.

Long sentences: These should be a maximum of 5% of the total content. Long sentences – 20 words or more are hard work for readers. They force us to read and re-read in order to understand the message.

Active voice: Active voice is more straightforward and direct than passive voice. For example, “Mistakes were made” (passive) vs. “I made a mistake (active). Active voice is more direct, attributable and easier for the brain to process.

Scoring using these criteria, and editing appropriately makes even complex ideas easier to understand. The best writing is writing that is easy for the brain to process, without a high cognitive load.

Other plain language metrics include complex word density and degree of industry-specific jargon. All of which can now be measured using automation.

Metrics trump opinions Taking the sting out of critique

Technology solutions mean you can score for these readability metrics in one-click. You just run your copy through a plain language system. Most solutions can analyze Word docs, PDFs or just blocks of text. And they It’s far easier to accept objective, quantitative measurements rather than a colleagues opinion. By definition metrics trump opinions.

These tools allow writers and content creators to self-evaluate. And many of the more enterprise grade solutions audit all content across all teams and sources. It means you have a quality snapshot across your entire organization.

With developments in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and NLP (Natural Language Technology) technologies, these solutions are simple to use and have become genuine writing aids.

Positive change

Readability tools also help writers to improve their writing. As their scores improve, so does the accessibility of their copy. Readers appreciate simplicity and it will show it in conversion rates.

Initial scepticism can create resistance to adopting this technology. Once writers are aware that they have more control over the editing process, they appreciate its objectivity. A process of education is key to embracing any new technology or process and an editing tool is no different. It takes time and thorough work before implementation.

Every project should start with a needs-analysis and involve the people using the system to ensure their buy-in. These tools do not replace content creators. They simply assist in creating excellent content.

How to choose the right technology for your business

Yes, it’s time to consider the investment in this sort of technology. But how do you go about it? There are free tools out there that are great for single users. But if you have an organization that creates a lot of content across multiple business functions, you’ll need to evaluate carefully.

Here are some questions to ask beforehand:

  • Does the technology support all business users within the organization? Adoption is easier if it’s across departments, from subject-matter experts to internal and external communications.
  • While change is positive, if it creates conflict, perhaps it’s not the right tool for your business. A tool like this should fit seamlessly into the business and not force users to change their editing program, for example.
  • To measure ROI properly, it’s important that a system provides a dashboard of metrics. It’s also important to have a view on the staff using the system to ensure consistency in communications.
  • Does your selected tool support MS Word and PDF documents as well as websites for scrutiny? Some systems only allow for copy-and-paste into their system, which is not always practical.
  • Will it support your whole organization? Some of the less expensive or free tools are for a single user only, but if you want to adopt a plain language approach, this is insufficient.

An excellent story is meaningless if nobody’s reading it. Years ago, website design was driven by the user experience. We looked at colors, layout options and fonts that would appeal to users and we made navigation easy. We looked at how to make websites user-friendly. The best design is wasted if you can’t easily understand the words. Language and words are equally important as design. And it’s time to score that for all written content. That’s user experience too.